Smelling Can Make You a Better Scholar and a More Sociable Human Being – If You Educate Your Nostrils

blog nose institute art and olfaction materiality course

Studying fragrant materials at the Institute of Art & Olfaction, L.A., Courtesy  IAO

In a recent article in Time Magazine Dr. Asifa Majid pointed out that there is a whole world to be gained from training our poorly educated sense of smell.

But how and where can we learn to be better smellers? Courses for perfumers are intensive, long, expensive and inaccessible (there are more astronauts than perfumers!) and the output (industrially produced perfumes) is somewhat limited.

Luckily, educating our nostrils in a conscious way has become more accessible and meaningful than ever. Universities, art academies and cultural institutions offer courses all over the world. Over the past few years (fashion) designers, artists, philosophers, (art) history students and theatre makers have been training their sense of smell. Here is why we should do that according to professors, museum directors and artists.

The second olfactory turn in the humanities

In the eighties and nineties the humanities faced the first sensory, and even olfactory turn. Influential scholars such as Constance Classen, David Howes, Alain Corbin, and later Jim Drobnick, elevated the sense of smell to where it is now: a serious topic in cultural debates and (art) history. But something has changed since the more recent or second olfactory turn.

Teachers are now actually bringing scents into the classroom, and not just as entertainment or illustrations.

Many contemporary scholars claim that the sense of smell has broadened their visual gaze and that of their students. Smell is no longer something merely studied in textbooks. It has become a tool, and is now considered informative in its aromatic dimension.

Cambridge PhD candidates Lizzie Marx and Lorraine de la Verpillière have recently set up the seminar “Art and the Senses” to do exactly this:

“My co-organiser and I felt that it was important to hold the Art and the Senses seminar as the theme overcomes chronological and geographical boundaries in such a way that other frameworks do not offer. The seminars have been generating discussions about methodological approaches to art history and the merits of studying artworks through the senses”

The same goes for the course ‘Urban Culture’, taught at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. According to urban historian Tim Verlaan:

“In the study of public space, traditionally most attention goes out to visual aspects. However, other senses play an equally important role. I invited sensory specialists from the humanities to teach students how to experience and interpret their daily living environment with their ears and noses, instead of just through their eyes”

From ‘visual culture’ to ‘sensory culture’

Over the past two decades art history has been complemented by and sometimes even substituted by ‘visual culture’. Although this aspect of culture transgresses the boundaries of disciplines such as art history, media studies, anthropology, cultural studies and critical theory, it is excluding the realms of our other senses. Both as a reaction to visual culture, and to stimulate out of the box thinking of his students dr. Patrick van Rossem implemented the course ‘The Senses’ for art, history and philosophy students. His students are sniffing, touching and tasting their way through art history.

How the internet has helped olfactory initiatives flourish

There is a very clear reason why now is the perfect time to start working our noses according to Ashraf Osman, founder of Art Scent Net:

“With the digitization of sight and sound, smell has become one of the last bastions of materiality in an age of immaterial globalization. The resistance of odor to digitization makes it one of the aspects of an artwork that still demands the physical presence of its audience in order to experience it. As such scent is, perhaps unintentionally, emerging as a refuge for the necessity of embodiment in the artistic experience.”

Saskia Wilson – Brown – founder of the Institute of Art & Olfaction in L.A. sees another relation between the digital and the rise of smell culture initiatives:

“I think there is interest in scent because – thanks to the internet – there is quite simply the possibility to do it, now. People are able to learn about it, and most importantly to buy the chemicals and dissemination devices etcetera, to start their own practice. Since it’s possible, people are doing it. And since people are doing it, more outlets are appearing. It begets itself”

So people feel the need for material sensory encounters, that cannot be shared online as a counter reaction to social media, but as a consequence of those same social media, people can form communities and inform each other about programs and actual meetings about scent.

Smell as the social sense par excellence

blog nose klara ravat's piece 'Smell Transplant' at Mediamatic 2017

“Smell transplant” workshop by Klara Ravat, picture Ani Jo studio, courtesy of Mediamatic

Smell is the social sense par excellence. The Institute of Art & Olfaction (L.A.), Mediamatic with its “Odorama“-series (Amsterdam) and the Smell Lab (Berlin) offer courses to create a sense of community, since smell requires proximity of people in the same physical space, sharing ideas around the same topic and collaborating in creative projects.

Klara Ravat – olfactory artist and curator of Smell Lab (Berlin) thinks our need for human contact is the reason for the increase in olfactory programs and courses worldwide:

The increase of the olfactory trend is born from a craving of a society in need of belonging somewhere. Fragrance seems to be just the perfect tool to grant that desire […] Scent can makes people more empathetic towards each other”

In the same line of thinking Dr. Asifa Majid – professor of psycholinguistics specialized in the sense of smell – made it very clear how educating the senses  of children can contribute to more tolerance towards one another

“Schools are a forum where we train our children’s visual and auditory skills, but we neglect their remaining senses […] incorporating all the senses is also an important way of learning another culture’s worldview, especially in our multicultural communities”

blog nose children smelling an olfactory exhibition at Villa Rot

Children are being made aware of their sense of smell at the exhibition ‘Scent in Art’, which I curated for Villa Rot in 2015

Smell courses in art academies: fresh perspectives

More and more art students (the Royal College of Art, the Hague, the Royal College of Art, London and PXL Mad, Hasselt) are taught how to engage with new and demanding (museum) audiences through the sense of smell.

The Dutch-Japanese artist Maki Ueda has been teaching the course ”Smell and Art” at the ArtSicence Interfaculty at the Royal Academy of Arts the Hague for almost 10 years now. Ueda choose the olfactory game as a starting point because it requires a creative approach, that is neutral in a sense that the quality and nature of the scents are less important than the sense of smell itself:

“From the beginning I made a conceptual and abstract approach to medium of smell […] We always have limited fragrance materials but we never end up with thinking of new games”

Beside challenging her students to playfully explore the limits of our most neglected sense in order to get acquainted with its characteristics and peculiarities, there is also a practical dimension. Students actually learn the basic skills of perfume making:

“There needs to be a poetic aesthetic dimension too. That is why I teach students a somewhat scientific approach to the medium of smell by extracting and composing, in order to entertain their audience in a creative way”

blog NOSe the audience smelling Peter de Cupere's work in De Warande, Turnhout

Visitor Smelling work by Peter De Cupere at De Warande, Turnhout

Renowned Belgian olfactory artist Peter De Cupere established the “Art Sense(s) Lab” a couple of years ago. He is specifically interested in the ‘lower’ or rather ‘near’ senses, which have been left out of the aesthetic debate from the 18th century onwards, but which establish very direct and innovative ways of engaging people:

“Museums and exhibition makers show more interest in the near senses and this will increase over the following years […] There is also a greater demand for sensory experiential art because that way the viewer is more personally and individually involved in the artwork and the exhibition visit. Artist can provide in that demand”

Last but not least, I would like to mention the most surprising course in this list. Susan Irvine has set up a course on olfaction for fashion students at the very prestigious Royal Academy of Arts (RCA) in London:

“Exploring the sense of smell feels right for an art college where learning is about experience, about embodiment, about the undermining of the critical norms established by a valorization of linguistic abilities […] It is interesting that among the students working in olfaction at the RCA, many are focused on the smells emitted by the human body.  Others are interested in how odours create a smell-space where we enter a communal, ritual experience. Something that can’t be replicated online”

All the above courses and initiatives demonstrate our collective need of the sense of smell in academic and artistic contexts and beyond. At the same time they provide us with a sense of connection to others, and our shared history.

Smell can make us better scholars, better artists, and more sociable, tolerant human beings. If we start educating our noses.

blog nose educating the sense of smell

by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian

member of NOSE network

affiliated to Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Mediamatic, Amsterdam, the Royal Academy of Arts, IFF and the Rijksmuseum

http://www.caroverbeek.nl



 

If you would like to train your sense of smell, take a look at the list below. This is an incomplete yet representative overview of what is happening in the field of olfactory education (outside perfumery) right now. This blog and the list of courses will hopefully serve as a valuable document for current and future researchers concerning our attitude towards smell and education in the 21st century.

 

International Scent Programs in the Arts and Humanities

 

Courses within the humanities:

 

What?                     “Art and the Senses”

Where?   Cambridge University

Since when?           2018

By whom?               Lizzie Marx and Lorraine de la Verpillière

For whom?             Art historians

https://www.hoart.cam.ac.uk/images/grasuate-research-smiars-poster-lent-2018

 

What?                     “Urban Culture”

Where?                    Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Since when?           2016

By whom?               Tim Verlaan, Hans Fidom, Caro Verbeek

For whom?             Art, architecture, design and media students

 

What?                     “the Senses”

Where?                    University of Utrecht

Since when?           2018

By whom?               Patrick van Rossem

For whom?             (art) history, philosophy and theatre students

 

Grammer school course

 

What?                     “Language of the Senses”

Where?                  Worldwide initiative

Since when?           2017

By whom?               Asifa Majid

For whom?             children

 

Courses in Art Academies

 

What?                     “Smell and Art

Where?                    ArtScience Interfaculty (Royal Academy of Arts), the Hague

Since when?           2009

By whom?               Maki Ueda

For whom?             ArtScience students, but eventually the wide audience they perform to http://smellart.blogspot.com

 

 

What?                     Fashion and Olfactory Art

Where?                   Royal College of Art, London

Since when?           2017

By whom?               Susan Irvine

For whom?             Fashion and design students

 

What?                     “The Other Senses”

Where?                   ArtScience Interfaculty (Royal Acedemy of Arts), the Hague

Since when?           2010

By whom?               Caro Verbeek

For whom?             Artscience students (obligatory)

http://www.interfaculty.nl/programme/courses/

 

What?                     “Art Sense(s) Lab”

Where?                   University College PXL-MAD (Media, Arts & Design), Hasselt (Belgium)

Since when?           2016

By whom?               Peter De Cupere

For whom?             Post-graduate artists and designers, eventually museum visitors

http://www.artsenseslab.be/media/pdf/PXL-MAD-Art-Senses-Lab_2016-2017.pdf

 

Unfortunately the course will cease to exist next year, but De Cupere is working on an alternative course.

 

Courses within art institutions

 

What?                     The Institute of Art & Olfaction

Where?                   Los Angeles

Since when?           2012

By whom?               Saskia Wilson-Brown

For whom?             anyone

http://artandolfaction.com/

 

 

What?                     “Odorama”

Where?                   Mediamatic, Amsterdam

Since when?           2015

By whom?               Mediamatic & Caro Verbeek, co-curated by Sanne Groeneveld en

Frank Bloem

For whom?             anyone

https://www.mediamatic.net/en/page/236592/odorama

 

What?                     “Smell Lab”

Where?                   Berlin

Since when?           2016

By whom?               Klara Ravat

For whom?             anyone

https://.smell-lab.org/

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