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A Smell Researcher Staging a Smell Exhibition in Singapore

By Renée Batchelor

Sharon McCutcheon/ Unsplash

Scents provoke so much more emotion than we give them credit for. One of the first luxury perfumes I purchased was from the brand L’Artisan Parfumeur and it was evocatively named “La Chasse Aux Papillons” — or chasing butterflies. A lovely, soft floral scent that was almost intoxicating, I could not quite put my finger on why I adored the scent so much until someone pointed out that it smelled just like the scented erasers we used when we were children. My brain has linked a precious childhood memory to this perfume and associated it with a time in life that was idyllic and carefree.

It's often been said that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory. There’s a reason why the whiff of an ex-beau’s cologne can trigger feelings of regret or that some fragrances
 or smells fill us with an unexplainable repulsion, such as the durian, a particularly divisive fruit. Unlike other senses that can be rationalised, our reactions to scents are instinctual.

Sissel Tolaas is a Norwegian smell researcher and artist
 who has worked in this interesting realm between science and art, creating smells on a larger scale. Through her scentscapes she not only provokes reactions, and stirs up half-forgotten memories, but invites us to reclaim our power of smell. This year, she has created a scentscape for the Light to Night Festival called “eau d’you Who Am I” that explores the identity of youth in Singapore. In an email exchange with Tolaas, T Singapore learns just how vital the olfactory sense is, and why it often takes second place in a visually led world:

RENÉE BATCHELOR: What is it like to be a researcher and artist at the same time, and how did you become one?

SISSEL TOLAAS: I call myself
 a professional in-betweener. Because there is a whole world of smell and a whole world to educate how to smell, I can’t limit myself to one discipline or topic. My method is scientific, my solutions and products
 are creative.

I have a background in chemistry, art and languages and my main focus is on smell. I replicate smells from reality and develop smells and smellscapes for various clients and purposes. Most of my projects and experiments are displayed in different creative contexts.

I have always been concerned with invisibility. Very early on in my life, I wondered, “What’s going on in the air?” I was too young to understand. Coming from Scandinavia, I grew up with lot of air, in 
nature and next to the ocean. My senses were always very alert and I used them properly, from very early on, to understand, navigate, communicate, tolerate, and appreciate life. Later, I made this my profession.

National Gallery SingaporeNorwegian smell researcher and artist, Sissel Tolaas photographed in a laboratory.
Norwegian smell researcher and artist, Sissel Tolaas photographed in a laboratory.

RB: How do you create smells that capture abstract concepts like the smell of empathy? Is it different or similar to a perfumer creating and bottling a scent?

ST: The project is not about creating the scent of empathy; that is impossible. It is about creating a situation that invites the audience members to get out of their comfort zones and challenge their perceptions of each other and the world they are part of 
on a micro level, through smell.

Our society and culture have traditionally been dominated by the visual. However, vision distances us clearly from the objects. We frame “views” in pictures and camera lenses; the likelihood of an intellectual response is considerable. By contrast, smells surround us, penetrate the body and permeate the immediate environment so that our responses are much more likely to involve strong effects and be remembered longer. Smells are used constantly, consciously or subconsciously, 
to communicate among plants, animals, 
and human beings. The nose is the most efficient human interface to inform us of our surrounding reality. Smell molecules provide the purest and most efficient information.

Smells are a very crucial component in understanding life and providing important information far beyond what one can see or hear. The sense of smell is more closely linked with memory than any other sense and is the most efficient way to trigger a person’s emotions. Challenging one’s emotional intelligence is the key to the feeling of empathy.

The biggest illness of our time is disembodiment. We need to re-learn how 
to understand our responses to sensory inputs in a constructive and scientifically validated manner. Like our brain or body, 
our senses to be constantly used in order
 not to wither. And this can only happen if 
our surroundings provide these challenges.

RB: How do we bring more tolerance, optimism and positive attitudes back to the world?

ST: The senses are the key answer here,
and more than that, these tools cost no money. The more we know about the body and the senses, the better we can use them to find new solutions and technological functions that makes sense. As long as we are still designing and creating for humans, we should understand humans.

RB: What is your approach to creating smells? Please run us through the process that you go through from conception to creation to execution.

ST: My approach is completely different than that of a perfumer. Smells are everywhere all the time; 
I do not need to create new ones because I am recording and amplifying existing ones. Smells are very concrete and complex, always originating from real sources and consisting of thousands of individual molecules.

My Smell Research Lab is supported by IFF Inc., giving me access to the core science and research in the field.
 I always use devices that enable me to record and sample smell molecules emitted from smell sources. Through chemical analysis, lab chemists break down the samples into individual identifiable molecules. Using this data, I can chemically reproduce the same smell endlessly for various purposes.

Each smell sampling will then have a smell molecule data base, which becomes part of extended archives with different core topics such as: City Smellscape; Body Smellscape and Ocean Smellscape. Under each of these main categories there are topics of concern such as: Empathy, segregation, tolerance, pollution, fear, biodiversity, navigation and education.

The replicated smells are displayed in various ways depending on the topics and contexts. In the case of the National Gallery Singapore, where the topic is humans
 and identity, the walls become the skin of a person and
 the person’s context. The smells are nano-embedded on the surfaces of the walls and can only be activated through touch. The durability of this technology is endless. The only way to get rid of the smells is to paint over them, but still the smells will hide behind the paint forever, like invisible graffiti.

National Gallery SingaporeExhibition-goers at the "Sensorial Trail" by Sissel Tolaas. The exhibition runs from 18 January through 31 March 2019 at the National Gallery Singapore.
Exhibition-goers at the "Sensorial Trail" by Sissel Tolaas. The exhibition runs from 18 January through 31 March 2019 at the National Gallery Singapore.

RB: What was your brief for the Light to Night Festival and how did you go about creating the smell of youth in Singapore?

ST: I was invited to do a project and I made my own brief. My topic is Youth & Identity, asking questions such as:
 In a world of selfies, what does it mean to have an identity? Is smell part of one’s identity? Does youth culture have identity? Does youth culture have a smell ID?

This is a research project I am currently working on around the world. Cultures differ in the meaning and importance they attach to the different senses. This is especially apparent in the case of smell. The extensive use of deodorants and the suppression of smell in public places results in a land of olfactory blandness and sameness, which make for undifferentiated people and spaces and deprives us of the potential richness, variety and memories.

Memory is essential to being human. There is an urgent need to be human and to redefine the notion of what that means.

With this project I want to make young people understand that not everything is about seeing and
 being seen. I want them to understand what is going on with and in their invisible surroundings and the impact this has on who they are and who they want to be. Together we investigated this topic very specifically through on-the-spot fieldwork and conversations. The result
 is a substantial amount of smell data.

Having said that, in the beginning was actually not the word, but the smell. Chemical detection was the communication tool used by the first bacteria appearing on earth, for food and reproduction. Most people don’t know the power of smells and the process of smelling... but smells do matter. We are what we breathe ergo what we smell become one. Every human has a smell ID as unique as a fingerprint. This project is homage to that fact.

National Gallery SingaporeSissel Tolaas at work in a laboratory.
Sissel Tolaas at work in a laboratory.

RB: What was the preparation and research involved considering that you are not from Singapore?

ST: Together with young people I conducted several days of workshops, conversations and on-site fieldwork. One very important detail is that I know Singapore very well due to previous projects where I did a lot of research here. Singaporeans told me I walked around more than they did.

Together we decided what and where to collect which smell sources representing what. For this specific event, due to time and money, we had to make a small selection, but the project is to be continued. Back in my Berlin lab, the recorded smells were analysed, replicated,
 and produced for the nanotechnology chosen to display them on the walls in
the Museum.

RB: What has been the most challenging project that you’ve done and why?

ST: When life and being alive is your metier, every day can be a challenge. One very important project is on education and I am going through some challenges here on how to adapt it all over the world, into the existing systems.

This project is called SensUcation: education and training Emotional Intelligence (EI). EI is the capability of individuals to recognise their own emotions and those of others, to discern among different feelings and label them appropriately, to use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour, and to manage and/ or adjust emotions to adapt to the environment or achieve one’s goal(s).

While we have never cared more about body and mental fitness, educating and training the most elaborate body functions are undeveloped.

Humans are only aware of 10 per cent of the stimuli perceived by the senses. SensUcation‘s aim is to train the human senses properly and professionally in order to increase everyone’s emotional intelligence. It will help to improve sensory connection to the surrounding world and become more tolerant towards it.

I am writing the curriculum, educating educators and designing tools and environments. We are implementing the first units in the Emirates in 2019. The goals are very ambitious: To evolve as a species; enhance one’s potential; gain confidence; regain awareness; increase brain power and add happiness, joy and play to life.

RB: What do you enjoy most about working with smells and what have been some memorable audience reactions to your work?

ST: I love all aspects of my profession. 
Being able to challenge people to use their noses to understand the world is amazing. Through my work I offer new methods to approach everyone’s realities; different 
from those learned from watching screens.
 I think I am able to bring more optimism and positive attitudes towards serious issues
 we are all facing.

There is a playful aspect about discovering the world through smells and the potential
 to interact differently towards each other 
and our surroundings. A more comfortable relationship with smells brings about a more optimistic attitude. It changes the mood.

My experience is that people all over the planet really get challenged and engaged when they are seriously asked to use their noses for other purposes then breathing in and out! And it doesn’t matter
 what they smell. What counts is
 that they rediscover their own 
surroundings in that very
 moment — be it other human 
beings, places, the city — and start to approach it differently. If people get the message through the nose, they really get the message. I have exhibited in places where I was told beforehand that people would not respond; when I left two days later the walls were covered with their comments. Through their noses they bring back the picture of an experience as sharp as a photograph, long after it has left the conscious mind. Smell is the purest memory. There is a whole world to smell and a whole world to teach [us] how to smell.

The exhibition will run at the National Gallery Singapore during the Light to Night Festival 2019: Traces and Echoes, from 28 January to 24 February.