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How will we smell tomorrow?

How chemist and artist Sissel Tolaas's artistic experiments are pushing the nose in new directions

To celebrate the launch of our summer issue, Future Shock and the Barbican's Digital Revolution next month, we're devoting a day to the brave new world of digital. From the future of smell to radical Oculus Rift collectives, check back here throughout the day for more mind-bending glimpses into the future. 

The politics of the future are divided by odour. Two political parties are entrenched in sectarian skirmishes over an impending bill: one that would grant sweeping powers to police those out of step with the status quo. The Purists hound The Naturalists, determined to enforce a “hair-sweat-teeth purity”. The Purists are the product of several generations that expunged every possible odour from their surroundings. Imagine the Hitler youth, drunk on singularity Kool-Aid. The kids enthusiastically embrace technological upgrades that rid their body of animal redundancy, excising their sweat glands and installing preemptive hair plugs. 

Philip K Dick's 1954 'The Chromium Fence' is a canny extrapolation of existing societal dispositions to odour – principally the compulsion to quarantine ourselves from odour. Technology, then as now, either parcels up scent as a lifestyle garnish or is engaged in its wholesale obfuscation, isolation and eradication. There is no extension of olfaction through telescopes (well, almost), no augmentation or modulation of smell through electronic amplifiers. The rise of 3D printing means that only smell and taste have yet to feel the full transformative force of “cut it, paste it, quick – rewrite it” digitization. Next to touch and taste, it is the most palpable of the senses, but possesses more mystique: the invisible is touching you. But recipe precedes remix as the original mash up, and the new ascetics of Soylent point to a post-digital subculture of the gustatory realm. 

Smell is, comparably speaking, virgin territory for aesthetic experimentation. An artist that consistently throws sensory deficiency into sharp relief is Sissel Tolaas: there is no artist that has explored the nuances of 'how we smell' than Sissel. Her work resists both containment and easy delimitation. There have been attention-grabbing visceral artworks, such as the Smell of Fear and a recreation of the stench of World War One trenches (the reek of death is probably the only smell which Sissel would concede there is universal abhorrence for). There have been exhibitions at MoMA, the National Art Museum of China and the Venice Biennale. But there are also collaborations with notable research institutions: Harvard Medical School, MIT, Vienna SuperSense, in tandem with consultancy with leading brands like adidas, Louis Vuitton and Sony BMG to name but a sample). 

Smell is the most palpable of the senses, but possesses more mystique: the invisible is touching you. Yet it is, comparably speaking, virgin territory for aesthetic experimentation. 

Some of Sissel's methodologies are not dissimilar to other artisans of fragrance – she is engaged in the art of pure chemistry, composing new matter, molecule by molecule. The headspace technology at Sissel's disposal is an industry standard device for the perfumery industry: a set of devices that hoover up molecules from a source, cycle them through a series of physical filters and capture the molecular imprint of a smell from reality. This can be a pond in summer, the ink from a photocopier, the whiff of dust burning on a light bulb. 

Sissel endeavours to remove prejudices around smells, unlock unacknowledged ambient information and explore how we might otherwise describe those olfactive experiences. She works with the technology and has access to the molecular palette (her Re_Search Lab contains 2,000 bottles of constituent scent molecules) necessary to craft her molecular simulations. But that is not what distinguishes her work – designers and perfumers work with comparable tools of the trade. Sissel's current library of 7,000 scents contains many gathered during a long spell of collecting smells from reality in a more lo-fi manner: literally canning odorous substrates into hermetically sealed jars since the early 90s. She can wield the headspace technology to chronicle odour, thanks to her rigorous polymath background in mathematics and chemistry. But more interestingly, she 'misuses' a device more often employed for perfume and occasionally archeology for art and creative unsettling. 

It's in this olfactory orientation to reality that we might glean hints of what the future could smell like. When committing to art practice in this domain she realised she needed to relearn how to smell, to decontextualise her existing smell associations. Sour milk was the toughest for her to personally overcome, but seven years later that transformative process enables her to authentically assert that “nothing stinks”. This is pointedly illustrated in her recent collaboration 'Self Made', also known as 'Human Cheese'. It turns out the same bacteria accountable for the sharp whiff of Swiss cheese is the very same as that responsible for human body odour. Of course the next obvious step was to make cheese from human bacteria and confront gallery goers with a heady dose of cognitive dissonance. Sissel, a master of nine languages, has long been concerned with the primacy of language over smell: a current work with the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics involves tracing the multifarious turns of fragrant phrase in Ian Fleming's James Bond novels – to better expose the lack of universality when speaking of smell. 

Her Smellscapes series (which to date number Berlin, Mexico, Paris, Stockholm, Detroit, Kansas City - with Calcutta Cape Town and Istanbul in process) are equal parts offbeat ethnography and scented psychogeography. These odour ordinances often unveil opaque and deeply nestled urban segregation: the hidden lives of cities are best revealed by detecting their emanations. It's that that potential, which is the primary spur for Sissel: “Tolerance is a major reason as to why I do what I do. If you can understand another's smells, homes, cultures (and fears!) - that is the start of sympathy.” Sissel explains that this knowledge arrived as a consequence of her retraining. “My nose was full of prejudices, but the moment I went beyond what my nose was capable of accepting.... it was quite humbling. It's not just intellectually reasoned, your whole body reacts.” 

When you smell, volatile molecules are enveloped in your noses membrane - literally taken into your body – before triggering immediate sensations. Sissel's embodiment in the world is different, she is more engaged in her surroundings as she possesses heightened access to information – 23,000 breaths a day worth. How she feels in a moment unfolds from the molecular outwards. Her access to it may not have been speedily acquired, but it is far from impossible. Both Sissel's re-embodied reality and art methods better illuminate what role (if any) technology might play in the future of smell. A recurring trope advanced by digital prophets is that smell will 'change everything' in digital media – the latest of which involved “beaming” a scent between continents, a dubious echo of the first transatlantic telegraph message. Sissel is adamant that smell never be illustrative in her work, and it’s hard to shake the sense that odoriferant gadgets and 'data visceralisation' smack of more superfluous additive-aroma experiences. They are overlays, perfumed palimpsests – a poor mans Google Glass, but for your nose. The tech giants are casting about for the next consumer edge, whether it be health trackers, VR, or intelligent thermostats. Given their priorities, and the emotional hollowness that social media induces, tech culture seem as poor a steward for our future sense of smell as the sanitation and fragrance industries previously. 

Rather than gloss over the last big thing, smell could instead disrupt the next high technology. The internationally genetically engineered machine (iGEM) competition begun in 2003. It's the World Fair befitting the “Century of Biology” and the post open-source generation: teams of students compete against one another through the medium of molecular engineering. It's one of the genuine forums where grassroots molecular remixing transpires. In 2009 an artists collective from India entered Teenage Gene Poems, a project that engineered bacteria to produce the scent of monsoon rain. The 'living machines' became vectors for shared cultural experiences that evoked the uncontrollable whims of global atmospheric movements. Christina Agapakis, who collaborated with Sissel on 'Self Made' was part of the judging panel that year, and remarks on the dilemma Teenage Gene Poems presented: “Everybody loved their project and was upset that the scoring rubric didn't allow for giving awards to projects that didn't quite hit their technical marks. They won Best Presentation that year, and ever since there has been a lot of angst about how to make judging more fair and inclusive.” 2014 marks the first year that iGEM embraces and awards art and design entries to the competition.

We are foreclosing on an ancient source of knowledge about both ourselves and our environment. Sissel’s practice presents a compelling vision for the future – individuals spurred by molecular & metabolic compassion for one another, who grapple with environmental fallout rather than obfuscate it (Sissel relays a story that, on a hot day, the right nose can sniff the garbage from three decades past that is buried beneath Berlin airport). It's also not unrealistic (certainly less unrealistic than sending politicians into space to catalyze a comparable world saving outlook). For one, Sissel remarks that smell industries are realising that cleanliness is resistant to global standardisation. They have to adapt, and in their moment of pivot there is scope for change. We put the other possibility to Sissel that the existing momentum of urban abstraction might leave us as removed from smell as a visitor to a staging of her Smell of Fear exhibition. She had earlier mentioned a 90-year-old man moved to tears by the smells on the wall; when Sissel inquired as to why his grandson explained that this was the closest the man had come to smelling real human scents in decades. 

Illustration by Simon Whybray.