The Dwarf and the Giant

Between 1896 and 1913 French film pioneer and illusionist Georges Méliès directed over 500 films. Most of them were very short experiments exploring the possibilities of special effects inspired by the tradition of stage magic. As such the appearance and disappearance of objects and people features very heavily in his work. But the medium of film also created new possibilities to trick the eye: most importantly the ability to change size.

‘The dwarf and the giant’ (1901) is the earliest known film showing a shrinking person. It laid the foundation for a rich body of films that play with the fantasy of becoming smaller and how it changes relationships between people and their environment. Méliès use of the camera shows the early days of wonder about the effect of changing perspective. Yet in all its simple curiosity it still shows some of humanity’s confused relationship with human height as the giant seems to ridicule (or is it celebrate?) the small size of the other as he showers him with confetti. Confetti is about celebration and adding effect. Like magic its intention is to blur the senses. Smallness then and now relates to this magic: The magic of pint-sized mythological characters, the magic of the unknown, the magic of smallness as a way to disrupt current affairs. ‘The dwarf and the giant’ should be celebrated as a pivotal point not just in the cinematographic history of shrink films but in the awakening of the human desire to shrink to better fit the Earth.

Tsimtsum

Tsimtsum is a Hebrew term meaning contraction, constriction or condensation. In the Kabbalah it is used to explain how God initiated the Creation by a process of contracting from his infinite omnipresence. Within the resulting space mankind could come into existence. So basically God actively shrunk for others to exist. The first creative act was the act of making space, without which it is impossible to be creative.

The details of tsimtsum and how it relates to the other themes in kabbalistic thought are complex and actively debated among scholars. Yet the central premise of space-making stands and has inspired The Incredible Shrinking Man since its early days. The notion that the creation of space is the first creative act in regards to change, and that it is impossible for anything new to come into existence without an act of retraction, is fundamental to shrink thinking. And if God is willing to make space for the other then who are we to deny it? The Incredible Shrinking Man proposes to man to shrink both literally and metaphorically in order to create the possibility of positive transformation. We should invite ourselves to embrace a desire for less and a curiosity for what will come into being in the space we’ll vacate. We should invite ourselves to the very real space within ourselves and within the world as we shrink away from bankrupt ideas such as always having to reach full potential, continuous growth and man’s dominance over other forms of life.

Hara hachi bu.

Abundance Fantasies: Friedeberg’s Hand Chair

In Abundance Fantasies we explore how a desire for abundance is sometimes found in unsuspected places, practices and objects. Perhaps such encounters can be reinforced to stimulate a desire to shrink.

In “The Art of small things” John Mack writes: “In literature, as much as in lived experience, the hand is, in fact, often at once the measure and the container of the miniature. Things that ‘would fit into the palm of your hands’ are, by definition small.” The iconic Hand-chair (1962) by the Mexican artist/designer Pedro Friedeberg both defies and defines this observation allowing us a confused ‘Alice in Wonderland’- experience of simultaneous largeness and smallness balled into one. One feels small while at the same experiencing some form of dominance through the act of sitting on top of an abundance of power.

Rafting Monkeys

We know of only three species of pre-historic mammals that managed to cross the Atlantic ocean between Africa and South-America. One of them was the now extinct Ucayalipithecus monkey about 35 million years ago. The other species of “immigrant” mammals were New World Monkeys, flat-nosed primates that are found in south and central America today. The third was a caviomorph, the ancestor of creatures like the capybara.

How they managed to survive the cross-over has long been a topic of heated discussion but it is now presumed that these animals made the journey on floating islands of vegetation that broke off from coastlines. Some of these island rafts were relatively big and may have included shrubs and small fruit trees that provided the intercontinental travellers with the means to survive. According to Erik Seiffert, professor of clinical integrative anatomical sciences at Keck School of Medicine: “It would have been extremely difficult, though very small animals the size of Ucayalipithecus would be at an advantage over larger mammals in such a situation, because they would have needed less of the food and water that their raft of vegetation could have provided. This is presumably why most of these overwater dispersal events that we know of in the fossil record involve very small animals”

The image is a still from the acclaimed Werner Herzog film “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”, which tells the tale about a 16th century search for El Dorado in the Peruvian Jungle. In the surreal final scene of the movie its main character Aguirre, played by Klaus Kinski, finds himself on a raft overrun by small monkeys. What better way to illustrate that in the end it is not the big-headed but the small that shall inherit the Earth.

The Peruvian Variant

Nearly 4,000 common variations in DNA are known to affect stature. Each variant nudges your height up, or down, with one millimeter or so. But now researchers have identified the single largest genetic contributor to human height known to date. The sensational findings of the effects of the previously unknown variant (E1297G) of the FBN1 gene are based on an analysis of samples from ethnically diverse Peruvians, a population known to have some of the shortest stature in the world. The variant was associated with an average of 2.2 centimeters in height reduction. People with two copies of the gene variant were even a whopping 4.4 centimeters shorter.

Meta analyses of genetic studies of height include more than 700,000 individuals but have been predominately conducted on European populations. The new variant was not present in any of these large genetic studies simply because Peruvians had never been included in genomic studies of height. According to researcher Soumya Raychaudhuri “Just amassing and amassing data isn’t the answer. If you’re not looking at different populations, you’re going to miss really important stuff.” Eurocentrism creates blindness to important wisdom. Like how we could shrink towards abundance rather than grow towards scarcity. Quite tellingly the Peruvian flag features a horn of plenty overflowing with produce. Small people need less and therefor have more. The Peruvian variant E1297G might just show us the way.

David and Goliath

It’s interesting to listen to Malcolm Gladwell as he deconstructs the presumptions behind the story of David and Goliath. Rather than presenting it as one of our best known underdog stories he suggests that Goliath in fact never stood a chance. According to Gladwell this was never a fight between a very tall and mighty warrior and a small and therefor weak shepherd boy. Rather he presents it as the story of an immobile and almost blind giant suffering from acromegaly against an agile, well-equipped and healthy young man. Goliath was nothing but a very large sitting duck. Before he could engage David in hand to hand combat he was hit between his eyes by David’s slingshot.

Gladwell: “What they didn’t understand was that the very thing that was the source of Goliath’s apparent strength was also the source of his greatest weakness. And there is, I think, in that a very important lesson for all of us. Giants are not as strong and powerful as they seem and sometimes the shepherd boy has a sling in his pocket.”

Kohrisms

The Austrian economist and political scientist Leopold Kohr opposed the “cult of bigness” in social organization. He inspired the movement for a human scale and the Small Is Beautiful movement. His most influential work was The Breakdown of Nations. In 1983, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award. In the series Kohrisms we want to give attention to some of his precise insights in the nature of big and small.

In The breakdown of Nations he writes: …smallness is not only a convenience. It is the design of God. The entire universe is built on it. We live in a microcosmos. Perfection has been granted only to the little. Only in the direction of the minuscule do we ever come to an end, to a finite, a boundary, where we can conceive the ultimate mystery of existence. In the direction of the colossal we arrive nowhere. We may add and multiply, and produce increasingly vaster figures and substances. But never an end, as there is nothing that cannot always again be doubled, though doubling in the physical sense soon means collapse, disintegration, catastrophe.

The Zooms: The Feynman Zoom

The Zooms are modest symbolic gestures intended to initiate an embodied practise of the desire for smaller. Although they are often hardly more than physical whispers these actions attempt to overcome the inability to act in the face of the omnipresent desire for BIG. They are not very good and they’re not spectacular. They just are.

Feynman’s Zoom celebrates Richard Feynman’s lecture “There’s plenty of room at the bottom“. In his lecture, held during the annual meeting of the American Physical Society at Caltech, Feynman laid the conceptual foundations for the field now known as nanotechnology.  He imagined a day when machinery could be made considerably smaller and more compact and huge amounts of information could be encoded onto increasingly small spaces. However The Incredible Shrinking Man is less interested in the celebration of the technological revolution founded upon these insights than in the elegant adjusting of the gaze implied within. From looking outwards to the impossibly distant, to the almost introspective gaze at what is right in front of you. In Feynman’s Zoom this symbolic reordering of the human scale of attention is represented by the simple movement of the head, the arms and eyes away from a wide sky-bound direction to an earthbound focus. A Bruno Latourian re-adjustment of attention. There is plenty of space if we’re willing to re-adjust.

The Feynman Zoom in the video is performed by product designer Finn Bekkering.

Rod at Dawn

In 1994 popstar Rod Stewart gave a concert on Copacabana beach in Rio di Janeiro. And it turned out to be a legendary concert as it attracted the largest crowd of people in history for a musical event. 4 to 5 million people came to listen to Rod. And that’s an interesting number, because it is approximately the number of people alive at the dawn of the agricultural revolution. If Rod Stewart had performed his concert in 10.000 BC he would have had the entire population of the world in front of him. The rest of the planet would have been completely empty of people. 

Today there are 7.8 billion people, that’s 1560 times as many people as when agriculture was invented. (The image depicts 1560 small squares). This means that for every 1000 people in 10.000 BC there are over 1.5 million people now. But perhaps a bigger reason to be concerned is footprint. While the early hunter gatherers survived on 100 watts of energy per day, western man uses approximately 10.000 watts

Mayan Dwarf Liminality

Short-statured people, dwarfs and people with achondroplasia play a significant role in Maya mythology because it is believed that dwarfs lived together with the gods before humans even existed. This presumed divine proximity and intimacy with the unknown gave small-statured status. They knew something the rest of us didn’t. Knowledge, wisdom, things we wanted to know but didn’t. Dwarfs were given elevated social roles that were steeped in cosmology and religious mythology. Similar status was given to dwarfs in ancient Egypt, with several well-documented short persons rising to the very top of the royal bureaucratic apparatus.

This appreciation of small sized individuals shows how in some cultures storytelling allows appreciation of the specific capacities of the small while harnessing a universal understanding that man is created equal. Rather than discriminate, patronise or ridicule the short-statured the cultural compass of Maya and ancient Egyptians created mental and practical space for other-normative sizes. We must further reflect on some of the small statured protagonists of Maya mythology. How can local storytelling and myth create the conditions that will allow people to see the specific qualities of the small-bodied and tap into worlds and learnings that give other perspectives? The Maya channeled the ‘otherness’ of dwarves into visual metaphors for liminality and transformation, and thus expanded our understanding of what it means to be human. This could potentially inspire an open and curious attitude towards the small and foster appreciation for smallness as a quality rather than a disadvantage. Smallness is a superpower.