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Say ‘Cheese!’

Sissel Tolaas is the olfactory explorer or nasalnaut pioneering new ways to encounter the world through smell. From using abstract molecules to fix future memories to creating odiferous edibles from human sweat, she puts a sense of play at the heart of all she does.

How important is the sense of smell in western society?

We live in a de-odorised world and it means we are missing out on important information. Nowadays babies smell their mothers’ deodorant before they smell mother’s milk. The world has become sanitised such an extent that it’s not healthy for either our bodies or the planet.

What about the future?

The biggest illness of our time is disembodiment. We spend so much time with our digital devices staring at a screen, we’re out of our bodies the whole time. And it's going to get worse. Virtual embodiment is becoming a new fashion. Engaging with your senses is the antidote. The nose interface is hard to digitalise - to be able to smell anything, you need real physical molecules to go up your nose. Your nose is still the most efficient device for navigating a complex world.

Your nose is the most efficient device for navigating a complex world 

How do children respond to smells?

Almost nothing – apart from rotting food – is hard-wired into us as a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ smell. But pretty soon kids start to respond to odours the way we teach them to. It’s all down to cultural influences. I would like kids to get to know the smells that are out there first before they are taught to judge them. I did a project with Harvard University where we made pollution kits for kids to play with. I wanted the kids to actively smell these molecules, not to react with fear and paranoia before they had engaged with them through their noses.

Smells often serve to divide people rather than unite them 

What kinds of smell do you work with?

I’m not interested in the clean and shiny smells that come out of the department store. I want dogshit, garbage, pollution, not perfume. There’s a lot of prejudice against the real smells of the world, and a massive cover-up of the smells of our own bodies, of nature. But my plea is that we do not cover up reality before we’ve had the chance to explore it.

For almost thirty years I have been exploring the world through it's
endless incredible smells using my own nose and, since 2004, a professional portable smell-gathering device so I can take smells back to my lab. I have sampled smell sources from the micro to the macro and put 52 cities
under my nose-loupe from Detroit to Tokyo, from Tel Aviv to Nuuk. 

Smells influence people's behaviour without their being consciously aware of it because smell-information has relatively direct access to the cortical and sub-cortical emotional circuits in the brain. Smells can and often do serve to divide and oppress human beings rather than unite them.

Nosing is fun and free! 

How can smells oppress us?

By reinforcing prejudices. One thing I discovered with smell-mapping is that the root of prejudice is still segregation based on smells. My Kansas Project was an attempt to test whether the affective content of smells alters social preferences. I smell-mapped two cities separated only by a river: Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri. The Kansas City that’s in Kansas is poor relative to the other Kansas City and has a large black and Hispanic population. Having different populations, the two cities have a different set of smells.

I created a game where people had to go out and find the origins of smells on both sides of the river. Making it a game removed the judgemental aspect. Some of the people had never been across the bridge to the other side before. As they encountered these ‘other’ smells in the playful context of a game, they lost their fear of them, and so began to change their attitude to those neighbourhoods, and the people living there.  

My experience is that people all over the planet really get challenged when they are seriously asked to use their noses. Nosing is fun and free!

I want dogshit, garbage, pollution, not perfume

What’s the Smell Memory Kit?

Smells are good at triggering memories, together with the emotion associated with the memory. But by the time you’re an adult, all the smells you know are already linked to old memories and are not helpful for making vivid new ones. So with the Smell Memory Kit I put abstract, lab-created molecules in ampoules. These molecules are not exactly like anything else you smell in your life - which makes them available for tagging new memories. When something happens that you want to remember, you break open an ampoule and breathe it in. Later, when you want to recall that day, you crack open another of the ampoules and the memory will be re-kindled.

We would send celebrities little sampling kits for collecting their sweaty skin flakes

You’ve also explored attitudes to our own body odours?

I did a project called Self Made with synthetic biologist, Christina Agapakis. We were investigating the difference between what is called dirty and what is called clean. We decided we needed some bacteria to explore the subject and thought the easiest thing to do was to collect them from our own skins. The bacteria that turn milk into the stinkiest cheeses are close to some that live on our bodies, so then we thought, hey, why not make human cheese? We took bacteria from Christina’s armpit, and my nose, and added them to milk. It worked.

One thing led to another and we ended up making celebrity cheeses. We would send celebrities little sampling kits for collecting their sweaty skin flakes to send back to us. They all responded. We have made Hans Ulrich Obrist cheese and Julian Assange cheese. Mark Zuckerberg cheese, and Bill Gates cheese. The best cheese we made came from David Beckham’s sweaty sneakers. It was served in the Adidas VIP tent at the London Olympics. The VIPs lapped it up. They had no idea they were eating something fermented from David Beckham’s football boots.


Susan Irvine

Susannah Baker-Smith