I’ve been following the project The Incredible Shrinking Man for a few months now. Time has done little to diminish my bafflement in front of a speculative design research that looks into the possibilities and consequences of downsizing the human species to 50 centimeters. Yet, i thought that the project deserved some serious consideration. First of all because its initiator, Arne Hendriks, isn’t known as a prankster (i think?!) I met him a few years ago when he was working as curator at Mediamatic in Amsterdam. He then became the creative producer at the awesome and now defunct Platform21.
Then there’s the fact that reducing the size of people does make sense. As men grow higher and bigger as it is the case in modern society, they require more energy, more food and more space. And we’ve all read about the toll it takes on our planet.
Arne isn’t improvising his research either, he looked into art, biology, history, genetics, psychology and got in touch with experts from various disciplines. One of the researchers he’s working with, Donald Platt, has been studying the effects that a smaller body would have on brain capacity. In Arne’s scenario indeed, the brain that would have to fit a head size of only 6 x 4,5 centimeters tall. The scientist writes that “An important factor in maintaining viability is shrinking cell size not cell number. This, I believe, can help to maintain functionality for organs such as lungs and the brain at very small size. Research work has also shown an imprinted gene pathway that may define an organism size from the time it is an embryo. This pathway may be able to be modulated by zinc finger protein modification combined with RNAi techniques. I think a multiple gene pathway approach will be most successful.”
Platt works for the Florida Institute of Space Technology and is heading a research to shrink animals and perhaps people as part of a program to go to Mars. As Arne wrote me:
It’s not science fiction, it’s real research. Just imagine the advantages of smaller astronauts. They need less food, less water and oxygen, they’re lighter and produce so much less waste. They’re even better equipped to deal with the situation in space. The radiation levels in space effect them less, as does the change in gravity levels. If The Incredible Shrinking Man is able to connect the desire for space travel, with the desire for smallness it’s another step towards a smaller mankind.
Arne is currently showing part of his investigation on The Incredible Shrinking Man in Amsterdam as part of the Transnatural exhibition. He collaborated with chef Martijn Jansen on a restaurant/kitchen dedicated to understanding the future diet of The Incredible Shrinking Man (One chicken will feed 100 people and 1 coffee bean will make you a coffee).
Now let’s hear what Arne Hendriks has to say:
Arne, if i remember well you’re a tall Dutch guy so why this interest in small people?
I’m 1,95m, almost 4 times the projected height of The Incredible Shrinking Man and about 50 times the weight. The average Incredible Shrinking Man would probably weigh only 1,7 kg. Because of the laws of scaling your weight drops very quickly if you are less tall. My fascination for the prospect of a smaller human species has different origins. One is the intelligence of evolution, another the mysteries of anthropology. Some are rooted in popular culture, films like Dr. Cyclops and the Incredible Shrinking Man, or books like Gulliver’s Travels and Alice in Wonderland. I also used to have lots of bonsai trees when I was a teenager. Although at some point I gave them back to the forrest.
Still from the 1957 movie The Incredible Shrinking Man
The Incredible Shrinking Man enables me to approach two issues that effect our immediate future, genetics and the environment. How will the earth deal with the challenge of having to support 7 billion and more people? How will WE, the inhabitants of this planet, deal with it?
The research for The Incredible Shrinking Man involves the opening a fully functional research restaurant and kitchen. It will cater for ‘regular’ sized customers as well as for the 50 centimeter sized customer of the future. Its main focus however is to investigate our future relationship with ingredients, explore changed cooking techniques, measure its tiny energy needs and experience how little trash we’ll make. I’ve invited a professional chef, Martijn Jansen, to conduct this investigation. We have already established that you would only need one coffee bean for an espresso and one chicken could feed up to a hundred people. To better understand what that means we’re planning to roast an entire ostrich carcass as if it were a chicken. If we are to become 50 centimeters tall we’ll only need 60 to 70 calories a day, the number of calories in a small apple.
Over the next month during the Transnatural exhibition I’ll be mapping shrink culture by researching diverse fields as history, entertainment, science, sexuality, food and art. Around the central restaurant unit we’re presenting outcomes of this research as well as stage fabricated docufragments to create a vision of the future. There is a family farm inside a tv-cabinet representing the repurposing of space. In it we’re growing cherry tomatoes and mini-courgettes. We realized that mini-vegetables are the culinary equivalent of dwarf-throwing, meaning there is a clear and multidisciplinary connection between smallness and entertainment. We’ve also created the possibility to psychologically experience what it is like to be 50 centimeters and made several 50 cm research puppets available to the public. Unfortunately the Ames Room didn’t survive the budget talks.
In preparation for Transnatural we organized workshops to find the questions we should be asking. Some of them are rather playful, others more serious. Will shrinking man be able to fly? How will he experience time? Are the Dwarfs of Sindh evolution’s answer to population growth? What about brain size and our intelligence? Men were equally concerned about the size of another organ as well. A typical case of Koro Syndrome if you ask me.
Shrinking man does not just imply a physiological transformation, it also implies an important cultural shift. How could you convince a society which value height to consider shrinkage?
That’s the crucial question. More than anything this research is about mapping out alternatives to our obsession with being tall. I haven’t really found an answer yet but I did find many interesting signs of the desire for being small, or making others small. This ranges from very active communities of shrinkers in games like World of Warcraft and Second Life, to obsessed miniature collectors and the rather interesting sexual desire for tiny men and women called microphilia. If we somehow manage to abstract these desires and reintroduce them into society perhaps our paradigms will change. That, and a good explanation of the harm our too big size is causing the planet and ourselves.
Your blog arguments quite convincingly the reasons why humans should get smaller and smaller. but what would it bring me as an individual? What if i don’t care about the good of the planet, the welfare of whales? Is there any reason why a vain, ego-centric individual like me would want to be small?
Perhaps Guy Keulemans said it best in response to the blog. I quote:” “the idea of a 50cm puppet exploring tiny urban space is interesting, simply because we are running out of regular sized spaces to explore. The great age of pioneers discovering new continents and lost worlds is long gone, but a remote controlled puppet could crawl and climb into the lost spaces of our cities; air conditioning vents, electrical tunnels, maintenance shafts… who knows what they might discover? Might the puppets even be small enough to bypass motion sensor alarms, or other devices designed to keep people out of restricted space?” What if this was not a puppet but you?
How do people react to your idea?
I’m actually quite surprised by the nature of the response. It’s mostly very constructive and inquisitive. For me that’s the best possible outcome since I’m more interested in dialogue than provocation. I structured the project like a public research so I can immediate the public’s feedback and make it part of the investigation. There a little bit of every visitor spread over the walls of the exhibition space or infused into the website.
Our next project is titled “7 BILLION” because after the summer of 2011 that’s how many people will live on Earth. It’s a great time to come up with creative and original scenarios to deal with this fact. Perhaps I can use this opportunity to do an open call for projects? The Incredible Shrinking Man is one of them.
All images courtesy Arne Hendriks.