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 Brooklyn Nets. 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.


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.

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 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 concentrated 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.

It is presumed that these animals made the perilous journey across the ocean 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 food for the trip. 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”

In the surreal final scene of 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, 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.