The Lego Terrorist

My friend Patrick once stopped at a Lego store in Hamburg where they sell Lego parts in separate vats. He noticed that there was one vat filled with turbans, another full of mustachioed scowls and a third filled with dynamite-strapped torsos. Voila, the Lego Terrorist was born:


He’s small, but his heart is filled with murderous schemes.

I was first introduced to the Lego Terrorist on a flight Patrick and I took to Portugal (the same vacation, incidentally, that I referenced in the Chestbump post). Here’s the LT evading airport security, boarding our flight and triumphantly guffawing on a seat-back tray.



While on this trip, we happened to duck into an antique toy museum in Sintra just to get out of the rain. Realizing we had the LT along with us, we tried to engage the museum guide person in a discussion of his merits, hoping perhaps that the museum would seize the opportunity to enshrine him. Instead, the woman basically made it clear that she didn’t get it and would like it if we stopped talking to her. I thought this was somewhat prissy and oblique, given that the museum had totally strange installations involving, for example, figurines of Hitler and Moussilini:


At some point, Patrick thought he should tell the Lego people about his creation, so he mailed them a letter along with a sample Terrorist. In this telling, the letter had barely fallen into the post box when his phone rang with a highly concerned Lego representative on the other end. The representative felt impelled to apologize (?), announced that the component parts of the LT had been put out of service and asked a few nervous questions to gauge my friend’s level of interest in publicizing his discovery. Positively reassured, he hung up and mailed my friend complimentary tickets to Lego Land.

You have to figure that somehow nobody at Lego had stopped to rethink the political implications of the Lego selection for a decade or so until this incident happened.

More notes from the field


In last weekend’s Barf/Sick post, I mentioned our intrepid traveller friend Jim who stayed with us for a few days on the way back through various Eastern European and Asian countries. I neglected to write that he was joined by his girlfriend, the able Karen, who is also a veteran traveller in her own right and recently spent a solid block of time teaching English in Libya.

Karen described to us a flight on Libyan Airlines where passengers were treated to a Hollywood film in which an exposed chunk of female arm flesh was deemed unchaste and digitally blurred out by the local censors. Now, it seems to me that trying to digitally censor an arm is likely only to produce a similar, slightly larger skin-colored shape that’s even more comely, smooth, and unblemished in appearance. But, hey, who am I to judge. Whatever blows your holy beard back…

Karen’s accounts of Libya happily reminded me of my dictator-crush on Muammar Qaddafi, easily my favorite contemporary tyrant. Some Qaddafi fun facts:

1. Despite presiding over a strict Muslim society, Qaddafi has a personal phalanx of hot female gun-toting body guards.


2. Despite presiding over a strict Muslim society, Qaddafi is reportedly gayer than a french horn actually, this doesn’t seem to stand up— never mind.

3. A profile in the New Yorker from a few years back passes on this local parable:

Three contestants are in a race to run five hundred meters carrying a bag of rats. The first sets off at a good pace, but after a hundred meters the rats have chewed through the bag and spill onto the course. The second contestant gets to a hundred and fifty meters, and the same thing happens. The third contestant shakes the bag so vigorously as he runs that the rats are constantly tumbling and cannot chew on the anything and he takes the prize. That third contestant is Libya’s leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

4. A New York Times Magazine article from 2003 describes Qaddafi’s social magnetism thusly:

In photographs taken of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle, his aides appear pale and frozen-smiled, a collection of dead-men-walking awaiting the next purge. Among those around Qaddafi, by contrast, there was an excited air that veered toward the giddy, as if they were in the presence of some A-list celebrity and still couldn’t quite believe their good luck.

5. His recent and much-reported speech to the United Nations, that went on for so long that his translator reportedly shrieked, ‘I can’t take it any longer!’ and collapsed before being replaced by another emergency back-up. (Note: the speech lasted 90 minutes, which is well beyond the 15 minute time-limit that is politely agreed upon in UN circles. However, it was far from the longest speech in UN history, trailing Castro’s 4.5 hour rant in 1960 and some Indian MP’s 8 hour lecture on relations with Kashmir.)

To be fair, one has to mention Qaddafi not-so-fun facts, which include: (1) terrorism; (2) massive curtailment of civil liberties and corruption; (3) wrongful imprisonment of Bulgarian nurses.

Oafish state-sponsored art

The New York Times profile of David Černy that Krafty posted does a nice job of framing our understanding of Cerny’s crazy-ass work as a reaction against the state-sponsored propaganda-style public art that was commonplace under socialism. I was interested to find out that there was direct link between the two: a traumatizing experience Cerny had as a child when he unwittingly repeated a negative comment his father made about a new Lenin statue to his schoolmates and wound up getting labeled as a young subversive by school authorities. As an homage to What David Cerny Hated, let’s look at a few notably oafish, condescending or poorly-conceived examples of socialist public art:


1. Soviet Liberation Statue

Location: Prague, in seedy park by main train station.

Status: still exists, minus explanatory plaque that’s been torn off

Defining characteristics: patronizing, vaguely sexually undermining

This was built to commemorate the Soviet liberation of Prague, which is all well and good. It depicts a Czech solider joyously hugging a Russian soldier as the latter victoriously stomps into Prague, which is… a bit more questionable in terms of good taste, but still acceptable.  The problem is that the Czech solider is outrageously girly and limp-wristed, whereas the Russian solider is a solid hunk of manliness. At some point, the statue’s plaque was torn off, leaving it in a decontextualized condition where it reads like a celebration of gay love in the military.

(photo credit: my former Prague College co-instructor Rory Wilmer).


2. Stalin’s Monument

Location: looming over Prague from Letna park.

Status: dynamited to smithereens in 1962

Defining characteristics: ill-conceived; giant, politically awkward eyesore; drove its creator to suicide; generally bad mojo all around

The Czech government spent over 5 years building the world’s largest statue of Stalin and unveiled it to the public in May, 1955. They had about nine months to enjoy their work before Kruschev promptly revealed the crimes of Stalin in the 20th Congress in February of 1956. Oops. Meanwhile, the sculptor, Otakar Švec, who had been receiving threats from the secret police on one side and hate mail from disgusted Czech citizens on the other, decided to call it quits and killed himself three weeks after the unveiling. 1n 1962, the Czech authorities finally blew up the statue, which has since been replaced by a giant metronome that is both quite cool-looking and symbolically mysterious.


3. Soviet War Memorial

Location: Treptow Park, Berlin

Status: still exists as mirthful tourist attraction

Defining characteristics: megalomaniacal, overconfident

After the Red Army reached Berlin and effectively ended WWII in Europe, the Soviet authorities – never the most subtle of propagandists – decided to build  a massive memorial in the conquered German capital basically celebrating their own kicking-of-Nazi-ass and winning-of-the-War. Which is pretty much as unsubtle as you can get, although you have to appreciate the sheer chest-beating chutzpah of the decision. One of my favorite weirdo things in Berlin, the memorial is executed in the massive, symmetrical power-art style typical of Soviet public art and concludes with a giant statue of a Soviet solider stomping on a shattered swastika. Fuck yeah! There’s actually something a bit touching about the place, when you consider that the authorities in charge no doubt felt that Soviet-style socialism was just getting started and would easily reign for a few more centuries. Instead, their commemoration of Communism-over-Fascism has already become a tourist curiosity for snickering Western tourists a scant 45 years later.

Czech "Bad Boy" David Cerny

05cerny_190I was delighted to learn, this morning, of Czech “enfant terrible” artist David Cerny, who was profiled in the New York Times.  I guess I had seen the pink tank at some point, but this was the first I heard of his caricature of the Czech president encased in a giant, fiberglass anus, not to mention his installation featuring “two bronze sculptures of naked, urinating men, which proceed to swivel their hips and move their protruding penises to trace his four-letter words into a pond shaped like a map of the Czech Republic.”

The article goes on to explain how Cerny became a “folk hero” when he staged an elaborate prank when the Czech Republic had the rotating six-month presidency of the EU last year.  Apparently some (no doubt officious) Czech dignitaries hired him to oversee a project where artists from each country in the Union would create a work that would “proudly display the unique traits of [their] country.”  Instead, Cerny did all of them himself, savagely lampooning each country (“Bulgaria as a Turkish toilet, Catholic Poland as a group of priests raising a gay flag and Germany as a network of motorways eerily resembling a swastika”), and then made up fictional artists and fake biographies for each one, complete with absurd narratives about the pieces.

That has got to be one of the best abuses of cultural cachet I’ve ever heard of.  The article quotes a Czech museum director who says that his art is “destined for the amusement park,” but then reveals that Cerny also placed that guy in the fiberglass anus, feeding slop to the Czech President to the tune of “We Are the Champions.”  If ever anybody earned his reputation as an artistic “bad boy,” it would have to be him, right?  How do you beat naked sculptures peeing swear words onto a map of your home country, or using your status to embark on personal vendettas against museum directors in the form of elaborate installations making fun of them?

The article, which is a little bit fawning (it says he looks like Mick Jagger, and also breathlessly reports how he “considered” getting fake boobs and walking around Prague with them.  Maybe it’s just me, but he’d have to go ahead and actually do that before I’d call it newsworthy), quotes him talking about the difference between the U.S., where Americans are “taught to be proud and as visible as possible,” and the Czech Republic, where “we are taught to be silent and invisible.”  I am fascinated with the idea that this sort of behavior made him a “folk hero,” as it is all too easy to imagine the opposite reaction were some American artist to make a statue of somebody peeing on the American flag or what have you.  Perhaps Dan or one of our Czech readers can further elucidate this cultural distinction.  (I’m also hoping that this post will inspire Dan to tell us about some other famous Czech pranks that I learned a little about when I visited last year.)

EDIT: Dan reminds me that Cerny also made the creepy babies that adorn the Zizkov TelevisionTower, as described in a recent post.  They seemed sort of crazy when I first saw them, but they are clearly on the tamer end of the Cerny spectrum.

Politically incorrect design lectures

One thing I miss living in Prague is the design lectures I used to go to routinely in San Francisco. Two highlights:

1. Victor Moscoso


Moscoso was one of the main designers behind the Haight Ashbury psychedelic poster movement. He designed classic hippie-era band posters like this one:


He also revealed himself to be the designer of the Herbie Hancock Headhunters cover, which was a surprise to me, as this was one of my favorite album cover designs in college:


I saw him lecture to a packed auditorium in 2006. He is a fascinating lecturer, and also a pleasingly unrepentant, unreconstructed hippie. At one point, during his lecture he got sidetracked and went on a pro-legalization-of-marijuana tangent, which led to this spectacular exchange:

Moscoso: [ending with a rhetorical flourish] “I mean, when has marijuana ever really been shown to cause anybody harm?”

Audience: furious applause, cheering

Moscoso: [apparently emboldened by applause] “And LSD… when has LSD ever hurt someone?”

Audience: uncomfortable shifting in seats; nervous, scattered applause

I’d never before seen an audience exhibit a collective sense of being complicit in something uncomfortable and frankly hadn’t known it was possible.

2. Paula Scher


Paula Scher is arguably the most accomplished and well-known female designer alive at present. Her famous poster for a Broadway musical in the early 90s:


She also designed the Jon Stewart book America. When I saw her, it was a joint lecture between her and the producer of the Daily Show, and they talked about how the book got made, the collaborative process, etc etc. The producer even talked at length about Stewart’s infamous appearance on Crossfire when he savaged the hosts.

The best part, though, was when they discussed ideas and jokes that were ultimately deemed too offensive to leave in the book. One omitted joke included a plan to present a diagram of the political left and right sides of the brain with a small area on the far right occupied by Ann Coulter and named… The Cuntal Lobe. Genius.


Kentucky Fried Konservatism

colonel-sanders_KFCAnother interesting bit of Daniel Pearlstein’s Nixonland (previously mentioned in the Up With People post) is its account of George Wallace’s presidential third-party run in 1968. Wallace, the ultimate uber-racist, narrowed down his vice president list to three possible candidates, whom together must constitute the ultimate rogues gallery of American politicians:

Choice 1: Curtis LeMay, the inspiration for the mad general character in Dr. Strangelove. LeMay wound up being the eventual VEEP pick and instantly torpedoed the entire Wallace For President campaign by happily telling news corps that he would nuke Vietnam without hesitation.

Choice 2: J. Edgar Hoover. Yes, the same man who as FBI Director tried to blackmail Martin Luther King into committing suicide.

Choice 3: Harlan Sanders, aka Colonel Sanders, the great purveyor of fried chicken!

It’s a bit surprising to find out that the iconic Colonel Sanders was a real person in the first place– it would be like discovering that Ronald McDonald had actually been a key harlequin entertainer in Queen Victoria’s court. Stranger still to imagine that the Colonel could have wound up a proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency. I imagine him wielding his influence to insure that the infamous Cluck would be served as part of public school lunch programs. Harlan Sanders also gets a interesting bio treatment in Fast Food Nation, where we learn that he was a two-bit huckster for most of his life before rising to prominence in his later years (indeed, he was 78 years of age when Wallace considered picking him as his running mate).

Most endearingly, he apparently struggled his entire life with a determination to stop swearing. I love this image, for some reason.

Futurism and the Musee Mecanique

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto, when F.T. Marinetti (the self-proclaimed ‘most modern man in Europe’ at the time) introduced his cult of dynamism to the world through a combination of incendiary rhetoric, genius publicity stunts and Fascist agitating. The Futurists were fascinated by speed, technology, war, Moussellini, masculinity, action and loud noise; they were contemptuous of civility, history, culture, women, and everything else they associated with polite society and the existing status quo. The only avant-garde art movement I’m aware of with a strong right-wing orientation, Futurism remains weirdly alluring and seriously off-putting.

As Futurists were obsessed with the dynamics of the early machine age, I had the idea many years ago to illustrate their manifesto with photos taken from San Francisco’s Musee Mecanique, a highly-enjoyable collection of antique arcade machines. The common link is that both the Manifesto and the MM collection show the imaginative possibilities of the early machine age, and both produce results that are both appealing and monstrous. I printed a few copies of this as accordion-folds.

Front and back cover:



(Note how much the giant doll on the cover looks like Moussellini- a happy coincidence!)

Inside spreads:







Hooray For Everything

Readers my age and older will probably remember the mercilessly schmaltzy clean-cut stylings of a musical outfit called Up With People from the Superbowl half-time shows of our youth. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a hair-raising visual reminder:


Video footage of their 1982 halftime performance is here. It’s basically totalitarian kitsch personified.

In time, Up With People was appropriately satirized by The Simpsons, who introduced a fictitious musical outfit of wholesome go-getters called ‘Hooray For Everything’. In retrospect, this seems to be of a piece with the show’s scorched-earth fight with then-president George H. W. Bush. Bush, who in fact had Up With People perform at his inauguration, announced his intention to make American families ‘more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons’. The Simpsons responded by basically lampooning him to high hell, first through several clever sneak-attacks and through then an entire episode after he was voted out of office in what was probably the most unwatchable Simpsons installment ever:


What I only learned recently, via Rick Pearlstein’s Nixonland, is that Up With People was not just some random schmaltzy irrelevancy but in fact a significant cultural artifact from the Vietnam era. Conservative youth groups, outraged at the media attention paid to war protesters, founded Up With People to provide a counterpoint. ‘If we’re going to debunk the myth of a soft, indulgent, arrogant American and show the world that we care about tomorrow, we’ve got to sing out our convictions, loud and strong,’ said a Republican organizer in 1966. In 1965, Up With People made their debut at a World’ Fair, emceeded by none other than Pat Boone (shown here in his later leather incarnation that earned him reprobation from his Christianist following:)


What’s amazing in retrospect is that, given their partisan origins, Up With People were granted the largest media platform in American culture- the Superbowl half-time show- well into the 1980s. Looking through their bio, it seems that the Bush Sr. inauguration moment was (thankfully) their last moment of cultural relevancy, after which they were doomed to a circuit of country fairs and dorky Cold War-era feelgood diplomacy missions.

Incidentally, Nixonland is also indispensable at bringing to life the 60s origins of another 80s icon, Ronald Reagan. “You know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?” he gaffed, delightfully, in 1965. Then again, one must give him credit for his better lines: “He would tell young people harassing him with sings reading MAKE LOVE NOT WAR that the problem was that they looked incapable of doing either.” Credit where credit is due.

End bad breath


Short-version post: This is funny, but it’s also a political statement.

Long-version post: There are so many things uttered along these lines every day in the news that it hardly makes sense to seize on any specific instance. But today, the odious Melanie Phillips opined about Barack Obama:

“What a disgrace that this man is leader of the free world; and at such a point in history. If he had put America stoutly behind the protesters and championed them against the regime, by now they might have toppled it,”

[In case you’ve missed it: the context is that Obama has prudently- according to every informed observer- avoided taking a high-profile stance on the disputed Iranian elections, realizing full well that any stance on his part will be manipulated by the Khameni to drum up support among fellow Islamic hard-liners. Yet, there’s still a contingent who somehow gets a fair amount of media time and can’t resist painting everything in binary terms, reducing complex geo-political situations to infantine constructs of ‘courage vs. cowardice’ and … ah, never mind.]

It’s situations like this where the application of graphic design as political commentary seems most underused and indispensable. It often feels as if one is unduly dignifying some nut-case argument if you bother to refute it on factual grounds. There’s something about a powerful graphic image that better sums up the sheerly malign psychology behind certain right-wing political attitudes. This Seymour Chwast agi-prop poster from 1967 is the strongest visualization I’ve seen to date, even though it’s over 40 years old and dates back to the Vietnam era.

Interestingly, my design students- most of whom hail from formerly Communist countries- don’t really get this one when I show it in my design history class. They tend to find it funny, and strain to get the political connotations. I imagine that there’s a political caricature that would hit them as clearly as this Chwast illustration hits me, but that the underlying psychological/visual language would be very different and speak more to the bureaucratic realities of 80’s East Bloc life.