SCENT HACKATHON: DAY 2 – The Institute for Art and Olfaction

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.

IFF_Materials_2For 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, and WOW Amsterdam.

+ Read about day 1, here.



Our day started on time (an impressive feat given the adventures reported from the night before). With everyone settled in, and strong coffees on hand, we started our work with a brief exercise: “What are you working on, what do you need,” inspired by a similar exercise developed by Lance Weiler for his DIY Days events, which took place between 2007 and 2009 in various cities across the globe.

The breadth of projects that the participants brought to the table was exciting to witness. Indeed, they gave a great sense of the various topics being explored in this strange little corner of society that we call “Olfactory Art”. We won’t go into too many details here, but people spoke about things as diverse as the use of scent in hospice care to the use of scent in AI and other emergent technologies, in movement and dance, and much more.

After the exercise, the smaller groups formed on day one reconvened in various parts of Mediamatic – some choosing the airy restaurant, some choosing the winter cabbage shelter.

Here is a run-down of the groups and their work.




Question: 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?

Process: The group discussed the challenges with digital software and scent. With an absence of a physical source, scent has to be conveyed into other media in order to be communicated; cannot be reliant on digital alone. They also discussed ingredients in food industry, such as MSG/Glutamin, that don’t apply to any category… and synthetic fragrance materials that are also difficult to situate in a category such as Iso-E-Super. Finally, they touched on the phenomenon of YouTube memes such as people eating Tide washing pods… which could lead to the translation of fragrances via tactile qualities. This group also created a series of case studies were each member introduced his or her personal process of working with scent, starting from the initial source and a name, a text and a color, then discussing anticipated results versus the (eventual) revealed fragrance. Through this work, the group was intuitively drawn to look closer into the tactile, which led them to their final presentation: The larger group watched a Youtube ASMR Video of a woman fondling beads, while popping Bubblewrap.

Frank Bloem
Niklaus Mettler
Franziska Josteit
Caro Verbeek

Read more: Breakout group on communicating smells, by Frank Bloem


Photo by Giulia Menicucci

Question: Can we create a smell whose goal it is to universally signify a concept?[/caption]

Process: This group chose to create a smell representing the absurd. To borrow from this blog post, written by Ashraf Osman about the experience:

“At some points, it was truly disorienting how subjectively different the experience of the same scent can be. And people were getting really creative: even those who weren’t actually high on the air of Amsterdam were embracing the spirit of it. We sang about scents, hummed about scents, and gesticulated and emoted, and gestured and grunted, and some of us even danced about scents. So our little team felt, to misquote Camus or [Ionesco] or someone, it’s somehow absurd to try to communicate about scent through other media. So, to convey it, we decided to create a scent with the difficult-to-classify synthetics we were trying to hack.

In the spirit of the absurd, we picked ingredients A-B-S-U-R-D (you see where this is going?). And then, for the heck of it, we also added (H) and some naturals (!). Et voila, Eau de l’ABSURD(H)! And because this was about the absurdity of trying to communicate about scent through other media, we wrote a poem using descriptors that were used for these ingredients, and made an audio-visual presentation of it. So, here without further ado, is our little video (since we can’t communicate the scent to you online, just use your imagination).”

Miguel Matos
Marta Siembab
Liza Witte
Éva-Marie Lind
Eddie Bulliqi
Ashraf Osman
Andreas Wilhelm

Read more: Non-Scents, The Smell of the Absurd(h)! by Ashraf Osman




Question: Can we use facial gesticulation,  non-verbal communication or corporeal movement to communicate scent?

Process: The four members of this group choreographed movement to express four scents. According to this post by Caro Verbeek:

“At the end of the two days four participants engaged in a dance in order to communicate a smell in a non-traditional way. They each expressed one ingredient of the perfume they made from the IFF materials. It was silent, yet it spoke a thousand words, and those present were observing in absolute silence (even though we were quite noisy the rest of the time).

One dancer made very outward movements, another one more inward. Someone hugged herself (base note?), another one raised his arms to the sky (top note?). After a few minutes their movements started to synchronize and they walked in a circle. They now embodied the perfume they made as a synthesis. I had no idea what it was supposed to smell like just by looking. But I was ‘moved’, while sitting there quietly and immobile. Movement enables us to express an emotion. In fact, a whole set of emotions. Because that is what perfumes do. They tell an entire story.”

Anna D’Errico
Sonja Tobé
Nenad Popov
Boris Raux

Read more:Dancing Scent and Aromatizing Movement‘ by Caro Verbeek




Question: Explore future / digital scenarios with scent

Process: Taking as a design fiction a robot take-over of society, the participants in this group envisioned scent as the last human-centric communication tool. Within this narrative, the imagined human rebels would need a way to communicate scent to one another. A surfeit of cabbages provided an ideal base with which to create a cabbage vortex scent cannon.

During their presentation, the group introduced the story-world and the narrative arc through illustrations and an explanation of the science fiction scenario. The end of their presentation took place in Mediamatic’s Cabbage-filled ‘sluisdeurenloods’ (a barn which was made to construct canal locks in the 19th century), where they demonstrated the cabbage-vortex, effectively communications scent to their fellow humans.

Simon Niedenthal
Leanne Wijnsma
Marcello Aspria
Priscille Tariel
Christiana Kazakou
Andrea Mohr
Abel Jansma
Malgorzata Bugaj
and Melissa




Question: Can we create a new structure for classifying scent?

Process: Through a playful variation of the familiar game “Who am I”, this group attempted to establish dimensions with which to classify scents. Each participant placed a post-it note with a scent on their forehead, and asked questions of the group until he or she correctly guesses the name. In this manner, the group came up with approximately 13 dimensions with which to communicate a given scent’s qualities, including associated material (wood, metal, etc), chemical structure, associated place, as well as more synesthetic attributes such as color, sound, etc. Through game-play, they were able to test the process’s usability, finding it to be a very effective way of predicting an odor.

From participant Haryo Sedhono: “We came up with approx 13 dimensions first and we wanted to check if the dimensions and the descriptors were useful at all to describe a scent. We then used the game to see if (a) the defined dimensions were relevant and (b) if we needed to re-define the dimensions and/or if we should add another dimension. The game was thus some sort of validation test, if you will. Everyone had a post-it on their forehead and was to identify the scent by actually going through every single dimension that we had come up with. We were surprised that we all were able to identify the correct smell, more or less. One additional dimension that we added during the course of the game was the dimension ‘natural’ (e.g. strawberry) vs ‘processed’ (e.g. a strawberry candy).”

Iara Bambirra
Eliza Douglas
Justine Kontou
Haryo Sedhono
Claudia de Vos
Maija Zitting




Question: Can we create a scent that denotes a universal concept?

Process: The group decided to attempt to create a scent that illustrated the idea of infiinity. From Spyros:

“After a short brainstorm about universal concepts  we decided that from a philosophical point of view and also from a perfuming technical point of view the most interesting thing to try to express with the scent is the concept of circularity, or repetitiveness. Based on the notion that in nature nothing ever really ever ends, everything is born and dies and from the remains new life emerges, so there is a constant coming and going of things, we decided to tackle this cyclic pattern by making a scent that starts with certain notes, moves to a different stage and then returns to the original theme. We worked with the available materials and decided the beginning and the end would be accords consisting of ambery and aquatic notes and the middle part would consist of a floral part. Unintentionally the perfume turned out to be rather smooth so no edges fitting  aesthetically to the concept of “round”. Also the floral part could be seen as the young life alive and blooming.”

Claus Noppeney
Spyros Drosopoulos
Flavia Romana
Marine Hetheier


Also participating (exploring different groups):
Julianne Lee
Sanne Boesveldt
Malgorzata Bugaj
Margherita Soldati



PHOTO CREDITS: All photos by Klara Ravat / Saskia Wilson-Brown for IAO except group 2 photo by Giulia Menicucci for Mediamatic. 



Tagged on: