With the one-click simplicity of Flickr and Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, recording our memories has never been easier. But with such ease has come overload. More than seven billion photos are added to Facebook every month, while 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. We are drowning in a sea of hastily snapped images, our entire existence flattened into a scrolling feed of frozen frames.
“We take pictures of everything and load it all online, to the point where it is all infinitely replicable and disposable,” says designer Amy Radcliffe, whose MA project at Central Saint Martins set out to bring a more meaningful sensory dimension to storing our favourite memories.
What if you could recapture the aroma of that freshly baked birthday cake, or the scent of the wild flowers in that Alpine meadow on your last holiday? Or maybe you would choose to recall the musky pong of your first pet, or the comforting whiff of that shampoo your girlfriend used to use?
The Madeleine – named after Marcel Proust’s story of involuntary memory prompted by biting into a cake – is Radcliffe’s design for a new kind of camera that records not images, but smells. “Sense of smell has a direct link to emotional memory,” she says. “It is the sense we react to most instinctively, and the furthest away from being stored or replicated digitally.”
Her project, developed in the college’s Textile Futures department, draws on “headspace capture” techniques pioneered in the 1970s by Swiss fragrance chemist Roman Kaiser, for obtaining the composition of rare botanical scents for the perfume industry. Radcliffe’s “scentography” camera has a retro-futuristic form, referencing both this 70s heritage and our growing nostalgia in photography – embodied by clunky Lomo cameras and wistful Instagram filters. With its faceted ceramic casing, glass funnel and plastic tubes, it also looks like a mysterious piece of scientific apparatus. So how does it work?
You place the funnel over the object or environment you wish to capture, then a pump sucks the air across an odour trap made of Tenax – a porous polymer resin which adsorbs the volatile particles that make up the smell. It can take anything from a few minutes to capture the scent of fresh strawberries, to around 24 hours to store the more subtle aroma of an atmosphere. Slowing us down and tuning our senses is part of Radcliffe’s aim.
She has built a working prototype and sent off several samples to be processed at a fragrance lab in a gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) machine. “It’s like a huge electric nose,” she says. “It processes the particles and produces a graph-like formula that makes up the smell. From this formula you can artificially recreate the precise odour.”
In her speculative scenario, users take their exposed odour traps to the local lab in the same way you would take a 35mm film to be processed – the product being not photos, but delicate vials of the scent, along with a bronze disk of the specific formula, bringing a precious, ritualistic quality to the process.
“It could be anything from the smell of your old house to sniff when you’re feeling homesick, to the scent of a missed relative or partner,” says Radcliffe. “I really like the idea of portraits, as every single person has their own unique smell.”
The design has been short-listed for the CSM Nova award and Radcliffe is currently seeking work with fragrance labs to take the idea further. Her futuristic vision of scentography may be closer than you think – just be careful where you point the nozzle.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010