The idea of scent VR is that when you’re in a virtual reality space, scent supplements the various experiences to make it more real or visceral.
Saskia Wilson Brown, founder of the Institute for Art & Olfaction, talks to colleague and contributor Marcos Lutyens about future scent technology and ways in which olfaction can be explored within art.
What is the institute for Art & Olfaction (IOA)?
Saskia Wilson Brown: It’s a non profit organisation dedicated to experimentation and access to perfumery.
Why were you drawn to explore smell?
Saskia Wilson Brown: Smell is mostly explored in the context of commerce in our society and I thought it would be interesting to try and pick that apart. It was actually sort of political. I thought that it was a pity that we could only engage with the materials purely in the context of buying them at a sales counter and dealing with all the marketing. I wanted to subvert that a little bit.
How have you achieved that in your process of running the institute?
Saskia Wilson Brown: I feel that even the act of allowing public access to aromatic chemicals is slightly subversive, and our approach avoids all marketing roles. We try to focus on what smelling is through the lens of perfumery, but also using what has been called olfactory art, science and history.
What projects are you working on now?
Saskia Wilson Brown: At the moment I’m working with an artist, Joe Merrell, to create an exploration of earth theories from 19th Century literature. We are going to create all sorts of smells for invented flora and fauna, all drawn from historic art and literature.
Our IOA awards will relaunch in Berlin in May for independent and experimental artisans.
And we are hosting Jeanette Andrews, a scent magician and illusionist from Chicago who is coming out to Los Angeles for a residency with IOA.
How does that work?
Saskia Wilson Brown: She’s a magician who incorporates scent into her act so I think that for instance, she asks the audience to write down a scent from their childhood and presto! She comes up with that scent by picking one of them randomly from the crowd as it appears. I have no idea how this works but technically that would be very challenging. It’s magic.
One of the works I really enjoyed was the one about going to Tokyo. Would you be able to briefly describe that?
Saskia Wilson Brown: Sure. There was a fellow called Sadakichi Hartmann who created a scent concert in 1902 called ‘A trip to Japan in 16 Minutes.’ Here, he presented a sound piece whilst scents were being released to the audience. The audience were smoking during this so he was booed shortly after. We basically recreated this for the Hammer Museum but contemporised it so that in the piece, you get on a plane at LAX, then get you arrive into Narita Airport followed by Tokyo. We created the 16-minute olfactory narrative and the audience was blindfolded.
There was also some audio as well.
Saskia Wilson Brown: Yes. There was live foley and an audio storyline created by Bennett Barbakow and Julia Owen.
I supposed this is a new way of performing as the audience was blindfolded, there was no predominance of watching an image. It was dismissed. Would you say this is a new type of theatre?
Saskia Wilson Brown: Yes. I think that people are so over bombarded with images and I feel that real experiences are sort of what end up sticking. If you close your eyes you can experience the world in a new way. So yes, I definitely think that’s a new kind of theatre. For us, it was just a way of exploring or storytelling without the obvious visual cues.
And as we move further into the 21st century, do you see an application of what you’re working on into VR?
Saskia Wilson Brown: Absolutely. The future of storytelling is a big topic and in the olfactory world people who are smarter are thinking about it. I know that there is a ‘Future of Storytelling’ conference happening in New York and a friend is sharing a piece that is similar to what we did with Sadakichi Hartmann. He is exploring storytelling in non-obvious ways by including scent within VR. We’ve been working here and there with an artist who has invented scent colours for VR applications. Basically, the idea is that when you’re in this virtual reality space, scent supplements the various experiences to make it more real or more visceral.
Is that a kind of scent synthesizer?
Saskia Wilson Brown: It is this weird collar that has little modules on it. As the various VR experiences happens, they are trigged.
So they’re pre-programmed? Like cartridges for each game.
Saskia Wilson Brown: Yes. Very much so. At the moment that is the the limit of the technology but who can say where it will go. It would be interesting to have all the varying molecules and you could compose olfactory components as you go. Technically, it’s pretty difficult.
It’s almost like 3D printing. You can manufacture anything at home.
Saskia Wilson Brown: The problem with scent is that there is no RGB, or no three components that make everything else. Each are their own discreet component, so if you want to get the grass in Southern India for example, it is one specific aspect of a molecule that gives it that flavour. You end up having 3, 4 or 5000 molecules if you are using the processes we use now. Who is to say where the science is heading. Right now, there is just a material limit with what you can do.
How do you see your investigations progressing in 5 or 10 years? Is there a goal that you would like to reach?
Saskia Wilson Brown: The goal is to try and keep on the forefront of what is happening through the lens of scent, mostly within technology and storytelling and less in contemporary art.
I’m interested in these hybrid practices and I supposed scent is the way in. In 5 years, hopefully we’ll be doing things that I can’t imagine. The ongoing goal would to be on the edge.
Saskia Wilson Brown
Interview by Marcos Lutyens
Photography by Institute of Art & Olfaction