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Notes on Scale

Jorge Luis Borges wrote that we each have three themes that guide our creative life. I don’t remember what his were exactly but I’m going to guess labyrinths, knife fights and memory. If you don’t know of him, I would start with Borges: Collected Fictions , which is certainly worthwhile. I’ve wondered if I have themes and what they might be. I’m almost certain one has to do with a visceral feeling of scale and density.

I have two strong memories from childhood related to this. The first is of a recurring nightmare, which has defied proper explanation for all these years (although I have found a few people that understand me immediately). It isn’t a visual dream so much as simultaneity of incongruous sensations: the feeling of something very small or insubstantial overlapped with the feeling of something massive and terrible. The closest visual metaphor I have found is that awful screensaver which auto-generates a system of overlapping pipes. I can get at that feeling if I imagine myself in the middle of an infinite volume of these tubes trying to hold onto a single piece that keeps vomiting more and more segments.

The second memory is of an evening when I visited a newspaper factory. I was very young; that age when doing anything away from home in the evening was thrilling. There was a huge metal drum that spun so fast that the just-inked newspaper pages were a blur of streaked grey. I could feel that drum. The floor shook. The noise was enormous. I imagined that if that drum became unhinged it would tear a neat-violent path through the whole city. It was awesome, in the old sense of the word. But then I looked down at my watch. And I saw that tiny little second hand.


The fact that those two moments could coexist was overwhelming. Almost nauseating. And I am drawn to this feeling in the same way that I can’t help biting a sore lip.

The Earth Sandwich is one example. Tiny bread. Big Earth. Another less straightforward example is the absurdist game “every second counts”. The increasing stretches of time and anticipation vs. the small gesture of the mouse button. I find this juxtaposition of scale in things that make me laugh. For example the crude and silly joke: “I have to go poop.” stated seriously followed by an utterance of the word “poop”. It only works for me if the sound is small. A little throw away.

On a more practical note:

I use scale as a way to brainstorm ideas around a theme. I try to imagine certain elements of the theme at extreme scale to see if it generates ideas. Dick Cheney in a wheel chair at the inauguration. Giant wheelchair. Armor plated wheelchair. Aretha Franklin’s hat as bullet proof protection. Aretha Franklin’s hat shrunk by the dry cleaners. Tiny. A tiny wheelchair just for your hand – imagine walking stooped over dragging a tiny wheelchair. A huge wheelchair with tiny wheels. A tiny wheelchair with huge wheels. An inauguration where no one showed up. An entire podium filled with senators and dignitaries and only a single person clapping in the audience.

I am also wary of too much reliance on scale, particularly a reliance on iteration. Iteration is often used to bolster weak ideas. For example I once thought it would be cool to animate each letter of the alphabet. “Each letter of the alphabet” is a reliance on iteration, and without anything beyond “animation” holding the project together, I petered out at the letter “I”. The same thing holds with projects that are framed with “Don’t worry, it will be awesome once there are a lot of them (contributions, for example). This usually means the project has been inadequately framed. The best contribution projects are like fractals – the beauty/interest of the entire project can be captured in a single entry.

This reminds me of something else relating to expectations for a contribution-based project. I think I will pick this up in the next post.


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Comments (15)

Your posts here are very important to me now and useful in my work and how I'm thinking about it.

In paragraph 2 you describe the recurring nightmare I've had since childhood -- a nightmare that reliably happens only when I have a fever and is, in fact, my best indicator that I'm well and truly sick.

It'd be super cool if you'd either get out of my mind or just say hello in there, because first you crystalize thoughts on online communities I vaguely have into readable and understanble snippets of prose, then you go and do a halfway decent job of describing my indescrible, recurring fever dream.

Well, whichever you choose, thanks much.

- D

I know this blog is primarily about community participation projects, and that interests me, but doesn't really relate to my personal experiences. So instead I'll just talk about the parts that did strike a chord in me.

I haven't really developed my "creative life" that much, at least to the point where you can find consistent themes in my creative work. The part of my experience where it is easiest to see themes is in my dreaming, which I guess is one of the most basic creative outlets. In my dreams, like yours, there is scale, but it is mostly related to urban or industrial settings--huge buildings such as churches or hotels, sprawling cityscapes, Escher-esque stairs and arbitrarily functioning elevators, and grotesque representations of mass transportation systems. I also usually have a goal or a purpose, but I struggle to make my way through increasingly complex environments and rarely, if ever, succeed.


Earth-sandwich is one of my favorite conceptual pieces that I've ever heard of, I dare say. It ranks up there with Yoko Ono's "Blue Sky" poem when she was with Fluxus (the kind of art-collective you come across in school and immediately fall in love with). Like many Fluxus pieces, you have it sent to you in the mail, a piece of art that was encapsulated in a very small "instruction." For Blue Sky, you received an index card with a square cut out of the center, and you were instructed to hold it up against the sky on a clear day. Big sky all held in a tiny little window, a perfectly simple and elegant concept.

Thanks for your posts. I look forward to add'l ones. Unpacking your thought process is a great exercise that I'm glad to benefit from.


Holy crap! Ze, I know the feeling you're talking about, from your recurring nightmare. I've gotten the same feeling (mostly when awake) since I was in elementary school, when I thought of it as "terrible delicacy," and it was strongly associated with a Pakistani classmate's braids (I have no idea why). I've never come up with a way to describe it clearly enough that I was comfortable trying to ask anyone if he or she had ever had that feeling.

Frankly, I'm pretty surprised that you can tolerate working with the feeling, artistically; it puts my teeth on edge so badly it nearly drives me nuts when it comes up on me.

I'm really glad to know that other folks know this feeling. How common is it?


OMFG the scale nightmare! I have struggled to describe this to people. I envy you for finding anyone at all who understands it.

I've usually tried to describe it in terms of numbers... counting is so easy that it is practically inevitable; all you have to do is add 1. And the difference between 11 and 12 (1) or the difference between 19 and 20 (still just 1) are not a big deal at all. But it rolls on like that forever and forever and forever until it is so big, bigger than the car or the house or the world or the universe and it is SO BIG and you are so very small. It is looming and maybe you can avoid it for now, but it's not just waiting. No. It is still getting bigger.

And yes, the contrast between the the teeny little counting interval and the huge bulk of the resulting mass is just sick-making. It is the queasiness on top of the fear that really brings it home as a champion nightmare.

Had that one all the time as a kid.

I just found this link that might interest you:


It's a presentation editor, e.g. powerpoint, but based on scale. So as you present on different things, you zoom in, out, and around of the content, which is all spread out at different angles on a surface. It's really difficult to explain but definitely play with the demo on their site, it's pretty interesting.

I have a recurring nightmare that mirrors your own. It is also a day-mare, occuring in moments of close-eyed contemplation. If I keep my eyes closed while talking I will begin to feel tiny, so tiny the air is loud and buzzing around me. So tiny I can hear atoms pass my ears. And then just as quickly, I am immense, the size of universes, planets could orbit me. Then I am infinitesimal again and the wooshing buzz of my existence is in my ears. If I open my eyes, the spell is broken.

I've often dreamt that I was lying under a tiny pebble. Just as I doze off the pebble becomes a gigantic stone on my chest and I am pinned helpless beneath it. It gives off a sort of static noise (the buzzing again), then it becomes a pebble and all is still.

What does this mean, I wonder? Glad I am not the only one confounded by the bizarre extremes of size.


When Joseph Campbell talked of following your bliss it sounded really great because of that word: bliss. Likes it's all happy. I think his philosophy there is like every story Flannery O'Connor ever wrote: a kick in the pants.

I think if he were alive he might have changed it to something like "get in your zone" or similar. Something that would reflect how one's bliss is or can be simultaneously one's bane. From what I can tell, golfers are very knowledgeable about that concept.

I read the two above this as well and I wondered if the worry over success has trumped the bliss for you.

It's simplistic to say that laugh and the world laughs with you, but there is a grain in it.

I happened upon this blogger, James Bach, and his idea of a Buccaner Scholar. He's self taught and wrote a book (yet to be released) about his experience in that regard. Your writing here connects to his. Not entirely sure why just yet but they do connect.

It would be a dream if the likes of you two were to lead a virtual school of merit. Though the idea might repel you both, there are very few others I would admit to the task were I the king of everything.

Apologies for any bad commenting etiquette. Chalk it up to "this makes me think of" and be glad I did not recall in detail the life sized blue whale suspended from the ceiling of the Smithsonian I saw when I was 6.


You ever think one thing with enthusiasm and the next day think something entirely different and feel kind of embarrassed about your previous thinking?

I do that sometimes. I did that here with a comment (I think yesterday). Part of it was just so wrong and I realize that now.


I had similar experiences when I was a kid, with a few recurring since then as well. After some research, the closest thing I've come to describing it, if not exactly, is Alice in Wonderland syndrome. Tends to happen to people who suffer migraines.



I've had a nightmare - usually when I have a fever - that evokes that same kind of feeling. Mine is different, but close enough to the pipes-screensaver to not have to elaborate on the details. Glad to hear it's not just two people being crazy.

I've had a nightmare - usually when I have a fever - that evokes that same kind of feeling. Mine is different, but close enough to the pipes-screensaver to not have to elaborate on the details. Glad to hear it's not just two people being crazy.


Tiny elephants have always made me laugh. Important insignificance and metaphors. I'm not sure yet about the third theme.

I have that dream, too! Usually when I have a fever. Something unbearably, inexpressibly huge, and something tiny but concentrated. How strange. I wonder what it means.


Hey, Ze.
I absolutely had that same nightmare as a child. I've spent my life trying to describe/explain it to myself. Once I thought I could associate it with being yelled at by my dad, but that was only a tiny part of it. I read a book recently in which the same nightmare featured for some other such creative person. Perhaps it's an artist child's curse, and grows up in to the sorts of fears and anxieties you go on to describe.

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