31 August 2010

Smelling Neutrally, Smelling Completely:
The Incredible Nose of Sissel Tolaas

“What I try to do is to prove that we are breathing in all this information but we have no tools to make use of it. We can render up to 10,000 different smells but we use only fifteen to twenty percent of this information. We have only two words to describe them -- good or bad -- and there must be something done about it.”
- Sissel Tolaas

My sincere apologies for the late summer lull. Thankfully, my nose has been reinvigorated by the smell of twelve sweaty men, as captured and reproduced by artist and researcher Sissel Tolaas, the subject of a fascinating interview in Mono.Kultur #23. (More on the twelve sweaty men later.) The thrust of Tolaas’s research is investigating ways in which smell can be used as a means of communication, or put another way, developing a language with which we can communicate about smell in ways that we are currently unable to. 

Over the course of the interview she explains that lofty-sounding goal by describing some of her projects and the issues she explores through them, including:
  • Breaking down prejudices and socially-conditioned judgments about smell by taking schoolchildren on smell-collecting field trips through what she calls “hardcore” neighborhoods in Berlin
  • A collaboration with photographer and former skinhead Nick Knight to capture the smell of men when their testosterone levels are most elevated (even going so far as to arrange underground fights in which, somehow, the men were unaware their smell was being collected)
  • An account of her work within the medical field, wherein a psychiatric patient was reawakened to the suppressed memory of witnessing his mother’s murder by the simulated smell of an ashtray
  • Her relationships to the worlds of commercial fragrance and fashion, such as a scent project for Adidas with the goal of communicating the brand’s identity through scent, thereby creating an ‘invisible logo,’ or the fact that her lab is financed by aromachemical giant International Flavors and Fragrances
  • Her personal library of 6,730 scents that she used to train herself, over seven years, to smell from as neutral a perspective as possible
I know it’s rather lazy to throw some bullets down into a book report, but there’s really no other way to illustrate the bewildering scope of Tolaas’s work, and how far-reaching its potential results are. Truth be told, it’s all rather serious and boundary-pushing relative to the dated pageantry and shallow repetitiveness that too often characterizes the perfume industry, and makes part of me question whether following and writing about commercial perfume (even niche or ‘indie’ perfume) is in fact narrowing a potentially broader and more rewarding curiosity.

But then if Tolaas’s relationship with IFF says anything, it’s that (for better or worse) the fragrance giants are the ones with the resources to fuel engines of creativity and progress, like Tolaas herself. For their investment they receive a constant stream of new ideas about scent. And while it’s not a certainty, it seems pretty likely to me that when those ideas become materially accessible to a majority of people, it will be the fragrance giants that bring them to us. So, as someone who feels my nose is many classes lower than the kind of precision instrument that Tolaas wields, I’m comfortable sticking well within the known and waiting to see what trickles down.

At the very least, I can say that exploring perfume has made me more conscious of all kinds of smells. I'm more conscious of the fact that I smell a room before I’m able to take it in visually, and that I smell people I’m greeting before I hear them talk. When a fire broke out in my building earlier this year, it was the smell of the smoke that woke me rather than the blaring alarm. A dramatic example, yes, but what I’ve come to understand is that, as Tolaas argues, scent is not atmospheric but rather elemental to the structure (or architecture, or design -- pick your term) of any environment. And understanding that, I’m glad Tolaas is working to bring the rest of the world up to speed.The interview is highly worth a read for any scent enthusiast. 

As a bonus, those twelve sweaty men I mentioned are featured in the magazine in ‘invisible portraits’ reproduced from Sissel’s show The Fear of Smell / The Smell of Fear, commissioned in 2006 by MIT. Sissel designed an armpit-borne device that collected the sweat of twenty-one men who suffered from severe phobias, at the very moment they experienced those fears. She analyzed and reproduced the scents of their sweat and then, borrowing a process from IFF, microencapsulated the scents in a special paint that she applied to the walls of MIT’s gallery. The scents were released when observers rubbed the walls. To accompany the interview in Mono.Kultur, twelve of the scents have been microencapsulated onto the pages of the magazine. Guy No. 3 -- dude, call me!

Mono.Kultur #23 is available in the U.S. from Textfield.