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Ambassador of Smell

Our sense of smell needs a renaissance after centuries of visual culture, self-effacing hygiene and stigmatized odours. Sissel Tolaas is opening minds and noses with her high-tech olfactory installations that connect the worlds of art, chemistry and design

If your dog were to lose its eyesight, you probably wouldn’t notice for a while. So powerful is its sense of smell, that a dog can follow its nose to move swiftly through familiar spaces with little need for vision. We humans, on the other hand, would be hard-pressed to close our eyes and sniff our way from one end of the room to the other. Our nose is no longer the lifeline that it may have been at an earlier stage in our evolution when we relied on it to find food and a suitable partner. Today smell is the most marginalized of our senses. At best, it is a luxury. We treat ourselves to the fragrance of a glass of wine or a splash of costly perfume. At worst, it is a nuisance, as when I climb into the rather bleak smellscape of a westbound city bus on the rainiest day of the Berlin spring on my way to meet Sissel Tolaas and talk about the nose.

“These softwares are there for a purpose: to understand the world, to navigate in the world, to communicate in the world.”

Rain brings people together – in public transport. Squeezing onto the bus, my nose alerts me right away to the musty dampness of warm-bodied strangers, a generic medley of perfumed hair-styling products dripping from slick, wet scalps, the inevitable onion smell of someone’s armpits – maybe mine? Hopefully not! As I contort my way towards the back of the bus, I pick up a familiar ashy whiff of someone’s snubbed cigarette (the bus always comes just as you’re lighting one up). At least one screeching occupant of the two rain-drenched baby carriages is shamelessly overdue for a diaper change. I grab the overhead handrail among this dim bouquet of urban odours, asking myself, who really needs smell anyway?

Who better to answer this question than Sissel Tolaas? A native of Stavanger’s rocky shores, she has spent her adult life on a mission to help museumgoers around the world to rethink our underdog sense of smell. Her portfolio – part installation art, part science exhibit and part futurist fantasy – places interaction and sensory exploration at the forefront. “Smellers” of her work are often faced with blank walls that emit various disembodied odours at the activation of a sensor. Her innovative, transdisciplinary use of technology and her spirited devotion to the cause of smell have led her to the pinnacle of the international museum and lecture circuits.

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I arrive at Sissel’s sprawling apartment-slash-laboratory, nestled in a quiet street not far from the monumental embassies and stately, gated ministries of downtown Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district. Sissel greets me enthusiastically at the door. She is a tall, energetic woman clad in sleek black satin, a comfy woollen scarf bunched at her throat. The air in her workspace is pleasantly seasoned by the heady aroma of myrrh. Sissel’s face, framed by a tousle of platinum blond hair, is gently lined from a lifetime of smiling. She smiles continuously as we talk and she is quick to laugh – sometimes at her own expense. Her easy-going chuckle is as infectious as the spring sunshine, which has now returned, casting a warm glow through the picture windows of the large third-floor office. The sense of smell couldn’t have asked for a more charming ambassador and Sissel wastes no time in making her case: smell is here, it’s real and we must learn to understand it before we dismiss or deny it.

So, let’s talk about smell.
We are born with an amazing hardware, called the body, and on that body there are at least five main softwares: the senses. These softwares are there for a purpose: to understand the world, to navigate in the world, to communicate in the world. And it’s as if we don’t care. We now ultimately navigate and communicate by the look of things. It must be obvious that there’s an imbalance. If you don’t train all of your senses, then you don’t keep them fit.This is where I come in and say “Here: this is you. That’s not so bad; actually it’s very interesting.”

Deodorants promise us “protection” against odor; we go to great lengths to cover up certain smells. Is smell scary?
I don’t think we have a chance to be for or against smell. From a very early age, you’re taught to cover up something and you don’t even know why. We live in a world that is sanitized, sterilized, deodorized to such an extent that it’s not healthy any more either for the body or for the surroundings. Finally, they’re speaking recently in the science world about the necessity of having some dirt out there, the necessity of having some bacteria on your body or in your guts. Actually it makes you healthier. But we have developed such a negative relationship to body odour, as if it’s the worst thing that could happen. [She tosses her hands up in mock outrage, her face comically mimicking despair] “Bacteria, oh my god! Dirty and dangerous.” But this is changing, because science is becoming more transparent. People finally start to rethink things like “Do I actually need seven showers a day? All those showers, all that water, all that soap –what does it do to myself, to my surroundings, to the world?” I think this is a very necessary and healthy discussion for each person to have with herself and the world.

Do you think our sense of smell is less cultivated… more “primitive” than our other senses?
I don’t think the question is whether smell is more or less cultivated; the question is rather why we exclude the nose from the process of life. From the perspective of biology, the nose – smelling – is the quickest sense. This might be one reason it’s often thought of as primitive; another is because it’s the most honest and efficient sense. In two synapses a smell triggers emotion and memory in the hippocampus, in the back of the brain. With vision you go to the rendering part of the brain in search of similar imaging and then maybe you end up in the hippocampus after a while. But smell is so quick. It bypasses all the other parts of the brain. It bypasses language too.

Why is it that we tend to neglect smell in favour of our other senses in everyday life?
We’re born with complete, intact senses and early in life they are challenged. But as soon as you start primary school, the focus shifts to “Look, look, look” and “Speak and listen.” The nose and chemistry of smell are not part of curriculum in any schools. This has to change.
I try to do a lot of workshops with children. If you don’t start early to train the nose, it becomes more difficult to relate to smells in a neutral way because of prejudices. Starting early enables you to get beyond “bad-versus-good” thinking and instead to focus on the idea that all smells can be interesting. Then there’s a chance for language to get beyond metaphorical speaking – “It smells like this; it smells like that” – and to develop a proper language for speaking about smell, in the same way as we speak about colours, for instance.

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Do You think that smell would lose some of its immediacy or its reality if we were to codify it into words?
There are hundreds and hundreds of millions of smells out there. With every breath you take, you inhale smell molecules. We’re never going to identify all of them, so don’t be afraid that the mystification will go away. But there are a lot of issues that go beyond that. To be able to articulate a smell or a smell moment is a human right. To define a smell as bad or good is not enough and does not solve problems.
There are moments in life when one wishes to understand a smell beyond whether it is bad or good and to express that in the language one speaks. [I crinkle my nose at the memory of my bus ride an hour before – the dirty diaper, the mops of wet hair, the half-smoked cigarette. Sissel seems to notice my scepticism and adds:] It does require intensive training over a long period of time, but it makes sense and it will add quality to life and being alive.

The Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, written by the Italian futurists in the 1930s envisions sitting around a table for dinner and sniffing balloons filled with perfume instead of eating. How does that sound to you?
That’s great! I did a similar project in Rotterdam several years ago at v2. We created a pop-up restaurant called taste_waste where I served plain rice without flavour. The main dishes were different smells. The meal was on a vertical table and the visitors had to stand in front of holes and eat the rice while smelling the main dishes [she takes a deep sniff]. People were very full afterwards!

Your museum installations are very unique and defy simple classification. Is there a term you like to use for your art? Do you call it “smell art”?
I call myself a professional in-betweener. There’s a whole world to smell and there’s a whole world to educate how to do it, so I cannot limit myself to one discipline.
I have a background in chemistry, art and languages. My main focus is on smell and communication and language. I replicate smells from reality and develop smells and smellscapes as a means of communication, navigation, and education. I place a lot of my projects and experiments in different creative contexts. In the creative world you are allowed to be subjective and this freedom is very important for the questions I am asking. The action is immediate and you get an immediate reaction from a lot of diverse people. In the science world you can ask the same questions but you have to remain objective and express yourself with dry academic papers. Hopefully someone then publishes them so that you get a response months or years later from a few academics.
I think it is also important to remember that art is about observation and design is about innovation. And I think I am somehow in the middle [she laughs]. In some cases I try to apply my findings to the reality I live in. The topic of concern in all of my work is life and living.

A lot of creative people talk about having a drive or a need to do what they do. Is that something you identify with?
I do not think this is a mood or a privilege only found in the creative world. Don’t you think everybody has that need? I think passion is a key word here. If you have a passion for something it drives you. The need to continue is obvious. The status quo is deadly. Unfortunately in the Western world fewer and fewer people are passionate and enthusiastic about what they do. How can one bring these qualities back? The simplest way is to activate all your senses in your profession. For me, that’s going into my lab, trying to find a solution. How can we scare the terrorist away with a smell molecule? How can I help the kids who come from Syria to get over their trauma? How can I contribute? In general, I think it’s important to not be judgmental. I believe a cleaning lady can be as passionate about her work as I am.

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So many young creative people struggle to find acceptance. As a creative person and a pioneer in your field, what’s your experience been with that? How does your family react to your work, for example?
They think I’m “insane”! [Sissel makes a wild face and we both laugh.] Of course at the end of the day, we all like to gain recognition. I love my job and I think this comes across in my work and in who I am as a person. This is something I do very seriously. [She points all around to the airtight containers and laboratory equipment throughout the room.] I do this professionally. I’m not just sitting around cooking roses and garbage and then going to someone and saying “Hello, can you exhibit my smell”? [She slumps her shoulders and slips into the role of a peddler, cupping imaginary roses and garbage in her outstretched hands.] This is really chemistry.

Tell me about your working process.
First, I have several devices. I have a device that can collect your smell at this very moment. [My eyebrows raise at the thought of what secrets – or bad habits – my smell molecules might divulge.] Don’t worry, I’m not using it right now because I’m…

Polite?
…Not a spy! But I could have done it.

I might be embarrassed by that. It’s so confronting. It would be a really confronting idea to see who would be willing to submit to the smell test. It’s like revealing all your secrets.
Smells are very honest. I like that a lot! I work closely with a company in the US that employs experts in smell and taste. The lab chemists can analyse and break down the molecules from my findings and use the data to produce synthetic molecules to match the ones I found. Then I decide on the medium: how to display it, for what purpose.

In all scenarios, it’s all about interaction. I never just use a smell to perfume a space. It’s all up to you, whether you want to smell it or not. You touch the wall, touch the surface, breathe on the surface, push a button, et cetera. There is as little visual as possible, so it decontextualises a smell from reality and places it in a gallery or a museum or university and you have no clue what it is. And it’s up to you to find out. You challenge your nose and get wrapped into the smell. It could cause you to think “it’s disgusting”; it could cause you to think that you can’t get enough of it. And it happens quick. [She snaps her fingers.].

Remember: nothing stinks – it’s just our mind that makes it seem that way.


“Nothing stinks.” Sissel’s words echo in my mind as I descend the wet steps to the subway platform around the corner from her apartment. Against the familiar metallic scent of the underground train tracks, I can still smell the resinous fragrance of her office on my clothes as I press between commuters and tourists to find a seat on the crowded train. I plop down amongst a trio of long-haired back-packers joking around in excited French as they pass a sour-smelling litre bottle of red wine back and forth. I pick up the leathery scent of tobacco as the one closest to me nimbly rolls a cigarette. Across the aisle, another tourist is eating on the train (something real Berliners never do): halloumi and pommes frites. I am unsure whether I will ever be able to take genuine pleasure in a palette of cheap wine and unwashed hair with a finish of rancid junk food. Yet Sissel’s open-mindedness and natural curiosity towards all things smelly have inspired me to give these smells a try. I don’t have to like them, but I can accept them for what they really are: markers that help us to navigate our world and interact with our surroundings on the most basic level of communication.