Woolly Desire (35 kg)

Between 13.000 to 11.000 years ago, sheep were the first animals to be domesticated by humankind. At first flocks were kept mainly for meat and milk. Archaeological evidence found at sites in Iran suggests that selection for woolly sheep began around 6.000 BC. As wool became more important for the manufacture of textiles the selective pressure on sheep to be more productive increased. Eventually this led to several of the domesticated species losing the ability to naturally shed their wool. In nature the ability to shed is part of an autonomous management system to deal with changes in temperature, entanglements, and for purposes of general hygiene and health. By losing the ability, or rather by mankind taking this ability from them, the sheep lost their autonomy. Shedding became shearing, as sheep became fully dependent on people to releave them of their woolly coats.

The repercussions of our desire for greater quantities of wool recently manifested itself when animal rescuers located a sheep that got lost in the Australian wilderness about five years ago. During those years its fleece had continued to grow. In the end the thick wool coat weighed over 35 kilograms, putting an almost unbearable weight on one lost sheep’s shoulders. It seems there is no escape for sheep, even if they do. Their DNA has been infected with the human desire for growth. Embedded human desire has become their prison.

Vertical Empathy

He who shrank is a 1936 sci-fi story by Henry Hasse, originally published in Amazing Stories Quarterly. It is about a man who is forever shrinking through worlds nested within a universe with apparently endless levels of scale. Written long before moon travel and our current explorations of Mars, and decades before Richard Feynman gave his famous lecture titled  “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”, it directs our attention to what is right in front of us.

“If I could not pierce the stars above, that were so far, then I would pierce the atoms below, that were so near. They are everywhere. In every object I touch and in the very air I breathe. But they are minute, and to reach them I must find a way to make myself as minute as they are, and more so!” 

As the protagonist in the story shrinks, an interesting reversal of size happens where in some moments he is as big as the stars he travels between, only to shrink onto the surface of planets in the next moment where he meets with lifeforms, then again becoming the size of a breadcrumb and beyond, before shrinking into the next universe where a similar sequence of events unfolds. And again. And again, endlessly. The story interprets the act of shrinking as a way to travel through dimensions without moving horizontally. Rather, the protagonist travels through infinite space vertically by becoming ever smaller. It approaches  shrinking as a way to explore in depth the realities invisible to our current senses. Not just from an empirical perspective but as an intimate mode of knowing and experiencing. Shrinking as an act of vertical empathy.

No Small Fish

One of many food-related ecological challenges is the overconsumption of fish. Worldwide, especially in the global south, fish is still a key component of a nutritious and healthy diet. Until we find and are able to produce widely available and sustainable alternatives (which we must) hundreds of millions of people depend on what the oceans provide for them. Overfishing however is threatening the balance in our oceans as we’re struggling to find effective ways for allowing fish stocks to restore. Especially numbers of larger fish species that generally need more time to grow and create enough off-spring.

Marine ecologists argue that rather than eat these large fish like tuna, salmon and halibut it would help to eat smaller fish like herring, mackerel and anchovies. The strategy for survival of small fish is designed by nature to withstand heavy predation and they have the ability to bounce back quickly. They grow faster and have more offspring. As a welcome and healthy side-effect there’s also less time for contaminants like mercury to build up in their fat reserves which makes it a much healthier alternative. And to a smaller person, a small fish is a big fish: A big fish with all the benefits of a small fish.

Peeling a Pomelo

“Peeling a Pomelo” is a simple exercise allowing you to experience what it’s like to be very small. All you have to do is imagine you’re peeling a mandarin rather than a pomelo.

The pomelo (Citrus maxima) is the largest member of the citrus fruit family and can have a diameter of up to 25 cm. To help create the illusion first rub a mandarin peel under your nose and on your hands so that the scent of the mandarin dominates the scent of the pomelo. It also helps to hide references that may disrupt your suspense of disbelief such as pieces of furniture or household objects that unwittingly remind you of your real size. Remember that we use our body to measure things in reality but that things in reality also give us a sense of our size. Perhaps find an empty space, sit on the floor, face a wall. Create a context that helps you to inspire the fantasy of being small. Place the pomelo in front of you while conjuring up an image of a mandarin. Perhaps squint your eyes to blur reality and fantasy. Touch, weigh, feel, use your hands to measure the fruit, and the fruit to measure your hands. Then, start peeling. Break through the skin into the soft layer just beneath. Experience its thickness, its resistance, as you encounter the bouncy juicy fruit body. Rip out a big fleshy part of mandarin. Use both hands to bring it to your mouth. Close your eyes. Bite into it, and feel your body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing.

Harden’s Step-back

Team sports are to a large extent about the creation, or reduction, of space and time. While the offence tries to find space and time to score, the defence is trying to shut these dimensions down. Therefor, in theory, each offensive act is countered by a defensive act, making it impossible for either side to score. In reality however, things like coincidence, mistakes, and especially the creativity of the players, breaks theory down.

One such very creative spacemaker is basketballer James Harden of the Houston Rockets. And one such creative space & time-making move, perfected by Harden, is the step-back. It creates opportunity to score because it does exactly what its name suggests: it takes a step back. It starts with an offensive player quickly moving forward, drawing in a defender, and then suddenly decelerating and stepping back, causing the defender, who is still in a forward motion, to lose contact, allowing the attacker to fire of a shot. Considering step-backs happen on the move against locked-in defenders, you’d think it would be a relatively wasteful shot type. Yet the step-back actually produces a higher conversion rate than the average attempt. According to B/R Insights, NBA players shot 48.9 percent on step-backs in 2015-16 and 45.1 percent on every other shot.

James Harden’s (and Stephen Curry’s) step-backs have inspired the 5 & 1 Step-back choreography introduced by The Incredible Shrinking Man to physically define the 20% space it feels we need for positive change.

Illustration by the visualiser of space Mike Sudal

Court Dwarfs

If we are to overcome the irrational prejudice against smallness we must understand how its current perception is the cumulative result of past ways of seeing. Rather than being an abstraction such ‘traditions of perception’ can often be traced back to specific historical traditions and practices: Like the quaint interest of ruling classes in ‘collecting’ dwarfs.

Having a considerable number of little persons as part of the court entourage was a widespread phenomenon both during Egyptian and Roman times as well as far into 18th century Europe and China. While it is true that in many cases the relationship between ruler and dwarf was one of great inequality, the story of the court dwarfs is far from being a one-sided story of slavery and abuse. Many of the court dwarfs rose to positions of considerable influence and wealth, turning what seemed to be a handicap into their most prized asset. Their small size not only seems to have taken away the mistrust and fear of position with those in power, allowing for greater intimacy and even friendship, but was also considered to represent a connection with supernatural forces and Heaven. Dwarfs were discussed, written about, painted and sculpted, and their lives have been woven into the fabric of 5.000 years of history. As such they hold up a mirror to explore our current relationship with small otherness, to overcome our irrational prejudice, and to allow their obvious qualities into the contemporary perception of mankind.

In our series on Court Dwarfs we will visit with some of these extraordinary individuals to learn how their stories have shaped our perception of smallness. And even more importantly, how to embrace its obvious quality.

The Not So Resolute Desk

At first sight it seems rather curious that a man so sensitive to the image of power as is Donald Trump, would allow to be photographed sitting behind a very small desk. His large body in relation to the small table just looks awkward. Plus, there is a well-seasoned tradition of those wanting to portray being in control to be photographed behind very large desks symbolising the gravity of the job. Like the Resolute desk, the most popular desk amongst United States presidents.

It turns out that the small table was also regularly used by presidents before Trump, but always with the specific function of allowing a large group of people into a photograph with the seated president. It’s not meant to be used as a sit-alone piece of furniture. Unless, which is not entirely impossible considering Trumps history of ridiculing smaller men, it was an attempt at making himself appear even larger than he already is. Or, and this is perhaps even more worrying, Trump may have tried to visually and symbolically shift power away from the job (symbolised by the table) to the individual (as in Trump himself). In which case he failed, according to the media. Whatever the reasoning, if humanity continues to grow taller, we’ll ALL end up looking like Trump behind a child’s desk. It’s not a good look.

The 5&1 Step-back

On the Japanese island of Okinawa people start a meal by offering a piece of advice: hara hachi bu. It means eat until you’re 80% full. Don’t eat until you can eat no more, but eat until you’re not hungry. The Incredible Shrinking Man understands this advice as relevant cultural heritage to be be practised not only in how we eat but in how we live.

To transform what is principally eating-habit related advice to a more general spatial outlook on life, we created a small exercise. The 5&1 Step-back is a simple choreography to inspire the hara hachi bu mindset. To execute, place both feet next to each other and take 5 steps forward. Stand still, observe the space, then take one step back. Observe. Now you have executed the basic one-dimensional lineair movement. It is possible to extent the exercise to explore the space in a second dimension. For this you turn to your left, take 5 steps, observe. Take one step back, observe. Turn to your left again, repeat. Turn to your left again, repeat. Turn to your left one more time. You should now be back in the original starting position. Although it is possible to add the third dimension by bringing a 5 step ladder into the exercise allowing you to move upward, we prefer to focus on the fourth dimension, time. To do so we slow down the entire proces. Where the linear act of taking 5 steps forward would normally only take a few seconds we now slow it down considerably by a factor 5 or 10. The slower you do it the more it will influence how you experience space.

The exercise can be adapted to fit the available space. If you are in an apartment with furniture the square might not work. If you have just a little space, take little steps. However the 5 to 1 steps ratio should be maintained as it represents the 80% Hara Hachi Bu principle and allows us to experience the 20% space it gives.

Trunkism

The growth of a tree trunk demands considerable investment and focus of resources. The competition for sunlight can lead to very differently formed trunks within the same species of tree.

A comparison of two white oaks tells the story. The broad-crowned shorter oak grew as a free-standing tree at the edge of a pasture. As a young tree it had no neighbouring trees growing close by. As is typical for a relatively solitary tree, the crown gradually spread out broadly in all directions, attaining a relatively spherical shape. Branches grew outward and ramified into the space of greater brightness surrounding them. The crown as a whole didn’t just grow towards the sun but towards the brightness of the surrounding atmosphere.

In contrast the small-crowned white oak developed a long, upward-soaring trunk as it grew up in the woods surrounded on all sides by trees of similar height, producing shade for each other. As a result of this competition for light the dominant growth direction is upward into the light-filled space above. The lower branches, which never grew to great size, died off in the increasingly shady environment of the upward-shooting trees.

Bigorexia (DFM)

Bigorexia is a subtype of the obsessive mental disorder muscle dysmorphic disorder. The (mostly) men suffering from it have a delusional sense of being too smal and insufficiently muscular, despite often already having exceptionally big and muscular bodies. Bigorexians spend inordinate time, attention and resources to gain strength as in exercise routines, dietary regimens, and nutritional supplementation, while use of anabolic steroids is also common.

The circumstances that lead to this self-destructive mental and physical state often involve sustained traumatic events at a young age like bullying and ridicule for perceived deficiencies as well as domestic violence. Simultaneously subjects were exposed to dominant social narratives of (toxic) masculinity. As a result they may have come to believe they lacked masculine capital and tried to increase this through engagement with traditional masculine activities such as building greater muscular strength. This drive for masculinity (DFM) may lead to bigorexia as increased body mass may seem to reduce the threat of further mistreatment.

The tragedy is that no size will ever be big enough to overcome the anxiety at the core of this sense of inferiority if the source is not addressed. No amount of growth will ever cure the misunderstanding that this is not about bigger or more but about being satisfied with who we are and what we have.