Being a fan of olfactory art, I enjoy finding projects that engage the experience of smell in new and thoughtful ways. But I have limited patience for the asinine conceits of “conceptual” art and “transgressive” art.
A story based on the olfactory work of British art student Amy Radcliffe has been making the rounds this week, and it appears to be a whole new species of asininity. Let’s call it “technological” art. Here’s how you do it: take an everyday laboratory technology, dress it up as a consumer device, make extravagant claims for it, and distribute a video to credulous “technology” bloggers, like Dave Parrack at Gizmag, Megan Wollerton at DVICE, Edwin Kee at Übergizmo, Amanda Kooser at CNET, and Evan Orensten at CoolHunting. [UPDATE July 7th: add James Trew at Engadget to the list.]
Amy Radcliffe’s “Madeleine” project is basically what a standard headspace collector (air pump + Tenax trap) would look like if sold at Target. She promotes it as the “post-visual past time” of Scentography.
If an analogue, amateur-friendly system of odour capture and synthesis could be developed, we could see a profound change in the way we regard the use and effect of smells in our daily lives.No argument there. But what has she actually accomplished with her Madeleine? The device is a prettified headspace collector, something found in every analytical chemistry lab the world over. Yes, it captures smell, but does it preserve it, much less reproduce it?
The essence of photography is that it captures and preserves a visual image in a reproducible way, e.g., on film, glass plates, CCD or CMOS sensors. As for preserving smell, her fantasy video shows a bronze disk inscribed with a GC trace of the capture sample.
“From this formula you can artificially recreate the precise odour,” she said.Sure. No sweat.
You mail the odor trap to a lab and a “bespoke smell memory capsule” will be sent back in return.If only.
While useful in reconstituting the smell, the formula implied by a GC trace is only the first approximation of a captured scent. Alter one of those molecular peaks by a tiny amount and you might end up with a completely different smell. So Radcliffe’s device doesn’t solve the reproducibility problem, it just offloads it onto the nearest available fragrance chemist. [Hey, she’s an idea person.—Ed.] [Indeed. She should give a TED talk about it.]
Does this even qualify as conceptual art? It’s a more like a gesture in the direction of conceptual art, with some Appropriation thrown in—Radcliffe may do for Tenax traps what Andy Warhol did for Campbell’s soup. Weak as it is, her video was enough to get the gadgetsphere buzzing. Here’s Edwin Kee prattling on Übergizmo:
The thing is, there is no way one could “record” taste or smell, although it would be fantastic if this were the case.Uh, cookbooks? Bartending guides?
Hopefully in the future, we no longer need to talk about how great grandma’s cooking was when she was still alive, but we can also share the smell of her best dishes with the next generation, too.Or just ask her for the recipes, dude.
As it is a slow holiday weekend, I decided to create an art project involving do-it-yourself personal human cloning. It’s called CC: Me. I’ve glued sparkles on a syringe and a phlebotomy tube. All you have to do to clone yourself is take a blood sample, send it to a DNA sequencing lab, and email the results to a black market Korean fertility lab. Easy peasy.
Am I famous yet?
UPDATE July 8, 2013
Ms. Radcliffe walks back her claims a bit in this piece in The Daily Mail.