The Problem with Scent

Have you noticed that everyone seems to interpret smells differently? You’re not the only one. I love this excerpt that The Institute for Art and Olfaction shared recently, from an upcoming essay by founder Saskia Wilson-Brown:

“The increasingly fractured significance we apply to scent means that when our personal experiences, memories and preferences are expressed in smell, they are often done so through an uneasy combination of assumptions. “Timeless” meanings (“Frankincense smells holy!”) are assumed to be general understanding, and specific individual perspectives (“The smell of chocolate cake reminds me of my childhood summers in the south of Vietnam”) are assumed to be relatable.

Thus a young trans woman in Atlanta can perceive the smell of rose as a meaningful signifier of her feminine identity, while a Somali scholar in Dubai can concurrently ascribe to it the symbolic meaning of traditional hospitality. An elder from a Canadian First Peoples tribe can understand sage in the context of medicine and healing, while an affluent banker in Hong Kong can understand it as a luxury object in the form of a refreshing room spray.

The meaning of any given smell is heterogeneous; as Derrida would have it with language, so it is with scent. Traditional understandings, fragmented as they already are amongst cultures and epoch, are further splintered with every personal memory, micro-niche, trend, marketing pitch, and emotional analysis. In our globalized world everyone can see or experience everything, and everything means something to everybody. What this means for people working with scent is that, in fact, nothing means one thing to everybody (at least not without a hefty dose of contextual information). Aromatic materials have no consistent meaning. And therein lies the primary problem when working with scent.”

—Saskia Wilson-Brown, The Institute for Art and Olfaction

“Aromatic materials have no consistent meaning.” What do you think?

Smellscapes: Smell Maps

A different way to interpret place: the smellscape. These “smell maps” by Kate McLean are beautiful visual representations of olfactory experience.

Kate leads groups of “cartographers” on smell walks to catalog smells, then finds the common ground in their perceptions—because inevitably, everyone perceives an olfactory landscape differently.

What are the smells that characterize your city? Your neighborhood?

“In Glorious Smell-o-Vision”

How cool is this? The (remaining) original “Smell Brain” by Hans Laube, the smell-disseminating organ for the only feature film written for scent: The Scent of Mystery in 1960. Miles of tubing disseminated scents to the audience at key moments of the film.

The film and its ambitious scenting mechanics went down in history as failed experiment: the first and the last major motion picture to be written for scent and screened with scent. Recently, however, the film and its scents have been screened again by @inglorious_smellovision, who has a documentary coming out soon! Visit their website to read more.

Olfactory Art: “On Forgetting”

If you had bottles in your medicine cabinet that you could sniff to help you forget something, what would they smell like? Take a minute to describe it for yourself.

This is Catherine Haley Epstein’s On Forgetting, which I had the great pleasure to smell last night at Fumerie! It was interesting to talk with the artist about scent outside the bounds of perfume-wearing: from scented spaces to scent as creative practice to conceptual olfactory art, like this piece. I loved the smoky choya nakh in Forgetting 20 Years Ago and the unexpected sweetness of the clove in Forgetting 10 Years Ago. A poetic and generative way to think about the process of forgetting—especially since scent is so often touted as a way to evoke long-forgotten memories.

Primary image and cabinet image courtesy of the artist.

Nose Dive

Catherine Haley Epstein‘s new book Nose Dive: A Book for the Curious Seeking Potential Through their Noses is a compelling jumping-off point for anyone curious about how to use their nose in creative work—whether you’re trying to create scent art (not the same thing as perfume) or simply adding something new to your creative practice.

It was especially interesting to read a survey of scent art projects, which Epstein breaks down into 4 general categories: conceptual (scent is suggested but not literally present), material (scent is present as an enhancer or counterpoint to the primary medium/piece), actual juice (love this phrase; it means that the actual scent is the primary medium), and observation (collecting and cataloging smells).

Purchase the book here: catherinehaleyepstein.com/shop