The Century of Smell


13th June, 2017

Last year my nose was at Kitty Hawk or Menlo Park. Like the beginning of the electrical age or the era of flight I witnessed a magic moment in which you are given a glimpse – or rather, a sniff - of the future: a future, in this case, where smell would be regarded by Western civilization as a sense on par with sight and sound; in which art would be something inhaled as well as viewed, in which live poetry would affect your emotions by way of your olfatory bulb as well as your ear drum; in which films would have genuine smelltracks or a smell sequence might have a soundtrack; in which performative arts were self-evidently multi-sensory affairs fusing and contrasting visual, aural, olfactory and tactile perceptions. Welcome to the Century of Smell!

A Berlin church, once ripe with the fumes of incense, became the site (no! the location; once again, visually biased language intrudes) of Osmodrama, a culture festival featuring poetry and literature readings, film screenings and concerts, but all grouped around something entirely new: Smeller 2.0, the first fully functional smell organ; an instrument, that by means of an intricate airflow system projects and evacuates single notes or chords into an auditorium, so as to create actual olfactory sequences, rather than piling up a cacophony of smells over time. This is so unusual that again I am having to borrow words from the language of a different sense to describe what is happening, as perfume lovers have done for so long.

Advertisement — article continues below

Wolfgang Georgsdorf, an Austrian artist living in Berlin, has been pursuing this burning passion (don't call it a vision) against sneers, sniggers and sheer disbelief and in clustering his ambition and unending patience with hi-tech engineering, cultural sponsors, perfumers and the industry (none other than Geza Schoen formulated scents loaded into Smeller and IFF has sponsored materials) actually made it real. And for anyone as invested in scent as a true perfume lover would be, it is an utterly sensational experience:

The Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov reads from his work preceded by a scent prologue and epilogue as a kind of olfactory translation / commentary / interpretation. As a writer thinking of words as uncried tears and working towards a poetry of silence he is thrilled by the presence of poetic meaning without language.

Georgsdorf's pure scent composition Autocomplete (2016) is quite a different experience. Lacking any frame of reference, observe yourself struggling to make sense of pure smells, seeking a narrative or memory that gives structure to these de-contextualized sequences, devoid of objects, places, persons. An unreal experience that confuses and fascinates and thus makes you think and reflect about perception, rather than permitting a deep emotional immersion. But the mind does weave fragments of stories: a forest with underbrush, rotting humus, mushrooms, pine trees and then a human presence in the shape of a smoky camp fire; a rural farm scenery with hay, leather, horse, florals and then a shift to the farmhouse kitchen composed of clove, spices, fruit, peaches; a short domestic "parental grooming" sequence featuring classic aftershave, cosmetics, calone and pipe tobacco. Finally, a simple triad of vanillin, coffee and mothballs triggering a memory of my beloved grandparents: grandma's cake, grandpa's coffee and the mothballs added as a fictional trope of old times.

Then, on the closing night comes the emotional and sensory climax: a live co-performance of a sound collage by electronic music pioneer Carl Stone and a smellscape by Wolfgang Georgsdorf that transports us to another world. Smell and sound, equals, interlocking to create an imaginary space coming alive through truly multi-dimensional impressions, palpable and emotionally present in a way that sound or smell alone simplay would not be. A tropical forest with the sounds of exotic birds, rain but also drones, to an airport in Asia with chatter, clatter and planes, blending with olfactory impressions of green, plantlife, fruit, decay, of food, people, life, carving out mental images of an alternate cosmos. Truly an awe-some experience that invited me to stop thinking and just immerse myself fully in the sensory moment.

And so a new art is born. An art that gently suggests that I am, that we all are, still olfactory illiterates struggling to grasp the depth and possibilities of scent beyond the day-to-day. Bereft of a basic vocabulary (if we are not perfumers, wine critics or coffee testers), but even more so of an emotional grammar to build an understanding of what precisely smell does to us. And yet it is obvious even now that this new olfactory dimension in art has the potential to break through the conventions of literary, cinematic or musical language and their traditional settings. Wolfgang Georgsdorf is an explorer at the very beginning of a new journey of the senses and Smeller 2.0 has the potential of all great art forms: of creating and questioning beauty, of expressing the creative mind, of showing us new, enriching perspectives that help us know the world and ourselves. And it's bringing us one step closer to sensory equality!

Osmodrama – for now without smell – can be found at http://osmodrama.com/

  • Share this

About the author: Tom Clark

Tom Clark is an intellectual historian with a love of classical and natural fragrances and a research interest in olfactory studies and perfume history. He lives in Germany.

Website: http://perfumedpolitics.blogspot.de/

Categories

    Advertisement — comments are below

    Comments

      • Cook.bot | 13th June 2017 15:01

        I'd almost sacrifice a limb to experience this.

        The other day I had a fantasy that someone expanded the Amazon Echo to incorporate scents, so that I could just say "Alexa, make this room smell like a cypress forest", or a winter beachscape, or a leathergoods store, or a flower field in Grasse, or....

        Maybe my fantasy isn't as futuristic as I thought.

      • the_good_life (article author) | 13th June 2017 16:50

        There is a plan to find a permanent location for Smeller 2.0, e.g. at the old Siemens premises in Berlin Spandau. A questiom of financial support, but hopefully it will happen.

      • Oviatt | 13th June 2017 19:24

        Alexa can be more than a little passive aggressive, so who knows what you might end up with.... and she is ALWAYS listening.

      • cosmopolit | 13th June 2017 20:33

        I spent a day in Osmodrama in August 2016. One nice aspect of Osmodrama is how accessible it was, and how well-used by the public. During the time I was there, Berliners would wander in, sit for a while, concentrate on smelling, or else just hang out, read, and quietly pass the time. The program on the day I attended included pure scent pieces, as well as smell combined with sound compositions and abstract animations.

        I was struck by the clarity of the olfactory experience. Individual scents (released by Smeller with a slight “pop” of a valve) flowed gently past me with a definite beginning, middle and end, replaced seamlessly with the next smell.

        Osmodrama/Smeller really ups the bar on spatial scent installations, and it won the award for Experimental Use of Scent at the 2017 Arts and Olfaction awards.

      • Ken_Russell | 14th June 2017 10:26

        Thank you for the article. It surely sounds exciting and groundbreaking.

      • kbe | 14th June 2017 14:37

        Does anyone remember SMELL-O-VISION? It was used in only one motion picture, SMELL OF MYSTERY I think was the title of the 1960 movie by film maker Mike Todd. Scent was sprayed into the movie theater at certain times to 'enhance' the audio-visual experience.

        Apparently the movie and the concept both umm...stunk...

      • Cook.bot | 14th June 2017 16:03

        I'm so envious. That sounds like a delightful experience.

        I've read that Disney considered doing this too, in 1940 for his "Fantasia" film, but cost prohibited.

        Hmmm, possible forum thread idea....