Art & Chemistry
Escentric Molecules collaborated with Frieze on Making Scents: Art & the Olfactory, a mind-expanding symposium with pioneers in multisensory VR, olfactory art and neuroscience. Catch a whiff of the future.
Deconstruction of a molecule: The day kicked off with a session smelling molecules from Geza Schoen’s lab in Berlin.
Geza explained how he deconstructed the olfactory profile of Javanol, the molecule in Molecule 04, in order to create the fragrance for Escentric 04. “If you smell Javanol carefully you can detect three aspects. A sheer, transparent sandalwood note, a creamy rose, and a touch of grapefruit.”
Using this trio as the template for Escentric 04, Geza decided to warp the rose with a psychedelic metallic edge and max-out the grapefruit topnote. He showed how he created this hyper-real grapefruit with methyl pamplemousse for freshness, a flavour industry ingredient for juiciness, and sinensal, a fraction of orange oil which extends the freshness of grapefruit into the drydown.
“Fractionising is shaping up as the future of fragrance,“ says Geza. Watch this space.
Full body immersion with The Feelies: Aware that the chemical senses - smell and taste – can’t be replicated by VR, Grace Boyle, founder of The Feelies, works with perfumer Nadjib Achaibou to bring these elements to the experience. “Our 'immersive' digital stories so often communicate only with our eyes and ears,” says Grace. “But we are multi-sensory creatures, and if we leave it there, audiences are missing out.”
Grace and Nadjib focused on one particular project, Munduruku, to explain their work. The Munduruku people of the Brazilian Amazon live in an area threatened by a massive dam. Commissioned by Greenpeace, Grace and Nadjib headed to the Amazon to perform a sensory-mapping of the environment that would help viewers plunge into the world of the Munduruku.
Nadjib brought the scents he created to Mortimer House for us to sample, including the powerful aroma of the Munduruku’s manioc harvest. Grace explained how she uses cues such as humidity, haptics and heat and wind to create feelings of foreboding or ease.
“It’s not just about applying wind or heat to match what the visitor is seeing in the video. It’s more about using our body’s instinctive reaction to sensory cues to enhance emotional responses to a story. So when we want the audience to feel foreboding, for example, we let them experience the rough, jagged wind that comes before a storm, and a temperature that builds to a point of discomfort."
Can a smell be listed like a building? This was the question asked by Sissel Tolaas, the smell researcher and artist, who arrived at our Frieze event straight from Detroit where she had been collaborating with UNESCO to collect ‘world heritage smells’.
Sissel took us on a rollercoaster tour of her work, from creating the ‘smell of the anthropocene’, to making cheese from celebrities’ sweat, to designing smell memory kits which use abstract smell-molecules to fix current memorable moments for future recall.
And as we discovered later, Sissel was also in London for another reason. A few days later, artist and activist Tania Bruguera’s takeover of the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, 10,143,493*, opened. A series of interventions around the building, it includes a room that emits a smell which induces visitors to cry. The smell was concocted for Bruguera by Sissel using natural compounds. The point of this ‘forced empathy’ is to highlight the plight of migrants round the world and our often less than sincere expressions of feeling for them.
Using smells for political causes, such as with The Feelies’ Munduruku project, and Sissel’s contribution to Bruguera’s art-activism, is a whole new area.
The day ended with two smell-journeys: First, a journey to the centre of the nose, via fibre-optic footage of the hair-raising interior of our nostrils, with rhinologist, Simon Gane. And a rather more relaxing trip back to the nineteenth century by way of three scents originally created for a nocturnal, candlelit evening at the Sir John Soane Museum by olfactory artist and musician, Paul Schütze.
Ending the day with the homely natural aromas found in Sir John Soane’s floor polish felt surreal in a good way, reminding us that the sense of smell’s most extraordinary super-power is this ability to teleport us to other times and places with a vividness no other sense can match.
*The changing number that is the title of the piece is drawn from data from the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project.