Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Osmodrama Report II: Smellscapes, Soundscapes

Three smell-packed days at the Osmodrama Festival in Berlin have left me full of thoughts, inspirations, questions and deep impressions. It was fascinating to see the Smeller 2.0 scent organ perform solo and as a complement to film, literature and sound art. To start with the most affective experience: The live co-performance of a sound collage by Carl Stone and a smellscape by Wolfgang Georgsdorf that really managed to transport me to another world. Smell and sound, truly on par here, interlocked to create an imaginary space that came alive through the multisensory input, that was truly multi-dimensional, sensorily palpable and emotionally present in a way that sound or smell alone would not be - it helped to have your eyes closed. The soundscape began and frequently returned to a (tropical) forest with the sounds of exotic birds, rain but also drones, to an airport in Asia with chatter, clatter and planes, but all a step removed from reality by complementary sounds, distortions and mixes, culminating in an eerie warped string ensemble - and all the while the smeller was furnishing olfactory impressions of green, plantlife, fruit, decay, of food, people, life,  carving out mental images of an alternate world. The fine detail is lost on me now, but the memory of the journey and its places is incredibly vivid. It was a truly awe-some experience that invited me to stop thinking and just immerse myself in the sensory moment. Of all the performances I saw [so much for ocularocentrism creeping into the language of a smell blog] witnessed this one worked best as an immediate sensory piece of art.

The 2016 pure scent composition Autocomplete was quite a different experience. This was part of the daytime program, there were fewer visitors than at the evening events and I sat in the first row experiencing an uninhibited airflow (which is physically noticeable when the room is not packed) and strong olfactory impressions. The sequences of smells come without any frame, explanation or sensory complement and it's interesting to watch yourself trying to make sense of them, to find a narrative or memory that gives structure to these de-contextualized smells, devoid of objects, places, persons. An "unreal" experience that made me think and reflect, rather than permit an immersion. There were three phases within the nearly hour-long piece that each formed a scene/narrative for me: 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; and a short domestic "parental grooming" sequence featuring classic aftershave, cosmetics, calone (i.e. fabric softener) and pipe tobacco. Finally, a simple triad of vanillin, coffee and mothballs triggered a memory of my beloved grandparents: grandma serving her signature marble cake (my favorite, for this reason), made with vanilla flavoring, as one did in those days, and grandpa having his afternoon coffee. Their place did NOT smell of naphtaline mothballs, but that is a fictional olfactory "grandparent" trope that somehow fit in.    

This experience reveals some of the possibilities and limits of olfactory story-telling: The olfactory narrator, like the musical composer, can use chords harmonizing or contrasting, sequences that are causal or rupturing, employ repetition and variation to aim for certain effects, though as in any art the message will never be unequivocal and intention may bear no resemblance to reception. Indeed, smell reception will always be associative - your memories and emotions connected to smells will make their perception meaningful or make a sequence come together to form a scene. There will be a quiz-quality of wanting to understand, i.e. label the scent. Through my training of analyzing perfumes and a general interest in smell I found this easy, but the question is whether this cerebral act distracts from the sensory experience. Interestingly someone was programming an app during the festival that would send the actual Smeller sequences to your smartphone, providing the score, in other words. Will that improve or further distract from the sensory experience? The other inevitable reaction is judgment: this smells good, this smells bad. The smell researcher and artists Sissel Tolaas has always insisted that we learn to appreciate smells free of our assocations with them, but while an open mind/nose is certainly a good thing, our evaluation patterns of smells do have biological roots (spoiled food, approaching fire) and are an essential part of our socio-culturally formed selves - not that those are not malleable and capable of expanding and transforming, of course. But if the smell of a certain rose-scented soap "is" your mother, that is, of course, a valid and relevant reality for you that will determine your relationship to that smell - and thus that smell may be an avenue for exploring important memories and emotions for you. Awareness of smell is more important than neutrality. Why you like or dislike certain smells may reveal things to you about yourself that may remain hidden in other sensory or intellectual realms.

I, for one, am convinced that the olfactory art of 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!

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