Aromatica Poetica is delighted to present The Olfactory Report, a monthly column dedicated to the business of our noses. In it scent artist and writer, Catherine Haley Epstein, shares news, thought pieces, reviews and opinions from the olfactory landscape.
For our first edition of this one of a kind column, she presents a round up of some of the more exciting events and initiatives of 2020. Despite it being, and continually being, a year full of isolation, dissonance and breaking of systems, the year brought much attention to the world of our noses. Because loss of smell is a symptom of COVID, and there were already initiatives underway in research, art, and technology, 2020 seems a banner year for the nose. Below you’ll find a diverse (though by no means exhaustive) sampling of initiatives launched in 2020 listed alphabetically…
Abscent is a UK-based charity that has become a major resource for the general public for knowledge, tests, and research around the loss of smell. There are quizzes, and trusted information from an impressive team and board of advisors around smell disorders. We are on high alert for smell disorders this season of COVID and this site has links to smell training kits, apps and games related to the health of our precious sense of smell.
Portland, Oregon’s sprawling indie bookstore, Powell’s, had to close temporarily during the pandemic. During the closure they surveyed their customers about what they missed most about the store, and the overwhelming response was the scent of the books in the aisles of the store. Powell’s then collaborated with the Demeter Fragrance Library and made a Powell’s signature scent. The fragrance notes claim to be wood, violet and biblichor, which plays on the word petrichor—the smell of post-rain. Here’s the description on Powell’s site:
“Like the crimson rhododendrons in Rebecca, the heady fragrance of old paper creates an atmosphere ripe with mood and possibility. Invoking a labyrinth of books; secret libraries; ancient scrolls; and cognac swilled by philosopher-kings, Powell’s by Powell’s delivers the wearer to a place of wonder, discovery, and magic heretofore only known in literature.”
Reports say it is more sweet and vanilla forward than the musty delicious book smell. Coincidentally we wrote on the Odorbet about this happy, dusty and musty smell of older books. It turns out lignin, a compound found in the book glue, is what decomposes and lets off the unique smell as books age.
Journalist James Nestor’s book, Breath, will delight your nose. Not only is it a well-researched book that explores the lost art science of breathing, it contains over 15 new ways to breathe! New methods for discovery include nose songs and Buteyko breathing. This breathy book of knowledge ironically was written by a man who won an award for writing a book about holding your breath (“Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells us About Ourselves”).
Digital Scent Festival
Last Spring the Digital Scent Festival, a 6-week long online festival facilitated and founded by Yosh Han and the Aroma Village, provided community, connection and knowledge sharing during the Spring and Summer of 2020. The festival was covered by various news resources, and attendees and panelists came from all over the world. Yosh facilitated the panels and interviews and they ranged from topics such as Scent + Future, Scent + Manufacturing, and Scent + Transformations. I was on one of the first panels of the festival, Scent + Design. This is something to look forward to in 2021, as it is inclusive, VIP access to many experts in the field all from the comfort of your home/device.
A wake up bell has sounded across industry and discipline that there is an underrepresentation of BIPOC perspectives. While most of the systems are crumbling due to having foundations of sand, this initiative is specific to the fragrance industry. Future Olfactives has an Instagram handle you may follow in order to stay informed of how they will be pursuing the mission of bringing a more BIPOC scented world to us, a diversity that is highly missing in the formal industry.
In their words: “Future Olfactives is an intersectional collective of independent perfumers and fragrance industry professionals dedicated to uplifting underrepresented BIPOC members of the fragrance community.”
Institute for Art & Olfaction (IAO) Accelerator Program
The IAO launched the annual Accelerator Program to reward a “project or initiative designed to further access and social equity in the field of fragrance.” Awardees receive a stipend, a six-month learning fellowship and consulting and presentation opportunities within the IAO community. The awardees for 2020 are: BLACKPERFUMERS.COM, led by Elle in New Orleans; and a Scratch’n’Sniff database led by Jas Brooks in Chicago.
My book published in 2019, saw a twin titled book by author Harold McGee in 2020. His book is more focused on the chemical aspects and names of scent, and his background is in technical food writing. Since the olfactory world is small, and an ex-teacher was the proofreader, I was surprised at our matching titles. Alas, The Netherlands Olfactory Science Exchange published a lovely review comparing the two books. There is plenty of room in the pool to write books about scent – dive in! Please, only do it with integrity and good research, and maybe a fresh-scented new title?
*Read Aromatica Poetica’s review of my Nose Dive HERE!
In November, an ambitious, olfactory research project was born in Europe. Odeuropa’s mission is to promote Europe’s olfactory heritage. The logic is that if there are already digitized assets of visual arts and cultural history, so why not create an olfactory catalog to mirror the visual and cultural clues? A first of its kind, the research project is backed by the EU Horizon 2020 program for 2.8 M EUR (3 M USD). The team is vast and includes technology experts, art historians, and even an English literature expert from George Washington University. Caro Verbeek, my partner on the Odorbet project is part of the team as well (congrats Caro!).
This summer I co-founded the Odorbet with Caro Verbeek. Odorbet (a word I coined) is a growing vocabulary for our noses. Our respective research is complimentary: hers for her PhD in art history with a focus on olfaction, and mine as an artist researching my book Nose Dive over the past several years. The website was launched over COVID, and we are steadily building our database and sharing three word installations online. The words range from made up words to neuroscience, art historical and anthropological words all in the service of building a vocabulary for our sense of smell. One of my favorite finds in my research is the ancient Taoist term for the nose “Heavenly Door”. It turns out the heavenly door is where the life affirming chi goes in and out. We are continually seeking contributions from either research or made up with clear definitions are welcome. Be in touch! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Olfactory Art Keller
The very first brick and mortar gallery dedicated to the olfactory arts, Olfactory Arts Keller, opened softly in 2020. Located in the lower east side at 25A Henry Street in New York City, the gallery will undoubtedly be a boon for exhausted noses in New York City. Founder Andreas Keller is an expert on the human sense of smell. He holds a Ph.D. in genetics from the Julius-Maximilian-University in Wuerzburg, Germany and a Ph.D. in philosophy from The City University of New York (CUNY). He did a really nice talk in the Spring of 2020 for Cooper Union on “smell and Authentic Experientiality” that you can watch on Vimeo.
Perfumery Code of Ethics
Master perfumer, artist and maverick Christophe Laudamiel has continued his mission on education and ethics in the fragrance industry. He continues to push boundaries and open kimonos with respect to practices in the industry that keep it less innovative than it could be. In this particular effort, he’s asked perfumers and writers to sign a Perfumery Code of Ethics, where he feels one is majorly lacking. In an industry where copying is done flagrantly and with no repercussions, and there is continual confusion perpetuated by those who write about fragrances, a code of ethics seems a must as the industry shifts. This code of ethics is a reminder to sound the alarm if you see something wrong in the field of fragrance, and to practice perfumery with integrity.
Most professionals have a code of ethics, and if there is to be a professional troupe of perfumers and aficionados, much like other initiatives this year, it seems urgent. I have signed and play to adhere to the outlines. I’ve been blown away over the years at the behavior and oddities surrounding the business of scent, so this is a great start to more structure. After all – the more structure we have, the more creative and strong we may become.
“It shall help the public navigate on a sea of obscurism, over abysses of legal voids and through labyrinths of misinformations, alternative facts and behaviors.” – Christophe Laudamiel, July 2020.
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a SMELLICOPTER!!!! Proudly hailing from my home state, a University of Washington research team created an incredible drone powered by an actual Manduca sexta hawkmoth coupled with a “cast and surge” protocol that mimics the way the moths seek out scent. These live antennae, plucked from live moths (which apparently remain biologically and chemically active for up to four hours), navigate towards smells, and avoid obstacles as they travel through the air. The team published these results Oct. 1 in the journal IOP Bioinspiration & Biomimetics. The project was funded by the government, which has many exciting projects with the brain and scent going on by the way. I’m guessing the Smellicopter may be used to seek out landmines and other subtly scented aspects pertaining to war and defense. It might also be able to seek out the smell of fear one day, a project that has not eluded the government.
—About the author—
CATHERINE HALEY EPSTEIN is a multi-disciplinary artist, award-winning writer, designer, and curator. She wrote a book titled Nose Dive (2019) which explores the intersection of creativity with the science and anthropology of scent. She is the co-founder of the Odorbet, a growing vocabulary for our noses which resides online and in a growing database offline for now. Articles of note include “Primal Art: Notes on the Medium of Scent”, Temporary Art Review (2016). She writes about contemporary art and practice and culture at her platform Mindmarrow. She conducts workshops on the use of scent in creative practices, advises companies on scent-related projects, and continues to collaborate with artists and writers on unique initiatives that explore intersections between art and other disciplines. She is currently a candidate for her master’s at Northwestern University. You may follow her on Instagram @mindmarrow, or email her at email@example.com with questions on the nose front, or if you are interested in contributing to the Olfactory Report!