Arts + Design

How smell shapes our perception of the world around us

Oct 14, 2015 /
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For Sissel Tolaas, even the liveliest city may be a “blandscape” if it’s missing the smells of urban life. Meet an artist/chemist who celebrates everything we smell — good and bad.

Sissel Tolaas is a champion of smell, including odors normally considered unpleasant. To her, the perfumes, soaps and pumped-out bakery scents that camouflage the aromas of bodies and streets do humanity a disservice: They cover up olfactory information that is as vital as sights and sounds to our understanding of our surroundings. When we eradicate smells, she believes, we strip cities of their sense of place, and people of a valuable tool for communicating and navigating. Here, the chemist (who’s also dabbed in mathematics, linguistics, languages and art) shares her thoughts on why (and how) she wants to boost respect for the nose.

A very unusual collection — of smells. Using technology supplied by International Flavors & Fragrances, a company that has supported her research since 2004, Tolaas has isolated, synthesized and preserved some 7,000 smells, which she stores in her laboratory and uncorks for scientific experiments and art projects. Among her work of the past 25 years, she has created “smellscapes” reproducing the olfactory experience of Cape Town, Detroit, Mexico City, Shanghai and a score of other metropolises. Collaborating with the photographer Nick Knight, she distilled the smell of frenzied British cage fighters for a 2014 Museum of Modern Art project on design and violence. She recreated the stench of a World War I battlefield for the German Military Museum in Dresden and the smell of Sweden for H&M.

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Sissel Tolaas in her lab. Photo: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

There is nothing either good or bad, but smelling makes it so. The evolutionary purpose of smell, Tolaas says, is to help us find sex partners and food. In both pursuits, humans are widely accepting “generalists”; the only other species as indiscriminate are cockroaches and rats. Given our accommodating natures, we are not hardwired to dislike the smell of perspiration or excrement, she believes. But the cultural practice of censoring so-called bad smells trains people in disgust. Tolaas concedes that some smells are to be avoided because they are harsh or toxic, but insists that the reason we wrinkle our noses at billions of others comes down to simple prejudice. In demonstrating that disgust is relative, she frequently tests the strength of her audiences’ stomachs. In 2013, she and microbiologist Christina Agapakis culled bacteria from the writer Michael Pollan’s navel and used it to make cheese.

Smell promotes a life beyond the “blandscape.” An overlooked feature of smell, Tolaas believes, is its capacity to promote joy. “We are born neutral,” she says, and as children we use our noses to encounter each day afresh with an attitude that is naturally open and curious. When we reclaim our true sense of smell, our senses work together in greater harmony. Subliminal impressions are brought to the surface, emotions become more vibrant, and we develop a greater tolerance for things that once disturbed us. “We become more appreciative of life and living,” she insists. Each day Tolaas exercises her nose as compulsively as athletes work their muscles, inhaling different smells to savor their distinctiveness. Her nose has become so sensitive, she says, that she need only breathe when she enters a meeting to assess the mood of the participants and judge how she should behave.

How to retrain your nose. Tolaas vanquishes olfactory prejudices by capturing a smell, cataloguing its molecules and replicating it with her store of 4,000 chemical components. Then she transfers the smell to a new environment, often without identifying what it is. She has observed that subjects who sniff a “bad” smell repeatedly find it gradually changes into an “interesting” one. Afterward, they may show more affection for the source, be it a polluted city or pungent subway car. In The FEAR of smell–the smell of FEAR, an experiment she first conducted at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2006, and later took to other settings, she painted walls with a solution reproduced from the perspiration of 21 phobic men, making use of micro-encapsulation technology developed for the project, which released the odors when the walls were touched. One woman, she noted, returned every day for months to kiss the surface emitting the smell of Guy #9.

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Yum? Maybe. Sissel Tolass photographed by  Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

Smell is a memory tool, which means it is a learning tool. In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman writes, “Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once.” Tolaas recently launched the Smell Memory Kit, capsules of synthesized “abstract” scents designed to plant deep memories of a particular occasion. The idea is to crack open an ampoule of the unfamiliar smell at a significant time; later, one only has to release the contents of a new capsule to relive the moment. Tolaaas is also researching the educational benefits of the powerful connection between smell and memory by using scents as triggers for recalling information like mathematical formulas.

The work of compiling a smelly lexicon. For a communications tool, smell is devilishly hard to talk about. Whereas colors are labeled with words like “red” and “green” that relate only to the hue described, the words that denote smells invariably refer to other things: skunks, spices, flowers and so forth. To help her distinguish, remember and convey information about discrete smells, Tolaas has compiled a dictionary of invented words she calls “Nasalo”. Among them, “MEETAN” refers to the smell of an old graveyard, “OSSEE” a rose bush, “OVEPOU” cheap, heavily perfumed washing powder, and “LETTE” a wet football. She uses these terms in all of her articles, lectures, commercials, research studies and exhibitions.