CONTINUE in Speaking

Sissel Tolaas

SPOKEN at Mono.kultur #23 spring 2010

THE Talk in Brief


You mentioned that you are tired of the predominance of vision – but 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?

The whole thing started by going back to the body as a tool of communication. How does a body smell? When and how can you smell a body? What kind of information could you get about a person by being able to analyse his or her body smell? Does it convey knowledge about that person’s psyche or state of mind? The fact is that we all have a unique body smell – as unique as a fingerprint – and hardly anybody takes this seriously or is even able to identify one’s own smell. So I started with myself: ‘What happens when I reproduce my own body smell and confront myself with it?’

What does happen?

I was shocked. I had a moment of fundamental confusion. ‘Oh, this is how I smell? Oh my God.’ Not in a negative way; more like, ‘Wow, interesting…’ It was very complex, very different than I imagined. But having that kind of me, myself in a bottle, smelling it again and again, I started to get ‘used’ to it, in a different way than I have with the image of myself.

It was a very physically, intellectually, emotionally interesting experience. I decided that the next step would be to go out and do some research in reality. I was invited to do a small project in Roebling Hall in Manhattan – this was exactly in the period of Bush and the paranoia around terrorism, so I said, ‘Okay, what does actually happen 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 that suffered from severe phobia attacks. Through the specialists, I began to correspond with several of these guys until I built up a fundamental trust and could ask, ‘Can you please give me your sweat?’ As in, ‘What I am interested in is not you as Mr. Smith or whoever. I am only interested in some of the fluid that comes out of your body at the moment you get a fear attack.’

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. We agreed that their original sweat would be sent to me overnight, and we reproduced it immediately through chemicals. The research was just astonishing – by smelling their sweat, I could build up 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 phobia were always other bodies and constellations of bodies – humanity, human beings.

Was there a similar molecule that was produced by all of them?

It’s difficult to say at this stage. There are loads of molecules. I am not able to track them all, but the quintessence of each is there and that is what I simulated and reproduced. In some cases, I could smell what kind of garments they were wearing. For example, there is a guy in South Korea who dresses in latex all the time. He goes to underground clubs – I even went with him once – with his latex outfit and gets in a state of total paranoia. He gets a hard-on and leaves. And he does this three times a week – that’s his excitement.

Was the smell of fear particular to all of them? Was there something unique that you could identify in all of these smells of anxiety or phobia?

Listen, this research started as a conceptual thing: I was interested in that very moment when these bodies were under a specific kind of stress and I was very surprised by what I found out. I was able to identify a lot of things about those persons at the very moment when they were anxious and exuding sweat. It’s not that I can say, ‘This is the smell of fear.’ There are as many smells of fear as there are human beings on this planet. But I discovered important information beyond what I suspected.

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. What happens when you sit in front of a person and really make an effort to perceive that person with your nose before you let words or vision take over? Communication is 100 percent. Seven percent is oral. What is the remaining 93 percent? What happens when you get certain information through your nose? How do you then build up an oral approach or gesticulation to get where you want to go? Smell can be a very important tool of communication in the context of human beings and relations. This is what I am searching for, nothing else: trying to find out how this works or potentially could work. The message is the reaction: What happens when you are stripped bare, devoid of the camouflage that deodorises your system? Do people react differently to you? What are your reactions to their actions and visa versa?

Nick Knight was interested in this kind of thinking from the very beginning of his career. He started off as a skinhead. He is, like I am, interested in the edge of things. One topic of his is the notion of violence in men. What I do is pure research into what actually happens under the surface of the visible, behind the image, and he wants to put this experience in context and eventually make it commercial. But what interests me is really doing some investigation and research in the field. We both want to find out what happens with humans in the moment of aggression, in terms of fighting and the hormones. So we are now in the middle of this project; a lot more needs to be done.

What did you find out so far?

In men, testosterone produces sperm, facial and body hair, deep voices, as well as muscle mass and strength. It is associated with two kinds of behaviour in males: the aggressive dominance of other males and sexual activity. It also functions as an anti-depressant, with both men and women. It increases friendliness and reduces anger, depression, fatigue, confusion, nervousness and irritability. That may seem contradictory: Testosterone causes males to fight, yet it also makes them friendly. But there’s a simple reason: Testosterone makes males want to mate. If fighting precedes mating – like with gorillas – testosterone makes males fight. But if mating requires friendship – as it does with baboons – it makes males friendly. Testosterone can vary among men by a factor of four. Football players have the highest levels of testosterone, ministers the lowest. It’s really interesting.


Sissel Tolaas, Portrait Sissel Tolaas, Fear 9, 2006
Work: Speaking