2014 has been a lively year for Lego. A corporate giant built on miniature bricks, the Danish-based firm has overcome adversity—it was on the brink of collapse only ten years ago—to stake a legitimate claim today to being the largest toy manufacturer in the world. In 2014, Lego looks set fair to generate record profits, mostly on the strength of the sensationally successful Lego Movie, which opened in early February and had already taken in excess of $200 million by late March (Farrell 2014). More recently, it has been at the centre of attention in other ways, notably for its high-profile decision to disinvest from Shell, the huge Dutch-founded oil conglomerate which, in generating billions in annual earnings, brings Lego right back down to size. The decision was not made easily, for Lego had enjoyed a profitable relationship with Shell for at least half a century; rather, it was forced on the company after a protracted campaign against it by Greenpeace, culminating in a viral video, estimated to have attracted 6 million viewers, which featured a pristine Arctic diorama, built from more than 100kg of Lego, dripping in crude oil (Polisano 2014). Greenpeace’s primary target, of course, was Shell, with which it had been at loggerheads for decades, and which it previously claimed to have been instrumental in persuading to shelve its plans for drilling in the Arctic—only for those plans, in the shape of a recent blueprint for prospecting off the northwest coast of Alaska, to re-emerge (Vaughan 2014). An accomplice villain, Lego has thus found itself caught in a pincer movement between Greenpeace and Shell, with the former claiming a significant symbolic victory in its ongoing battle to confirm the moral illegitimacy of the fossil-fuel industry and the vast profits that continue to be made in its name (Klein 2014).
While it’s tempting to add to this debate, which has been predictably shrill, my focus here will be on Lego’s own not inconsiderable investments in the Arctic, which range from Arctic-themed products to Polar Land: the winter-wonderland element, replete with ‘wild LEGO animals and live penguins’, of its original theme park in Billund, the first of six independently operated Legolands worldwide (www.legoland.dk). Polar Land is one of several Arctic-themed emporia across the world, if almost certainly the only one to be built in part out of Lego bricks; others include Wild Arctic at SeaWorld (Florida), and Polar Adventure at Ocean Park (Hong Kong), with an even bigger-and-better version, Polar Ocean World, currently planned as part of the sprawling Disneyland development in Shanghai.
Nakedly commercial initiatives such as these stress the increasingly lucrative status of the Arctic as a utopian fantasy space at a time when its real equivalent is seriously threatened; they also suggest the new market opportunities opened up by a postmodern Arctic tourism in which the boundaries between the real and the represented are conspicuously blurred. Baudrillard’s well-worn distinction between ‘first-’ and ‘second-hand’ representations is still serviceable here. Tourists, claims Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation (1994), are adept at collecting second-hand representations of signs, photographs of souvenirs for instance; such ‘meta-representations’ then come effectively to replace the realities they seek to represent. Still, even Baudrillard might have been surprised by the popularity of one recent example: the ‘Lego tourist’. There are at least two different versions of the Lego tourist, though they are similar in (1) being made out of Lego and (2) being miniaturized versions of the real tourist, measuring in at around two inches tall. The first is a generic figure—let’s call him LT—such as the one owned by English digital designer Leanne Buchan. LT has different accessorized heads but (usually) the same camera and suitcase; and he can easily be posted, plus or minus accessories, to other LT enthusiasts so they can picture him on their trips (www.telegraph.co.uk). Perhaps the most symptomatic of these figures, though, is the LT look-alike: a kind of plastic ‘mini-me’ designed to resemble the traveller he or she accompanies on their tours. A good example are the ‘his-and-hers’ LTs of young Scottish couple Craig McCartney and Lindsey Haggerty, which were photographed earlier this year in Australia ‘fishing at Springbrook, canoeing at Currumbin and getting up close and personal with the penguins at Sea World’ (Ravn 2014).
LTs are a Facebook phenomenon for a ‘me age’ in which more and more adult activities seem to appeal to the inner child. Unreal figures in real places, their main purpose is to be photographed, with or without their human guardians, less as proof that these latter have actually visited those places than that they have registered the experience for competitive consumption—by both themselves and their peers. While the LT phenomenon is silly beyond belief—as those involved in it freely admit—it also suggests that tourism has increasingly become a form of meta-performance in which real people/places are rendered indistinguishable from their representations, and it is the performance itself, rather than the putatively authentic ‘real-life’ experiences it generates, that counts. The phenomenon is trivial, no doubt, but it also suggests the viability of an ANT (actor-network theory) approach in which tourism operates as a network of connected processes in which ‘technologies, bodies, imaginations, memories and materials’ interpenetrate, and in which the performative nature of these transactions is highlighted, as are the different kinds of mobility they underscore (Van der Duim et al. 2012: 1; see also Baerenholdt et al. 2004; Bruner 2004, Urry 2007).
Greenpeace’s recent interventions also partake of this network; and as I argued in two previous blogs for this website, one important function of the contemporary Arctic is as a densely networked space—both real and virtual, both natural and artificial—in which tourists, scientists and environmental activists all combine and interact (Huggan 2014a and b). What ANT adds to this unremarkable insight is that these actors need not necessarily be human: objects, too, participate in those various networks of interconnected mobilities that constitute the Arctic as a particular kind of tourist space. Lego tourism, in its own infantile way, offers a confirmation of this view; at another level, it also confirms the view of the Arctic as a space of desire in which—to give the last word to Susan Stewart (1993)—narratives of the miniature and the gigantic are mapped on to fantasy settings, and in which a wide variety of everyday objects, however apparently trivial or deliberately childish, are conscripted into the service of realizing dream visions of the world.
Anon. (2011) ‘Lego tourist photographed around the world’. Online source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/8919932/Lego-tourist-photographed-around-the-world.html, accessed October 25, 2014.
Anon. (2014) ‘Polar Land’. Online source, http://www.legoland.dk/en/Explore/Activities/Polar-Land/Polar-X-plorer/, accessed October 25, 2014.
Baerenholdt, Jørgen Ole, Michael Haldrup, Jonas Larsen and John Urry (eds) (2004) Performing Tourist Places, Farnham: Ashgate.
Baudrillard, Jean (1994) Simulacrum and Simulation, trans. S. Glaser, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Bruner, Edward (2004) Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Farrell, Sean (2014) ‘Rise of the bricks––Lego Movie lays foundations for big profit rise’. Online source: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/sep/04/rise-bricks-lego-builds-profits-lego-movie, accessed October 25, 2014.
Huggan, Graham (2014a) ‘When is a scientist not a scientist?’ Online source, http://arcticencounters.net/post.php?s=2014-03-17-when-is-a-scientist-not-a-scientist, accessed October 25, 2014.
——— (2014b) ‘Tourism, activism and the Ant/arctic: Two intriguing tales for the festive season’. Online source, http://arcticencounters.net/post.php?s=2014-01-06-tourism-activism-and-the-antarctic-two-intriguing-tales-for-the-festive-season, accessed October 25, 2014.
Klein, Naomi (2014) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, London: Allen Lane.
Polisano, Elena (2014) ‘Greenpeace: how our campaign ended the Lego-Shell partnership’. Online source: http://www.theguardian.com/volunary-sector-network/2014/oct/10/greenpeace-lego-shell-climate-change-arctic-oil, accessed October 25, 2014.
Ravn, Mackenzie (2014) ‘Scottish tourists use LEGO “mini-mes” to document their travels’. Online source: “www.goldcoastbulletin.com.au/…/scottish-tourists-use-lego-minimes…/story-fnj94idh-1226835804818”:www.goldcoastbulletin.com.au/…/scottish-tourists-use-lego-minimes…/story-fnj94idh-1226835804818, accessed October 25, 2014.
Stewart, Susan (1993) On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Urry, John (2007) Mobilities, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Van der Duim, René, Carina Ren and Gunnar Thór Jóhannesson (eds) (2012) Actor-Network Theory and Tourism: Ordering, Materiality and Multiplicity, London: Routledge.
Vaughan, Adam (2014) ‘Lego ends Shell partnership following Greenpeace campaign’. Online source: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/09/lego-ends-shell-partnership-following-greenpeace-campaign, accessed October 25, 2014.