Of the five primary senses, smell might be the most underappreciated. But that's not the case with scent-obsessed artist and researcher Sissel Tolaas. She specializes in the practice of cataloguing and replicating the world’s smells, essentially putting experiences in a bottle so they can be uncorked later, sort of like an olfactory Willy Wonka. For over a decade now, CityLab reports, Tolaas and her nose have traveled to 35 cities and counting, documenting not the sights and sounds, but the scents of each location.
Tolaas and other smell-obsessed researchers from across disciplines work out of a unique laboratory, called the Re_Search Lab, in Berlin. Inside are 6,763 distinctive smells contained in identical aluminum boxes, each of which emits “something,” a suitably vague term to cover all manner of smells.
The extensive archive is home base, but Tolaas goes far and wide to collect its contents, from Mexico City to Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas. The Grand Arts council invited her to make a “smellscape” of Missouri’s biggest city and its similarly named neighbor. After some firsthand research—which, yes, involved sticking her nose into plenty of unusual places—Tolaas organized “a smell scavenger hunt of sorts,” during which curious locals could scratch and sniff cards marked “Municipal Court” or “Public Levee Space at Kaw Point” imbued with the carefully recreated scent of those locations. Not all the city smells are ones the visitors might choose to inhale on a normal basis (refer to Tolaas’s exhibit in Paris, which heavily featured whiffs of ashtrays and slaughterhouses), but they’re all as much a part of the city as its very streets and storefronts.
When scent-mapping a new city, Tolaas doesn’t go it alone. She calls on volunteers to help her sniff around. In a recent collaboration with Harvard University, local student volunteers in Shanghai helped her identify 500 unique scents that comprised the city—mostly food, but also odors from nature, street traffic, and even the people themselves. Tolaas is rigorous in her methods, making multiple passes of the same area at different times of day to ensure that the smells she’s identifying are truly a constant presence. She’s convinced that with such attention to detail, a person should be able to navigate a neighborhood blindly, with only their nose to guide them.
There’s a fascinating science behind all this smell curation, made possible by the Re_Search Lab’s close partnership with International Flavors and Fragrances, commercial creator of tastes and scents, who provide Tolaas with her equipment. Headspace technology allows Tolaas to capture the odor molecules of whatever objects she’s brought back to the lab, which she then works to recreate with synthetic compounds. The interdisciplinary nature of Tolaas’s work makes sense considering her background. She was raised and educated in Iceland, Norway, Poland, and Russia, is fluent in nine languages, and trained in both chemistry and the arts. Tolaas thrives in the space she has created for herself between art and science.
Having worked so long with smells, Tolaas no longer judges them to be good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, the way we quotidian sniffers do. She shuns any “hierarchy” of smells, telling CityLab that “every smell has the potential of being interesting.” Anecdotally considering the way most cities smell on an average day, it’s probably best to keep an open mind along with those open nostrils.