Saturday, July 6, 2013

Proustian Publicity: Amy Radcliffe or Much Ado About Headspace

Via Vimeo.

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.


Heather Kelley said...

This project makes much more sense when you consider it as speculative design or critical design (looking around her site, Ms Radcliffe is training as a designer). As is completely normal and desirable for an exploratory designer or a design student, she's created an actual physical object (and produced documentation of it) to communicate an idea, and spark people's imaginations about what could be. If she were a writer she might simply have said "scent capturing is overlooked in general society because it's so difficult to accomplish, but maybe some day we'll have the technology to do this." However, the impulse of a designer is to think ahead, possibly decades into the future, and especially to think about how we might interact with these technologies. The goal might be to make people wish for the design vision to be real, which hopefully means its more likely to become so. Her seductive design and her well-produced visuals managed to get a lot further in the world than plain words probably would have. Maybe this will inspire someone to overcome the many technical challenges that lie in the way.
Heather Kelley

Heather Kelley said...

Hm, on second read, I see that came across as a bit harsh on writers, which was definitely not my intent, given that I sometimes am one. It was more an acknowledgement that visuals have a lot of rhetoric power.

Avery Gilbert said...

Heather Kelley @PerfectPlum:

Your interpretation of Radcliffe's project is reasonable and makes it sound less like a conceptual art stunt. It also makes her sound like less of a chemical/technological ignoramus.

I agree with you that "visuals have a lot of rhetorical power." So much so, evidently, that technologies bloggers swallowed her premise whole. That list of losers is what motivated my post.

Imagine Radcliffe had sculpted a life-size Jetson space car and made a video about it. Would Dave Parrack and the other knuckleheads had raved "Oh look, Amy Radcliffe has invented a space car."