sniffing around | making sense of sense

making sense of sense

Ashley Rowe Cappi | Olfactory Artist

Born in 1968 in the UK. PhD in aquatic biology from 1997, I live in Vizcaya, North Spain where I work as a CLIL science teacher, and artist combining science, cognition and sensorial art, specially olfaction. My recent practise focuses on the interface between smell, cognition, culture and memory. A smell is essentially the 'spectrum' of odourants present in inhaled air and cognition (attention, memory, comparison, naming, judgment) plays an essential role in sensory evaluation, and in my olfactory installations.

Culture strongly influences how we understand or interprete smell. Cultural responses to smell differ widely as do cognitive responses. We all have our own unique smell and can recognise and are recognised by our smell. How we interprete them, however, depends on our perception.

Smell is unique because it has privileged access to the subconscious. Strong emotions such as fear seem to be communicated by smell. Yet smell is considered the sense that contributes least to human knowledge, and also the one that most people consider they can easily live without. Yet whole memories can be prompted by smell. And what of memories of commonplace smellscapes and voluntary recall?

It is these questions that drive my olfactory work.

title of project
The crow(n)ing and hanging of Dennis Leigh and chicken foot.
Sensorial—olfactory installation. Fabric. Ashes. Synthetic flower.
This installation explores the transitory nature of smell in existence. It reinterpretes “The Quiet man” text, rich in smellscapes, and “A new kind of man” photograph by contemporary musician John Foxx, aka Dennis Leigh, and “Chickens feet and Tuxedo” (1996) by photographer Michiko Kon. Inspired by this work I attempt to recreate a multilayered memory leaving very personal olfactory and visual clues to my past and/or passing.

The suit will be worn in a variety of different smellscapes, offering new interpretations of olfactory and cognitive experiences, memories and sensations. After each installation the suit is dry-cleaned, the olfactory memory erased.

{Curated by Diana Ali, exhibited within “Olfaction—an exhibition of artworks” at Emptyshop Gallery, Durham, in June 2009.}

title of project
Traité des sensations.
title of installations
The Exquisite Odour of Leave-taking, Inebriate of Air, Scents In Invisible Jets And Breathing & Your Unitary, Holistic Perceptual Event.
Sensorial—olfactory installation. Fabric. Aluminium, carnations, Trisenx Senx samplers
Synthetic carnation scent. Video.
In this project I make use of Condillac’s seminal work of cognition theory “Traité des sensations” to investigate suspended olfaction, conditioning smell memory using sound, olfactory synaesthesia, and cultural aspects of odour psychogenesis.

I investigate olfaction as a cognitive experience: how smell appeals to memory. I also investigate the perception of cultural identity through olfaction for which I will use a flower with strong cultural ties, the carnation. Visitors write down their olfactory impressions and the lexicon/experiences are used throughout the latter part of the project.

I air dry large numbers of carnations so that our attention to the scent is temporal, and the saturation of our senses provokes adaptation. When attention wanes, memory access is denied. Essentially I intend to rewrite memory and provoke suspended olfaction, a failure to retrieve verbal information to name or even describe an odor. Air drying, like ageing, eventually robs us of our olfactive ability.

As the carnations die, only a trace of the odour remains. Does this trace create new memories? How does this affect our judgement? How do we interprete smell when colour is annulled or sound accompanies? Can our judgement be so conditioned?

Or have I trapped you in suspended olfaction?

title of the project
“Dream pillow”
Sensorial – olfactory installation. Pillow. Air dried bay laurel leaf. Video.
Laurel is widespread throughour the Meditarranean area. Names for laurel include Alloro (Italian), Daphne (Greek), and Laurier (French), Lorbeer (German). In botany it is Laurus nobilis, an aromatic perennial evergreen shrub, native to the Mediterranean. Present in Greek, Roman and early christian mythology, bay laurel leaf has long been lauded for enhancing psychic abilities and dreams, for example for safe sleep or prophetic dream visions (in dream pillows). From ancient times dreams have been regarded as prophecies, and there have been persons who specialized in interpreting dreams. Many scientists and artists have been inspired by their own dreams. It is not uncommon for people to have had dreams which have affected major life decisions.

This project considers cognitive olfaction, offering a scientific investigation of olfactory stimulation on the brain.

It features an empty mattress, and a pillow stuffed with bay leaves.
Video of a participant who volunteered to sleep the night on the bay leaf pillow, while subjected to electro-encephalography (EEG) to monitor brain activity, is projected onto the bed.

Video of electro-encephalography (EEG) activity in the dreaming brain, coupled with accounts of participants recounting their dream experience as it reacted to the bayleaf stimuli, is projected onto a wall.