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It’s art, Jim, but not as we know it

How did a passionate anti-capitalist who plays the punk ukulele become den mother to a new breed of artists who paint with smells? Saskia Wilson-Brown takes us on a trip in 7 scents.

1. I set out on a trip. Scent: Morning in L.A.

One morning an idea came to me. I sat up on the edge of the bed and said: ‘I’m going to start a non-profit devoted to open access in perfumery’. From the other side of the bed my husband mumbled ‘Good idea, honey’.

Neither of us had the slightest idea what I was talking about.

I had studied fine art at Central St Martin’s in London, and was working in TV here in L.A. which translates to: I knew nothing about scent. But someone had given me a book where I read how secretive the fragrance business is. That connected with me. I saw it as a metaphor for the access issues independent film-makers face, an issue I was working on at the time.

I decided to make a documentary about the fragrance world. That one went nowhere fast. But out of it grew the idea for the Institute for Art and Olfaction.

L.A. is the edge of the world for perfumery – an advantage for punk perfume, the kind I’m interested in

2. Our mission for the Institute. Scent: Anarchy in L.A.

We are somewhat anti-capitalist in our outlook at the Institute for Art and Olfaction. I don’t want to be critical of the mentality of late capitalism, it’s just that for us, the focus is on absolute creativity. I want to create open access to all the materials of perfumery, and empower artists and others to work with scent.

Punk perfume is irreverent, subversive, and DIY. It’s not about waiting for approval from some kind of authority

When I set up the Institute in 2012, I saw fragrance as a new kind of paint for artists to work with. There were hardly any artists working with smells then, apart from Sissel Tolaas and Peter de Cupere. The materials were almost impossible to get hold of, especially here on the West Coast of the United States. You think of Paris or Grasse as the home of perfume, not L.A. L.A. is the edge of the world as far as perfumery is concerned – an advantage for punk perfume, the kind I’m interested in.

Punk perfume is irreverent, subversive, and DIY. It’s not about waiting for approval from some kind of authority. It’s about getting out there and doing things – badly but with pleasure. Yes!

3. Access all aromatics. Scent: Smelly Vials

The first step was to open an artist’s studio for smells. I found a cheap space in a horrible building (we’re somewhere really nice now) and then bought everything The Perfumer’s Apprentice had in stock.

We were the first open access perfume studio anywhere in the world, and the core thing we provide to this day is open sessions. For $45 anyone can come and access the perfumery materials in the studio. We’re a community of people learning together. As the community has become more proficient we’ve added more advanced classes; also the Smelly Vials Perfume Club, which is kind of like a band, but for punk perfumers who’ve grown up with the Institute.

Everything we programme is related to scent. It might be a talk on the history of aromatics in India, a workshop on making motion-sensitive robots to dispense scents, or an introduction to cannabis terpenes as flavour and fragrance ingredients. But for sure it will be smell-centred.

I see fragrance as a new kind of paint for artists to work with

4. I meet some soulmates. Scent: Century’s Breath

Some people come through the door and it changes their lives, like Julianne Lee, who came to the Institute on a date and fell hard – for the guy, and for fragrance. She is now at perfumery school in Grasse learning to be a nose.

Or Cat Jones, an Australian artist who came to do a residency. Since she spent time with us, most of her projects have involved smells; for example, Century’s Breath, which imagines the climate of the future through its odours. Cat’s become mega-successful. She also won our 2016 Sadakichi Award for Experimental Work with Scent.

The scent concert came on after rather more typical acts by the Rossow Midgets and the March of the Jolly Students. It was booed

5. A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes. Scent: The Sweet Smell of Failure

I set up the Sadakichi Award for Experimental Work with Scent in honour of Sadakichi Hartmann, an obscure figure whose work I came across soon after setting up the Institute. I was in a used bookstore in Pasadena, one of those magical old bookstores with dusty shelves groaning under tottering piles of dilapidated books. I asked if they had anything on fragrance. The old guy behind the counter stroked his beard and said, ‘Have you heard of Sadakichi Hartmann?’

Turns out Hartmann made the first recorded public scent concert in America in 1902. This was ahead even of Marcel Duchamp’s surreal scent works such as Belle Haleine.

Sadakichi was due to premier A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes at the Carnegie Lyceum. But it fell through and he ended up putting the piece on at a club for dockworkers that specialised in burlesque. The scent concert came on after rather more typical acts by the Rossow Midgets and the March of the Jolly Students. He was booed off stage.

I was hoping for a bit of that failure of the original – I’m interested in failure, I want failure

6. Sadakichi revisited. Scent: The Bittersweet Smell of Success

I discovered that UC Irvine had Sadakichi’s archive and I did research there but there was very little about the event. Still there was enough to piece together the narrative and recreate it, which we did at the Hammer Museum (L.A.’s answer to Tate Modern) here in LA. We updated it to A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes, Revisited, imagining how Hartmann would have done it if he had been around now.

The journey starts on the shuttle bus to LAX, then moves to the plane (our perfumer was a classy dame so she chose the odour of the first class cabin), then Narita Airport (non-Western cleaning fluids, really cool) then Tokyo (the scent of neon), then the hotel, then a dreamscape. We made a machine with a giant metal claw from which the scents rained down on the audience, accompanied by live foley.

I was hoping for a bit of that failure of the original – I’m very interested in failure, I mean, I want failure. If you’re doing something fringe-y and you don’t fail, you’re not doing your job.

But hey, the performance was sold out for its two weeks.

You lay down inside a mortuary cooler and experience the last four minutes of Qaddafi’s death

7. Sniffing the storm from paradise. Scent: The Angel of History

I’m interested in technology and how it is furthering olfactory art. At the forefront of this I would put Frederik Duerinck. He tells stories with tech, where scent supplies the missing piece. In Famous Deaths, you lay down inside a mortuary cooler and experience the last four minutes of Qaddafi’s death through its sounds and smells: the inside of his limo… the explosion… the desert sand… and the sewer he hid in. It’s mind-blowing stuff.

Right now I’m excited about Open Sourcing Smell Culture, a collaboration we’re doing with Mediamatic in Amsterdam. You can’t copyright the formula for a perfume, so this is looking at how we could approach sharing without compromising ownership. Should it be through creative commons, blockchain, or something else?

This is exactly the kind of issue of creativity and freedom that I love to explore.

For The Art and Olfaction Award 2019 winners list, click here.

artandolfaction.com

 

 

Saskia was talking to Susan Irvine

Images Susannah Baker-Smith