December 11, 2004: Borrowers are tiny people who live beneath floors and behind
walls in the houses of human beings. They "borrow" odds and ends
such as sewing needles and thimbles to fashion into tools and
furniture. Borrowers also help themselves to food, in amounts
too small to be missed. To a borrower, a shrimp is a leg of lamb,
a grape is a cantaloupe. The borrowers tap into water pipes, gas
lines and flues and cook on stoves made from bits of hardware.
In their secret world, they live much like human beings-- in
miniature homes made of cigar boxes and cardboard.
In the 1950's, human author Mary Norton chronicled the life of
a borrower family in a series of classic children's books. Norton
opened up unseen worlds for her readers and transformed everyday
objects by presenting them through borrower eyes. She also
presented a compelling social picture of borrower existence.
Borrowers live by a self reliant, "making do" ethos. When left
to themselves, most lead a rather genteel, middle class life.
Yet their living arrangements are precarious; the threat of
displacement a constant. Just when all seems secure, humans
can discover the borrowers' existence. And call in a rat catcher.
Thinking borrowers are some sort of rodents in clothes. Others
try to bag borrowers with exploitation in mind. Hoping to collect
them, or make them into tourist exhibits. Borrowers must
repeatedly flee, sometimes with nothing more than what they
can carry. At one point the borrower family Norton chronicles
is forced to live in a discarded boot outdoors, where they come
close to dying from starvation and exposure. Thankfully, a
woodland borrower boy with survivalist savvy comes to the rescue.
Norton's borrower family is small: a husband, wife and teenage
daughter. The husband (Pod) and wife (Homily) are cautious and
conservative. Both are adept at indoor borrower survival skills
and feel it best to live a shadowy existence between walls and
under floors. Their daughter, Arriety, longs for the outdoors
and adventure. Arriety's restlessness leads her to do the
forbidden: talk to human beings. Her chats with "giants" lead
to disaster. Though not all humans are malign.
In Norton's final volume (The Borrowers Aloft) Arriety befriends
a kindly human spinster. A free spirit who tends a miniature
outdoor village built by a man whose hobby is model railroads.
She offers the borrowers a safe life in the village, with
everything built to scale and all needs provided. Arriety is sure
this is the answer to her parents' housing problems. Yet Pod and
Homily refuse the offer. Sensing a cage built with the best
intentions is still a cage. Believing their independence and
privacy would ultimately be violated by the arrangement. Saying:
"you can pay too high for a bit of soft living". The series
closes with them emigrating yet again. Setting out for a home
in a grain mill. While Arriety's future lies with the woodland
A more urban set of tiny folk are the Homies: little plastic Hip
Hop figures who can be found hanging in gum machines near the
front doors of supermarkets. 50 cents puts one in your palm.
Trying to collect the entire crew can cost a mint, given their
numbers and the law of diminishing gum machine returns-- as a
collection increases, so does the chance of getting duplicates.
Collection abuse counselors call this "the tragic cost of being
hooked on Homies". Homies are beautifully styled, though
detractors say they encourage stereotypes. The Homies have
spawned a spin-off, by way of the Sopranos. Named the Palermos,
the wee mafiosi are everything the Italian American Anti
Defamation League decries. Palermo dispensers are scarcer than
Homie ones, so Palermos will probably become hot collectibles.
Speculators in tiny folk may already be dreaming of the E Bay
day when billionaire Palermo collectors make offers that can't
be refused. It's just this sort of degrading fate borrowers seek
The perfect tiny town for the Palermos would be one fashioned
by Francis Glessner Lee. During the 1940's, Mrs. Lee built the
"Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death". Nineteen doll house size
crime scenes with every detail in place. Right down to cans in
cupboard, lipstick smeared pillowcases, bullet riddled walls and
itsy bitsy corpses. Like a borrower, Francis Glessner Lee turned
human sized household objects into tools for tiny folk. Such as
straight pins into knitting needles. Mrs. Lee was the first woman
member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
She created the Nutshell Studies as a classroom tool for police
recruits. The Studies are still used for teaching purposes by
the office of the Maryland State Medical Examiner in Baltimore.
A book about Lee and her mini murder scenes was recently
published by Monacelli Press. With photos and text by Corinne
May Botz. Francis Glessner Lee was inspired in her work by the
words of a detective: "Convict the guilty, clear the innocent
and find the truth in a nutshell".
Though characters are physically full size in Bart Plantenga's
"spermatogonia: the isle of man" (Autonomedia, 2004) their lives
are less so. The book's narrator makes his living finding sources
for TV canned laughter. In search of gutbusters and chortles, he
haunts fairgrounds, parties and even accident scenes. Not the
lethal variety of the latter-- but ones with banana peel aspects.
Laugh Man is always among crowds but never of them. Meanwhile,
back at his creative workplace, non-union yuppies competitively
boast about being overworked and worship the great god "Luck".
Since Luck seems to smile on Laugh Man by allowing him to be
out of the office all day, his co workers hate him. Plantenga
captures the petty chill of hip sweatshops as skillfully as his
character captures laughter. Plantenga's style is free form.
Sometimes he loves language too well and lays on the images too
thick and sometimes he loves culture too well and lays on
references likewise. But these are mere bagatelles. Poetry jumps
from his prose. Like when Laugh Man gets stuck in traffic and
eats a candy bar: "I held the wrapper in my hands while keeping
a loose grip on the steering wheel so that the brown wrapper held
up to the light pouring through the windshield looked exactly
like the air hunched over Manhattan".
Along the triple x route to the enlightened implosion of
Laugh Man "spermatogonia" takes fascinating side trips.
Including explorations of the nature of laughter and the use
by intelligence agencies of sound as a torture technique.
"spermatogonia" is illustrated with Dave Lombard's b&w photos,
which evoke the album art of No New York and the furtive alien
autopsy shots of Fox Muldaur. Author Bart Plantenga is a DJ at
Radio Patapoe in the Netherlands. He specializes in lush uneasy
listening. In his former life stateside, Bart dee jayed at WFMU
in New Jersey, a legendary mecca for all things avant aural. Bart
has published a number of works ranging from poetry collections
to fiction to dissertations on his musical obsessions. Last
year, Routledge published his seminal work on yodeling
"Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the
World". It turned out to be a surprise hit. Proving that
obsessions, like laughs, can be shared by many.
Speaking of both, 1999 was Barbie's 40th birthday. To mark the
occasion Simon & Schuster published a collection of essays "The
Barbie Chronicles" edited by Yona Zeldis McDonough. Though a few
of the essays step out of the injection mold, the majority depict
Barbie as the ultimate bitch goddess of all things fiendishly
feminine. The corrupting influence on young girls of Barbie's
"perfect breasts" are invoked and denounced so many times it's
obvious a single ayatollah wrote most of the essays under a slew
of pseudonyms. In one essay, he lauds the work of an artist who
defaces Barbies. The artist isn't the ayatollah's Crayola toting
5 year old, or some infant Ted Bundy, but an adult woman whose
masterwork is a Barbie studded with nails. According to the
ayatollah, this artist felt really upset when she hammered nails
into Barbie's eyes and Barbie kept on smiling. The artist would
probably have felt even more upset if she knew why Barbie kept
smiling. Barbie's identity, like that of Spartacus, transcends
her individual self. As the Barbie hating artist hammered those
nails, dolls all over the world were declaring "I am Barbie!" It
may happen sooner and it may happen later, but eventually that
artist will hear the tapping of millions of tiny high heels in
her hallway. Talk about a nutshell of unexplained death...
PEEP 6: The Main Body, containing Magic by Mail Art, will appear
for the holidays. Featuring work by Henning Mittendorf, Paula
Jesgarz, Captain Biology, King Pinky from the Island of Rec,
Giovanni Strada, Christian Hildbrandt, V2, C.Z. Lovecraft,
Claudio Romeo, Isao Yoshi, ex posto facto and many more.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
"Chief Epiradus Dhoi Lewa has a strange tale to tell. Sitting in
his wooden home at the foot of an active volcano on the remote
Indonesian island of Flores, he recalls how people from his
village (Boawae) were able to capture a tiny woman with long,
pendulous breasts three weeks ago. ""They said she was very
little and very pretty,"" he says...The chief adds that the
mysterious little woman in Boawae somehow 'escaped' her
Hobbits? We've Got a Cave Full, Deborah Smith, Science Editor,
Sydney Morning Herald, 12/06/04
"Small world, isn't it?"
Small World, Gypsy, Music: Julie Styne, Lyrics: Stephen
"spermatogonia: the isle of man" by Bart Plantenga can be
ordered at www.autonomedia.org
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