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Douglas Coupland, Crowd-sourced Lego modules randomly attached to each other, 2014
Courtesy: Daniel Faria Gallery, Toronto. Photo: Andrew Jenkins

The Aliens Within

by Douglas Coupland

At this point countless generations gaze with nostalgia (and a bit of envy for their offspring) at the colored bricks that were and are a part of happy childhood moments. Amazingly enough, the venerable Lego blocks have crossed decades practically intact, while reproducing themselves through parthenogenesis to hatch infinite, ever more complex solutions worthy of the legions of little engineers who have forged on with their tireless constructions. With their utopian appeal, Lego blocks couldn’t help but infiltrate the futuristic world par excellence, namely that of digital 3D. Douglas Coupland suddenly discovers that he was the prophet behind “Minecraft”: his text follows a trail of miniature bricks leading from the National Building Museum of Washington DC to the extraordinarily nimble little fingers of a 5-year-old digital native.

Two years ago July I was in Washington DC viewing an exhibition at the National Building Museum titled “American World’s Fairs of the 1930s.” Afterward I noticed that upstairs was a Lego show called “Towering Ambition”—featuring 15 seminally famous towers made of Lego—so I went upstairs and saw the Empire State Building, the Saint Louis Arch et al made of Lego. But what I found just past the exhibition space was far more interesting: children visiting the exhibition were encouraged to build their own towers using bricks provided in vast quantities. But being Washington, most kids only had 30 minutes to build something before Dad said, “Come on, let’s go to the Lincoln Memorial.” Vacating children left chunks of unfinished towers behind them, chunks in turn cannibalized by succeeding children, a process leading to the creation of remarkable hybrid structures of alien beauty. Had I lived in DC I’d have been at the Museum at the end of every day documenting the DNA of these buildings as they were mutated forward.

Cut to last week: haunted by the images of the Lego towers of 2011, I decided to clone the show’s building dynamic and held a series of public Lego building events at the Vancouver Art Gallery—two afternoons with children, and two evenings with adults. My aim was, and is, to mash together the crowd-sourced results of these events in the hopes of recreating the visual freshness I’d seen in Washington. I was very nervous to see if it would work.

Douglas Coupland, Crowd-sourced Lego modules randomly attached to each other, 2014
Courtesy: Daniel Faria Gallery, Toronto. Photo: Andrew Jenkins

I suppose I should elaborate more on why the Washington DC children’s towers were so vital. It was a combination of many factors: naïveté, the blind optimism of youth and the often dramatic lines and volumes generated by destructive impulses. Add to this the inevitable clashes of hybridization and it’s hard to go wrong.

In a way, it’s almost impossible to make something from Lego that isn’t optimistic or utopian. It’s clean. It’s not dirty. It feels hygienic and sci-fi. I’ve been exploring this optimistic and sanitizing dynamic for years. In 2005 in Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture, I did a show called “Super City.” Its premise was that we play with building kits and systems when we’re young and, like alien baby eggs, these kits and their implicit programs remain inside us where they grow and bind with our inner cores, so that when we’re adults they explode from us in new and unexpected ways. In Oslo, in 2006, Olafur Eliasson did “The Collectivity Project”(1) in which he placed three tons of white Lego bricks in a public space and let people build whatever they wanted. The results were much like the structures from the Montreal exhibition.

Douglas Coupland, Crowd-sourced Lego modules randomly attached to each other, 2014
Courtesy: Daniel Faria Gallery, Toronto. Photo: Andrew Jenkins

In 2012 in Japan (certainly a country that could do with a dose of optimism) Lego did the “Build Up Japan”(2) project in which eight million white bricks were used to create a stunning new map of the country. What struck me about these projects was how people instinctively looked to white Lego to express utopian ideas, not colored Lego. And what struck me next was how, if you weeded out the Eiffel Towers and obvious historical and cultural references, the remaining forms were often full of unexpectedness in a way that was/is fresh, scientific and full of positivity.

Scientific and futuristic forms with any hardiness are very hard to create, and after a century of science fiction, only a few film or TV shows have created pure new expressions of futurity: 2001, A Space Odyssey, Metropolis, Blade Runner, Alien and (in an endearing way) Star Trek spring to mind. New takes are rare, and largely driven by what is new and possible in the world of special effects and whatever new technologies are becoming dominant. Devising a system that has no choice but to create forms rich in futurity is a fascinating challenge.


Did I get good results? Yes. The process worked flawlessly, and the ensuing buildings might well have emerged from a parallel universe, or from the year 2500. What pleases me most is that I know I can take these crowd-sourced forms and further recombine them into their next step in their artistic life, which will be large tower forms that I hope will be stripped of their human connotations and pushed towards some new language of form, outside of those now existing.

However… there was one weird aspect to the forms people created. Almost all of the boys kept using a certain kind of “camouflage” pattern in their buildings. I’d expected adults to use camo, but kids? I certainly never saw this kind of patterning in 2011 in Washington, DC. And when I asked people at the gallery what they thought was behind this camo pattern, everyone gave me the reply, “Oh, that’s Minecraft.”

Cut to last night: I was out for dinner with friends who brought their five-year-old son, Anthony. This would be unremarkable were if not for the fact that Anthony was utterly transfixed for most of the evening by a video game called (yes) Minecraft that he was playing on an iPad mini. This was a perfect chance to see Minecraft being used by a child whose astonishing speed and dexterity within its 3D navigation system was like watching Roger Daltrey as the Pinball Wizard. To be honest, Anthony’s game navigation was (as with watching any digital activity performed by digital natives) humbling—humbling with funny dialog. His commentary was much along the lines of, “Now I’m going to spawn a chicken. And now the chicken’s going to battle the castle walls. There. It just won the battle. Now I’m going to respawn more chickens.”

During brief moments when I was able to see the screen, I saw the three-color camouflage that is the defining aesthetic of Minecraft, only to be again left in the weeds by Anthony’s brain and fingers racing forward with the near infinite speed of extreme youth. I tried to imagine I was inside Anthony’s brain, in particular, in that part of the brain that regulates one’s relationship with the three-dimensional world—and I imagined a cluster of cells that were being wired together in a way so profoundly differently from my own as to make me wonder if Anthony would himself morph into some new version of homo sapiens, leaving my kind behind. And then I began to wonder what sorts of 3D creations Anthony would be feeding back into the world when he was older, with his brain at that stage where it was time to create. But I don’t know, and I get a profound happiness from knowing that I don’t know. Nature provides its children with whatever she deems they need in order to survive. In 2034 it’s Anthony’s world and I think I want to see it very much.

Douglas Coupland, Crowd-sourced Lego modules randomly attached to each other, 2014
Courtesy: Daniel Faria Gallery, Toronto. Photo: Andrew Jenkins

But here’s the thing about Minecraft: I looked it up online only to learn that I’m the one who invented it—back in 1995—in a novel I wrote called Microserfs.(3)

How does this happen? You try to define the future one way and then forget about it and then, almost two decades later, you find out you have a child you never knew about.

Except back then I called my Minecraft idea Oop! (short for Object Orented Programming.) I was trying to describe a product so compelling—so cool—that even a person working at Microsoft in its glory days would want to leave in order to make it:

Oop! is a virtual construction box — a bottomless box of 3D Lego-type bricks that runs on IBM or Mac platforms. If a typical Lego-type brick has eight ‘studs,’ an Oop! ‘brick’ can have from eight to 8000 studs, depending on the precision demanded by the user.”

Oop! users can virtually fly in and out of their creations…. Oop! users build their ideas in 3D space: a revolving space station? ... running ostriches? … whatever. Oop! allows users to clone structures, and add these clones onto each other, permitting easy megaconstructions that use little memory. Customized Oop! blocks can be created and saved.”

Douglas Coupland, Crowd-sourced Lego modules randomly attached to each other, 2014
Courtesy: Daniel Faria Gallery, Toronto. Photo: Andrew Jenkins

It goes on, and there’s more. But the thing is, if I had anything to do with Minecraft, I’m very happy. And it also feels odd to know I was possibly useful in creating a world that tries to defy my ability to describe it. Another brick in the wall is now no longer just another brick in the wall. Bricks clone themselves. They come alive, just like aliens erupting from a scientist’s thorax. Bricks spawn. They become whole new universes.

I’m curious to see how my further hybridized forms evolve: will they be worthy totems of our era? Will they take us someplace new? My hunch is that they will. If there is any sensation that defines the present historical moment it’s that we all feel as if we have alien eggs laid inside us, and we know some day soon they’re going to hatch.




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