My Synthetic Aesthetics partner, Sissel Tolaas, is featured in the terrific current issue of the German interview magazine mono.kultur. Her work focuses on smell, exploring the unique smellscapes of different cities, creating provocative scents to show in art galleries, branded "logo" scents for Adidas, "Swedish" scents for Ikea, and therapeutic memory-triggering scents, part of the healing process for patients dealing with traumatic experiences. Until we have smell-o-vision, her work is almost aggressively analog--"beyond what is seen and heard to something indiscernible yet more immediately telling than anything else"; smells are impossible to show online, impossible to experience without a physical and emotional response. It is this response, this primitive communication and understanding through smell that she captures in her work. Interspersed between the pages of the fascinating interview where she discusses her inspirations, her intentions, and her process are blank pages coated with fancy scratch-and-sniff micro-bubbles of her scent creations. As you rub the pages between your fingers, the scents are released, almost like the perfume samples stinking up women's fashion magazines but much more powerful and evocative than any advertisement.

i-a92d55ec0132c315294708b1e02fe2ad-blindsspread.jpgThe 12 scents presented in the magazine are intended to provoke, to explore the smells of the human body in a context that allows them to be more than just "good" or "bad". Part of her 2006 exhibit at MIT's List Visual Arts Center the Fear of Smell--the Smell of Fear, the scents are chemically recreated versions of the smell of sweat produced by men suffering from extreme anxiety disorders in their most fearful situations. The sweat is collected in tiny underarm vacuum cleaners and shipped to Sissel's Berlin lab/studio for analysis and recreation. The scents can communicate fear, violence, aggression, but also a surprising complexity and passion. For Sissel, "Nothing stinks--only thinking makes it so!"

Nose training can teach us to look beyond just "good" or "bad" smells, to identify different components, to feel what is being communicated through smells, and she teaches classes around the world to get students to just this point:

I train them to relate to smells from the perspective of curiosity by saying 'listen, could this give you some information that you pass by or leave out because you were not used to seeing it as information'

Or to release it from certain stereotypes by abstracting it?

Of course. With sweat, it's the same -- they're difficult smells for a lot of people. If you see a person and smell his sweat up front, you back off. But if I position the same smell in an aesthetic displacement, you approach it differently: You come back and you're fascinated!

i-0bd9d695d7e59f772a60783ce4cdc9a5-Guy4.jpgExperienced as blank pages in a beautifully designed magazine, the sweat smells almost good--musky, piney, deep scents that made my chest clench while reading. But it is the differences between the different pages that makes the experience so complex and interesting: Guy #10's cool, almost melon-scented overtones, Guy #6's cinnamon, Guy #9's seductiveness that made one gallery visitor "come every day for three months and kiss the wall up and down with different lipsticks." There is a lot of emotion lurking in the smells, enough to completely envelope and affect the magazine reader, enough that another gallery visitor, "a 90-year-old man started to cry in front of Guy #05."

These differences can communicate a lot about us to others, but we've all but eliminated this part of our life from our cultural experience--

We all dress smells: we spray on deodorant or use soap that smells the same on everyone. So we are all soldiers, or slaves, of certain scent systems...

People manipulate their olfactory identity and surroundings to establish or maintain their class identity--to fit in!..What is the meaning of 'clean'? What is the meaning of 'dirty'? What defines a 'good' smell? Who made these rules, anyway? They were made by the commercial world for white middle-class Europeans from a certain time and they've remained with us forever. But we are living in a global world where the definition of cleanliness and 'bad' and 'good' is completely different...

In the 21st century, the ideal society is presented as deodorised. The fantasy worlds created for us are totally odourless. They exist only in the domains of vision and sound.

What will the future hold for our smellscape? Will globalization completely deodorize our world, making everything smell of soap? Perhaps, but perhaps biology, with all its living smells, will be re-introduced into our lives. As we better understand how our bodies are made up of marvelously diverse communities of bacteria and human cells living in evolutionary harmony, and as synthetic biology pushes to replace many of our industrial processes with living systems, perhaps the definitions of "good" and "bad", "natural" and "synthetic" will begin to change too. Artwork that can provoke us to think about and reconsider how we've constructed our world, what we think of as "normal," can be tremendously powerful, can offer potential for radical change--"We must provoke one another to think differently. If we get to the moment of provocation, then there is hope."


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Following the logic in the article in WIRED you link to, Kevin Kline seems to have erred in having his simpleton über-machismo portrayal of Otto in a A Fish Called Wanda perform deep inhaling from Wanda's f.m. boots. I doubt Kline intended any feminine nuance, and rather suspect he had in mind something more along the lines of an I-love-the-smell-of-napalm-in-the-morning effect.

The point is, I doubt the validity of a strict male-female demarcation in olfactory CAPACITY. I would more readily concede the possibility of heterosexual male humans trending towards being less open-minded compared to heterosexual female humans about the whole idea of enthusiastically gulping down the residual aroma sampled from the armpits of strange men, owing to contrasting sets of biologically motivated strategic choices.

All my data on this is anecdotal, but among it is my life-long violent gag reflex to the smell of soiled diapers, except during the two years or so of shared care of my own infant.

As a corollary, I suggest the possibility that were Ms. Tolaas to exhibit the residue of aromas from a dozen or so women, she might well find a somewhat more enthusiastic reception from heterosexual males -- and validation the interpretation of Mr. Kline.

(On an entirely different subject, I have been following your regime of baking soda and apple vinegar ever since you posted it, and it seems to be working, well ... fabulously. Thanks.)

By Plinthy The Middling (not verified) on 14 Aug 2010 #permalink

From what I understand, the only reason that male armpits are used in the artwork is that men typically have a more pungent aroma, making it easier to capture and synthesize. I think Sissel is a pretty unique woman in her enthusiastic gulping of smells, and her work is in large part about getting all of us to be more open minded about smells and to realize that we all communicate through our smells, not just men->women.

Anyway, I'm really glad that you like the vinegar and baking soda!

Is that 'pungency' (diplomatic choice of word, that) due to a greater male tendency towards anxiety (which would not surprise me), or is it more complicated, or due to something else?

If it came across that I was trashing her work, my earlier comment failed. I was aiming more narrowly, at a reason some males might restrain their enthusiasm in fully participating in the exhibition (and, looking back at it, maybe unintentionally suggesting one way to kick that up a notch).

By Plinthy The Middling (not verified) on 15 Aug 2010 #permalink