On 19th – 21st of Jan, the Institute for Art and Olfaction teamed up with Klara Ravat (Berlin’s Smell Lab) and Caro Verbeek (Amsterdam’s Odorama) to produce a weekend devoted to exploring and re-envisioning how we communicate about scent.
For those not familiar with it, a hackathon is a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development collaborate intensely on software projects. We adopted the tech-centric term because we were attracted to the culture of collaboration and sharing inherent in the hackathon format. We thought to apply the principles of the hackathon to the question of scent taxonomies by inviting perfumers, artists, programmers, technologists, scientists and thinkers to think about how we speak and communicate about scent.
The goals of our hackathon were to explore potential global signifiers in specific odorants, to create theoretical data points for a taxonomy of aroma, and to create a better linguistic structure for scent, as well as to open the floor to participants’ ideas and questions. The hackathon was also an exercise in tackling issues, projects and ideas in non-centralized, non-hierarchical ways.
This event was generously supported by IFF, who provided 25 hard-to-clasify molecules from their unique palette of materials.
We would also of course like to thank our host, Mediamatic.
Additional support came from WOW Hostel.
+ Read about day 2, here.
DAY 1: SATURDAY
The morning began with a brief introduction to the weekend by Klara Ravat, where she explained the purpose and philosophy of the event, reminding people to be generous and kind to one another’s ideas.
This was followed by a talk by London-based Cecilia Bembibre. Using her PhD research as a starting off point, Cecilia explored current approaches for interpreting and communicating scent, with her work on the smell of old books as the primary example.
After that, Saskia Wilson-Brown led a 2 hour session where the group smelled each of the materials provided by IFF, labeled only by a letter. Each participant was encouraged to throw out descriptors along certain themes or restrictions (e.g. no food language, using gestures, etc).
The most interesting aspect of this grueling smelling session was how diverse perceptions were when it came to smelling, as well as how quickly we defer to familiar objects and food. Noting that, Caro Verbeek suggested a round using only synesthetic language which helped break the pattern, and members of the group supplemented her suggestion with their own ideas: Using a type of place, for instance, or a gesture, or a sound. Here are some examples of some of the descriptors that the group came up with:
MATERIAL A: SIMPLE WORDS
This material was later revealed to be AmberXtreme, from IFF, whose odor category is Amber, and whose descriptors are amber and woody.
MATERIAL M: SOUNDS
high pitched shriek
blub blub blub (underwater)
oi-oi-oi-oing (a spring distending)
boop-boop-boop (high pitched)
high pitch screech, underwater
violin concerto in spring
triangle ding (instrument)
repetitive / pulsation sounds
This material was later revealed to be Khusinil, from IFF, whose odor category is citrus grapefruit, described by IFF as sparkling, blooming, with grapefruit and rhubarb notes.
After smelling the materials, Caro Verbeek took some time to explore how humans have attempted to classify scent through time with a lecture on historical smell vocabularies by Plato (hedonic dichotomy), Linnaeus (7 point scale to describe plant odours) and Sissel Tolaas’ unprecedented ‘nasalo’. As Caro puts it in this wonderful blog post:
“Apparently context determines wether we need words or not […]. In 18th century Paris, there was a need to describe scents in order to monitor and protect public health (miasmas were thought to carry diseases). Just like in pre-modern England […]”
Read her post for an overview of historical classification systems of scent.
After Caro’s talk, the participants separated into smaller teams to explore specific questions, based on their common interests.
Here are some of the topics that were proposed, including an additional exploration of digital scent.
+ How we can help people anticipate what kind of smell they can expect from a product or experience from the package or a smartphone screen
+ Can we create a new scent “wheel” for unclassifiable scents?
+ Create a smell whose goal it is to universally signify a concept (eg. desire, fear, love, etc) – in the same way that the gas smell signifies a problem with the pipes
+ Explore the facial gesticulation/non-verbal communication associated to the act of smelling, or the possibilities of corporeal communication with/of smells (eg. through movement)
+ Explore the digital in scent (proposed by Simon Niedenthal)
+ Can we create a new physical structure for referring to scent (replacing/enhancing fragrance wheel)
+ How can we use symbols, pictograms, runes, patterns or other non-Roman characters to signify scent
+ Stress test existing fragrance wheel
+ Explore a new structure for classifying scent
+ Design a structure for an aromatic dictionary or thesaurus
The rest of the day was spent by the groups engaged in deep conversations, the goals of which were to refine their topic, and to decide what approach to take in their problem-solving exercised. The pictures above say it all, and the cabbage is explained here.
Claudia de Vos
Iara Magalhaes Bambirra
+ Read about day 2, here.