In conversation with Sissel Tolaas
Sissel Tolaas was conceived on a ship, somewhere in the North Sea between Norway and England. It is fitting that her prehistory stretches back to salty waters, not land—water suggests a moving, imprecise location, murky and grand and flowing without end, a borderless city housing a second reality below its surface in the form of a churning ecosystem.
Since the late 1980s, Tolaas has made a career from pursuing the invisible, examining the physiological, socio-cultural and linguistic implications of inhaling capricious smell molecules. Her practice, which draws extensively on work conducted in her SMELL RE_searchLab in Berlin, is interdisciplinary and elusive, informed by a background in chemistry, mathematics, languages and art (with qualifications from the universities of Oslo, Warsaw, Moscow, St Petersburg and Oxford). She speaks nine languages, including her two native tongues of Norwegian and Icelandic. At the time of publishing, she had no website and was known as rather difficult to reach.
Each morning, after training her nose in an archive of smells she built herself, Tolaas gets to work. She asks questions. Can smells be measured? What tools might be used to trigger smell memory? Is it possible to produce and learn systems of smell the way we might learn other systems—say, numbers or the alphabet? Can abstract smell molecules convey an explicit learned meaning by themselves? Tolaas’ esoteric projects—both self-initiated and commissioned—involve companies from adidas (for whom she created a smell logo) and Comme des Garçons to major educational institutions: MoMA, the DIA Foundation, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto, Art Institute of Chicago, Design Museum Helsinki, The National Gallery of Victoria; and universities including Tsinghua, Brown, Princeton, Yale, Oxford, Humboldt, Harvard and London School of Economics.
Tolaas has developed cheese from bacteria found in Bill Gates’ armpits and from the tears of Olafur Eliasson. She has set up cage fights in London for the purpose of collecting sweat, in a venture with photographer Nick Knight based on male violence. She has analysed the coats of the citizenry in Montpellier, France, and identified every element within (a now infamous Prada jacket was comprised of 2% dog feces, 5% soy sauce, 6% gasoline, 9% Jil Sander aftershave, 10% codfish, 12% CHANEL N°5, 26% tobacco and 30% sweat). One recent project sees Tolaas going full circle, as she scrutinises smell compositions of the world’s oceans. Her approach is perhaps best condensed to an observation she made on a yellow Post-It, shared to Instagram by the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. “First I remember a smell,” she scribbled, “then I see it.”
LAURA BANNISTER Where am I speaking to you from right now? Can you describe your surroundings to me?
SISSEL TOLAAS I’m speaking to you from my research lab in Berlin. Next to me there are 4,000 bottles with interesting secrets: smell molecules, chemical compounds. The rest of this venue is more or less taken up by different projects and research. A lot of work surrounds me. It is full time, all the time where I’m sitting.
BANNISTER From what I know of your life, you are usually engaged in several complex projects simultaneously. Can you talk me through those you’re in the midst of right now?
TOLAAS I’m working on a project for Miami, for the World Perfumery Congress, collaborating with a biotech company in Boston called Gingko. We are looking into human bacteria, into the future possibilities to make products by using or simulating the bacteria on the skin. In other words, what is the future of human skin bacteria? I’ve also been collaborating with a choreographer, performer and dancer for a project art Dia Art Foundation (Occasions and Other Occurrences, hosted by Isabel Lewis), which opened on the 24th June. I developed salon ‘SmellScapes’ that were part of a narrative, placed at different venues at West 22nd Street and Beacon in New York over four weekends in July. I’ve been preparing an outline of several workshops I’m doing at Pasadena Art Center in LA around mobility and the senses, looking at cars and other mobile tools and the role of the senses in their design. I’m also preparing for a big trip to Singapore and the south of Malaysia afterwards, which has to do with city SmellScape research. So, it’s not boring! I try to squeeze in a few days of break between all the tasks and all the travelling I have in front of me.
BANNISTER Do you keep regular working hours, or are you producing incessantly, seven days a week?
TOLAAS Since my lab is in my flat—or the lab is an extension of the flat—I tend to work a little too much, and at strange hours. On the other hand, there’s a whole world to smell, and a whole world to educate how to smell. There’s no limit. Wherever I put my lab, there will always be enough things to do and not enough time to do them.
BANNISTER I first learnt of you, as I suppose many people did, six years ago, reading the German magazine Mono Kultur. I kept the issue devoted to you close to my bed, visiting it often. I was especially drawn to the 16 different GUY scents embedded in the paper. You did something similar with food journal Swallow, imbuing scratch and sniff stickers with aromas of Mexican neighbourhoods. How difficult is it to fix a lasting scent on paper?
TOLAAS Smell can last on paper more or less endlessly. The ability of the technology is like a credit card; you can touch it 8,000 times. You touch a page of a book every now and again. Even if you touch every millimeter of the paper you’ll need to touch it a lot [before the smell fades]. In principle, the scents last forever, or for as long as the magazine or the book does. Maybe the book will fall apart one day, and the smell will get lost because of that. But it won’t disappear because it’s not working. The efficiency of the technology is amazing. The process behind it is quite complicated and expensive, but at the end of the day, it’s a good balance. You get a product with great durability … I use this technology in different contexts. I’ve developed it with the company that supports me, IFF (International Flavours and Fragrances Inc.), who are based in New York. I use it especially with projects that have to do with the body—a wall or surface becomes like skin. By touching the surface of the paper, you are metaphorically touching the skin of a person. If the same technology is painted on walls, it achieves the same thing: it is skin-like. I think about these things when I choose the application to display my product. I ask, ‘what is the purpose?’ As the message is contained in the smell there shouldn’t be too many visuals, sound or text explaining. The smell should do the job. We live in a world where smell is primarily used to illustrate the rest of the senses. The characteristic of my work is really that the smell is the focus of our attention. Very often you are left alone with a smell—you can act or react accordingly. That’s what makes the work personal.
BANNISTER In the Mono Kultur piece, you describe yourself as a professional provocateur. Does that descriptor still fit the work you do best?
TOLAAS Yes it does. Maybe I would call even myself an anthropologist of smell. I’m commuting between disciplines, between cultures, between the earth and the air. It’s hard to pin down to one specific area. And today, it’s not so important anymore. Everyone works all over the place. The way you can contribute to the world you live in is if you’re placing yourself in different contexts. Keeping your knowledge fit is also the challenge. By placing it in contexts it would not normally be placed, I keep my knowledge and myself fit. I take risks. I have guts. I am smart. I dare to go into deeper water. Hopefully, I can swim very well! Having access to so much information as humans, it’s a shame if we don’t take advantage of it. If we do our research carefully, there’s a lot we can add to our own knowledge.
BANNISTER We should talk about your smell archive, in existence since the early 90s. It contains some 7000 smells and 2500 molecules. The smells are isolated, canned in identical aluminium boxes. I’m interested in how these are organised, how they are grouped and filed. Is it alphabetical? Are there broad scent groups?
TOLAAS A lot of people have tendencies to collect. I also collect shoes. After having a lot of practice in collecting I’ve developed different methods of doing it, different ways of archiving. I love that means of keeping knowledge and preserving your legacy. I have always loved libraries—unfortunately libraries are shrinking. I asked myself, ‘How can I contribute to the world of archives in a way that makes sense in the context of what I do: an invisible reality and invisible materials?’ I have many archives. Some of my archives are pretty much mathematic, only data. Others are very physical: you can go into a room and smell components. You can read what is necessary to read about a smell molecule or smell composition. It’s a combination of types of archives: some are very abstract and some are very concrete. Together they make sense. Isolated, maybe they don’t. Together, there’s logic behind it. The language part is a database, but it’s also hands-on forms of dictionaries. Molecules are diluted in a dissolvent; my smell sources are placed in cans.
BANNISTER What is your daily process of training your nose, of familiarising and re-familiarising it to recognise new scents?
TOLAAS I do this professionally. After so many years, it happens naturally. I turn my nose on and off. As the day starts I have some rituals to take care of my tools. In this case, my nose is the tool I work with. I do smelling sessions like I would read the newspaper, drink my coffee, do my yoga or do my running. I consciously smell certain ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ smells. It’s not about being right or wrong, the fact that I do it is what is important. It’s a part of my daily life, to take care of my nose. I have not insured the nose yet, but maybe I should very soon! You never know what may happen.
BANNISTER The level to which you have sharpened your sense of smell is not something easily replicated. I wonder though, do you think it’s possible to retrain an adult nose to think more scientifically about smell, a nose that’s been firmly socialised and comes with deep tolerances and prejudices?
TOLAAS It’s complicated because of exactly what you just listed. We walk around living our lives, carrying a backpack full of prejudices, especially towards smells. It’s very hard to get rid of them. The first time in life you come across a smell, your emotional attachment to it—be it positive or negative—remains your emotional attachment to it until you die. There’s nowhere in the world we can relearn or take on a smell anew. There’s no curriculum in primary school or high school or university where it’s obligatory to learn how to smell, learn the chemistry of smell and all those issues of ethics and morale. If you want to change and really try to approach these issues, you have to get a tailor-made methodology. There are no general rules around how to do this—it’s a very individual process. But, you know, I do this all the time. I did it with myself, using my archive to train my nose. I do it for others who really want to change and add quality to life by getting rid of certain prejudices. It’s more or less like rehab … Maybe this should be my next business endeavour.
BANNISTER It’s a niche, but I think you’ll have no trouble finding customers.
BANNISTER Can you give me some examples of the kind of people who’ve enlisted your help to smell differently?
TOLAAS Sure, but it depends how deep you want to go. There are certain issues in relation to smell that are about the past and are not necessarily so easy [to work through]. In the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, there is always a moment when things start to go wrong. If you work on that psychological level, you need to work with people that have knowledge in psychiatry and psychology and beyond. I don’t dare—I don’t go that deep.
I really try to contribute to these issues in education. Having had certain barriers working with adults, I decided to focus on children. That is where I can have influence and see concerted results. I do a lot of workshops with children very early in life because of exactly what you say: all those prejudices are a problem. The sooner you have access to influence humans, the better. So I try to get involved in education at a very early stage, when kids are small, to get them integrating their nose in the process of understanding the world. That can have a big impact. In some scenarios I still work with grown-ups, using the same methodology I use on children. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Working with children is so easy. You are born with alert senses. You are open. You have fantasy. You have creativity. The intellectual part of your brain is not so developed, so all the rules and stereotypes out there … you are still not aware of their existence. It’s a very good starting point … You are born open to the world, and as soon as you start to gain experiences you start to limit your approach and understanding.
BANNISTER On the topic of positive education, earlier this year I saw you speak with Aesop in Sydney. What exactly is the nature of your relationship?
TOLAAS I did a talk with them in Berlin last night! I think there’s a lot of intellectual sympathy. Dennis [Paphitis, Aesop’s founder] is a very good friend. I think he appreciated what I do and the way I think and wanted to give people free access to it. Generous as he is, he allowed it to happen. There are not many people around like that. Queen Elizabeth II has a very interesting quality. When she travels, she always gives intellectual gifts to the city or country she visits. When she was visiting Berlin, her intellectual gift was to give a talk by [art historian] Neil MacGregor. He spoke at the technical university. I went—it was amazing. It’s a very nice thing to do. I think more companies should give that type of gift. It’s so important to be generous.
BANNISTER During that talk you mentioned a project with a university, creating a scent map of the campus to assist vision-impaired students with navigation. I found it fascinating, but the details are fuzzy.
TOLAAS I think I talked about my city ‘SmellScape’ research projects—I’ve done a lot of them in different parts of the word. The Kansas City one, for instance, was about segregation in the Midwest, about smell tolerance and the construct of the ‘other.’ I got people out in the city rediscovering each other (and each other’s neighbourhoods) in a series of walks. Rather than judging each other by how they see, they would experience via smell. The other thing was applying my knowledge and real-world experience to a university that’s about to be built in Washington for disabled students. We attempted to integrate smell and use other senses to purpose-navigate and communicate on the campus. I wasn’t working with the students but the architects in Boston. It was government stuff.
BANNISTER And you were enabling students to move around with senses other than sight.
BANNISTER Do odours fluctuate markedly in different weather conditions? Would those university students smell classrooms, footpaths and corridors differently in sweltering summer heat, and in rainy weather, when there are different plants in bloom?
TOLAAS Certainly. For smell, the warmer, the better. In general the temperatures play a big role in the process of doing efficient work. For instance, during winter, research and fieldwork can be very difficult … In summer in the city people leave windows and doors open, their flats become airy. More smells emit into the city and public areas. You are much more successful in finding interesting smells when it’s hotter. It’s like sound: if you live in the city, perhaps in an apartment, in winter everyone is closed in and in summer you hear conversations going on across courtyards. Everything changes. It’s very entertaining to concentrate on it. If you try to hear all the conversations, it’s impossible. If you focus on one, you might get some information. It is the same when you hunt a smell.
BANNISTER You often say we don’t use our noses enough; that our sense of smell is underrated. Is it common for people to unconsciously use their noses as navigation tools, in the same way vision informs us?
TOLAAS The process of the senses is like following. The nose is the quickest, triggering emotion and memory. Vision goes to the rendering part of the brain—maybe it reaches the subconscious at some stage, but much later than smell. So smell is very intuitive, bypassing the language section of the brain. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to speak about smell. In humans smell is a process that happens, primarily, unconsciously. In animals it happens consciously. And this is very much due to the fact that smell has not been part of the discourse in this part of the world. I’m talking about an Anglo-American context, which I am a part of and maybe yourself. If you are going to Malaysia, or another small culture where being together is an essential part of life, the senses play a very different role. The experience I’ve had in Malaysia is that people speak about smell in a special way, they have terminology to explain precisely what they smell in the same way they see colours. We are definitely lacking there.
We don’t take smell seriously. We live in a world that’s sanitised, sterilised and deodorised to such an extent that it’s not healthy for you, your surroundings or the planet. We have to re-educate ourselves and start to understand why we have the senses. They are there for free! We are equipped from them from the very start. Everything else costs money. How to keep the senses fit—that is what I’m trying to do.
At present, [our understanding] of smell is primarily filtered through perfume ads. Marketing took over where science left. I think it’s time to change that. What this kind of advertising predicts is absolutely bullshit! It’s just a lot of promises never meant to be kept. Slowly people will understand this and they won’t want to be lied to anymore … I have nothing against soap, deodorant and perfume. It’s all fine, but it’s not fine for someone to tell us what to do. It’s so bad that we know deodorant before we know the mother’s milk! We all strive to be different. We all strive to be unique, and we all possess our own smell, one as unique as our fingerprint. I think we should all have the chance to find it out, before we decide to cover it up … When my daughter was going through puberty she said, “Mummy, everybody is using deodorant! I think I should use it too.” I said, “Why? Everybody does it? That doesn’t mean anything.” You have to show why you have those arguments … Hardly anybody is able to do that. The benefit of having your smell around is that it provides information. But if you add something on the top, it’s not you anymore.
BANNISTER I remember when I was very young being shocked to learn that my grandfather had never worn deodorant in his life.
TOLAAS I’ve never worn deodorant in my entire life either. If you are used to eating garlic or chilli on your food you need more to get a kick. It’s the same with any kind of drug. All kinds of addiction are problematic. Whatever, I’m not here to be judgmental—people can do whatever they want … but it might be interesting to find out your smell and stand out, rather than covering. The world we live in is driven by looks: by me, myself and iPhone.
BANNISTER You rarely interact with the fragrance industry, which has this enormous, churning, unending output. Are there any brands or houses doing exciting, innovative things with scent?
TOLAAS I have nothing against [the industry], as I said. It’s a world that has been there forever and will continue to be. But I am not making perfume. I try to do things differently and use the same knowledge for a different purpose. I absolutely respect all those [perfumers] who are out there doing their jobs seriously—I want that to be said. But yes, there’s not much that jumps out at me, to which I say, ‘Wow, this is absolutely brilliant’ …
I’m working with one of the biggest fragrance companies in the world, so directly or indirectly my influence is there. I think I can take credit for having influenced a lot of what is happening now. I’ve been around for 20 years. At the beginning I was absolutely a lone wolf. Everybody thought I was crazy—absolutely insane—doing what I did. Now there are so many copycats. I was like, ‘Hello?’ There’s no credit. It’s like stealing. How do you deal with it? I tend to believe the original idea is always the best one, and will always be tracked back to its inventor.
BANNISTER At least you force copycats to research. You have no website.
TOLAAS Exactly! Oh my god. Maybe I’m the only one in the world who doesn’t have a website.
BANNISTER It actually makes it hard to navigate your career properly! There’s no external catalogue of your projects, you just find glimpses of them here and there in media clippings and journals and start to build a map. The deeper into the internet you get, new surprises keep unfolding.
TOLAAS You think that’s a positive or a negative?
BANNISTER It’s refreshing. It makes people dig.
TOLAAS Those who want to find me, they’ll find me. I’m making a page now—one page—where you can actually find me. All my friends are getting very mad at me. They say, ‘Sissel, we are not working for you! We are getting tired of forwarding your requests!’ The reason I don’t have a website is not because I’m, you know, desperately analogue. OK, our nose might be the last analogue device we have in the world. Thank god we have one that can’t be digitalised completely! On the other hand, my work is so much about invisibility. I work with smell and make smells. You cannot smell a website. Is it all going to be text and visuals? I hate that kind of stuff. Also, if you work on 10 projects simultaneously, how are you going to update your site? … Because of all these issues, I decided I might make one page with a list of types of projects I do … Very little information, maybe a link where people can get hold of me. In spite of that, I’m so busy now, with no website, and somehow people still manage to get in touch.
BANNISTER Perhaps you need a secretary. Do you have any assistants?
TOLAAS No. I have a lot of interns. But you know, by the time you explain things, you could have done them yourself. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy working with others; I collaborate with people all the time. For the practicalities, like bookkeeping, it would be helpful to have someone, but I’m away so much … So far, I manage on my own. I even do my taxes myself. I love to find out how to cheat the state … [Laughs.] I am joking!
BANNISTER What pressing questions are you still asking yourself about smell?
TOLAAS The fascinating thing with smell is that it’s never the same. I smell something now, two seconds later it’s different; it adds some molecules floating around in space, improving the smell. We are not able to identify the subtleties. Here’s a question I might pose: Could we one day use the nose so efficiently we could smell each other’s state of mind? Could I smell that you had a hard day yesterday? Will that influence how I understand you and the world?
BANNISTER Are there certain questions around smell that have disappeared— now answered or faded from public consciousness?
TOLAAS All the time. The topic of smell as part of daily discourse is hardly present. It’s not about one or two issues disappearing. It’s all of it. I wish that we could sit around the dining table and speak about smell with each other rather than what we look like. We tend to mention, ‘The food smells good,’ and that’s about it.
BANNISTER I’m interested in the limitations you deal with working with smell. In ArtForum Chandler Burr wrote, “There is virtually no serious aesthetic language applied to scent as a medium.”
TOLAAS Yes, it’s hard to articulate. However, when you start to speak about smells people become more open, less perplexed. If we don’t even try, of course it will remain impossible … Me sitting here speaking about how it could work [is useless], you have to experience it for yourself and apply it. This is why I spend so much money and time on educating children. Hopefully one day, the next generation will sit around tables and meetings and will speak less, smell more, close their eyes and leave the meeting with a big deal made, without ever having said a word. That’s the future I see.
BANNISTER And all of them silently thinking in NASALO, your fictional language around smell.
BANNISTER You are fluent in nine languages. Do some lend themselves to talking specifically and usefully about odour more than others?
TOLAAS Definitely not English, Norwegian or French. Maybe the French might be very good at speaking about perfume and fragrance, maybe they’re more advanced than the Germans, but my experience is that the best are the smaller languages from ‘primitive’ cultures where communal living is a big concern. I’ve done work in Mexico City with the Aztec Language and with Inuit. Even in the context of Europe, once you go further south to Italy or Spain or Portugal or Greece, the senses immediately have a different definition. Food is an issue, family is important. In another hemisphere, people are very isolated and cold, not very much into sensory experiences.
BANNISTER Can we talk about NASALO? You call it a fictional language. What makes it fictional? These words are invented, but they do serve the real–life purpose of describing smells in your library.
TOLAAS It’s fiction because it’s not yet applied. Right now, it’s a project-based dictionary of made up words. It’s not arbitrary. It is not a continuous work or form that could function across, say, the entirety of Malaysia or Brazil. It’s bits and bites of geography and other languages, primarily used to test out different types of methodologies.
In each project where language and smell has been an issue, I’ve used NASALO to develop abstract words, which can then be used to speak about specific smells. It’s very similar to how we speak about colours. We talk about them in an abstract way. What does red mean? Why shouldn’t that abstraction be possible with smell? As I’ve explained, a smell changes very quickly. But colours change too, depending on the light. The argument against a precise language for smell is that smell is too emotional, too intrinsic, too personal. But I do workshops and training where I de-contextualise smell, remove it from its familiar environment. People relate to it in a different way. If you have the smell source in front of you, you get distracted by how it looks and sounds. You cannot focus. I guess it has only been possible through my collaborations with the industry. They’ve given me access to knowledge that allowed me to reproduce reality endlessly for the purpose of understanding it. And I’ve been able to do the same with language. The key words here are de-contextualisation, training, awareness. Again, working with children and language is more fantastic and constructive than working with grown-ups. Kids are still in the process of learning; they have a sense of fantasy and imagination. Because our perception with smell is so quick, the exclamations that come out of the kids’ mouths are very often phonetic. They try concise words, similar to comic books—you know, very abstract. EEEE! AAAH! OOOH!
BANNISTER So children have contributed to NASALO’s development?
TOLAAS Oh yes, very much. It’s been 50-50.