Doll hacking, toy hacking, circuit bending, doll art, mutant toys, plastic assemblage: these related activities take found objects, often toys, figures, dolls, electronic instruments, etc. and use them as raw materials for new, strange and interesting things.
In some cases, builders are trying to make something beautiful. In others, they are trying to make something new. Yet other times, people are just trying to make something different. Often, all three are happening at the same time!
In this article we’ll survey combinatorial creation based on toy parts, in both maker and artist domains, in various forms from simple to complex. Hopefully this’ll provide some inspiration for your own mashup efforts!
Toy hacking workshops
Toy hacking workshops were a bit more popular a few years back, when the sales of small toys were not as hindered by the rise of video play. They are typically festive free-for-alls where people cut and break and hot-glue random things together into funny new creations. Toy hacking workshops were often the first places people got exposure to the frankenstein cut and paste process, and the surprising power of the mashup to transform unwanted products into compelling objects!
A sibling of toy hacking is circuit bending, which is particularly focused on altering the sounds that electronic toys make, to make new sounds and music. And toy hacking often also involves electricity, electronics and mechanisms. But today we’re focusing on the art of plastic! That most basic of toy hacking activities: reassembly of dolls and figures, often using nothing more than brute force for disassembly and hot glue for reassembly. The great thing about this simplest of approaches is the emergent emotional properties: the sheer delight of unexpected combinations.
Juxtaposition and pattern design
What about decorating these types of mashups? With care and skill, these unexpected juxtapositions can be turned into compelling sculpture. Julia Sisi has combined Barbie and other figures with ancient forms of pattern and decoration to make many beautiful, funny and compelling objects.
Her pattern language reminds me of a lot of ancient decorative motifs from around the world. In particular I think of the Australian Aboriginal people’s dotted animal images.
The multiplier effect
Artists have long recognized the mesmerizing power of repetition in a style of sculpture called assemblage. Jon Bainart’s sculptures from doll parts are a beautiful example of how compelling this can be. Of course, he also doubles down with some captivating facial expressions which, in this pair of sculptures, play so well off each other.
These pieces also seem to me to be taking advantage of the universal uncanny valley of “whoa, too many arms!” The piece on the right in particular makes me think of Durga, which Wikipedia calls “the principal Hindu goddess of war, strength and protection…combating evils and demonic forces that threaten peace, prosperity, and Dharma the power of good over evil. Durga is also a fierce form of the protective mother goddess”
The legal risks of Barbie hacking in art
Can artists use popular culture in their work? On the face of it, it would seem the answer is yes, obviously: that’s what art is, a conversation in, with and about culture. And in fact, that seems to be the essence of Fair Use in copyright law: to carve out protections free expression.
But when it comes to iconic brands, who scrupulously defend brand identities worth billions, this turns out to be a hard-won right for artists. Here is a fascinating writeup of a 2004 decision in which a judge decides in favor of doll hacking as a legitimate form of free expression: the right of artists to use Barbie in their work.
Toys as models for custom objects
One possible workaround for licensing issues might be to create combinations which are clearly meeting part one of the four part test, the transformative factor. “Has the material you have taken from the original work been transformed by adding new expression or meaning? Was value added to the original by creating new information, new aesthetics, new insights, and understandings?”
One artist who slam dunks that requirement is Matias Kalaka, who turns his toy mashups into custom vinyl. Check out Mr ET:
Zoom out: toys and assemblage
Another approach is to use found objects as media: like big pixels, for creating larger scale assembled forms. Where the individual parts, more like dots on a canvas, are subsumed into a new image or form. And like pixels, less of the component parts’ individual meaning and form remains, but in their repetition can be found an eerie power source.
In the 20th century, this type of process was labeled assemblage. At its core, the word really just means “using non-art materials.” But a sub-discipline emerged that played with the power of repetition. A well known practitioner of the repetition form of assemblage, using plastic toys, is Australian artist Freya Jobbins.
Although the practice of assemblage got named in the 20th Century, the appreciation of the emotional power of unexpected juxtapositions, repetition and assembly has been the bread and butter of artists for many centuries. Check out this painting by Arcimboldo, an Italian painter in the 16th century, who made his career out of arranging vegetables and fruit into likenesses.
Freya Jobbins has said that Arcimboldi was an early influence for her. These intriguing portraits made from doll parts certainly show that! This idea is inspiring; what other plastic toys could we combine in assemblage fashion? Robots and transformers come to mind, like the work of photographer Hideki Kuwajima.
Greebles, nurnies, wiggets, dunsels and fuidgets
Another classic use of plastic appropriation, closely related to assemblage, was the appearance of model engine parts in close up shots of spaceships in the early Star Wars films. These tiny detailed parts were taken out of context for the purpose of adding detail and increasing the sense of complexity.
Such details were called greebles by the special effects house that did the work for Star Wars, Industrial Light and Magic, or “guts on the outside.” They were referred to as “wiggets” by the effects people who worked on 2001 a Space Oddysey. Here is an interesting Replica Prop Fans thread which has some nice photos of Star Wars ship detailing, with parts source identification. And finally, Sci-Fi Interfaces has a great glossary with examples of the origins of each of these terms.
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Sugru, the doll hacker's friend
If you want to try some action figure and doll hacking on your own, there are a lot of glues that can help you make plastic parts go together seamlessly and invisibly. But, you have to get good at identifying your plastic compounds, because each uses a different adhesive chemistry. And: a lot of specialty adhesives are toxic.
Alternatively, for quick and colorful frankentoy experiments, nothing beats Sugru, a low-toxicity epoxy putty available in a lot of nice colors. With this adhesive strategy, you use the glue as a design element, and both save effort and add visual interest, at the same time.
Or you could not have any fun at all...
It’s bizarre that toy companies make boring products, which people promptly tear apart, and customize , and mash up, and make interesting. Now, if you were a toy designer, shouldn’t you learn from that? Or not; instead, you could just try and co-opt the creative process. And at the same time drain all the fun out of it! The Ben-10 Omni Glitch series is a good example of this weird “no need to do any actual creative and interesting work, we’ve already done the mashup for you!” thing.
Better yet, build something interesting!
Do any of these ideas inspire you to do some doll hacking of your own? Grab some sugru, hit your local salvation army for a bunch of cheap plastic toys, and have at it. And be sure to check out our projects which use figurines, here are a couple:
Convert that box of multi-tool bits into a fresh and useful creature organizer, where the bits look like spines!
This build would be a fast, reasonably easy project to combine three Barbies or similar figurines into a six-leg, two-pincer spider creature, with some cutting, heat bending, gluing and painting.
Tools and supplies for doll hacking and plastic modding
We have a lot of suggestions for tools and materials for plastic modding in the shop. Here are a couple:
The Seek Compact is the best value thermal camera attachment for phones available right now. Lots of fun! Super useful, too! Available for iOS and Android.
The Orangemonkie Foldio3 is a large, high quality photography lightbox with built in lighting.