The founder of The Institute for Art and Olfaction on the art and politics of scent.
As told to Deem
Photography by S. Leimbach
Saskia Wilson-Brown at The Institute for Art and Olfaction in Chinatown, Los Angeles.
I'm the founder and director of the Institute for Art and Olfaction. We are a non-profit organization based in Chinatown, Los Angeles that’s devoted to experimentation with and access to scent. We run numerous programs and forms of public engagement that help people learn how to work with scent.
There’s a strong association people make between scent and memory. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t have some sort of scent association: we all naturally build associations between different sensory experiences. An extreme manifestation is synesthesia, an actually quite disabling disorder that causes people to associate one sense with another. A lot of people may work in that synesthetic realm of cross-sensory associations, but very few people actually have synesthesia. Those who do have a very hard time and it can be quite difficult for them to navigate the world.
I was never a big perfume person—I never associated scent with perfumery. I might have been interested in perfumes as commercial products but only because, when I was a child in Paris, I would look at ads in fashion magazines. My formative memories with scent, like most people, are from my childhood. I used to spend summers in the south of France. That place had a very specific aroma.
I became truly interested in scent in the context of sociology and history. If you start to consider history through this lens, you’ll find that scent can be an engaging touch point with which to explore almost everything, from trade and the rise of capitalism to social movements. Scent is related to pretty much everything humans do. This is not necessarily conscious, but most activities and traditions have some sort of scent component. For instance, in religious practice, there’s often an element of ritual that pertains to smell—take incense or anointing oils. In our practices of attraction and mating, scent is very important. The perfume industry is based on the idea that you must smell good in order to be attractive. The particular kinds of scents that are considered attractive depend on the culture. But, when you start to look at scent, you can explore how different cultures feel about the body, the natural world, and each other. Some cultures are much more tolerant of organic human smells, while others find them repellent. North America is famously obsessed with “clean smells.” This says something about how we perceive ourselves as human beings.
“Scent is related to pretty much everything humans do.”
The significance of sharing information about scent and its materials, to me, is huge for a very simple and political reason. The perfume industry is the vehicle by which scent is translated to the world. The perfume industry also encourages people to consume without creative capacity. This is quite different from, for example, the fashion industry; you can buy a coat but you can also probably learn how to make a coat. The perfume industry doesn’t have that kind of accessibility, especially when it comes to process.
Building an experimental educational space is really, really tough, particularly when you’re dealing with a medium that has no precedent for this kind of space. When I started the IAO, I had to make it up as I went along. I wasn't trained in perfumery so I didn’t immediately know, for example, how to set up a lab. I’m an artist. My approach was to keep it simple—don’t overburden yourself, don’t try to be fancy, don't set yourself up for failure by buying equipment you can't afford. I am super open about the fact that we’re just messing around. That’s what we do. We’re no more experts than anybody else.
I chose to open the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles first and foremost because I live here. But another reason is that the Western perfume industry has traditionally been based in Europe, and if not in Europe, then on the East Coast. California is a place where all sorts of bizarre things happen. Here, it’s a little easier to do things that are removed from the mainstream because people sort of expect that of Californians. For that reason, our main purpose is to create access and a space where experimentation happens organically. Most of our programming is related to creating open structures for people to come in and fall in love with the materials as creative tools.
“Open source programming around scent is also tricky because it’s a very new concept for the perfume industry.”
In order to help someone translate an idea into a scent, you must first get to the vocabulary of what they’re imagining. For instance, if someone were to say, “I want to recreate the scent of a walk in the forest,” you’d have to talk with them about the specifics of how they imagine a walk in the forest, and then isolate the different aromatic elements they want to convey. This could be something as literal as a fir tree, or something more abstract such as fear, or comfort, or loneliness. Then you can begin the process of figuring out which chemicals correspond to these elements. If the scent references are part of the natural world, you can often use an essential oil, but for concepts and feelings (like fear, comfort, or loneliness), it gets a bit more bizarre. Then you have to delve deeper into the vocabulary of the materials. You have to determine subjectively which chemicals have certain associations for that person. You might come to the conclusion that fear, for that person, is the smell of fresh sweat and rubber balloons. Those are things you can actually incorporate into a scent.
The way that people talk about scent usually defers to a personal association, like a color, a food, or an emotion. “This smells like bread I ate” or “This smells like bright green to me.” Scent lacks its own popular language. It has only the language of chemistry, which is not readily accessible. If I said “this smells like cis-3-Hexen-1-ol” you would have no idea what I meant. But if I said “this smells bright, green, and grassy” you could probably begin to imagine it. Many scent practitioners are trying to create a specific language for smell. Sissel Tolaas, an artist living in Berlin, has been working with this idea for a long time. She created a special language for smells called NASALO. It’s a very effective communication tool, but it also requires the participation of people actually learning it.
When you experience scent as a group, it gets really interesting because everyone is bringing their own perspective. If you present the smell of lavender, maybe someone from the group is from France, and lavender reminds them of their childhood. Maybe someone else grew up in a place where lavender was very rare, so the smell is foreign and strange. Maybe someone else associates it with affluence—with expensive candles and soaps. Scent associations are a way to quickly get to know people. People open up and feed off each other. But, on the flip side, we’re very easily influenced when it comes to smell. For example, if I were to present the group with a scent that didn’t have any obvious natural connection and the first person that spoke up said, “Oh, that smells like gasoline,” often everyone else would agree. We tend to follow and copy each other because there’s so little to grab onto—there’s no real language for scent. But that can be a lot of fun.
“I don’t feel that the mass market ruins creativity—it just shifts the objectives.”
Open source programming around scent is also tricky because it’s a very new concept for the perfume industry. What you might refer to as “sampling culture” in music, for example, doesn’t exist in the world of scent. I know a lot of people who got in trouble this way. I think that sampling is important and necessary because it allows people to build on each other’s creativity. It allows us to learn from each other. I’m hoping that the introduction of open source ways of working will promote creative dialogues. There’s one perfumer in New York called Christophe Laudamiel who is already doing this. He references many older perfumes but also encourages attribution to those perfumes; it’s not about copying, but rather paying homage. That leads to more respect and recognition for the creators that came before you, as well as the capacity to riff off each other’s work.
On our website, we have an incredible spreadsheet of all our materials that Timothy Van Ausdal, our lab manager, maintains beautifully. In the world of perfume, resources are not typically shared because people work hard for this knowledge and access. I get it, but we aren’t selling a product so we don’t have that worry. We share a whole list of suppliers with sources for everything from perfumers’ alcohol to bottles. We have an interactive map and we’re adding stuff all the time.
If you’re making a perfume for the mass market, you’re probably following a marketing vision based on consumer research and focus groups. This doesn’t always align with working experimentally. That said, there is a lot of interesting thinking that comes out of the restriction of needing to make something that will be popular. That’s actually a very difficult creative ask. I don’t feel that the mass market ruins creativity—it just shifts the objectives.
"Scent is an ambient experience...because of this, you can use scent to tweak people's expectations or to supplement or subvert an experience."
A few months ago, a museum asked us to create fifteen scents for an installation inspired by colors and objects. Some were easy, like grass and leather. Others were a lot more challenging, like freshly printed cash. That’s bloody hard to do. It’s not paper, it’s not ink, it’s something else entirely and has a waxy fatty aspect that was really hard to capture, somehow.
Scent is an ambient experience. You don’t typically say, “Oh, I'm smelling something right now”—it’s more passive. Because of this, you can use scent to tweak people’s expectations or to supplement or subvert an experience. Scent is a great medium for artists or activists who have any sort of public-facing, communication-based practice. People are just beginning to discover the creative capacities for scent. There’s even a new realm of contemporary art called “olfactory art.” Olfactory artists focus primarily on scent. This isn’t my favorite term, as I feel like you should just be an artist. Your medium is secondary to your art. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of possibility in this and we are very excited to see what creative innovations will come. It’s been really exciting to help usher in this new movement and be a crucial part of its development.