Studying fragrant materials at the Institute of Art & Olfaction, L.A., Courtesy IAO
In an article in Time Magazine (2018) Dr. Asifa Majid pointed out that there is a whole world to be gained from training our poorly educated sense of smell. An example would be to sniff our food instead of just looking at the expiration date before throwing it away when it’s still perfectly fine to eat it.
But how and where can we learn to be better smellers? Courses for perfumers are intensive, long, expensive and inaccessible (there are allegedly more astronauts than perfumers!) and the output (industrially produced and pleasing 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 or olfactory olfactory turn in the humanities
This is not a typo. In the eighties and nineties the humanities faced the first sensory, and more specifically olfactory turn. Influential scholars such as anthropologists Constance Classen, David Howes, Annales School historian Alain Corbin, and later art historian Jim Drobnick, elevated the sense of smell to where it is now: a serious topic in cultural debates and (art) history.
Paying attention to our senses can truly broaden our gaze according to a new promising generation of scholars. Cambridge PhD candidates Lizzie Marx and Lorraine de la Verpillière have set up the seminar “Art and the Senses” (2018) 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”
Something has changed since the first olfactory turn. And that is the addition of actual sensory sources. I call this the second, or olfactory olfactory turn, because it actually involves the senses, instead of just texts on the senses. Teachers are now actually bringing scents into the classroom, and not just as entertainment or illustrations, but as extra strings of information.
Many contemporary scholars, such as cultural historians Holly Dugan and Inger Leemans, claim that using the sense of smell has broadened their gaze and that of their students. My own practice as a sensory historian, curator and teacher made me realise that smelling even facilitates detecting and better understanding textual expressions related to olfaction. Smell is no longer something merely studied in textbooks. Sensing and smelling have become tools to gather serious information.
Urban Geographer Tim Verlaan, who set up the course ‘Urban Culture’, taught at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, explains why the senses are important in the education of art history and architecture students:
“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 as a scholarly discipline has been complemented by and sometimes even substituted by ‘visual culture’. Although this emerging field is broad in the sense that it transgresses the boundaries of art history, media studies, architecture, design, anthropology and museology, it seems to ignore any other sensory phenomena and is therefore actually quite narrow. Both as a reaction to visual culture, and to stimulate out of the box thinking of his students art history professor Patrick van Rossem (University of Utrecht) implemented the course ‘The Senses’ (2018) for art, history and philosophy students. His students are sniffing, touching and tasting their way through art history besides reading texts.
I developed the course ‘The Other Senses’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, The Hague almost ten years ago, about the same time olfactory artist Maki Ueda started her ‘Smell and Art’ program at the same academy. During these classes ArtScience students don’t just study articles, but train their senses and learn how smelling, tasting and touching are related to knowledge, language and art practices in a different way than sight is. In addition At the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam Dr. Manon Parry, Dr. Inger Leemans, Wouter de Vries (PhD) have set up ‘Knowing by Sensing’ as we speak, believing that sensory practice can actually lead to extra strings of information and knowledge building; an idea still quite alien to most text-driven scholars. Sensory training is often associated with grammar schools, and in specific Montessori education. But as we become more and more detached from our lower senses and our body, even adults have a whole world to gain. After all, all cognition is embodied and starts by sensing.
How the internet has helped olfactory initiatives flourish
There is a very clear reason why now is the perfect time to start addressing our noses nd why the sense of smell has become such a popular phenomenon, according to Ashraf Osman, curator and 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”
People feel an urgent need for material sensory encounters (maybe more so than ever since Covid-19 has forced us to stare at our screens), that cannot be shared online as a counter-reaction to social media, but as a consequence of those same platforms, people can form communities and inform each other about programs and actual meetings about scent.
Smell as the social sense par excellence
“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 both educate the nostrils AND 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”
Children are being made aware of their sense of smell at the exhibition ‘Scent in Art’, which Caro Verbeek and Stefanie Dathe 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”
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 a quite 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.
Smelling can make us better scholars, better artists, and more sociable, tolerant human beings. If we start educating our noses.
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
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
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)
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
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
Where? Mediamatic, Amsterdam
Since when? 2015
By whom? Mediamatic & Caro Verbeek, co-curated by Sanne Groeneveld en
For whom? anyone
What? “Smell Lab”
Since when? 2016
By whom? Klara Ravat
For whom? anyone