Interactive Scent Gallery

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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. 

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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.

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?