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Report: Hack the Body Odor Workshop by Vivian Fontijn
A closer look into the laboratory of olfactory artist Klara Ravat
On November 25th, Natlab once again turned into a proper laboratory during the sold-out Hack the Body Odor Workshop, hosted by olfactory artist Klara Ravat. Besides a theoretical insight into the fascinating domain of the sense of smell, participants got the chance to create a distillation of their own body odor.
Klara Ravat makes installations that work with smell. She obtained a degree in ArtScience at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, and now works and resides in Berlin. Ravat is the founder of the Smell Lab, a community project for investigation and practice focused on the art and science of the sense of smell.
The anatomy & physiology of smell
Klara Ravat’s workshop started with a brief theoretical introduction on how smell works and how it is related to the body and mind. The sense of smell is incredibly powerful. Babies can recognize their mother by the smell of the nipple, and we can smell fear and dislike in others.
The individual sense of smell is genetically determined. Everyone has different odor receptors and that’s why people interpret smells in different ways (or sometimes not at all). Each olfactory receptor is capable of binding to several different odorant molecules. This provides the basis for combinatorial diversity, a mechanism that is capable of discriminating between as many as a trillion different mixtures of odorant.
The sense of smell is closely connected to the ability to evoke memories. As we speak, a lot of research is being done in this field. Current studies suggest that odor-evoked memories may be experienced as more emotional than memories cued by other sensory modalities.
As far as scientists know, the memory mechanism has to do with the quick response of the olfactory sensors and how they interact with the brain. The hippocampus is essential for memory function, particularly the transference from short to long term memory and control of spatial memory and behavior. Also, the amygdala performs a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions and social and sexual behavior, as well as regulating the sense of smell.
A short history on olfactory artists
Dada pioneer Marcel Duchamp is considered as the first olfactory artist. One of his most well-known creations was the character of Rrose Sélavy, an alter-ego of the artist. Femininely dressed and perfumed, Duchamp stressed conventions regarding odor and gender. A few years later, Rrose Sélavy would serve as inspiration for Duchamp’s Readymade Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette (1921), a perfume bottle based on a design of the French fashion house Rigaud.
Many artists followed in Duchamp’s footsteps and worked with smell in unexpected ways. In The Smell of Fear (1996) the Canadian olfactory artist Clara Ursitti explored ways to re-enact the body smell of the Wizard of Oz-actress Judy Garland, who, due to an addiction to diet and sleeping pills, suffered from extreme body odor.
Sissel Tolaas, an artist from Norway, collected 7000 different smells in her library. One of her works revolves around the capture of the smell of the city Berlin and its different districts.
Klara Ravat herself creates installations that work with smell. One of her projects is the Multi Sensory Album (2012), a DIY-kit that allows its user to capture smells and store them as olfactory memories.
The distillation of a collective smell
During the second part of the afternoon, it was all about rolling up our sleeves and putting our noses in the smell-business. Various techniques exist for distilling smell, but we used the process of steam distillation in order to capture our body odor, since this technique doesn’t break down so many odor molecules as other distillation techniques.
Although we used a professional distillation equipment, the smell extraction process is fairly simple to recreate at home by using a hot plate, pans, silicon tubes and a bucket. For the workshop, every participant was asked to bring a t-shirt that was worn for at least three days or nights. The smelliest part of the shirt (the armpit area) is best to use: this part is cut out by all participants and collected in the distiller.
By bringing the water to a boil, steam is released that penetrates the cut t-shirt parts. Then, the scented steam is divided in a separate section and cooled down. As the steam turns into liquid again, the drops of distilled scented water are captured in a flask. After 20 minutes the first batch of body-scented water is ready to be sniffed at, and indeed: it truly smells of human body. At the end of the day every participant got to bring home a little bottle with a distill of the collective body smell. A better souvenir would not have been possible!
We want to thank the participants of the Hack the Body Odor Workshop, the partners of the Hack the Body program and of course olfactory artist Klara Ravat, who made this workshop possible.
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