vision | synopsis

smell | culture | identity

how can smell enhance and communicate the perception of contemporary cultural identity?

Scenthropologie is the study of the relationship between scent and the culture of identity. The project’s main objective is to challenge, provoke and evoke the perceptions of the self within the context of aromas—to bring about our conditioned sensitivities and increase the awareness of our sensibilities to the forefront of experience. In times of globalization where individuals and cultures are merging more than ever, the development of cultural identity is a complex process of how we define ourselves, how experiences shape us and consequently, how we attempt to make sense out of those experiences. How do you smell culture? How do you define your scent and what does that communicate about the essence of your identity? These are pertinent questions in which I have endeavored in answering.

Scenthropologie has been a journey of self-discovery; the smell of fear—fear of failure was prominent in the initial development of the project; through the creative process, a transformation occurred into a smell of possibilities. By using a multi-disciplinary research strategy, constructive feedback from various nose experts stimulated innovative artifact methodologies. The combination of my conviction and perseverance is a testament of how Scenthropologie has evolved into explorations of the social body as an invisible vehicle of communication.

The first artifact, ‘Scent Identity #1’, was based on the art of perfumery; drawing inspiration from traditional methodologies of fragrance creation, perfume bottles were used as metaphors of identity. The visual analogy of constructing the self with perfumery (top, heart and base notes), intrigued perfumers since ‘natural perfumery refers more to your relationship with yourself and your own sense of smell—and very much part of one’s own identity.’ (Aftel to Mähl, 2009). However, the absence of smells within this conceptual representation was one criticism that led to the development of smell-induced experiments.

Executed at Tower Bridge (UK) and Brooklyn Bridge (NY), ‘Hello. Who Do I Smell Like?’ social experiments invited participants to smell perfumed Asian and Caucasian couples. This experiment challenged and provoked the intimate assumptions of smell within a social context. The act of smelling was reflective of cultural lifestyles; UK participants were receptive while the US participants appeared to be apprehensive. However, both had difficulty in articulating their perceptions—reinforcing the limitations of smell as language. Although public interaction provided subjective insight, body/environment variables during the experiment were observations that influenced the subsequent artifact.

The ‘Scentual Bodies’ sniffing event composed of aromatic dolls challenged associations of aromas with identities. Perceptions from these metaphors of social bodies were evocative of memories and stimulated emotional responses. ‘Scent Strips’ referencing perfume strips were also distributed for participants to define their individual scent; this conceptual exercise was inspired from MHC gene research—unique as our fingerprint and embedded within our immune system, it is argued that it is representative of our scent identity. The collective responses were arranged into natural, synthetic and metaphor categories—classifications that motivated the final artifact.

‘An individual’s odour might even be perceived as the manifestation of his spirit. As long as they live, every man and woman emits a unique personal scent: without it, there is no identity and no life.’ (Dorland, 1991, p. 137). By giving dimension to smell, the final proposal is the culmination of art and science—‘Scenthropologie’ is an interactive sensory world composed of the perception and creation of unique individual scent profiles—a conceptual solution to which smell can communicate identity. ‘Clearly grasping that the language of science is “what works”, what has authority in the West… now I see that you are actually using that discourse as a lever for enhancing awareness of the cultural dimensions of smell and identity.’ (Howes to Mähl, 2009).

In the midst of this journey, the evolving platform of integrated artifact iterations, artist collaborations, survey conclusions and research.’s degree of scope will be part of a research directory for Sensory Studies. This opportunity has demonstrated that there is interest, credibility and potential for future investigations within the realms of sensory exploration. What started out as a simple idea is now an evocative abstraction of this social sense—the culture of identity is as elusive as the sense of smell. The next challenge is to transcend from the confines of this online media interpretation into a direct sensorial engagement. This tumultuous journey of experiences has been a complex process of self-definition, embodiment of unprecedented knowledge and applied imagination.‘Recognizing how essential scent is to our humanity—emotionally, physically, sexually and socially—and how the experience of scent enriches, improves, and deepens our lives in multiplicative and multifaceted ways gives remarkable meaning to our lives.’ (Herz, 2007, p. 241). When our senses come to the reality of our experiences, it invites us to new challenges—to embrace our contemporary cultural condition is to question the importance of perception and sensation.