1. The sniff shot
When you are a world-renowned pioneer in smells, it’s somewhat inevitable you will end up sticking your face into peculiar places: the burned rubber tire of a Chevy lowrider, a rotting hunk of wall insulation from an abandoned home, a cupped palmful of cool water from the Detroit River.It’s also inevitable that the trailing documentary crew (sent by the local gallery behind your next odor-based installation) and photographer (sent, in this case, by Engadget) will home in on this money shot, jostling ahead of and around you to capture the famous nose in intimate proximity with prosaic, occasionally distasteful, objects.
This is completely understandable. Along with these very words, those images are a critical way to visualize how Sissel Tolaas, who flew to Detroit from Berlin, does the unique fieldwork that has made her a legend in the colossal yet somewhat invisible world of modern olfaction.
Yet there’s also no denying that the sight of this — the sniff shot, ubiquitous in casual Google image searches of Tolaas’ name — is not only curious but also comical. The idea of placing one’s grown, adult face in close communion with the fluff spilling out of a blighted house to deeply inhale its surely unhealthy molecules and have them wash over you on an emotional level… well, it’s something dogs do. But how else are we, with the linguistic and visual tools at our disposal, supposed to communicate what the great Sissel Tolaas is really about to you, the reader?
Anyway, Tolaas hates being shadowed by cameras this way, although she’s being a terrific sport about it. On her first day in Detroit, she arrives at a former tobacco factory in Poletown. The area was named for the Polish influx of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but today the blocks around the factory are dotted with derelict family houses and porch steps leading to empty lots.
Tolaas’ goal is to collect smells for an upcoming exhibition. She is prolific in her work, and one ongoing project is creating “smellscapes,” capturing the odors of cities from Singapore to Cape Town and preserving them for the future the way one would conserve a heritage building. A tall, Norwegian-Icelandic woman with bright blonde hair in a choppy bob, Tolaas is something like a chemist, anthropologist, archaeologist and artist of smell. Her job in Michigan is to capture odors that she will later reconstitute synthetically, telling a narrative of Detroit through the medium of nasal sensations.
A man named Jay Elias answers the factory door. He’s restoring the dilapidated building’s windows and recently bought a multistory home just two blocks away for $3,200 in a foreclosure sale. He walks Tolaas through the community’s history. First, the infamous riots of 1967. Then, the “condemnation of Poletown,” where one of several residential areas in Detroit — including homes, churches, schools — was bulldozed, as well as the crack epidemic of the 1980s that led residents to burn down empty houses in their own neighborhoods just to drive out dealers and addicts. The recession of a decade ago kneecapped the whole city’s manufacturing and housing markets, and the success of revitalization efforts since has been variable.
All the while, Tolaas listens intently, notebook in hand. She peppers him with questions at a rapid clip: “What kind of vegetation here?” “Who lives in these houses?” “Are you interested in getting in touch with them or it doesn’t matter?” Her face is by default stern, severe and engaged, lighting up instantly as she hurtles toward an idea.
After a thorough interrogation, she steps inside the factory — still a construction site with shredded floorboards and stray toilet bowls propped in the corner — in her open-toe wedges.
She leans toward a sooty windowsill and without asking permission snaps off a piece of the tar sealant between her index and thumb. She inhales it, then extracts a shiny ziplock bag to place the treasure inside. Next, a chunk of decomposing floorboard. She tries to break a shard of broken glass from a dusty, semi-shattered window frame with her bare hands, then pushes her face toward it instead.
“I just want to bring them to my hotel and check them out,” Tolaas says to Elias, smiling. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Elias shrugs and smiles tightly — he doesn’t seem to know how to respond to the charismatic, Scandinavian-accented woman but is polite enough to facilitate.
“I wouldn’t be sniffing too much around here,” he says. The building’s detritus is decrepit, moldy, possibly toxic.
“So what?” says Tolaas.
Most people avoid unpleasant smells. But to her, most people are increasingly disembodied, out of touch with their natural senses, with the real world. Through her work, she wishes to put us back in our bodies. Smell, the most inscrutable and visceral of the senses, is the tool she wields.
This is all perfectly laudable and reasonable as a mission statement. But seen up close, it again prompts the query: Why is the sight of her smelling things funny? Why does it trigger mild intrigue from not only Elias but also Tolaas’ accompanying mini party of documentarians, a gallery liaison and, admittedly, myself, who came just to witness this? Most of all, doesn’t this reaction say more about us than about her?
2. Our deodorized world
To smell is really just to sense the ambient chemicals in the air around us, flowing in and out of our body in 23,000 breaths every day.It was one of the first senses we developed as creatures, navigating the world without language or clear sight. Salmon can smell the waters they were born in, and human mothers can distinguish the individual scent of their babies within an hour of birth.
Yet of our five traditional senses, smell is the most underrated. Think of how hard it is to describe a smell to someone who’s never encountered it themselves.
Part of this is due to biology. Smells mostly bypass the processing parts of our brain that handle language and visual stimuli. The olfactory bulb, which receives odors, is instead considered part of the limbic system, associated with emotions, memory and decision making. This is why the scent of one’s hometown can be so immediately nostalgic and why the aroma of week-old milk causes visceral repulsion.
In the West, the sensuality of smell has also relegated it below the supposedly higher, rational senses of vision and hearing. Kant, Freud and Darwin all characterized scents as animalistic and primitive. Then, with the Industrial Revolution, workers flocked to cities, away from the odors of the natural world, while the mass hygiene campaigns of the 19th century made cleanliness not only a public health issue but also a moral one. The middle and upper classes took pride in the fact that they didn’t have to do manual labor and had access to modern plumbing to wash regularly.
Since our taste receptors basically identify only salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami, most of what we call flavor is really the fumes of our food wafting over olfactory receptors at the top of the nose. In fact, various studies show how powerfully visual cues can manipulate our more unrefined senses. Among the findings: Cheesecake can taste 20 percent sweeter when it’s on a round plate instead of a square one, the intensity of coffee doubles but its sweetness dips when it’s served in a white mug rather than a clear one, salty popcorn can taste sweet when it’s in a red bowl.
“Having no smell became the marker of class distinction,” said David Howes, an anthropologist from Concordia University and co-director of the Centre for Sensory Studies. “Power became odorless.”
This modern lack of appreciation for smell may be just a cultural bias. Hunter-gatherers in the rainforests of the Malay Peninsula and coastal Mexico have been found to use complex vocabularies for scents and far outperform English or Dutch people in identifying smells.
But the last century of consumer technology has embedded this hierarchy of the senses into our everyday devices. We have exponentially augmented our sight (through TVs, virtual reality), sound (phones, voice assistants) and touch (keyboards, controllers) but hardly smell nor its cousin, taste.
The result, said Howes, is an “unbalanced sensorium” — today’s humans have overpowered eyes and ears while our other interfaces atrophy. Modern computing — which is smooth, sterile, anti-odor — has allowed us to connect with one another and the world at great distances and speeds but mostly through aural and visual means. So we are, increasingly, an aural and visual culture.
3. The medium is the message
Tolaas, however, knows the language of smell.Literally, in that she invented a lexicon called Nasalo with more than 2,500 terms — like “clesh” for clean sea and “ino,” which is like cleaned asphalt and stones. But also metaphorically, in that she has the highly trained snout, chemical knowledge and technological tool kit to perceive it.
She was raised in Stavanger, the oil capital of Norway, the oldest of six sisters. At 18, she went to Warsaw, despite not speaking Polish until her arrival, then studied in Oslo and Oxford before completing her PhD in chemistry in Moscow. It was the late 1980s, and the Soviet Union was crumbling around her. She said that a mid-lecture announcement that butter was available would send students running to the store. But it was Tolaas’ most formative experience, a test of her fearlessness and an escape from Norway, which she found stifling.
By the early 1990s, Tolaas, who speaks nine languages, had moved to Berlin. After dabbling in synthetic weather experiments, she found smell at the crossroads of her interests in chemistry, culture and the invisible ways humans communicate. To explore these questions, she also saw that she’d have to utilize art, design and education as much as hard-core science.
“My work is about life and being alive,” she said. “Information that surrounds all of us, how to focus on that properly. Which from the very beginning, that was a concern. What is the potential in the air that you breathe? How does it determine which life we have? How does it determine who we are as humans and our role toward each other?”
She started her own archive of smells: 7,000 vacuum-sealed steel cans arranged in rows, containing cake, dirty socks and ice cubes. They are precisely labelled — why the smell was chosen, where from, when — and engineered to allow her to pump scents out. It is the palette of aromas with which she trained her nose.
Since 2004, those archives have resided in a lab attached to her apartment that is funded by International Flavors & Fragrances, the American scent and taste corporation known as IFF, which also employs her as a consultant.
IFF supports her lab, providing chemicals and analysis. Tolaas works with its research and development unit.
The institutional support with deep pockets, the decades of research in an area that’s increasingly in vogue, the ease in both lab and museum — these make the 53-year-old Tolaas a singular figure.
Her work appears everywhere: MoMa, MIT, Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In one exhibition, Tolaas captured the armpit sweat of severely anxious men from Greenland to China, recreated their individual smells and painted them onto the walls of the installation. (“There was a composite odor of anxiety that just infused the whole room, and it was really unhinging,” said Howes, who saw it in Basel, Switzerland). After the smell of fear, Tolaas recreated the smell of violence from cage fighters in East London. She has recreated the scents of Berlin’s famed Berghain nightclub, New York’s Central Park in October, World War I, communism and the ocean. Her shows are immersive and emotional in a distracted world. They aim to grip audiences right by the lizard brain.
Tolaas also invented 1,500 “smell memory kits” — abstract odors that have never been smelled before. When you want to remember an event, you open the amulet and inhale, sealing the moment in your emotional core. For the London Olympics, she made a Limburger cheese sourced from David Beckham’s sweaty socks, which was served to VIPs. Previously, she has made dairy products from the perspiration of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.
“She’s broken taboos, and she has none of the ordinary inhibitions, and she’s tried to exploit the power of smell as fully as possible,” said Howes.
“She’s an important and interesting, very ahead-of-her-time person in the olfactory field,” said Asifa Majid, a professor at the UK’s University of York who co-authored the study on hunter-gatherers on the Malay Peninsula. “I think her innovations in the field of olfaction art are undeniable. There are many artists now that are working with scent, but Sissel is really one of the first, if not the first, to do that in a systematic way.”
So, too, concurs Tolaas. “I think very much due to having me around, the whole discourse around smell has changed,” she said matter-of-factly. “I mean, 25 years I have been in the business, yeah? So even I think I can take very much credit for this.”
4. “What it means, ‘hustle’?”
If the source of Tolaas’ smell — say, the reek of interstate exhaust fumes clinging to the cold chain link of a pedestrian bridge — can’t fit in a ziplock bag, she uses headspace technology. A mini vacuum about the size of a cigarette pack lightly sucks up air molecules into a fine glass tube. Inside the tube is what looks like a flower’s stamen dusted in white carbon powder that absorbs the molecules in the air. Depending on the strength of the smell source, extracting enough chemicals from the atmosphere can take 20 minutes to hours.The stamens go to IFF for a gas chromatography analysis, and a breakdown of the hundreds of molecules in the sample goes back to Tolaas. It’s the blueprint from which she mixes the synthetic scent herself, sometimes using hundreds of compounds like notes in a complex chord.
Tolaas is not an oil painter, recreating a scene entirely through her subjectivity; she has no personal style or preference, she says. But neither does there exist an electric nose, a device that can perfectly capture a snapshot of a smell and reproduce it like a Xerox. Instead, she is more like a curator or editor. She recreates an odor with attention to what she deems its most relevant elements, chopping away extraneous molecules. “It’s my take on that reality,” she says.
Yet before she gets to recreate a scene, there is the critical curatorial issue of what smells she should even capture.
Like a good storyteller, she is seeking to tell a macro narrative through a micro one: Detroit at an inflection point in its history via 20 or so smells from a single neighborhood. Like a good anthropologist, she is wary of parachuting in for a week and rehashing clichés. And there are many storytelling avenues in Detroit, trite ones included. There is ruin porn, postindustrial urban decay, food deserts. There is a creative renaissance. There is gentrification. There is the uneasy billionaire-fueled dominance of a gleaming downtown business district.
So Tolaas speaks to everyone: a man with a Route 66 cap walking his dog in Clark Park (“You seem to be a happy human being — what makes you happy?”), a young couple who got engaged literally seconds ago in front of the Scott Fountain on Belle Isle, a bride-to-be on the verge of ugly crying (“Why did you choose here?”) and of course her local liaisons from Science Gallery Lab Detroit (“What is ‘the Detroit way’?” “What it means, ‘hustle’?”).
One afternoon, Tolaas takes a tour of the Fisher Building, an iconic skyscraper designed by the lauded Detroit architect Albert Kahn. Built in 1928 and eventually bought by General Motors, it’s a relic from an era when Motown was one of the richest cities in America. Each of the 16 chandeliers on its ground floor alone is valued at $100,000.
Tolaas loves the ornamental Art Deco designs — “complex but still harmonic,” she says — and shoots iPhone photos at every turn. She listens with intent and mouths, “Oh, my God” gleefully when the tour guide drops architectural tidbits, maneuvering to get a better view while the other tourists stay contentedly static.
She runs her fingertips over engravings of koi on the bronze elevator door as the tour ends. On the way down, she peels back the grubby, padded lining from the elevator wall, the kind that protects the walls when transporting freight, and dives her head behind for a whiff. The usual looks of puzzlement from fellow passengers follow. But it’s one of the only times she’s purposefully smelled anything on the whole visit.
5. On the nose
As much as she’s an intensely curious listener, Tolaas is also a vigorous talker. And as much as she knows what she loves, she’s blunt about what she doesn’t.Like the accompanying cameraman’s chunky Yeezy 500 sneakers. “Oh, horrible!” was her expression. Neither is she a fan of the garishly lit skybridge extending out of the One Woodward skyscraper; Air Canada, which botched her flight transfer in Toronto; weak regional ginger ales; or high-calorie American fried breakfasts.
Yet she’s more effusive about what she likes: the Pewabic tiling that adorns the downtown Guardian Building, the Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert in Berlin that her daughter recently took her to for her birthday. She’s quick to find the beauty, the joy, the wonder — you’ll know because she’ll label it “gaw-jus,” “Eh. May. Zing.” or “bee-oootiful,” occasionally followed by a sharp, guttural exhale. She likes to say that your senses are both for free and for fun.
Ironically, Tolaas says there are no good or bad smells. She tries to be neutral, pragmatic, rational in her smell analysis and thinks it’d be “pathetic” if she were not.
Although she was ahead of the curve to make unpleasant odors in a perfumed world, smell-based research and art have grown in the past two decades.
In 1991, Linda Buck and Richard Axel published a seminal paper on how the olfactory system works and connects to our genetic code, for which they won a Nobel Prize. Yet it was only in 2014 that a study established that humans can identify more than a trillion different scents — more than the several million colors and about half a million musical tones we’re capable of recognizing. “From a scientific point of view, it’s a really exciting time,” said Majid, from the University of York. “In the visual domain, many of the fundamental notions have been well-established, whereas here it feels like there is a new discovery every year.”
Our biases against smell are being reexamined. For instance, artist Anicka Yi injects odors — historically labelled emotional, nonlogical, inferior, remind you of anything? — into her work as a feminist critique. A line of research is remaking artificial intelligence using the nose as a model instead of the eyes — neural nets, with their cascading levels of analysis, were originally based partly on how our brains process images.
Tolaas’ Detroit installation at Michigan State University’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum will consist of 3D-printed abstract objects with nanotechnology, almost like tiny eggs, embedded on their surface. When picked up, they will emit the smells she’s created. The focus, she decided, will be on Mexicantown, a largely Hispanic area of Southwest Detroit that coalesced a few key ideas for her: the city’s immigrant population, local loyalty and resilience, gentrification and the legacy of forced relocation.
It’s a nuanced story that emerged even after — like many visitors to Detroit — she had originally been interested in the idea of the failed American dream. Her nose had a lot to do with the change of direction, but not the way you might think.
Tolaas’ superpower, ultimately, is not only her refined olfaction but also how attentive she is as a complete human being. The fact that she’ll thrust her face in foreign places even when everyone’s watching is more symptom than cause of her status as celebrity of smells.
That is, I’ve hoped to convey, the real significance of Sissel Tolaas and her pungent works. Still, there are limits to what you can know of her through this glowing surface. Some knowledge requires the rest of your senses.