Interview: Arne Hendriks, Researcher and “Father” of The Incredible Shrinking Man

Alessia Andreotti
September 8th 2013

The next guest in our interview series is Arne Hendriks, Dutch artist, exhibition maker, researcher and historian. He teaches at the Next Nature Lab of the Technical University in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

Hendriks’s activity explores the positive transformative power of creative impulses and the importance of fundamental free scientific research. In his speculative design research, the strange and the familiar continuously swap places to provoke conflicting perspectives.

His investigation The Incredible Shrinking Man, that proposes to reduce the human species to a height of 50 cm, where individuals would only need about 2% of what is consumed today, is nominated for the Dutch Design Award, in the category Future Concept  - competing with the NANO Supermarket, among others.

Waiting for the winners announce, in late October, we talked with Arne Hendriks about the possible benefits of shrinking, technology, trust and a thorny issues for which he asked for our readers advice.

How would you define The Incredible Shrinking Man investigation: a thought experiment or a work of art?

The question if something, in this case the investigation to create a smaller man for the near future, should be read as a work of art, or not, always sort of confuses me. The idea of art for me is so central to the perception and definition of reality that to say it is or isn't somehow doesn't make sense. Art is something that materializes in the mind of the beholder and therefor in my experience any object in a sense can be read as a work of art, even if it hasn't been intended as such. Works of art often make the mistake of creating a method or an object that facilitates or guides what is best left alone; our personal ability to read, deconstruct and reconstruct reality.

You speak about the desire of shrinking as a necessary condition to realize The Incredible Shrinking Man. Do you think people will ever desire and accept the possibilities and implications of downsizing the human species? If ever, when people will be ready for it?

I believe that any human being is in fact a symphony of specific desires, some in favor of tall, others in favor of small. The Incredible Shrinking Man intends to stimulate those desires that will eventually lead to shorter people and overcome our desires that make us reluctant to do so. The challenge is not so much to overcome physical impossibilities (I believe there are few) to shrink but to stimulate our desire to do so. We have to want it.

The desire to live longer, healthier and in abundance would be fulfilled if we decide to shrink

Short sex symbol Tom Cruise is perhaps more effective in creating such desire as any genetic or endocrinological possibility designed in the lab. Short has to be sexy. On the other hand there is for example the desire to live in abundance, or to live longer healthier lives. Both these desires would be fulfilled if we decide to shrink. True, when we look at society now there is still an overwhelming preference for taller, more, bigger. Our obsession with growth is rather absurd considering the level of well-being we’re already at and the actual damage it is doing to sustaining this level of well-being in the future. On the other hand there are signs, however subtle sometimes, that people want to downsize. I’m very sensitive to phenomenon like the small house movement of people preferring to live in very tiny homes, or the giant vegetable growers who sort of play out abundance fantasies by growing enormous pumpkins and other vegetables. Imagine the size of an apple when you’re just 50 centimeters tall! Most obviously the fantasy of being small is played out in literature, cinema, and art. I just have to believe that these are signs of a subconscious desire to become smaller. And then there is the latent desire to become smaller that becomes visible in some species when they get trapped on islands, including an early Homo species.

Short has to be sexy

In 2003 on the island of Flores in Indonesia several skeletons were found of Homo floresiensis, people of only 100 cm tall. One of the theories on their diminutive size is that trapped on this island they didn't have to fight with competitors (which leads to growth) or hiding from enemies (which leads to shrinkage) and subsequently they grew to the size they genetically wanted to be. If that’s true perhaps our genes would prefer us to be much smaller and we’re only this tall because we have to compete with 7 billion others for space and food.

It seems technological change is speeding up. Do you feel this is the case? And where will this go?

It doesn't change anything. In the bigger picture it doesn't really matter if we need another century to understand the laws of the universe, or another 1000 years. In the end it is about what we want from life that will manifest itself in how we use technology. Technology is a function of desire. We can be afraid of it or excited by it but it is much more about educating ourselves and coming to terms with our desires.

Technology is a function of desire

If at some point we’ll have it all figured out and we are able to turn everything into everything else we still need a plan on what and why.

Your works, for instance The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Repair Manifesto, are intended to get us thinking in creative ways about solving the global environmental crisis, do you see yourself as an activist? Why do you do what you do?

Well I guess it is a matter of trust. I trust that if people are better equipped to think for themselves, to define their own reality, that things will be better. It is interesting that in Hebrew the word art comes from the same origin as the word trust. My work is about inspiring confidence in your own ideas and a critical behavior towards where ideas come from. Somehow in my case this has often lead to ideas about how to deal with the environmental crisis. It seems the situation we find ourselves in at this moment is a good example of a few people thinking for the many. Art is one of the few spaces specialized in individual thinking, although most of us are also knee deep in conventions dictated by the art world. I don’t consider myself an activist, in fact many of the ‘mistakes’ in our thinking that I address I can only address because I think them myself. I also don’t want to be the first to put my head in the shrink machine, or my children. I want to work on a climate in which things slowly get better so I can enjoy the benefits along with everybody else. If I jump but nobody does I don’t see the point really.

How does your project relate to the dark history of eugenics? Designing humans is quite a the taboo, no?

We've always been designing ourselves. Culture in the broadest sense is our design of the human species. I believe that our fear of designing humans is in fact our fear for ourselves. We are still deeply afraid of what we will do to ourselves and probably rightfully so.

Our fear of designing humans is in fact our fear for ourselves

I’m in a dilemma all the time but not going there doesn't make the dilemma go away. In labs all over the world thousands of researchers are turning over pieces of a puzzle but very few of them are actually engaging in a debate on what the puzzle should look like. It’s hidden from us. The Incredible Shrinking Man is for me a way to engage in the debate and create ideas on what to use the pieces for. As an example; I’m deep interested in the Mbuti in the Ituri Forest of Congo. They are some of the smallest people alive today with an average adult height of 135 to 140 cm. As a result they are heavily discriminated by the taller people that live around the forest and that treat them like slaves. In my opinion the Mbuti are an important example of evolutionary intelligence and a possible model man of the future. I've been working on a letter to the Congolese Ministry of Health asking them to protect the Mbuti, not on humanitarian ground but because of their unique genetics. They are able to neutralize growth hormone! At the same time such a request could create problems that are difficult to oversee. I’m still not entirely sure if I can send the letter out. In fact I’d be very interested to listen to opinions and arguments of your readers what course of action to take.

I’d be very interested to listen to opinions and arguments of your readers

If we do nothing the Mbuti will soon be extinct, and along with them their unique genetic abilities that have the potential to be beneficial to the world.

What are your big plans for the future?

In September 2013 we open an artistic research lab at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, Netherlands, based on the principles of The Incredible Shrinking Man and . It’s always exciting to have other people pick up the ideas and mess about with them so it’s something I really look forward to. Concerning my way of working perhaps eventually I’d be interested in doing a PhD in speculative modes of artistic research and how it relates to the actual production of reality. Other than that this is an unique moment in time since my 7 year old twins are both 136 cm, as tall as an adult Mbuti. At the same time the tallest person that ever lived, Robert Wadlow, reached a height of 272 cm. That is exactly twice the size of my children. When I look at my children this is on my mind constantly.

Thanks so much, Arne, for sharing your work and viewpoints with us!

Related Posts: Interview: Alexandra Daisy GinsbergInterview: Floris Kaayk, Interview: Rachel Armstrong

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