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Can Scent Be Democratized?

Minetta Rogers, director of operations at the Institute for Art and Olfaction, in Los Angeles, on Feb. 24, 2022. (Michael Tyrone Delaney/The New York Times)
Minetta Rogers, director of operations at the Institute for Art and Olfaction, in Los Angeles, on Feb. 24, 2022. (Michael Tyrone Delaney/The New York Times)

On a recent evening, masked students sat around stainless-steel tables in the scent lab at the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, pipettes at the ready. The LED glow from shelves that hold nearly 400 bottles of perfumers’ materials cast a backlit-bar vibe over the first in-person studio class since the latest COVID spike. An aromatic cocktail of norlimbanol, vanillin and myrrh suffused the atmosphere, permeating even a KF94.

Saskia Wilson-Brown, the instructor, passed around paper scent strips that had been dipped into a solution of perfumers’ alcohol and a synthetic version of sandalwood. Masks were gently peeled away, for careful sniffing. General impressions were: “Woody.” “Creamy.” “I smell Tootsie Roll!”

Wilson-Brown, who founded the nonprofit organization, said: “These molecules, like us, contain multitudes.”

The institute is in a bodega-size storefront among the revolving art galleries and curio importers on lantern-strung Chung King Road. Though the setting is very DIY — a chockablock classroom, gallery, lab and library — it’s a headquarters for olfactive experimentation and offers access to hands-on education, much of which was traditionally available only to professional perfumers.

But that setting befits the disrupter ethos of Wilson-Brown, 43, a Cuban and British American artist who grew in California and Paris. She formerly worked at Current TV, the liberal network founded by Al Gore and others, and one of her core values at the institute is to democratize scent.

“We’re not solving the world’s problems here, but it’s rooted in this idea of fixing injustice,” said Wilson-Brown, who is also a doctoral candidate at University College Dublin’s SMARTlab, studying power, access and perfume. “The balance of power is off in perfume, and it’s off in the world. Tweak one space, and maybe that’s a model for tweaking another.”

This September is the institute’s 10th anniversary, and a monthlong celebration is planned: workshops, lectures, exhibits and other scent-related events including a dance performance by the collective Volta, which may be loosely inspired by the top, middle and base notes of perfume structure.

“My favorite thing about the institute is, who’s going to walk through those doors?” Wilson-Brown said. “It’s going to be some poet guy, a Beverly Hills lady. Everyone has an interest in scent for some reason.”

The Power of Smell

One of the resonant ripple effects of COVID-19, an illness whose symptoms include anosmia (the partial or full loss of smell), may be a deeper appreciation for the olfactory neurons that are connected to our brains.

Humans have 400 types of scent receptors. We can distinguish between molecules that are different by a single carbon atom.

Yet “there’s been this philosophical idea that scent is a primitive sense, and that’s been systematically dismantled as well in the last couple of years,” Wilson-Brown said. “When we found out the coronavirus affected smell, it became a big conversation for people, which is interesting because I also thought COVID was for sure the thing that would put us under.”

Instead, the institute flourished. Demand and virtual capacity soared for Zoom lectures and studio courses (for which students bought scent materials in advance). People joined from all over the world, across all time zones, to connect to their senses, said Ashley Kessler, a perfumer and the IAO’s director of education. “All this grounding life-affirmingness that just sitting and smelling can bring to you — it was fundamentally like therapy for all of us.”

The IAO has accomplished something extraordinary, said Andreas Keller, 49, who opened Olfactory Art Keller, a commercial gallery dedicated to contemporary aromatic art, last year in lower Manhattan. “Saskia brought together a community, and she has done so beautifully. If it hadn’t been for COVID, this might have remained very local. It has an international presence.”

Today, the IAO offers an increasing mix of digital and in-person classes; shares an open-source fragrance database (which includes formulas, material resources and even an exhaustive list of scratch-and-sniff books); fosters partnerships with other cultural institutions, like the Hammer and J. Paul Getty museums in Los Angeles; and produces a podcast, an experimental scent summit and an annual awards ceremony, considered the Oscars of independent perfumery. It has also helped inspire experiential dinners with fragrance pairings, scented zines and synesthetic musical scores in Los Angeles and beyond.

“Adding to ways of thinking about intelligence through the body, scent plays a key role, much more than we realize,” Anicka Yi, an artist known for exploring aromas to orient our view of the world, wrote in an email. Her recent exhibit in London filled the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with floating mechanical aerobes and a “scentscape” representing the history of London’s Bankside area from the 14th to 20th centuries. “The IAO is contributing to the discourse by bringing the experience of smell through philosophers, artists, chemists, anthropologists.”

Upcoming lectures in a series curated by Nuri McBride, a writer and activist, include topics such as the colonial history of the fragrance trade, reframing domestic work by investigating the erasure of smells and malodorous events that happened in Los Angeles during the pandemic.

Among the speakers who have given presentations at the institute are Harold McGee, a food writer who wrote “Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells”; chemist-flavorist-artist Sean Raspet; and perfumer and novelist Tanaïs (Tanwi Nandini Islam).

“I feel like I’ve been to university,” said Donna Lipowitz, 48, a regular at the Wednesday night blending sessions. Lipowitz is a filmmaker and fragrance designer, and her projects include re-creating the scent of the video game trade show E3 and concocting a barnyard scent for a virtual reality experience of watching a turkey named Wobble walk around a farm.

Currently she’s fine-tuning her formula for the scent of a neighbor’s irises (the iris is a flower valued in traditional perfumery for its rhizomes rather than its blossoms). “The amazing thing about the IAO is just about anybody could come in off the street and create a scent,” she said.

Krisa Fredrickson, an incense maker and ethnobotanist whose field studies focused on agarwood (a fragrant resinous wood coveted in perfumery), visited Los Angeles after her father died in Seattle from COVID-19 in 2020. “I was in shock,” she said. She ended up at a blending session at the IAO: “It was my happy place. I thought, Look what people are doing and they’re all coming together with no judgment, no egos.” The class was so transformative that Fredrickson, 60, who is also training to be a death doula with plans to incorporate commemorative scent — an incense or perfume oil to honor a loved one — decided to move to Los Angeles.

Se Young Au, an artist and IAO student, said it makes sense that the institute is in Los Angeles. “It’s reflective of all these different demographics, sensibilities, environments that evoke such strong feelings, storytelling and possibilities,” she said. Au, 37, currently is exhibiting a multisensory work at the El Segundo Museum of Art, featuring a digitally printed tapestry infused with the molecule geosmin, which is meant to recall a universal scent memory of walking through a wet forest.

“I’m not solely interested in creating pleasant scents to wear on the body,” said Madeleine Stearns, 28, a former IAO instructor who moved to Bangkok and is working on her first solo olfactory exhibition. It will feature photography, short film and the diffusion of a scent meant to capture a local meat market and fear-induced body odors.

Having reached the decade milestone — longer than many for-profit businesses are able to stay afloat — Wilson-Brown is determined to keep asking questions. “We can talk about how perfume is awesome, then what?” she said. “What’s the context? How does it impact society? How does it impact relationships?” — NYT

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