Harper’s: Smell is Other People

August 2010
PUBLISHING info: Harper's Magazine, Founded in 1850, Vol. 321, No. 1923

From an interview with scent designer, artist, and commercial consultant Sissel Tolaas, by curator Tina DiCarlo, published in the Spring 2010 issue of mono.kultur.

You are working on a project with fashion photographer Nick Knight about the smells of violence and the smells of fear. What is the smell of fear or of violence? I was invited to do a small project in Manhattan—this was in the period of Bush and the paranoia around terrorism—so I said, “Okay, what actually happens when people are afraid?” Through my global network—psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists, all working with paranoia and phobia—I got in touch with twenty men who suffered from severe phobias. I developed a small device that these guys carried around with them as if it was a talisman. This device extracted the sweat at the moment they had an attack. The sweat was sent to me overnight, and we reproduced it immediately with chemicals. The research was just astonishing. By smelling their sweat, I could build a kind of conceptual image about who they were, what kind of surroundings they were living in, and why they were afraid. The reasons for their phobias were always other bodies and constellations of bodies—humanity, human beings.

Was there something unique that you could identify in all these smells of anxiety or phobia? Listen, this research started as a conceptual thing. It’s not as if I can say, “This is the smell of fear.” There are as many smells of fear as there are human beings on this planet.

So this was about bodily communication that goes beyond what is seen and heard, to something indiscernible yet more immediately telling than anything else? Absolutely. Nick Knight was interested in this kind of thinking from the very beginning of his career. He started off as a skinhead. One topic of his is the notion of violence in men. We both want to find out what happens with humans in the moment of aggression, in terms of fighting and the hormones.

Work: Writing