From human cheese to the smell of anxiety – inside the nose of olfactory icon Sissel Tolaas
Working from her studio in Berlin alongside a vast archive of smells (supported since 2004 by multibillion-dollar firm International Flavors & Fragrances Inc), Sissel Tolaas recontextualises the odours of reality by reconstructing them on the molecular level. 2013 has seen the Norwegian map the smellscapes of Calcutta (in process) and Istanbul, with a commission from Jameson Irish Whiskey still to come. There is no adequate designation to encompass the breadth of disciplines this “professional in-betweener” works across. A background in maths, chemistry and linguistics bred a visionary exploration of the olfactory domain that has seen her collaborate with Harvard, hold exhibitions at MoMA and carry out research for Nasa alongside multiple high-profile corporate commissions (Adidas, Comme des Garçons and Louis Vuitton to name but a few). This autumn, at the Science Gallery in Dublin, she will be workshopping one of her most striking recent projects – a collaboration with synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis that sees attendees invited to enjoy the distinct smell of human cultivated cheese.
Dazed Digital: Your human cheese project elicits confusion and disgust. Do you recognise its smells as disgusting?
Sissel Tolaas: The whole point of going through seven years of training was to see if I could one day be able to smell a situation without prejudice. For example, sour milk was the first smell I attempted to train away because I had big problems with its odour. I have over 7,000 smells from reality in my archive and I went back to the same smells time and again because the first time you smell a smell is the essential moment. If it was emotionally negative or positive your relation to that smell will remain positive or negative forever unless you actively change that association. And today when I smell, I think of chemistry. I think, ‘How can I reproduce that smell?’ Smell has become a way of thinking.
Dazed Digital: Do you have to insure your nose against ‘burnout’?
Sissel Tolaas: Not really – it’s like turning a button on and off. With every breath you inhale scent molecules, and you inhale 24,000 times a day! If I analysed that firehose of smell data I would go crazy. But I do practice. I do a smell-training hour in the morning – a little like yoga and meditation for my nose.
If it was emotionally negative or positive your relation to that smell will remain positive or negative forever unless you actively change that association
Dazed Digital: Might we communicate more information through our ‘smell fingerprint’ than we communicate to others through body language?
Sissel Tolaas: Absolutely! But we are born with a deodorant in our hand: we have no chance to find out how to smell. America is famously deodorised, sanitised, and scent-camouflaged, all ‘for your protection’. But by doing that they remove so much important information. Even before working with smell I never used a deodorant in my entire life. And now my daughter, who is 16, took up one of my shirts and asked, ‘Is this your body smell? What perfume have you used?’, and was astonished when she learned that I use none. She has been my guinea pig since she was a baby: I have been capturing her scent every year and I confront her with her smell to show her how it has changed, and consequently she speaks so much about smell relative to other people.
Dazed Digital: Your daughter must be the only person with an olfactory timeline to reference!
Sissel Tolaas: (laughs) Yes, she is very rare! When she works on homework, I like to compose a smell that complements it. Once she was researching icebergs and she had a scent to bring in, in addition to the PowerPoint. I’ve also synthesised smells which improve the rendering of learning: she has smells for learning maths, smells for learning biology. Studying with an abstract smell helps her recall abstract knowledge. Right now I’m experimenting with an interesting project. I’m trying to listen to certain texts which I play to myself while I sleep, but there is also a smell circulating in the context of the reading – you see, you also smell while you sleep! A few weeks later I pick up that smell and I see how much I can remember of the text.
I’m overwhelmed all the time by the dimensions of smells. The wind moves and what I smell is like a symphony of music
Dazed Digital: Do you think that if you lost your sense of smell that you could still remember or imagine a smell?
Sissel Tolaas: As a chemist, of course! Through chemical components, I can remember which ingredients I can put into a smell. I tested just that at Columbia University. I made a scent from my memory of a smell and then collected the molecules from the actual source. And when I compared the two, they were astonishingly close to one another.
Dazed Digital: What was that smell?
Sissel Tolaas: This smell was the combination of brown coal and a special detergent that was used all over east Europe. It was like some company had a monopoly that dictated that this detergent had to be used on every public building across the old Eastern Bloc. I could still find this smell in east Berlin at the very bottom of Jannowitzbrücke U-Bahn station. Jannowitzbrücke was closed off during the cold war and it was never really renovated deep down (it’s four stories deep). I knew exactly where to find that smell, and so I brought some of my (Berlin SmellScape) collaborators with me. I removed a couple of tiles from the wall of Jannowitzbrücke’s bottom floor and removed concrete from the wall. Some of the people with me from Die Zeit newspaper started to cry – they were like, ‘This is east Berlin!’
Dazed Digital: And when was the last time a smell overwhelmed you?
Sissel Tolaas: I’m overwhelmed all the time by the dimensions of smells. And because I have such a sensitive nose I smell combinations of smell which are incredible. The wind moves and what I smell is like a symphony of music. But there was one scent I engineered for Smell of World War I. Normally I look for the source, find the smell, copy and re-adapt its molecular components. But for World War I I didn’t have a source. I had references, narratives and descriptions from those who had lived through it, but even so it was very abstract. I didn’t know where I was heading. I just knew that I was trying to copy ‘something’; horse carcasses, mustard gas, earth, wounds, blood. I had to rely on extreme chemical components, and I built up a smellscape that was so disgusting that I ended up shocking myself and everyone else who smelled it.
I’m overwhelmed all the time by the dimensions of smells. And because I have such a sensitive nose I smell combinations of smell which are incredible
Dazed Digital: What has been the most difficult scent to capture?
Sissel Tolaas: They are all difficult – the knowledge I work from and with (the IFF archive) is not meant to do what I wish to do with it. That knowledge is meant to cover up what I do with nice-smelling end-products. The paradox of this situation is that I try to show the reality before that kind of knowledge (from the perfume and detergent industries) comes and covers it up. There are five companies that control everything to do with smell in the entire planet. And I think that is fine, I’m OK with that, but I think we can start to use that knowledge for different ends and purposes. So I try to use that same knowledge to show the reality, to trigger consumers to choose differently. Which is why I also act as a professional provocateur within corporations!
Dazed Digital: Have you ever developed smells for sinister purposes?
Sissel Tolaas: After FEAR 01/21 (which synthesised the smell of fear from 21 sufferers of panic attacks), I was approached by the US military, which was interested to work with me to develop methodologies to maybe smell a terrorist and other totally naïve notions. For me there is a line which I don’t cross so I refused. But I know they are developing certain techniques and devices – how to smell bodily excitement for instance. If you train your nose you can smell someone’s anxiety. Going back further there were stench bombs, like Nazis setting them off at jazz clubs. That intent could be used in other ways: for instance, there are all these commercial projects with the mission of stating, ‘Come to me.’ But you could develop smells that do the opposite: ‘Stay away, this is danger!’
Dazed Digital: Is that like what you did with your Berlinale stench stunt?
Sissel Tolaas: (laughs) Yes! Small talk is really not my thing. But going to certain events is part of my business. In order to go there and still have some fun I develop ways of overcoming social situations. So for the 2009 Berlinale I dressed up really glamorously and put on a smell from my homelessness project. And people couldn’t reconcile the way I looked and the way I smelled. It was total cognitive dissonance. If you can make a smell for attraction why not a smell for its opposite? That’s when life becomes funny – use what you have for free to reprogramme how you smell the world around you!
Oct 24–Jan 19, GROW YOUR OWN..., is on at Science Gallery, Dublin