Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lieder Ohne Düfte

Felix Mendelssohn wrote Songs without Words. Now olfactory artist Sissel Tolaas has gone one better and written a magazine without words—but with scents. The publisher is the German art & culture periodical Mono.Kultur

According to M.K, Tolaas “curated” the dozen microencapsulated smells presented in the Spring 2010 issue. (That’s art-speak for “selected”.) They also tell us that
Tolaas has become an expert on everything related to scents, odours, smells.
She is a professor at Harvard University for invisible communication
Of course she is. And I’m the Jedi Master of Invisible Psychology and Totally Transparent Kung-fu.

Sissel Tolaas: too kühl 4 skool.


Olfacta said...

(insert sound of loud laughter here) Curated! I've always loved that one, as a synonym for "selected from a short list of people you already know."

Avery Gilbert said...


I curate the guest list for my annual Oscar Party very carefully.

Perfumaniac said...

In spite of your derision, Avery, I read up more about her and find her fascinating! Aren't scents, particularly constructed scents (aka perfumes) in fact invisibly communicating to us? I'm curious to know if it's just the "professor of invisible communication" title that bothers you or her ideas and projects? In any case, I'm glad you introduced me to her. I hope I can get my hands on this Mono.Kultur issue, but I'm sure it will cost bank. Sigh...

+ Q Perfume Blog said...

What is invisible communication?
Something someone invented with his invisible brain?

Sorry to here that your last trip was not that fun...
Curious to know what were you wearing... invisible pants? LOL


Avery Gilbert said...


You can also read up on Ms. Tolaas in What the Nose Knows where I describe her scratch-and-sniff B.O. panels in a section on olfactory art. I conclude (only partially in jest) that "Sissel Tolaas could go far--she has a firm grasp of the transgressive."

Prediction confirmed!

Of course smell is communication. But don't you get even a little bit of "the emperor's new clothes" vibe from this project? (Commenter +Q does.)

Odor perception is about context & interpretation as well as sensation. Laying smells down on a blank page, stripped of context, may be an uber-cool minimalistic aesthetic but it's not very good communication.

If you don't scratch Mono.Kultur too hard you can probably offload it on eBay and recover some funds. Let us cheapskates in the peanut gallery know how it smells.

Avery Gilbert said...

+Q Perfume:

A little decorum, please! Here at First Nerve Manor we always blog in our visible underwear.

Perfumaniac said...


I could totally see how someone would find a magazine with scent rather than words pretentious or precious or vacuous. But there is a larger purpose for it I find intriguing and worthy of consideration. (And I did read your book — just forgot the Tolaas mention! My bad.)

Tolaas claims that what she’s trying to do is to encourage people to get in touch with, rather than ignore as most of us do, what scent communicates and to improve our ability to express what we sense with our noses.

Appreciating perfume as artwork that communicates and expresses moods, personalities, scenes, etc. is one way of doing that. But we perfume lovers still rely a lot on the language and images that accompany perfume advertising (or perfume bloggers’ reviews) to even start “listening” to what scent has to tell us. Before we even experience a scent, we know the name of the perfume and parse its connotations; we see the images that accompany the ads; we associate the scent with the celebs (and non-celebs) that might represent the perfume; we look at the bottle; or we anticipate something will be good/bad because of the perfume brand. (Serge Lutens or modern-day Coty? Whether we want to or not, we will probably expect more from the former than the latter and already have an opinion.)

This Mono. Kultur issue Tolaas has curated takes the training wheels off and asks if scent can be a language for us without the usual language — the names, images, and brand identities that accompany them, for example.

I’ve had the experience with a few fragrances — Chanel No. 19 in particular — where I just let them speak to me. In Chanel No. 19’s case, I had never seen the ad, which I later thought was highly misleading. (Woman joshing around with a guy in a suit, when what I got from Chanel No 19 was forests, witches, fairy tales, lush vegetation under canopies of trees, etc.) I was pretty thrilled later, after writing about it, to find out that other people had experienced similar things. Some readers also got the goth/forest vibe, and/or sensed the perfume’s unusual restraint. Uncanny? Or what happens when you let scent speak to you directly?

Of course I could walk down the street and take in scent on my own, but since an olfactory artist has curated the scents for me — maybe there is something in their sequence in Mono. Kultur that will be revelatory. Who knows? Maybe not! But it seems worth trying. (Sorry for the long comment; you’ve piqued my interest!)

~x~ said...

why do you denigrate her superpower?
just get to work on a better cloaking device!

i never knew what "curate" meant, so thanks for that.

~x~ said...

also, music is invisible communication.
which makes me a doctor of random crap too.

Nathan Branch said...


Avery Gilbert said...


Wasn't ignoring you--just very little keyboard time lately . . .

Ms. Tolaas creates only the tiniest blip on the FirstNerve Bogosity Meter, largely due to the pretention factor of smells on blank pages. I suppose the smells might be utterly fascinating and juxtaposed with exquisite curatorial taste. I'm skeptical.

In psychology experiments where smells are presented in isolation they are notoriously hard to identify; for decades this led my colleagues to conclude that humans have minimal olfactory talent. I conclude that the experimental design sucks.

You free-imagery responses to Chanel 19, in contrast, are interesting and provocative. It would make a nice study: see whether self-generated smell imagery can be matched to the "official" brand imagery.

Perfumaniac said...

I knew you were busy with your conferences, Avery. Thanks for finding time to respond!

It is odd how identifying smells in isolation is difficult. I can often detect fleeting facets and notes in complex perfumes — but was stumped when presented with lavender in a hand lotion recently. LAVENDER! Embarrassing...

Love the idea of testing to see if a blind smell-test would generate similar imagery as the brand's intended imagery. Sign me up...