We all know what the world’s major cities look like. But have you ever wondered what they smell like?
In her ongoing project SmellScapes, olfactory artist Sissel Tolaas documents the diverse odours that make cities distinct. She started work on the series over a decade ago, and now she’s collected more than 7,000 scents and recreated the smells of 35 cities (and counting).
“Every city has an identity like we humans do. And every city is unique smell-wise,” explained the Berlin-based artist. “The odor depends on things like climate, geography, demography etc. Inside the city, smells differs from neighborhood to neighborhood.”
Tolaas usually works with professionals, universities, and city councils to detect various aromas in places like Shanghai, Cape Town, and Singapore. She does it for fun, mainly, but the project also serves the cities it documents.
Mexico City, for instance, commissioned her to help residents understand pollution via their noses, resulting in over 200 neighbourhood visits and a scratch-and-sniff map of the capital.
“The goal was reproducing the smell of pollution—the car exhaust, the refrigerator, the air conditioner… Then I gave the smells to people and asked them to articulate them which made them understand better what’s causing the pollution,” said Tolaas.
But how exactly do you capture the smell of a place? Tolaas often ‘scavenges’ scents found in places like bakeries, laundromats, exotic restaurants, and even people’s body odour. She collects samples of these and sends them back to her lab, where the scents are deconstructed and analysed.
With cities constantly in a state of change, Tolaas hopes to record – if not preserve – each one’s olfactory heritage. By mapping her findings in SmellScape charts, Tolaas imagines that years from now, people will use her research to better know history, as well as develop a renewed appreciation of our sense of smell.
“It adds quality to being alive. To rediscover the amazing efficiency of senses is so mind-blowing! We live in a world that’s sanitized, sterilized and deodorized to such an extent, that we don’t have a clue what’s going on anymore,” she said.
“That’s not healthy for … the people, nor the cities or the planet. Our bodies are equipped with this amazing software for the purpose of navigating and communicating the world we live in. And the best part is that these ‘tools’ are free. They cost nothing!
“So, I’m trying to re-educate people how to use these amazing tools, to understand the world in a different way. And whatever it takes to bring across this experience to humanity, I will do it.”
Via Atlas Obscura