Smellscapes

There’s a wonderful interview up at Fold Magazine with artist Kate McLean, in which she discusses her project of mapping cities by scent. She walks the streets of cities around the world with a group of volunteers, encouraging them to follow their noses and trying to awaken the sense of smell as a way of experiencing space and place.

I went over to her website to see what the maps look like. They are quite lovely. Delicate concentric circles represent the radii of scents. They bend, twist, and overlap, drifting on the wind. The colors of the circles are meant to evoke the spirit of the aroma—spring green stands for fresh, leafy smells, and ochre for dry, woody ones. An animated version of the Amsterdam map shows how the circles of scent expand, contort, and then dissipate, to be supplanted by new scents; unlike a traditional street map, which define space in terms of static landmarks and routes, these smell maps reveal a world that is ephemeral, permeable, and diffuse.

Of course, it made me think about the smells of my own neighborhood: mud puddles, car exhaust, mild sauce from Harold’s Chicken Shack Fish & Pizza, and the fresh wet wind off of the lake. In the winter there is the delicate smell of snow. In the summer, the sickly warm cheddar smell of gingko fruit rotting on the pavement.

It would be interesting to make more fine-grained maps. I would love to make a smell map of my apartment, from the scent of the soil around my cactus to the reek of the kitchen scraps. Or what about a scent map of the Regenstein library stacks. All books smell intoxicating, of course, but there’s great variation among the class, from the rich leathery must of decaying spines to the lemon-and-pickle odor of new releases.

McLean’s work also reminded me of a project by one of my favorite artists collectives, the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, in which participants attempted to harvest the smog of polluted areas by whipping into the foam of a meringue. The meringues were then cooked and sampled, as a way of showing how aeroir (like terroir) shapes our food.

While this piece is attempting to physicalize the otherwise invisible danger of polluted air, I can’t help but want to try the meringues. I know I’m missing the point, but there is something very appealing about this idea of trapping the drift of scent, at once ephemeral and hyperlocal (and thereby seemingly impossible to capture), in a bite of food. I want a sample. I want to know which smog is the tastiest.

And what about other kinds of aeroir? Could you whip the floral aroma of linden season into your meringue, or summer barbecue smoke, or a salty seaside breeze? This is a call for everyone reading this to go out on their balconies and start beating the local air into a bowl of egg whites. Report back on your findings.

 

 

Addendum:

Hey, Scout here! Nice article, Amelia. Here’s a smell map of our apartment for your enjoyment:

Thanks, Scout. And thank you for making all that stinky popcorn.

Amelia

A 13th-century hermit trapped in the body of a millennial.