Synesthesia by Bruno Fazzolari

When we talk about what it’s like to encounter smells, I tend to resist much enthusiasm about the idea of synesthesia (the “crossing-over of perception and senses,” experiencing a smell as a sound or a number as a color, and so on). We are so unpracticed at encountering smells and we have such little vocabulary for the experience, it’s only natural that when we grasp for ways to conceptualize it, we reach for parallels from our other senses: scent as music with notes and chords, or scent as texture, or as color. While it’s certainly useful to think about scent in these terms, I find myself wanting to push aside what feels like an analogy with limited usefulness and lean into the baffling ways that scent is none of these things—it is a separate category of experience.

But lately I’ve been spending time with Bruno Fazzolari’s book of Synesthesia paintings and finding it unexpectedly generative. From his introduction: “For someone who ‘sees’ scent, it feels odd to say that odor and color are separate categories of experience when both are vibrational events along a continuum of experience. At some point we call one seeing and the other smelling, just as we stop saying green and start saying blue. My work explores this space between color, visual form, odor and olfactive form, and about the ways these relationships expand the space of painting and the space of perfume.”

What’s most compelling to me about Fazzolari’s work is that he’s using his synesthesia not just as a way to interpret or translate smells, but also as a way to approach manipulating them. To discuss his painting Osmanthus, he describes the scent of osmanthus absolute: “while it’s jammy, it’s also dense, heavy, and lacks a sense of space. A pleasing osmanthus perfume would need to open up the space of the extract in some way. The painting explores color facets of osmanthus absolute and considers some contrasts to open up that space. Alone, the pink in the painting lacks sparkle, and the green rectangle is too vivid. Combined, they transform one another.” Fazzolari isn’t just sharing his synesthetic experience of smells, he’s also applying principles of color theory as a skilled perfumer. 

Inspired, I pulled out my copy of Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color, flipped it open, and felt this connection confirmed when I saw gradation studies shown on a photograph of perfume bottles. There are principles of perception that an artist can play with to create a new experience for their viewer. Fazzolari draws upon the experience of his senses as inter-connected, creating space for us to experience it, too.

Purchase Bruno Fazzolari’s Synesthesia – Catalog or shop prints and perfumes.

Scent as a Weapon

Warning! Tear gas leads to addiction to the revolution... Mira Diab
“Warning! Tear gas leads to addiction to the revolution…” by Mira Diab. Features a photograph by Jakob Rubner. Buy a postcard print from Dikkeni, and proceeds will go to NGOs and artists in Lebanon. Also a reminder to donate to Impact Lebanon and/or Islamic Relief USA to support relief efforts in Beirut following the explosion.

Scent can be weaponized. It can be violent. I’ve been learning a lot from talks hosted by The Institute for Art and Olfaction—about the ways colonizers wipe out native smells and impose their own smellscapes, from Hsuan L. Hsu’s Experimental Scent Summit talk “Decolonizing Smell.” About the ways that the unfamiliar smells of an othered community are so often used to dehumanize and justify violence against them or to deny them access, from Nuri McBride’s class “Xenophobia: An Olfactive History of Otherness.” And from Aleesa Cohene, I learned about Skunk: scent made into a powerful weapon. It is touted as “less lethal” and more humane, but it also inflicts unique psychological, social, emotional, and neurological damage upon its targets. And of course, it maintains the cycle of othering—an entire group can be sprayed with the persistent stink of Skunk, marking them, robbing them of dignity, and potentially justifying further violence against them.

The Smell of Revolution

Lisa Kirk Revolution perfume

After Erica So’s thought-provoking Experimental Scent Summit talk on experimental scents for protesters in Hong Kong, I revisited this perfume by Lisa Kirk: Revolution. The notes listed are “tear gas, blood, smoke, urine, burned rubber, body odor, and more…” And that’s what I wanted to smell. But I was disappointed—the perfume is perfectly palatable, even pleasant. It paints for me a nostalgic vision of a farm shed in rural East Texas, with scents of old mellowed gasoline, deteriorating rubber tires, but mostly, clean wood smoke. I thought, if this is supposed to be the smell of “revolution,” then it is a revolution that has been made into runway fashion—lifted from its context, made into a creative brief for an ambiguously “rebellious” aesthetic, and given a pretty, anonymous face.

Reading more about the project, I realized that this was entirely the point. From a write-up on madperfumista.com: “Kirk’s art practice centers on the appropriation of radical political signifiers by corporations to sell consumer products, thereby usurping the symbolic power of these signs in the support of capitalism.”

In 2010 Lisa Kirk released a commercial for the fragrance, shot like the mass-market perfume commercials we’ve all seen: moody music plays as a male and female model run in slow motion through a city, meeting for a moment of romantic tension before one of them pulls out a bottle of perfume. In this commercial, the models run through the streets in chic motorcycle boots, pull off their ski masks, and with their gloved hands reveal the perfume—a bottle styled to look like a pipe bomb. Revolution.

Perfume Note: Lemon

lee price lemon bath paintings

When I was 22 I moved to gray drizzly Seattle—my first time living on my own—and I spent a lot of time looking at these paintings by Lee Price and drinking tea with entire lemons emptied into the mug. Lemons are bright, they cut through. Today was another gray drizzly day in Seattle and I spent it smelling lemon perfumes.

lemon with perfume samples

Citrus notes are everywhere in perfumery, but a distinctive lemon note can be hard to pull off because we associate it so strongly with cleaning products. The surprise winner of the day for me was Dirty Lemon by Heretic Parfum, which I had never smelled before. It’s rich and warm like lemon-oil-soaked wood baked in the sun and seasoned with pepper.

If you’re looking for a fortifying lemon scent, try Fzotic Five: dry lemon atop sweet wood, with mists of ozonic salty air.

HEELEY Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clements is juicy and bold and balanced with a subtly bitter note and vetiver; his Note de Yuzu is a salted marine lemon.

D.S. & Durga Italian Citrus is a balmy balsam lemon, soft and subdued.

Departing from lemon-centric perfumes, Zoologist Chameleon opens with a distinct lemon note but is also a delightful pastel tutti frutti tropical haze.

Xerjoff 1861 Naxos wraps me in a plush luxury hotel bathrobe with lemon, lavender, tonka, and tobacco.

Masque Milano Terralba is lemon and clary sage and vetiver growing cliffside by the sea.

The actual lemon I had in my kitchen, when I grated the peel a bit, smelled like lemon drop candy. This lemon bonanza of a day was topped off with J.W. Dotson’s Lucky Lemon online class, a wonderful survey of the expansive cultural history of lemons, hosted by The Institute for Art and Olfaction.

Olfactory Art: “Es liegt was in der Luft” by Patrick Palcic

patrick-palcic-olfactory-art-clock

After I posted the “floral clock” from The Book of Perfumes (1868), I learned about Patrick Palcic’s beautiful olfactory clock, “Es liegt was in der Luft” (2016), or “There is something in the Air.” Every hour, the clock rotates until a scent trickles down the heated clock face, releasing a unique smell at every hour.

The idea of a clock is especially resonant for me right now—or rather, it’s especially dissonant. Time feels structureless as one day becomes another. A weekday working from home has no demarcation from evenings and weekends. Outside it’s spring, but this season feels like a big question mark and none of us know how this strange moment will ripple forward into the unknown future.

Creative interpretations of clocks can play with our ideas about the structure of time—I remember, for example, meeting someone who wore a watch with a single hand that moved around the clock face once every 24 hours. An olfactory clock, however, speaks uniquely to our *experience* of time. The idea of “9:00 pm” or “Monday” may feel irrelevant, but through our senses we can still experience the passage and structure of time.


Pictures courtesy of Patrick Palcic, patrickpalcic.com

Scent as a Medium: Bright Black Candle

brightblackcandle

Using scent as their medium, Bright Black Candle is doing amazing things. Their Diaspora collection first of all smells wonderful, and also uses those wonderful smells to accomplish a larger vision.

Captivated, I contacted them to learn more about their thought process behind this project. Tiffany graciously shared some of her inspiration and vision with me, so I’m going to draw upon her words here. On a fundamental level, Bright Black Candle creates “an explicit sensory experience that connects positivity and Blackness. And we wanted to use scent because it is such a powerful form of sensation that we thought we could really share stories and memories and aspirations through this medium.” They’re using scent to “foster connection through community dialogue. We want to create safe spaces for people to honestly and humbly and confidently discuss the pain and hope and joy and challenges with race in general, and in particular, with Blackness.” Scent has this power to invoke history, connect us with present realities and inspire change for the future, to foster conversation—all in such an intimate and experiential way.

Keep Tiffany and Dariel on your radar: in 2020, they’ll be rolling out blog content with more about the history and narrative that each city in the Diaspora collection holds, and they have more candle collections in the works!

Interactive Scent Gallery

scentevent1

I recently had the incredible opportunity to host an interactive scent gallery for a group of multi-disciplinary artists and creative individuals at The Annex here in Seattle. My goal was first and foremost to facilitate an engaging experience that would get these artists thinking about the possibilities that open up when we use our noses. I wanted them to mindfully experience what Luca Turin calls the enduring strangeness of raw sensation. Hopefully, this experience might even get them thinking about scent in their own creative practice. But I also had some questions of my own that I wanted their help in answering.

Scent in art has the potential to create uniquely embodied, intimate, and ephemeral experiences. Scent resists description, documentation, and preservation. This is part of what makes scent so compelling, but it also presents significant challenges.

Scent is generally a passive, ambient experience—we don’t often think actively about what we’re smelling. And when we do, we usually have some kind of reference from our other senses. For example, we smell something unpleasant, so we identify the cause: we look around and realize we’re standing near a dumpster. We savor the smell of a peach while we hold it up to our nose. But without contextual information from our surroundings, how much are we able to make sense of smells? Scent is notoriously subjective, since we all have different associations and memories linked to scents. How much does this affect how an artist uses scent? We have so little verbal language for scent—but can scent itself serve as a common language that an artist can draw upon to communicate nonverbally? Or is it a kind of Tower of Babel, all of us together yet unable to speak the same language?

These questions have been on my mind lately as I’ve been researching scent in art. By and large, “olfactory artworks” often rely upon audio-visual or narrative cues to frame our encounter with the scent, priming us to experience or interpret the scent in a certain way. Scent’s role can certainly be more than just an atmospheric enhancer. Scent can supplement our experience; it can subvert and play with our expectations. But this means that while a work’s concept may rely upon scent, a scent cannot fully communicate the concept on its own. So I can’t help but wonder: can artists not trust their viewers’ noses? Are we incapable, or merely unaccustomed to encountering scent on its own terms? 

In other words: If our noses are given the chance, can we encounter and engage with a smell as we would encounter and engage with any other work of art? 

After introducing these thoughts, I led the group in a silent smelling of four anonymous scents, with prompts along the way to guide them. Each participant received a blank notebook and a pen to record their internal experience and responses to each prompt.

 

After the exercise, we came together to share our reactions and discuss our experiences. Participants were simultaneously energized by the smelling exercise and fascinated by the unexpected ways that they felt stymied by it. 

scentevent2

 

At the end of the evening, participants went home with vials of each of the four scents and a sealed envelope containing The Reveal, allowing them to decide for themselves whether and when to read the names and descriptions of the scents they’d spent so much time observing.

 

I want to thank all the participants who came out to Capitol Hill to experience this with me. I was inspired by all of your responses and thoughts. I’m already planning my next interactive scent event!

Thank you to The Annex for having me, especially to Tae for being such a wonderful curator. Thank you to Kendra Dalley for the videos.

Art and Scent: “American Golden Boy”

“American Golden Boy I, II, and III” are 3 watercolor paintings by Daniel Barkley. The first one has lived in my home for a few years now, and I think about it often in juxtaposition to whatever is on my mind lately—not as a medium for anything conclusive or even clearly articulated, but just as a provocation to generate thought, however nebulous.

Of course, what’s been on my mind lately is fragrance. Something beautiful we wear on our skin, which arguably takes our shape or shapes the space we occupy. A substance crafted to create illusions.

I’m thinking of these paintings again in juxtaposition to a couple of thought-provoking things I encountered recently: first, Chris Rusak’s Studio Series #8, which arrived in my mailbox and included an excellent zine with @odedeparfum’s essay “(Trans)Gendering Fragrance: Seeing It, Having It, and Having Fun with It” and a sample of Chris’ new perfume Beast Mode, and secondly, @charcoot‘s call-outs on the #fragbro toxic masculinity that is specific to perfume culture. (You should check out all of these things; order Chris Rusak’s Studio Series sets on chrisrusak.com, and read “The Bro Rant” on @charcoot’s highlights.)

If you pair these paintings with thoughts of scent and perfume, what new thoughts come up for you?

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?