André-Louis Paré
N° 135 - Fall 2023

The Futures of Smell

Virtual reality scientists are now developing an interface that can release different smells associated with the images that the VR headset transmits. After inconclusive attempts to present films with odours in the 1950s, currently proposed interfaces show promising signs. Up to now, the metaverse simply reproduced visible and auditory aspects, sometimes even tactile ones, but the addition of smell marks a new milestone. Smell adds a new affective dimension to the user experience. Yet this aromatic technology can be puzzling, especially when it’s only a matter of enhancing a person’s pleasure in a video game. Nevertheless, by working on the limbic system and stimulating areas of the brain connected to memory and emotions, this research doesn’t stop here. Whether related to virtual reality or to other areas, several studies are underway, particularly in the medical field of olfactotherapy. Long considered to be the most primitive of the senses, smell now occupies an important place in scientific research, confirming the vital role it plays in our individual and social lives.

Annick le Guérer, a philosopher, anthropologist and the author of Scent: The Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell (Random House, 1992), calls smell “the sense of the future.” In contrast to the tenets of Western philosophy, the rehabilitation of this sense gives us access to new knowledge. For far too long, our understanding of the world as human animals has minimized the knowledge that smell offers in favour of the other senses. Considered an archaic sense, smell has been relegated to its carnal nature. In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, emphasizes that as civilization developed it gradually abandoned the olfactory stimuli associated with sexuality. Yet, the development of this therapeutic method also has shown a strong interest in the nose, a highly sensitive organ. Today, the science of the unconscious pays particular attention to the relationship that patients have to smells. The influence of scents on our attitudes is increasingly gaining ground in the business world, in the areas of both industry and commerce. Since pleasant smells stimulate our behaviour, olfactory marketing no doubt has a bright future ahead. Consequently, although smell may be the sense of the future, the future itself remains ambiguous. Olfactory research provides access to lucrative opportunities when it comes to entertainment or business, but in the artistic sphere, it explores a sensual world associated more with the “sense of the earth.”

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the few Western philosophers to take smell seriously, the “sense of the earth”—Sinn die Erde—urges us to fully accept our relationship to the world through experiences connected to life on Earth. He who said “all my genius is in my nostrils” never ceased to consider artistic expression as a true stimulus for life. In this issue of ESPACE art actuel, under Didier Morelli’s direction, the feature essays analyze art practices of various artists who activate the sense of smell and offer new avenues for understanding our environment. Concerning our relationship to the earth, Tatjana Schäfer’s essay presents Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room (1977) and Delcy Morelos’s Earthly Paradise (2022), works that, due to the odours they emit, lead to “nuanced understandings of earth as material, in a literal and a metaphorical framework.”

It’s true that the smell of the earth has a different impact on other animals. Morelli is right to remind us that our nostrils have only a limited ability to smell compared to the muzzles of canines. Focusing on two installations, one of Pope.L and the other of Shanie Tomassini, he analyzes how smell takes over a place, such as a museum, causing attraction or even repulsion. As we well know, the olfactory universe is physical; it affects the sensorial body. In relation to the animal world, Clara Muller’s article explores the primitive aspect of smell. In particular, she describes the evolution of smell in relation to the brain’s ability to understand the world, mainly with respect to our emotional reactions. Referring to the works of Magali Daniaux & Cédric Pigot, Amy Yao and Peter de Cupere, Muller grounds the phenomenon of “memory-related power” in the terrain of animal instincts. The idea of experiencing all kinds of smells, from the most soothing to the most aggressive, serves as motivation for the members of the Smell Club, composed of Danielle St-Amour, H Felix Chau Bradley and Lise Latreille, who got together for the first time in the summer of 2022. The fact that we can temporarily loose our sense of smell, like during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompted the group to focus particularly on the smells around us, including those considered unpleasant.

Scents, whatever they may be, are closely connected to a particular context. They have an indisputable power to evoke. In an interview with Jim Drobnick, Vicky Sabourin tells us about how the deaths of an uncle and a grandmother influenced her works while she was responsible for looking after their estates. Her artwork highlights the ability of smells to conceal other smells; how they can take on an intimacy that she wishes her art to express. This intimacy also exists in Maude Johnson’s text, which is based on the statements of artists Gabi Dao and Chloë Lum and reflects on the evocative power of certain smells. The “ontology of scents” that she discusses naturally proves to be diverse because it is often idiosyncratic. Each individual has a particular relationship to so-called good and bad smells. Furthermore, this relationship can presuppose a culture. It can identify us with a social category. This is what Vusumzi Nkomo reminds us in his text about South-African artist Thania Petersen’s work, which represents “an engagement with the grand narratives and economies of racial, colonial and imperial violence.”

In contrast to this political landscape, Laurence Schmidlin discusses natural smells, those that emerge in a specific place imbued with particular aromas. Her essay focuses on the work of Swiss artist Manon Bellet who showcases the olfactory ambiance of New Orleans. Here, with adverse weather and natural disasters, the landscape is transformed and becomes vulnerable. The role of smell, in the perception of the environment, has repercussions on the sensory memory of places. This future of smells associated with nature is evoked in Debra Riley Parr’s and Gwenn-Aël Lynn’s article, in which they portend futures in freefall; futures that “point towards uncharted territory.” Referring to the works of Julie C. Fortier and Oswaldo Maciá, they remind us however that this unpredictable future also leaves room for “exhilarating possibilities.” In response to an olfactory art “that will unfold under great planetary distress,” artist Carl Trahan proposes, as part of a new intervention, a perfume called Érèbe, which is meant to evoke “a gloomy, chthonic universe.”

André-Louis Paré