Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Sephora Sensorium

So I hit the Sephora Sensorium interactive exhibit on W. 14th Street this weekend. Subtitled “Lucid Dreams from the Sensory World,” the show opened in early October, and will close on November 27.

It basically consists of a loop to the far end and back of a narrow retail popup space in the Chelsea Market. The initial Perfumology section has a timeline of perfumery painted along one wall; it’s rather perfunctory (Cleopatra, Mitsouko, Justin Bieber, yadda yadda) and literal (it’s a . . . line). Opposite the wall are an interesting hodge-podge of artifacts, including a 1950s coin-operated perfume vending machine, which I’ve blogged about but never seen in real life (it’s smaller than I’d imagined). There are beautiful glass cylinders filled with perfumery raw materials, and screens playing brief videos about topics such as the relation of top, middle and base notes to molecular volatility.

This section also has the show’s best interactive display: a round table on a base. The table surface is divided into quadrants, each illustrated with a gorgeous color photo: red pepper corns, star anise, etc. Each quadrant has a button-activated nozzle; you lean over, immersed in the image, and get a stream of air carrying the wonderful scent of the raw material. I’ve seen a lot of scent-delivery exhibits and this was one of the best executed. Too bad star anise is about to be dialed out of perfumery due to the corporate statism of IFRA and the EU regulatory state.

The next section—Senseless—is set of sound-dampened “isolation booths” where you don headphones and listen to voices narrating the depressing experience of anosmia. Although it does have a clever experiential twist at the end—involving a cherry lollypop—I’m puzzled that so much exhibit time is spent on the absence of smell.

At the top of the back stretch comes Life at First Scent, sculptures and assemblages that are spot-lit one by one, with accompanying projected video background and scent release. For example, a lifelike bronze sculpture of a squirming octopus is accompanied by the scent of salt air and sea mist. Interesting, not awesome.

On through black curtains to the Lab of Emotion, a darkened space with wall-mounted chemistry glassware percolating away, while videos play behind glass domes. Four displays presented different emotions, and each display had three or four scent sampling ports. Inserting your hand into the port dispensed a scent. At least I think that was the idea—the ports were too low to bend over and sniff conveniently, and there were several which didn’t seem to be dispensing. There was a lot of text on each display, which prompted the relevant emotion, described the scent, and identified the perfumer. For me, the visual preoccupation with the text detracted from the olfactory experience. This tends to be an issue with most interactive smell exhibits; it’s not easy to balance spontaneity and scent with verbal/textual messaging.

Lucid Dreams, the next darkened space, was four, small, illuminated sniffing globes. The air pressure changes caused by your sniffing trigger spacy, abstract videos back-projected on a scrim behind the globe. Here the exhibit design was excellent—no bending over, very little text—but the fragrances themselves were disappointing. They were tame and indistinct and lacked the trippiness of the visual images.

From Lucid Dreams, one emerged into the light and the Fragrance Bar. This was literally set up like a bar, complete with stools. On the counter were four color coded trays, each carrying six overturned, stemless wine glasses. An absorbent scent sticker the size of a quarter was stuck to the bottom (= upended top) of each glass. One sampled the fragrance—the drydown of an actual, commercial perfume—by upending the glass and sticking your nose in it. Clever, yet simple. This setup is lifted from the wine business, where you cover a glass of wine with a flat plate, and lift it to sample the accumulated aroma of the wine.

In the Fragrance Bar, each tray with its flight of six glasses represented a different theme: playful, polished, casual, and addictive. You could make sniffing notes in a little booklet, and if a scent struck your fancy the bar tender (in my visit a well-informed retail guy who works at Sephora) identifies the brand and offers to sell you a bottle.

The Fragrance Bar uses drydown notes for practical reasons—how would you constantly refresh top note samples?—and for consumer reality: you enjoy top notes briefly, but live with the drydown for the rest of the day, so it’s important that you like it.

Sniffing two dozen drydowns in a row was quite an experience, and the results were shocking. Where a top note sampling would have been a parade of different come-ons (sweet, fruity, spicy, aldehydic, etc.), the base notes were of a much narrower olfactory range. They were far less individually distinctive, often muddled. That the Jennifer Aniston perfume, with its literal-minded evocation of sunscreen, stood out tells you something about the state of modern perfumery. Enormous effort goes into designing the short-lived top notes that leap from the bottle and grab your nose and credit card. The heart gets some attention, if only as a pleasing transition. But drydown is almost an afterthought, murky and indistinct. Perfumes for the age of short attention span.

Hats off to Sephora and Firmenich for providing some entertainment, education and provocation, and for offering the largest blind sampling of commercial fragrances you’re likely to encounter. The $15 admission fee becomes a gift credit at Sephora, so it’s really a freebie for fragrance fans.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday in the Park with FirstNerve

[This one is for +Q Perfume Blog.]

Seemed like a nice day to tunnel into Manhattan—so I did!

First stop, the Sephora/Firmenich Sensorium. More about that in a separate post. Gulped down some truck food afterwards on 14th Street—tasty pork & scallion dumplings from Rickshaw Dumplings—then three more stops downtown on the A train. A short stroll and behold!: Zucotti Park, home to Occupy Wall Street.

One small square block, packed with tourists, police, and a motley and largely unimpressive assemblage of cranks, kooks, and die-hard “activists.” Do I sound too harsh and dismissive? Well, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s, and went to school at U.C. Berkeley. So I’ve seen a few protests and happenings.

On my personal rating system, Zucotti Park scores about 3 out of 10 for colorfulness; any Wednesday on Sproul Plaza has more exotic causes and more flamboyant performing weirdos. As for message impact, ZP gets a 2 out of 10; the Wall Street hate was almost lost in the general chaos. Regarding the drumming circles, the less said the better. The stoners on Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park have better polyrhythms and more ensemble discipline; the ZP slammers are a couple of cuts below the subway guys with their overturned plastic buckets.

I did get to meet the leader (and only member?) of the FSM: the Fart Smeller Movement.

He's a bit of dick (what, you expected Ghandi? Mario Savio?), but he has his standards. He won't ask to sniff a girl's farts unless she is at least 17 years old. Then again, he says in a pinch he'll also sniff B.O. (These are hard times for the 99%.)

Best of all, there were some old time Hare Krishnas, doing the classic chant. But this being the 21st century, they had a new twist: occasional Bourbon-street trumpet riffs by the guy in the saffron robe. Coolio!

For a big neo-hippie clownfest, OWS also failed to live up to its olfactory potential; despite the piles of bagged garbage, it didn't smell too bad.

The obese homeless guy dozing on a bench in the Chambers Street subway station was another story. Acrid butt-crack stench that pummeled you in the face at thirty paces. Pheeeeuuuuwie!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Decline and Fall

Courtney Humphries has an excellent article in Wired about the devastation being wrought in the perfume industry through IFRA’s craven submission to the EU nanny state’s regulatory absolutists.

Math is Hard: Four More Years Edition

But if you divide each state’s population by its number of Obama donors, you find the Obama donors per capita, and the picture becomes clearer.
Well, not as clear as you may think.

What’s worse: the fact that New York Magazine has to explain to its readers what “per capita” means, or the fact that they got the explanation wrong?

Rules for Radicals: Playing the Stink Card

When I noted that the Fart Smeller Movement had infiltrated Occupy Wall Street, I figured it was some solo oddball taking advantage of free attention from tourists and the media.

But then I saw this report:
Next time, though, you feel like complaining about Occupy Wall Street, just remember it could be worse: This guy could be there.

There is video posted online on MRCTV.org of a man being apprehended by police at Occupy Toronto.

The person shooting the video can be heard telling police the man was in his tent, sniffing his girlfriend’s feet. He also tells police the man tried to get people in the tent to drink urine by telling them it was an energy drink. Even more disturbing is that he says the man took a sip, or “pretended” to take a sip, before trying to pass it to others.
Hmmmm . . .

Meanwhile, local NYC residents packed a meeting of Community Board 1, which approved a resolution calling, among other things, for
arranging access to bathrooms off-site to eliminate urinating and defecating in doorways of retail shops and residential buildings
What is it with these OWS people? When was the last time you, or anyone you know in the “99%”, defecated in the doorway of a building? Then I remembered how a couple of psych professors editorialized against conservatives under the headline “All politics is olfactory.”

Turns out this notion goes deeper than I thought. Check out this snippet from Ron Radosh’s review of Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky, by Nicholas von Hoffman:
Yet, even in the Rochester fight, Alinsky’s methods often appeared rather comical, and it is rather hard to believe that they were taken seriously. According to von Hoffman, what Alinsky proposed, and scared the city’s elite with, was a scheduled “fart-in” at the Kodak-sponsored Rochester Symphony. He planned to gather black activists — for whom concert tickets had been bought — for a pre-concert dinner made up exclusively of baked beans. This would be his substitute for sit-ins and picket lines. Alinsky called it a “flatulent blitzkrieg,” and the result of this threat (along with other tactics, including the use of proxies at stockholder meetings) evidently was a settlement in which the city fathers agreed to the demands. In Chicago, he threatened a “piss-in” at O’Hare Airport, which immediately led the city to the bargaining table. That such juvenile tactics worked perhaps says more about the fears of the politicians than the genius of Alinsky.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Sensorium: Molecules, Brains & Emotions in the Meatpacking District

This looks interesting although it seems to lean a bit heavily on the whole fragrance = emotion thing. Maybe I’ll check it out.

You can reserve a visit here. If you can’t get to NYC you can read about it here or watch the video here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

“Gee, Your Car Smells Terrific!”

It’s a hand sanitizer! No, it’s a chrome polish!

Professor Reynolds catches a whiff of olfacto-cultural critique from Wired writer Keith Barry. His best line:
We’re predicting that the next products to take off will be official Subaru-brand patchouli and a leather conditioner for your Grand Marquis that smells like Canoe and stale Dutch Masters.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Deep Questions from Hollywood

From this weekend’s Belfast Telegraph:
Kirsten Dunst wears different scents depending on what character she’s playing.

The American actress thinks that a choice of fragrance is a good indication of what a person is like. Kirsten revealed that smelling a particular way helps her get into a role, so she doesn’t have a signature scent herself.
So . . .

Wearing scent is part of the Stanislavski approach to acting?

Not having a signature personal scent makes Kirsten Dunst the equivalent of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: Story of a Murderer?


Thursday, October 13, 2011

ISDP: The Fading Light of October

The final minutes of October 13th are ticking away and multitudes of olfactively obsessed weirdos are wondering: Where is this month’s edition of FirstNerve’s most popular feature?

Fear not. Here is our exhaustive compilation of The Malodor from Beyond, items having in common the same grim punch line and the journalistic tic “foul odor.” Autumn is upon us, temperatures are dropping, and the news is accordingly sparse.

First up is a case in Tucson, Arizona, where a man’s body was discovered after police received a call “about a foul odor coming from an apartment.” The death is considered a homicide.

Then off to Tulsa, Oklahoma where police got a call about a foul odor coming from the cab of a semi parked near an apartment complex. Inside police found the body of a 58-year-old man from nearby Broken Arrow, who had last been seen entering the truck three days earlier. Foul play is not suspected.

Finally, WCTI reporter Mike Valerio files a story from North Carolina with a headline that reverses the likely course of events: “Two Bodies Discovered, Rancid Smell Covers Neighborhood.”
Two decaying bodies were discovered inside a Pitt County mobile home Friday, after neighbors complained of a foul odor coming from the residence since Tuesday.
Four days before authorities arrived? The stench became so strong that the landlord, who was mowing the lawn nearby, decided to investigate. Why?
The landlord said the smell of death was unmistakable, an odor he recognized after serving thirty years as a detective with the New York City police department and fighting in the Vietnam War.
A week and a half later 34-year-old Joey Allen Owens was arrested and charged with two counts of murder in connection with the case.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

“The Whole World is Farting!”

It looks like the aimless whine-fest that is Occupy Wall Street has finally found its mission: It will become the FSM. No, not the Free Speech Movement. The Fart Smeller Movement!

Time to refresh those old chants (seriously, kidz, they were stale by ‘69).
“What do we want?”


“When do we want it?”

“One, two, three, four, let it go and give us more!”

“All we are saying, is give farts a chance!”

“We are the farts we’ve been waiting for!”

[From the New York Post via JammieWearingFool.]

Monday, October 3, 2011

Celebrity Psychophysics: Pregnancy Edition

Early into her first pregnancy, the mother-to-be notices how familiar things begin to smell different. She’s even a bit turned off by her husband’s cologne.
Not an unusual story, except that the pregnant lady is Beyoncé and her husband is Jay-Z and the cologne in question is his own celebrity fragrance.

I love it when celebrities confirm the basics of sensory science.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

FirstNerve BurrOmeter: Signals from a Lost World

Just before dawn this morning we were pulled out of a deep sleep by a faint beeping noise. Not the alarm clock. Not the coffee maker. Not the carbon monoxide detector or the smoke alarm. Not the low battery indicator on the Orgone Box. No—it was much more distant, almost subterranean.

Leaving our sleeping rack in the northeastern belfry, we descended floor by floor until we were in the sub-basement, below the Data Processing Chamber. And there it was: the distinctive incoming-data bleat of the FirstNerve BurrOmeter, coming from deep within the packing crate.

We never sold it, you see. The Museum of Arts and Design didn’t cough up shipping costs, much less the scrap metal value, so it’s been gathering dust for months.

We grabbed a crowbar, pried open the crate, and were greeted by the auto-detect light on the data transmission panel, blinking like a French perfumer after a face full of Someday by Justin Bieber. We eagerly activated the metaphor diodes, reconnected the name drop dosimeter, and wiped the packing peanuts off the sensor surfaces.

The incoming signal was strong but slightly scrambled. The knob on the Omnidirectional Media Selector was frozen on nytimes.com, but a quick spritz of WD-40 loosened it right up. A few degrees down spectrum we got a fix on the new coordinates: the data were coming from deep inside the Grooming subsector of the Style zone in the GQ quadrant. It was the unmistakable rhetorical signature of the “fragrance expert.”

An entire opus on vetiver featuring nine fragrance reviews. Bonanza!

Name Drops: 12
Jean-Paul Guerlain
Annick Goutal
Henri Sorsana
François Demachy
Jo Malone
Karine Dubreuil
Alberto Morillas
Tom Ford
Harry Frémont
Antoine Maisondieu
Olivier Pescheux
Etienne de Swardt
Bonus Points:
Perfumers: 9
French: 8
Designers: 2
Mix ‘N Match Olfactory Metaphors: 6
the humidity of a blue Haitian morning
a market next to mango sellers in the shadow of palm trees
a seamless, darkish scent inflected with smooth wood that is elegant as a spider’s thread
liquid sunlight with a bite of fresh ginger
the scent comes out of a bottle with a hairy chest and a wood baseball bat
fireflies hovering in the evening air, luminous as embers, and cool as night
European Airlines: 1
Exotic Locations: 5
“Regular Guy” Locations: -2
New Jersey
Jock Sniffing Bonus Points: 5
raw, earthy, masculine
sharp masculinity
undeniably masculine
no nonsense and masculine
raw masculinity
Total BurrOmeter reading for Making Scents of It: A Guide to Vetiver: 46 milliburrs.

Outlook: It’s hurricane season. Gale-force winds spinning out of control. Board up the windows.