I first encountered Sissel Tolaas in researching What the Nose Knows. After tweaking the “transgressive” pretensions of certain artistes, I wrote:
Sissel Tolaas, a Norwegian artist who lives in Berlin, gets closer to the mark. She collected underarm sweat from nine men who were in various states of fear and anxiety, chemically extracted their B.O., had it microencapsulated, and then spread it onto large colored sheets. She mounts these enormous scratch-and-sniff panels on art gallery walls for visitors to sample. The show is called “The Fear of Smell and the Smell of Fear.” It sounds creepy and probably smells worse. Sissel Tolaas could go far—she has a firm grasp of the transgressive.Recently she popped up in the German periodical Mono.Kultur as the guest “curator” of twelve blank pages of scratch-and-sniff scents. (So . . . conceptual!) The magazine noted that Ms. Tolaas “is a professor at Harvard University for invisible communication.”
Apparently that’s the German translation of “2009 Rouse Visiting Artist at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.”
Last Friday, Tolaas was profiled in the Kansas City Star by reporter Gina Kaufmann who accompanied her around town on a nasal investigation that is the first stage of a project she is doing with Grand Arts Gallery, “a non-profit art project space in downtown Kansas City.”
Tolaas is in town “for only a few days, collecting scents that represent the neighborhoods of Kansas City and sending them back to her lab in Berlin for analysis.” To what end? To “create a smell tour of our city.”
Simple minds might ask, can’t one create a smell tour just by walking around with a notebook? What does the “analysis” in her “lab” add?
When she arrived here, in early April, Tolaas would tell people what she was here to do, and they would all say the same thing: You have to go by the Folgers plant. “This is obvious,” she says, waving dismissively, clearly tired of the suggestion. “Everybody says this.”How does being obvious make the Folgers plant smell nonrepresentive of Kansas City?
[Ignorant plebe! Do not disturb the Professor of Invisible Communication with your quibbling logic.]
Tolaas aspires to discover the hidden Kansas City and to present that back to the city. “This is my function,” she says. “To find the places that people here wouldn’t.”But if local residents don’t know the smell, how representative of their town can it be?
[Do not arouse the wrath of the great and powerful Oz!]
So what part of Hidden Kansas City does Tolaas uncover?
At 24th Street and Belleview Avenue, she stops suddenly in her tracks. “What’s that?” she asks, before answering herself. “That’s yeast. The yeast is strong here.” Another pause. “Now I’m getting yeast and garlic.”The deeply hidden smells of a brewery revealed by the “professional nose”—and she didn’t even have to wait for the lab results to come back from Berlin!
Of course, at 24th and Belleview, Tolaas is standing smack dab in the middle of a row of Mexican restaurants, accounting for the garlic, and just across the train tracks from Boulevard Brewing Co., accounting for the yeast. She has this strip pegged in a matter of minutes.
When the specimens arrive at her lab in Berlin, she has the molecular structure analyzed so that she can re-create the smells of the neighborhoods. Then she brings the smells back to the places where they originated.So Tolaas is going to bring recreated yeast smell back to Boulevard Brewery? I’m sure they’ll be impressed.
What a humbug.
If the Grand Arts Gallery will pop for a Greyhound ticket, we’ll be happy to ride out and demonstrate the FirstNerve method of capturing and recreating local smellscapes. We’ll start with some taquitos al pastor at La Fonda El Taquito and wash ‘em down with a Boulevard Pale Ale. Then burp in a curator’s face. We call it Transgressive Ecological Urbanism.
We await a call from Harvard regarding our visiting appointment at the Graduate School of Design.