What do the smells of David Beckham’s football shoes, a rose, and a wet dog have in common? All have been captured by Sissel Tolaas. Since the 90s, the smell scientist, artist, and commercial intermediary has dedicated herself to this vital, yet under-appreciated, sense. Her works invite us to exhale our emotional prejudices of “good” and “bad” scents — and instead, inhale with curiosity. Among her burgeoning list of projects, she has captured the whiff of violence for museum-goers at MoMa, and creates “smellscapes” that evoke the unique scent-identity of a city. For SEEK, the Norwegian-Icelander opened her pungent Berlin archive of over 7000 smells.
Text by Ruby Goss / Photography by Andreas Bohlender
How does a smell start off?
As a molecule. Smell molecules need air to move. Every volume of air contains smell molecules, and we breathe and move a lot of air as humans: every day we breathe up to 24,000 times a day, and we move 12.7 cubic metres of air with our breathing. Even when we sleep we smell. If you were asleep and your house was burning, you wouldn't wake up because you were hot, you would wake up because of the smell. It’s constantly processed and it happens subconsciously: the nose knows about something long before you see it. So in my case, I try to make smell a conscious choice, I try to understand that now I am smelling. I want to smell rather than look.
How do you capture smell?
I have devices (pulls out a mobile-phone-sized gadget with a tube attached) that are made to collect molecules, it’s like a mini vacuum cleaner that measures the air pressure. Inside, in the Tennax, we call it, there’s a substance that gathers the
molecules that give off smell. I kind ofcatch a glimpse of a smell with the device. Because a smell changes so quickly, it’s only a version of a certain smell that existed at a certain time. Having access to certain knowledge through working with the industry, I am able to catch the smell, reconstruct it, rebuild it, take it out of its context, and train awareness of it. In effect: you have no clue what the smell is, removed from vision, removed from any kind of stimulus, any kind of other disturbance.
Why do we have such visceral responses to smell, is it because we lack the vocabulary in our languages?
Smell is very personal, that’s one aspect of it. It’s also because you have no clue how to deal with it. There’s nowhere where we can learn how to smell, just as there’s nowhere where we can learn how to listen. If you go to, lets say, the Philharmonic and listen to a piece by Verdi, you don’t understand what’s going on in the deepest way of understanding. So you end up saying, “It was a great concert,” or, “I didn’t like it.” There’s not really anyone who isn’t a professional who can articulate much more about music, and the same goes for smell. The words fail us and the fact that we really lack the vocabulary for it makes one very insecure, it makes people very much withdraw from asituation. Look at colours for example, though, naming colours is also abstract. Red, blue, white… what do they mean? Why couldn’t there be a language for smell? It’s similar.
Are you a believer in the Proustian phenomenon that, of the senses, smell is the most reliable in recalling a memory?
Yes! Smell is the quickest sense to process in the brain, with two synapses it triggers emotion and memory almost immediately. The first time that you smell something in life is, so to say, the source of that smell until you die. Depending on that moment when that smell was present, it will be either positively-
loaded or negatively-loaded, and your relation to that smell will remain that way. Again, there is nowhere in society where you can re-learn your take on a smell… so far! Through living, through experience, through smelling, you have a backpack full of prejudices. You use these prejudices when necessary, so that’s why later in life, when you come across the same smell, your reference is always the first one.
How much do the other senses interfere with how we interpret a smell?
We need to have a reference, otherwise we are totally confused: so we see an apple, we smell an apple. We see and then we place the smell. That’s somehow the way we use smell, it is always “in addition to,” like an illustration of what we already know. So what is strong in my work is the decontextualisation of smell, that I really challenge one to focus only on the smell sensation.
You have said before that we cover up odours in the Western world. Is our sense of smell in our interactions with others getting lost?
Again, I think there is a connection here with all of our prejudices: if you don’t like a smell, then you go away from it. What would happen if you were able to tolerate the smell? We haven’t learned to go beyond what we “dislike.” Through working with the nose, life gains qualities, life gains
dimensions I never ever thought existed. Nowadays I can understand a situation on behalf of its smell,
tremendously. It triggers me so substantially, so
emotionally, so fundamentally, that there’s no way back. The other senses, too, have started to
operate differently. You suddenly understand how they work, which brings a sense of playfulness and joy back to life. And this, I think, is so important because when you learn in the context of play, you learn
forever. We all know this from childhood, so this is amazing.
Much of your current work is in education. Beyond triggering this “joy,” what else do you try to teach?
We live in a world with a lot of issues. A lot of things are disturbing. And at the end of the day it’s about people. To try to get humanity to understand that you have to start with yourself — how can you recharge or educate yourself to do things differently? And I think here, senses are really important. I mean, where am I heading with what I do?
Awareness, yes, but I also try to use the existing industry for other purposes. There’s a whole [fragrance] industry out there, five big companies that do amazing work, but does the world need another perfume bottle? Do we need more detergent?
So what do we need?
I think we need to understand what’s going on before we decide to use more. We live in a world full of products, full of things. So, if you understand how the body, how the senses are working, maybe we can also reduce our intake of these. If I understand how I smell, maybe at the end of the day I don’t need to buy anything at all to add on top of it. To enable people to get access to this kind of information is what I do with my projects. Could you potentially put a smell on that tells people, “Leave me alone”? Could you put a smell on that defends yourself against violence? We use smell to get attention, to seduce, could we do the opposite? So this is what I do, what I try — and it works. Why couldn't we have a set of smells for functional reasons?
Are these kinds of explorations the reason you work not only as a scientist, but as an artist as well?
The reason I decided to work in the creative world is that smell is so much about living. Sitting in a lab, doing experiments on rats and mice, and pretending I know what life’s about and how smells work was not what I wanted. I have the freedom to be Sissel Tolaas. In science you have to be objective. We pose the same questions and we try to find answers — that’s the same for science, for art and design, and whatever. But in the creative world you can say, “Sissel Tolaas thinks this is the answer.” I need reactions to my actions and I use the creative world for this. Working between science and the corporate world and the creative context, it’s heaven to get access to these kinds of companies [Sissel works with International Flavors & Fragrances in New York].
You work on a prolific amount of projects. What is a commonality between them?
The projects are always accessible for whoever wants to study them further. For example, in Jordan I just did a research project initiated and supported by Queen Rania about smell and tolerance. We donated the research project to the Children’s Mobile Museum that travels around Jordan and to Iraq and so on. In the region there are a lot of issues; Jordan has some of the biggest Syrian refugee camps. There’s so much depression and negative energy in the region, so we had the children play with smells from each other and even catch the smells of each other. We made small tools so they could run around and catch and find, played smell memory games, and things like that, in different languages.
What would you hope to happen with smell in this context?
It’s about getting familiar in a playful way. If you think something is disturbing, you shy away. But if you take it out of its context and play with it, you findjoy in it. And suddenly things start to happen. The way you come across it in reality, in a complicated moment — you might react to it completely differently. I did a huge exhibition in the US in Kansas City about segregation. I got people to visit areas in their own city that they had never visited before. The situation was full of prejudices, full of preconceptions, and nobody dared to break with it. Again, the question is, how do you get people to respond to serious issues in a playful way? It takes away the fear. Simplifyingissues but still having an impact is what these
projects are about. •