Sissel Tolaas: Smelling Your Way Through The City

Born in 1961 in Norway and living in Berlin since the 1980s, Sissel Tolaas has devoted more than 20 years of her life to the sense of smell. She wears her personal scent as perfume (and the odor of money on business meetings — for good luck) and has, amongst many other things, created a “Swedish smell” that uses IKEA, H&M and Volvo as ingredients. People like her remind us of the power of smell and make us wonder why such nosy business has still not found its way to city marketing and urban planning.

On 19 September 2013 Sissel Tolaas will reveal more of her smell research and her practice as odor artist in the Stroom’s lecture series The Knight’s Move in The Hague. We are very much looking forward to it and pleased to give you a brief introduction that will get you in the right mindset for the lecture.

What Sissel Tolaas does is hard to describe. She may be a perfumer/nose professional/scent expert of a very unique kind, yet, her work entails much more than putting together pleasant smells for a specific marketable scent. As different as her degrees, which range from chemistry over linguistics to art, so are her projects she works on. One thing, however, is clear: this “professional in-betweener” is a heavy devotee of olfaction, the sense of smell, and her mission is to put the nose organ back into the people’s minds as a tool of communication and perception.

Smell artist Sissel Tolaas

For many years now, Tolaas has been collecting various smells that go beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and has, thus, broaden her collection to 7000 samples stored in neatly labeled rows of vacuum-sealed tins. What most people do not realize is that smells are perfectly adequate carriers of meaning and it is surprising why, up to today, smells have such an inferior role in our society. By collecting smells Tolaas lays the foundation for a library of smells that could give the missing order we need for our brains in order to make sense of them. As a pioneer in anything nosy Tolaas has therefore begun to work on a nose-language, which she named Nasalo. It is an utterly fictional language that solely describes the scents she keeps in her library of smells, much similar to a painter who describes the colors he mixes on his color palette. All the words in Nasalo are entirely context-free, fabricated fantasy words. As a result fast food would smell like Fafees, magic like Hiin, water and ships like Leumemo, dog shit like Pikon and traffic smells like Caa. You get the idea.

Smell artist Sissel Tolaas

As a researcher of ‘Invisible Communication and Rhetoric’ at the Harvard Business School she teaches her followers that too much emphasis is being put on visual perception for the sake of smell, which is a much simpler and a less conscious kind of perception. She laments that today one can walk through a city and encounter nothing but vast areas of empty stimuli because the industry has been trying hard to cover up, to camouflage all sorts of smells that are considered to be “bad”, which, by the way, she would rather label merely “provocative”. One of her many goals is, therefore, to replace these ‘Blandscapes’ with ‘Smellscapes’ and to create city maps guided by smells to make people aware of their olfactory environment. Once people understand and become aware of all the invisible information a city has to offer, Tolaas claims, we can start to rethink current city designs and develop entire new approaches. Up to now, however, there is “not one single city in the world”, she says, that consciously pays attention to smell in their city design so there is still lots of work for Sissel Tolaas to be done until she accomplishes her goal.

Smell artist Sissel Tolaas

To create more olfactory awareness, Sissel Tolaas has worked on many sometimes shocking, sometimes pleasantly surprising projects. She has, for instance, soaked the walls of the MIT in sweat of phobic males, giving the exhibit the title “Smell of Fear”. Reactions ranged from appalling, pleasing, and tear-quenching. For the German Museum of Military History in Dresden Tolaas was asked to re-create the smell of battlefield, meaning the smell of death. The smell must have been so real the museum rejected the outcome and refused to implement the smell in their halls. While working for adidas Tolaas discovered a molecule in David Beckham’s used sneakers which is precisely the same molecule as in a particular type of cheese. Without a doubt her projects raise more than just eyebrows but in all her works it becomes evident that smells are heavily linked to emotions. Tolaas tries to break with this tradition and works hard to become indifferent toward all kinds of smell. She insists that “nothing stinks only thinking makes it so”, yet, her most dreaded smell, she admits in her interview with Pop-Up City, is sour milk. You see, it is not always easy to maintain a neutral nose, not even for a Sissel Tolaas.