A week of smells/scents
Stefanie and I have been discussing the topic of this week for a little: as much as we both were fascinated to capturing and cataloguing the scents of our cities, we were also afraid to realize we have a poor sense of smell.
Mostly, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to “grasp" the odors, I worried they would disappear to my senses before I could even decode them in my mind.
It turned out I was right. In a whole week I could only clearly detect 160 smells, roughly 23 per day, it’s a very small number!
in my postcard each blurred symbol represent a smell I vividly sensed during my week, in chronologic order. I liked the idea of depicting “the smell” as a sort of brush stroke that fades away, conveying the feeling of an intense breath that dies out.
The colors of each symbol indicates the general category I classified the scents within, and the other visual attributes help recognizing how long did it last, its intensity and my reactions to it: was a pleasant smell? Did it remind me something specific? Could I label it or would it fall into “there oughta be a german word for that?"
There are so many smells that are tight specifically to New York, in my mind.
This city and its different neighborhoods have very intense and peculiar odors, like I’ve never really sensed before moving here.
And seasons have their peculiar smells too here. As the hot summer get going you can literally be assaulted by smells as you walk the streets: burnt pretzels and spicy curry from street vendors in Midtown, early morning fish water in Chinatown, the characteristic smell of the many 99cents pizza shops all around, the familiar clean fresh laundry scent coming up from the basements of residential areas, coconut shampoo and sunscreen fragrances from people in the streets…and also the less pleasant acute odors of garbage, sweat and smoke.
But honestly, I somehow like even odors normally considered unpleasant here in New York, they are a vital, subtle but always present reminder of where I live now, and of how this city is different from where I am from.
I was born and raised in a very small town in Italy, and I’ve been exposed to a set of different odors of my surroundings growing up.
However there are smells here that can carry me back to my childhood, and I love when it happens. Smell is a memory tool they say, Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses writes: "Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once."
We all know how this is true, and how pleasant is this fleeing moment when a smell gets us back in time: “what is it?” we would ask and survey our minds about. I wish it It’d happen more often!
I am realizing more and more how much I like reading Stefanie’s postcards when the topic deals with her surroundings, when the postcard helps me picturing her days.
I loved imagining her time in London at week 32, when we logged the sounds of our surroundings; and I enjoyed flipping her card back and forth this week trying to visualize where she’s been by the means of the smells she could detect.
I believe data that grasps routinely and ordinary moments such as these ones are neat entry points to our lives, they are the backgrounds of our habits and journeys through our days.
A confession: I can't stand the word 'smell'. Not only does the actual sound and pronunciation of the word leave a funny feeling in my mouth, it also seems as though it refers to something that smells faintly disgusting.
So, I'll try to use the word 'scent' instead, like a posh perfumer, as I can only imagine how difficult it would be to market themselves as 'purveyors of fine smells.' But still, 'scent' doesn't appeal to me either. I am someone who has powerful feelings of repulsion to the words she hates, so perhaps it's just me, but in the English language I don't think we've cracked upon the right word for something that can be so evocative, so easily able to inspire powerful feelings in ourselves, and so attached to emotions and memories.
As we tracked the 'scents' we gathered this week I only gathered data on the scents that I noticed as I went about my day. I originally tried to gather scents from the top of every hour but scents are different than sounds in that while they are continuous, you only really notice them when they change, and then you often get used to them and then they disappear as quickly as they came.
I chose to organise the scents of my week by location, many of which are along my walking route to and from my Brixton studio. I've included myself and my husband as moving locations as well, as there are so many scents that are often found on our persons, but not the surrounding environment. Even just by seeing the locations I travel near or through without even looking at the scent data, Giorgia can get a good idea of my week.
It was interesting to realise that most of the scents I smell are synthetic as opposed to natural. Of course, I was smelling lots of freshly painted walls in my house, but this was due to having our upstairs painted while we went away on holiday, so even for a week or so after the scent/smell lingered.
However, what is more everyday is the scent of all the perfume, shower gel, laundry detergent, shampoo, and so on that I put on my body or use to wash my clothing. I didn’t realise how many synthetic perfumes I use (and I’ll admit that I quite like them), but I never took myself to be someone who needed to surround themselves in synthetic scents. I always watch adverts on telly for a ‘new’ amazing air freshener with bemusement, as I’ve never felt the need to fill my living environment completely with synthetic perfume, but I suppose that is exactly what I am doing by wearing all the perfumes and using all of the scented products that I choose to use.
But what can I say? I don’t like the smell of body odor, as evidenced by the fact that it is one of my least favourite smells noted on my card (I absolutely hate the smell of a hot, packed tube train). I guess I wear so so many scented products because I fear smelling like a scent I really dislike.
My favoured scents are not very out-of-the-ordinary: rain, woodfire, the smell of my laundry detergent.
But my most favourite scents come as no surprise, I’m sure: my husband (in general) and my husband when he steps out of the shower. I know, weird, but not exactly unusual, and I’m sure there is some super-scientific pheromonal excuse for this. It’s funny how the scent of my husband can be one of my favourite whereas the scent of a stranger is one of my least favourite: context when it comes to scents (particularly those associated with humans) is obviously critical.
Finally, what I like best about the moments I captured my husband’s scent is that this data also becomes a record of when I was close to him: I could have only captured these scents after giving him a hug, or lying close to him, or being very near. I like how by gathering one dataset you can then reveal another.
We are at Week 47 and I am still unable to fully grasp how Giorgia can gather the data that she gathered: how can she capture the duration of a scent while also getting her work done and going about her day? Perhaps she has some special super-human power that I just don’t have, as I have always found the data-capturing to be a challenge.
Regardless, it’s interesting that we both smell relatively the same scents: our partners, our perfumed toiletries and the perfumes of others. Until we embarked on this exercise I would have thought that the scents of our week would be more diverse than they really are!