Convoluted

Greetings, valued readers. It’s your resident loon, Chris Hoffmann here. Keith is absent at the moment (something about a SHIP?) so until he gets back I’m throwing you all a bone with an article on my experiences at BrickFair Virginia. What’s that, you say? BrickFair was over a month ago? Er, never mind that. Let’s just embrace the tardiness and I’ll take you back to Japan Brickfest and last year’s Brickworld along the way. Hopefully it’ll provide some context to those convention photos you’ve already forgotten about or ignored.

This is a sequel of sorts to Ted’s inaugural Brickworld 2017 article and will include a bit of autobiography. Like Ted, I was a con virgin until Brickworld 2016, and we were both solicited by none other than friend of the blog Simon Liu. As regulars to the Manifesto already know by now, Simon assured Ted that organizing a collaboration six weeks before convention wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and then coaxed me to join in the fun shortly thereafter. Flash forward another year and guess who talked me into a flight from Japan to Virginia for BrickFair?

Simon has a knack for this sort of thing, particularly with getting some of the younger talent to come out of their shells, see the bigger picture, and meet people in person at their first con. My roommate from this year’s festivities imagines Simon with a fishing lure, enticing and reeling in anyone who catches his eye. It’s a high-level social skill I wish more of us had, and the community owes a lot to the guy for it, more than is obvious from his public work alone. I’m no Simon, but hopefully this article will have a similar effect on some of you reading.

If this sounds like I’m sucking up to the guy, then you’d be right! I kind of screwed him and everyone else over this year at Simon Draft, but more on that later.

Hold up, did you say Japan?

Yes. I moved to Japan for work shortly after Brickworld 2016 and was fortunate enough to find the only international LUG in the country a doable hour and a half train ride away. We’re the main organizers of Japan Brickfest, which recently became the third official Lego “fan weekend,” joining Skærbæk in Denmark and Paredes de Coura in Portugal. It sounds big and important on paper, but really it’s just a standard con with slightly more support and representation from TLG.

The company has been trying to reach out to the Asian market and, as small as our group is, the show we put on is still the biggest horse in the race with 270 builders from 11 different countries this year. From what I’ve gathered from my fellow LUG members, there just aren’t that many Lego-specific conventions in the Pacific region, leaving fans to piggyback on the larger video game and comic cons. There are good people trying to change that, but for the time being JBF is the place to meet cool cats like Lu Sim, Benjamin Cheh Ming Hann, and all those silent Flickr profiles you didn’t know were from Asia.

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LHB-025 by Ryuhei Kawai

Side note: Some fans regard our corporate overlords as gods and go crazy whenever they meet one of them at a convention. Me? I’m indifferent. Lego artists are Lego artists and marketing goons are marketing goons, regardless of who signs their paycheck. The ones who work for Lego aren’t worth climbing over hundreds of bodies to get a few words in with when there’s plenty of others standing right next to you. Just be politely wary of the more “aspy” con-goers, whose social skills include vacuous staring, rattling off part numbers from memory, and generally derailing conversations.

Cultural relativity

Now, being conditioned by my experiences in America, I anticipated a certain amount of leeway with regard to convention shenanigans. But what seemed like an innocuous joke to me at the time involving obvious tampering with competition votes was rather lost on the genteel otaku from the land of the rising sun. Everything seemed fine until I caught wind of angry messages sent to the LUG’s email account—never expect the average Japanese person to give feedback about things like this out in the open.

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Photo courtesy of Takamichi Irie

Another thing that can dampen the con experience in Japan is that it’s only gonna last the weekend. The harsh work culture here and in much of Asia makes taking time off impractical at best, meaning you’ll never see the five-day conventions we’re used to in the west. Every day is a public day and this naturally means less time to meet people and hang out, which sucks since that’s the main draw of going to a convention in the first place. My few passing interactions with other builders were all too familiar: “Oh hey, I recognize this,” “This technique here is pretty cool,” etc. Nothing substantial as there wasn’t room to dig deeper.

I don’t mean to bash Japan Brickfest. As I said before, JBF is currently one of the best places to meet AFOL from that corner of the world and I’m proud to be a part of that. It really feels more like a festival than a convention, right down to a courtyard with local food carts and live music. So it’s got a unique vibe from what you’re probably used to.

I’m sure much of my experience at JBF was colored by constantly being on staff. I’m not big on activities at cons because they interfere with valuable hangout time, so having a full schedule of them isn’t my ideal. Even after convention hours, there was hardly any downtime since we’d finish late, exhausted, and have to be on early the next morning. It didn’t help that we were short a few people, but I have a newfound respect for anyone who volunteers to help run these things. As a regular attendee, I can see the event being more worthwhile if you play it right. Lu Sim has recorded that perspective on his blog, which is probably the best you’re gonna find in English.

“Maybe things will be better in Chicago”

I’m generally pretty good at staving off homesickness, but after Japan Brickfest 2017 I began to miss my first con experience back at Brickworld Chicago 2016. I regularly mentioned to my fellow LUG members how amazing it was to be able to drink and chat in the convention hall all night long across the better part of a week. But there was an unscalable wall called the Japanese school year blocking me from going back over. So at the end of BW 2016, during the long goodbye, I was left wondering when if ever I would see the friends I made there again.

BrickFair Virginia 2017 was entertained as a possibility and slowly crept its way into reality over the next few months. In the end, I’m glad it was BFVA this year instead of Brickworld. Brickworld is a mere week after Japan Brickfest and I was creatively exhausted after helping with a sizable medieval collab for my LUG’s display, which I was admittedly halfhearted about. This was all in between trying (and failing) to finish builds on time for the Lego Speederbike Contest and the Real World +200 Starfighter Contest—plus admin for the latter. But the two month gap between JBF and BFVA afforded me enough time to recover and finish up some non-LUG projects I was more interested in but too burned out to work on before. BFVA became a point to look forward to, unlike JBF where the pressure was on to finish stuff for the collab. Many of the same faces from Brickworld 2016 were back at BFVA 2017, in what now feels like my second true con experience.

The second time around

I hate to get too grandiose here, but going to your first con is a transformative process. You will put faces to names from the online community and get to know people beyond your shared love of the brick. Flickr handles quickly crumble away to reveal real people behind all those builds you’ve been admiring. You may have interacted with some of them online from time to time, but that’s nothing compared to the convention, which is multiple straight days of sharing food, drink, and company. Some of these people will become your genuine friends by the end of it. It’s to the point that I feel like there’s a pre-con and a post-con version of myself as an AFOL, especially since I only communicated with other AFOLs online beforehand and hadn’t so much as joined a LUG.

Ted said in his Brickworld article that “you’ll always remember your first time,” but things only get better from there. Now that you’ve already passed the asshole test, you don’t have to deal with that awkward introductory phase again. And you’ll get acquainted even faster with new people through the ones you met last time. Before you know it, Simon has “blind date” roomed you with Sean Mayo, who then introduces you to Dan Rubin and Blake Foster. And wait, Red Spacecat is here?!

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CFX-7 Peregrine UCAV by Stijn van der Laan

If you’re lucky you can graduate from those cramped 2-bed hotel rooms and live the suite life. While it may not compare to Brickworld’s most outstanding feature of keeping the display space open all night, it does have its own cozy charm that lends itself to more intimate conversations. Sean Mayo will talk your ear off if you let him, and boy am I glad I did at BFVA this year. In the best of these alcohol-fueled convention chats, there’s so much to say and respond to that on your way to saying your piece you lose half of it, then promise yourself when you’re sober to pick up where you left off the next day, the next meal out, the next convention. But there’s never enough time.

Eventually the whole ordeal becomes a juggling act; you only have so much time to divide among all the people you want to mingle with. Simon is an ace at this; because of how far his reach is, he’ll bounce around the convention center like a pinball catching up with his mass of acquaintances. Try to catch him yourself so you can get in on laser tag or a Star Wars-themed escape room with a bunch of other spacers. Of course, there’s always events run by the convention organizers, but schedules are lame and I’d rather wander about and do my own thing with whatever kindred spirits I bump into. Shout-outs to Micah Beideman the table-jumping baby-flipper and his dad for bringing more tabletop games than MOCs this year.

My boy, you’ve been drafted

By far one of the best “extracurricular activities” you can get in on is Simon Draft. Simon Draft is an ancient ritual dating as far back as AD 2015. I won’t get into all the gritty details here, but it’s like a normal parts draft except first pick rights are decided by building skills with the draft parts in question.

Simon Draft 1
Photo and draft courtesy of Simon Liu

Having failed to appease Kaiser Liu in this feat of strength at Brickworld 2016, I was determined to redeem myself at BrickFair 2017. And I did… by copying what I saw win last year with a quirky Mixel character build (and a fittingly Japanese influence). The strategy made me feel kind of dirty, but I can’t argue with the results.

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Photo and beer courtesy of Simon Liu

We had to leave the convention hall shortly after, so the actual sorting and drafting would have to wait till the next day. But I overslept and got chewed out for not showing up until right before the draft, too late to help with sorting. Let this be a lesson that you should carry your own weight, whether you’re part of a collab, trying to escape the Death Star, or perhaps even doing something as vital as sorting Lego.

So I forfeited my first pick rights and was sentenced by a jury of my peers to pick a number from a bag like everyone else… only to draw number one anyway.

Take that, bitches! I’ll never learn my lesson! I made off with some of the best parts in the draft, in particular some that Simon had his eyes set on. I’ll brag about them here because I know he’s reading.

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MATANGO!!

I’m neither proud nor sorry for what happened.

The big picture

Come to think of it, that photo of my Simon Draft build with the alcohol in the background is a perfect summation of BFVA. There’s some mysterious creative mojo about the place that just compels people to build— moreso than at other cons, I’m told. I mentioned earlier that I was creatively burnt out after Japan Brickfest, but the complete opposite happened at BFVA, where the inspiration hit again and again as I discovered new and spectacular models and panned for gold in the vendors’ unsorted bins. And I’m happy to still be riding that high a month later.

The most extreme example of this building fever came from David Hansel Gabe Umland. Having recently come home from New Zealand, he wasn’t planning on going to BrickFair and didn’t have any MOCs to show for it. But—big surprise—Simon convinced him to pack up some Lego and make the drive down to Virginia. So he ended up building this impromptu beauty right in the convention hall with a little help from his friends and some minty fresh parts courtesy of Simon. Oh, and did I mention he got a frigging award for it?

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Photo, parts, and attendance courtesy of Simon Liu

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned a lot of individual MOCs in this post. If I have, it’s because there’s a story behind them. And this is the real point of going to a con, and where most convention recap stories fall short. Ted touched on this already in his Brickworld article, but I’ll repackage it in a novel way like any good sequel should. People mistakenly believe that you’re supposed to bring MOCs to display or show off (or perhaps for that old vice of gettin’ the prize), but the MOCs are really there as conversation pieces. It’s not about the show; it’s about the music. Gabe’s build is a perfect example. The dude didn’t have any MOCs to bring and didn’t care. He just showed up to hang out. And with that attitude he created something valuable. There’s the MOC itself, of course, the physical ABS parts arranged just so. But that’s secondary to the immaterial connections behind the MOC.

To all you lurkers out there, I speak from experience. I found the online community on MOCPages sometime in 2005 and didn’t share any of my MOCs publicly until 2013. I was another 3 years a con virgin and now I regret not joining in the fun sooner. So don’t be afraid to pop that con cherry. The first time might be a bit awkward or disappointing depending on who you’re with, but don’t let that deter you. There’s good times to be had if you take a chance and put yourself out there. You control the action.

22 thoughts on “Convoluted

    1. I think you really hit nail on the head with what really makes conventions great (me!) – it’d the people, the stories and just quality time with kindred spirits.

      I never really thought about how often there are stories within builds. And how it drives and makes it that much more interesting. The build is like just the skin, it’d the stories of the people and the treachery and drama that lies in the delicious inside that is fascinating.

      Really loving this series of guest con writers!
      Can’t wait to see who’s next!

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  1. I always love hearing recaps of convention newbies. I was 17 when I went to brickworld for the same time, and would not have been able to describe the feeling as well as you or Ted did. Also, welcome to the club of stealing a 1st pick of the draft from Simon. He will never let it go.

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  2. Solid! A captivating read, CH. Glad you were able to get this article written and posted (I’d say that part must have been like a “Rogue One” mission to accomplish that feat… 😉 )

    In addition to being a solid “bookend” to my BW17 op-ed, it also makes a great segue from the “rock star” article (and you did us all a “solid” by bumping down that Batman meme too). Hitting a bunch of different LEGO cons really is like going on a concert tour, and the brick badges the t-shirts. I’m always a little envious of the folks that get to “follow the band” from town to town.

    … And I think you made a great case for to attending a con without bringing any new MOC’s in tow. As you mentioned, it’s easy to get stuck in the post-con “building doldrums” (due to burn out, and a massive unpacking and sorting task that STILL won’t sort itself), but we shouldn’t let hanging out with cool people take the collateral damage.

    Really liked your take on the Japan show too. You can really tell the difference in cons that are for the public, and cons that are for the FOL’s…

    Good stuff.

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    1. That damn Batman meme was what kept me motivated to finish this. And I never thought of it in the context of your rock star article, but looking at it again it does work on that level too.

      And good point about cons for public vs. FOL’s. Edwin Knight, the main man behind Japan Brickfest, has told me on multiple occasions that the reason he likes to do events (including building large and impressive rather than technical) is to inspire kids. So those kind of cons do have their place even if they’re less fun for us.

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  3. I blame Simon.

    Nice one Christopher! Love the insight to the cultural differences, it’s a great way to view builds coming from Japan in a new light. Call it Western thinking, cultural bias, or just simple laziness, but adding the higher emphasis on a driven work week really hits home the time I waste.

    I also love you bringing up the brilliant fun of not showing up with anything. The con is greater than the sum of its parts. And there’s an infectious tick that happens in the company of freaks that’s damn near palpable. Delicious. Compulsive. Again, I blame Simon.

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  4. First off Chris, thanks for taking the time to write and post this convention recap, this style of essay and perspective is exactly what the Manifesto is all about. I don’t care how long it’s been since the convention went down, I still found it a fascinating and funny read, the kind of event coverage that is sorely lacking. So much of what you wrote wrings true to my own experience that I can definitely relate to and agree with most of your points.

    There were many highlights but I agree with rowntRee that the contrast between the Japanese gathering and it’s American counterpart is fascinating. It never would have occurred to me that Japanese conventions might be shorter because of the hardcore work ethic. Lazy fat Americans and their toy conventions…get to work! I can see how some behavior that seems normal to us might be offensive over there. How I would love to get to that conventions some day, if nothing else to marvel at those mecha in person. You really have a unique and valuable front row seat to see stuff the rest of us never will, and meet people that seem unreachable on flickr due to language barriers. Is the Japanese convention friendly towards foreign guests? I ask because there are conventions here in the State that are not particularly friendly to people from outside the State, much less the country. Again, though, thanks for the insight, I would really excited to see another piece from you about your experiences in the Japanese Lego scene.

    The other bit I feel like I have to comment on is this one:

    “Side note: Some fans regard our corporate overlords as gods and go crazy whenever they meet one of them at a convention. Me? I’m indifferent. Lego artists are Lego artists and marketing goons are marketing goons, regardless of who signs their paycheck. The ones who work for Lego aren’t worth climbing over hundreds of bodies to get a few words in with when there’s plenty of others standing right next to you. Just be politely wary of the more “aspy” con-goers, whose social skills include vacuous staring, rattling off part numbers from memory, and generally derailing conversations.”

    It’s like we’ve been married for years and you’re finishing my sentences. Brilliant.

    So thanks for keeping the blog alive while Rutherford and I are off fucking around building SHIPs, and I sincerely hope this isn’t the last article we see from you!

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    1. Holy shit, did you really spell my name right?! 😀

      I was thinking the same thing as I rushed a reply this morning before work about the cultural differences not only in the con scene but in the builds themselves. I’ve run contests that are America/Western-centric and found there to be an abhorrent level of excuse making, noncommittal, disinterested, aspy driven lack of attention. I’m curious as to the level of similarity in places like Japan. Not looking to particularly postulate any ground breaking theories on cultural impact, just peering outside the vacuum.

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      1. It’s an interesting proposition. I’m even more of a greenhorn in the Japanese convention scene than I am in the American one and I don’t have that kind of admin experience with contests here. Would be curious if I could get someone who does to chime in.

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    2. Keith, it’s an honor to write here and I’m relieved that you found my work up the high standards of the blog. Though I guess they’re not that high if you’re still letting Rutherford run his mouth. I don’t have any other ideas at the moment, but I’ll let you know if I feel compelled to write again.

      That particular Japanese con is in fact very friendly to foreign guests. i forgot to mention this in the article, but one of the founding members of the LUG is from New Zealand himself and the venue for the event is at an international school in Kobe. It’s one of the few places in Japan where I don’t feel like an outsider. While a lot of the builders only speak Japanese, there are also plenty from Hong Kong, the Philippines, and even a few from Europe who all speak fluent English. We actually had just as many problems making things accessible to the Japanese guests because two of the people from Lego needed to be translated. Shout outs to our boy Takamichi Irie for his deft live interpreting during the presentations and Q&A panels.

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  5. Also, I cannot endorse the low-budget convention experience enough, you meet weirder (and awesome) people and you’re exposed to hijinx that many people miss out on in nicer accommodations with fewer roommates. The adventure is there to be had.

    Oh, and did you have to give Simon so much praise? For fuck’s sake he’s gonna be insufferable for at least a week. Sure he brings in new and young builders…sure he really is all about the warm and embracing communtay…but do we have to talk about it? At least you screwed him in the parts draft, that was some good work on your part.

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    1. “Oh, and did you have to give Simon so much praise? For fuck’s sake he’s gonna be insufferable for at least a week. ”

      Oh much longer than that. I’m going to print this out and frame it. 😀


      Sure he brings in new and young builders…sure he really is all about the warm and embracing communtay…”

      I learned it from you 🙂

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    2. I did feel weird giving him so much love, which is why I was compelled to rub salt in those orange wedge slope wounds. MATANGO!

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  6. Great article…honest, endearing and introspective. Although a decade apart and essentially no common players, it reflects my first (and only) experience at a large brick con. The magic of it is truly much more than the sum of its parts. Speak what you will about the binding factors of a common interest, virtual friendships given physical form etc – the heart of it comes down to shared laughs and a brief respite from the drudgeries of mortgage- paying life.

    Since your work is tied to the school year, can I assume you are teaching in Japan? ESL?

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    1. Yep. I’m an assistant English teacher at two local middle schools and the main English teacher for K-6. It’s occasionally rewarding, but mostly it’s trying desperately to be understood by both students and other teachers in simple English/broken Japanese.

      And yeah, it’s always a bummer when you have to return to reality after the party is over. I guess from the working Japanese perspective, a short weekend off is enough to create that sense of escapism.

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      1. Oh cool. Must be fascinating to be immersed in such a different culture. I had a few friends that went to either Korea or Japan after university. I opted for Eastern Europe (Czech Republic and Moravia). The cultural stretch wasn’t as strained I think, but it still was different enough to germinate new perspectives, especially since the country was only about a year out from communist rule. Oddly enough, the language barrier was often bridged using Latin – never thought learning a dead language would be so…lively.

        A good friend of mine in comics wrote a graphic novel series about teaching in Korea. Despite the title and misleading preamble making it sound like soap opera, it’s actually about the trials, tribulations and humour of an ESL teacher in Korea.

        https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/476921.Love_as_a_Foreign_Language

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