Monday, February 9, 2015

FN Review: Sense of Smell, by Marcel van Brakel, et al.

I had my doubts when this oddly shaped book arrived in the mail. At nearly two hundred printed pages, its foldover, center-stitched format gives its open side a goofy beveled edge. It looks and feels like a gigantic pamphlet.

What’s inside, however, is fresh, compelling and thought-provoking.

Sense of Smell is a collective work, a co-creation of the faculty and students at Avans University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands who took part in a field study in Berlin and an intensive 48-hour brainstorming “sweatshop” that produced novel olfactory design concepts, some of which were later realized as art installations.

The book is arranged in themed sections: data, temporality, taboo, perfumication, and ethereal. Each section features essays, projects (descriptions of exhibits), and concepts. The layout—English (black) and Dutch (red) text side by side or over/under—is pleasing and the many color images are striking and beautifully printed.

I was wary initially of the essays which introduce each section. Brief overviews of smell topics risk being inaccurate or lightweight. And indeed, when the essay in the “Ethereal” section cited The Matrix as a philosophic reference, the alarm on the FN Bogosity Meter went off big time. Many of the other essays, however, are crisp, lucid and quite accurate. There is discernment at play here.

My only quibble with the essay “Cinesexual smell: The ecstatic olfactory face” is that “smelling a nice smell” is a conventionalized facial expression, rather than the involuntary expression of deeply emotional experience that author Patricia MacCormack assumes it to be. However all is forgiven because she includes the great image of Udo Kier as Baron Frankenstein reaching orgasm while fondling the entrails of a female zombie. Awesome. And speaking of entrails, fans of I Smell Dead People will enjoy Nienke Huitenga’s interview with forensic sniffer Harry Jongen.

Rosi Braidotti uses Pinka, Virginia Woolf’s cocker spaniel, as an olfactory lens to examine the author’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West. Woolf’s Flush, written from a dog’s sensory point of view, has a lot to recommend it. But Braidotti’s turgid academic prose (“Nomadic becomings express the positive structure of difference, unhinged from the binary system of dialectics that opposed it to Sameness”) snuffs out any motivation to follow her thesis. This one dud proves to be the exception among a set of readable and entertaining essays.

By now I have read most of the available cultural chestnuts about olfaction. So when, for example, Sense of Smell plays with the Warhol “smell museum” idea that I wrote about in my own book, I get fidgety. But I was pleased and excited to find anecdotes that were totally new to me, like Judy Garland’s BO problem and how she tried to solve it. I also had never heard of the Italian Futurist Carlo CarrĂ ’s interest in olfactory-visual synesthesia, or of the Shinto benjo-gami (privy gods) in Japan. (This should give you some idea of range of ideas entertained in this volume.)

The concepts and design projects in Sense of Smell provide a comprehensive look at recent artistic and technological explorations of scent. Some, like Amy Radclife’s Scentography system, or the whole-body-odor extraction of Martynka Wawrzyniak, or Lernert & Sander’s potpourri stunt will be familiar to FN readers. And ISDP fans will have been all over the “Famous Deaths” installation (imagined smellscapes from the JFK assassination, etc.) that made waves recently.

There are many other entries to surprise and delight the olfactively-inclined reader, such as the piece on the stinky booby-trapped underwear design called Skunk Grenade, or the one about sneaker smell-fetish websites. (I admit I’d never heard of sneakerslaves until now, but having met the leading prophet of the Fart Smeller Movement I can’t say I’m surprised.)

The Lucid Dream Generator CMD Concept is the merest germ of an idea, but one that got me thinking. I believe there is a lot of potential here, given that commenters have made my “Dreaming of Smell” post one of the top rated search engine results on the topic. There are surely a lot of ways to use scent to bend the trajectory of dreams.

Bottom line: Sense of Smell is a beautifully produced omnium gatherum of the contemporary scene in olfactory art, design, and inspiration. If you want to get a sense of where creative minds are taking the field, you should get yourself a copy.

The book reviewed here is Sense of smell, edited by Marcel van Brakel, Wander Eikelboom, Frederik Duerinck, et al., 2014. Published by The Eriskay Connection. ISBN 978-94-92051-00-4

P.S. A earlier version of this post misidentified the academic affiliation of the authors. Hat tip to commenter Wander for pointing it out.


Anonymous said...

Great review Avery! Just a head's up: whenever you see the word 'becoming' run fast. It's standard Deleuzian padding for the essay/chapter/book that is about something, or rather, nothing, but possibly everything.

Avery Gilbert said...


Heh. Thanks for the pro tip!

Wander said...

Thanks for your thorough reading and review. We are pleased you liked the publication. We spotted one small error though. We are not from the NHTV (which are our competitors) but from Avans. Maybe you could change that.

Avery Gilbert said...


D'oh! My bad.

Ik verontschuldig me daarvoor.

Anonymous said...

This book is not bad, but to be honest it is not everyone can enjoy this compositions. I can not say that after reading it, I got the pleasure of its content. I prefer to read literature of writers such as these Thanks.