Design Indaba 2012: How Scent Can Educate Us About Prejudice

At Design Indaba 2012 PSFK spoke with scent expert, Sissel Tolaas about how her work subverts cultural preconceptions.

“I’m a professional in-betweener… it means that I’m everywhere and nowhere at the same time because I smell molecules and air is everywhere, so I can always work if I want to,” proclaims Norweigan-born odor artist, designer, and chemist, Sissel Tolaas. Her artistic practice explores olfaction — the sense of smell — by working with the odor molecules detected by our nose and the language we use to describe them.

In 2004, she founded the Re_Search Lab in Berlin, as a laboratory of olfactory and smell-communication, and a workspace where interdisciplinary projects could be developed, researched and executed. Supported by International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), these projects all involve smell, odor and fragrance in various ways, shapes or forms, and may be conceptual, scientific and creative in nature.

Throughout her career, Sissel has traveled the world using scent as her medium, by implementing headspace technology (used by the fragrance industry to capture and synthesize natural odors) to distill scents ranging from the offensive to the everyday. Tolaas began training her nose in 1990, collecting bits of fabric, food, crayon stubs, banana peels — anything that held a specific smell, and archived them in a personal odor archive of over 7,000 airtight jars (plus a professional lab collection of smell 2500 molecules). The material is later broken down into a molecular ingredient list using gas chromatography, so that it can be rebuilt in the lab from off-the-shelf chemicals. Her provocative approach has yielded astounding learnings that do not adhere to the usual definitions of what smells desirable, as she aims is to evoke emotional responses, memories, and recreate the specificity of locations.

In her Design Indaba talk, Tolaas guided us on a whirlwind presentation of her many projects. In Smell Of Fear, Tolaas asked twenty highly phobic men to wear a sweat-collecting device under their armpit while exposing themselves to the situations they most feared. They all mailed the sweaty shirt to Tolaas’ lab, where she chemically analyzed it, recreated it, and then used micro-encapsulation technology to turn a gallery wall into a giant scratch and sniff embodiment of fear.

In her latest project, the scent of David Beckham’s athletic shoes is transformed into a physical object. The molecules collected from inside Beckham’s trainers have a striking resemblance and chemical makeup to a particular Belgian Limburger cheese. Tolaas said: “You could say the smellier the cheese, the better it is. And maybe the smellier the human the better she or he is.” The disparate cultures of art, science and cheese melded in a process that pairs synthetic biology with what seems like magic.

One project of note was the SmellScape of Cape Town, while another captured the smell of World War I, and yet another saw her package the scent of a homeless person in beautiful perfume bottles. We were amazed by her tremendous body of work and were lucky enough to be able to speak with Tolaas immediately following her talk.

When you talked about the emotional connection to smell we discovered that a lot of what you do with smell is rather subversive, especially with the homeless man scent in a fancy bottle, can you speak more about people’s natural reactions to smell and how your work aims to change their perception?

So what I do is take kids to these areas where the homeless live, and they will ask “Why do I have to do this?” And tolerance starts here. How can you train and educate kids on what they will tolerate through smell? Having access to this amazing knowledge I am able to replicate reality endlessly. If I take a sample of a hardcore smell (one that makes you want to withdraw) and place it in beautiful packaging because we are used to that – in my case, the bottle is the medium and the smell is the message. By taking the attention away from the context (where the smells come from) the kids are able to relate to only the smell. I train their awareness and tolerance and go beyond what they suspect. Then I take back to the same context and it becomes education. And they say, “Wow, maybe I need to go there. This is interesting.” These kids never forget these smells. If we start with the nose we can overcome prejudice. It may look perverse, but it’s mainly about respect – respect to the city, smell, and people. I try to redefine the rules of what is clean and what is not.

How can smell assist in education?

As part of a curriculum, using the nose instead of just breathing in and out. It’s our advanced software. Smell memory remains 100% after one year, visual memory exists for up to three months. If I give meaning to an abstract smell molecule, it’s only matter. And you can recall what you learned based on that matter. Before computing this is how scientists were rendering information.

Sissel Tolaas

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