Artist Residency @ Monell Chemical Senses Center Oct-Nov 2011


Oct -Nov, 2011

At Monell Chemical Senses Center I’m researching unconscious sensing of human smell signatures for art works with a focus  on developing the human as a sensing instrument. My premise is that the whole of nature is communicating with olfactory signals largely disregarded by humans despite their effects on human behavior and emotions.

My intention in visiting Monell was to find out what could be in the human plume and if we have olfactory receptors to monitor humans and the environment even if we may not have reached a level of recognition.

As Dr Reed  succinctly puts it ‘we’re studying how we smell and how we smell’

Thanks to Dr Gary Beachamp, Director, Monell Chemical Senses Center for inviting me to the Sponsors meeting where I gained an overview of the latest research at Monell. Dr Beachamp’s illuminating reflection on the central problem of olfaction  : ‘how does a molecule manage to affect consciousness?’ amplifies my belief  that the realm of olfaction is ripe for creativity because its territory is largely uncharted.

Many thanks to Dr. Danielle Reed  who hosted my residency. Daniel invited me to the Monell Center,  organised the residency, and picked me up from the airport in the middle of the night and even provided me with a bag of scrumptious midnight feast goodies–much appreciated after long flight!

Sensing Stress

I asked Gaza correspondent Julie Webb -Pullman journalist for Scoop about the smells of stress that she encounters in conflict areas. Julie reported back  ”its like machine oil, a kind of heavy slightly metallic oily smell – heavier than that smell that comes out of the sewing machine, but not quite as strong as used engine oil or axel grease, but that kind of smell – if there was a range with sewing machine oil at one end and axel-grease at the other, it would about 85% towards the axel grease end, with a sharp/sour sweat edge….”

Dr Charles Wysocki : Stress alters body odour, and is detectable by smell—what we don’t know is if you smell body odour from someone who is stressed do you become more stressed? Post-traumatic stress can also be elicited by smells that people were exposed to in traumatic situations—in some cases the smells will elicit fear, eg Diesel.

One’s DNA for the genes involved in creating signature odours from the skin  and olfactory receptors can be analysed, but the data is not conclusive. There’s not only a genetic variation in the the biological receptors of each person but also variation on both perceptual data and molecular descriptors of fragrance materials….so it isn’t yet possible to predict how people may or may not experience smells.

Matt Kirkey – weighing the mass of DNA. Matt –whose desk was next to mine in the laboratory at Monell offered a very  simple explanation of  genotyping and DNA: DNA is the recipe.

On sniffing the wind of the molecular genetic revolution  and the interpretation of genetic information: Peter R Wills, in Life Requires Genetic Representation and vice versa-Consequences for ALife, writes  : No matter how refined a description of a cell’s molecular biology may be, if it implicitly assumes that the specificity of molecular biological processes originates solely in genetic sequence information then it fails as a scientific  explanation because it gives no account of the origin of the means of interpretation of the information…

Dr Joel Mainland’s research goal is to develop a predictive model relating molecular structure and olfactory perception using a combined psychophysical and molecular approach. I’m excited about Joel’s quantitative analysis research and finding patterns in molecular descriptions; although its not qualitative it somehow reminds me of  qualitative cross-sensory translations of visual patterns into music, eg those at Paso del Zute

At Paso del Zute   in Granada, Spain, I experienced José L. Rojas’s unique and brilliant  translations of perceptual data into patterns that could be played by the audience on real instruments.

Could we assign a colour, a sound, a flavour, a texture, a temperature, a weight to each molecular descriptor?      C. Jaen’s research into Sterogenisis—oral chemosensory analysis—suggests the ability to perceive and recognize the form of an object using tactile cues—words, text, in the mouth

I will begin by ‘sniffing out’what we may or may not be able to smell of the molecular behaviours: intensity, threshold, pleasantness, quality

Smell to Sound Device

We will test smells that wouldn’t be readily recognizable,  as well as compounds that elicit specific anosmias as outlined by Dr Charles Wysocki; Dr Wysocki mentioned Albert Blakeslee’s study in 1930’s –people can’t smell some varieties of freesias. An earlier study in 1918 found similar in people smelling verbena flowers…other known anosmic compounds are:

  • Androstenone
  • Benzy salycialate
  • Galaxolide
  • Geosmin (musty)
  • Isovaleric acid
  • Jegers ketal ( woody amber)
  • 3-methyl-2-hexemoic acid (underarm sweaty odour)
  • 3-hydroxy hexanoic acid ( human sweaty)
  • muscone ( musky)
  • pentadecalectore  (musky)
  • skatole  ( fecal odour)

I’m interested in fugitive smells, in particular beta ionone and the smell of violets. Some people are anosmic to beta ionone at certain concentrations.  The French Bonapartists chose as their emblem  the violet . The French government fought, by decree on and off, until the year 1874 any reproduction of a violet because it was the symbol of the Bonapartists.


I worked on a video on memory and anosmia while at Monell Chemical Senses Center –hoping to finish it soon. Yukiko who appears in the film couldn’t smell violets.


Two aspects that Dr. George Preti pointed out about non-odiferous olfactory molecules:

    • We don’t notice volatile organic molecules unless they become irritants –they don’t affect/bind with olfactory receptors—
    • They may be at below olfactory threshold because the volatility is at a very low level, ie, very few molecules present.

Taste smell integration: can smell below-threshold if used with a sweetener as this is an integration (Dr.Pamela Dalton)

The sound

Thanks to Dr Rocky Parker studies the role that steroid hormones play in the production and perception of chemical signals. Rocky suggested that we use the pentatonic scale for the music because its cultural sound that is suitable for improvisation.

Also of interest is   A Fruity Note: Crossmodal associations between odors and musical notes  by   Anne-Sylvie Crisinel and Charles Spence    …”Indeed, in a recent study, Mesz et al. (2011) asked a number of musicians to improvise short pieces of music in accordance to taste words (bitter, salty, sour, and sweet)…..The words elicited consistent and reliable musical patterns.”


It is what it isn’t

Fugitive smells: Dr Glen Golden is testing the quality of smell, ie its character to see if its true that smells change their quality at different concentrations, eg cinnemaldehyde, diphenal methane.

Cinnemaldehyde: when  there are changes in intensity it changes from geranium floral at low concentration to orange at high concentration.

If this (floral—low conc)means that(orange –high conc)

And that indicates those (cinnemaldehyde)

Then after a while if you’re given those (cinnemaldehyde)

At low concentration, and it smells to you like that(floral)

Then you’ll associate this (floral) with that (orange)

Then if those (cinnemaldehyde) is actually half as much as that(orange)

Even though they’re the same

That(orange) won’t mean this (floral)

Sniffing humans

I asked Dr. George Preti  about methods of training myself to detect unconscious and below-threshold human skin vapours, with a view to recognizing olfactory signals expressed by humans, like fear, disappointment, etc.

In terms of science, olfactory comprehension seems to be gridlocked by the complexity of  interaction between olfactory receptors and the odour molecule and so the central problem of olfaction remains: how the olfactory molecule manages to affect the brain, consciousness and emotions. The mystery of olfaction offers a new arena of discovery. We are all sniffing in the revolutionary  wind of  genetics.

Dr Preti  prepared a GCO  Olfactory Gas Chromatograph session so that I could use my nose to detect human skin vapours emitted from a column—specifically skin extracts from  ten older Caucasian women, and qualify my experience of them by

  1. naming the qualities
  2. noticing the feelings that arose in me in response to them.

I  was wondering which smells I would miss because the experience is not continuous its interrupted by the breath in and the breath out. I look at my notes about an ephemeral experience and the descriptions are all ‘things’….

Time             Description                                Perception
1.47              Dark granules
2.27              Aluminium
2.47              Moth balls                                    what was she feeling?
2.58              Sweet soap                                  how does she feel?
3.05              Cosmetic–Nivea cream ( faint).      complex
4.30              Biscuits, sweet cookies
5.39              Toilet
6.16             Tree bark
8.00              Match smoke
8.18              Perfume/aftershave
9.00              Corner of a room/dirt/old
11.58                                                          disappoint                                    .
13.37            Basalmic vinegar.                    disinterest
15.04            Old book pages
15.23            Vinegrette dressing
16.15            Air in a plastic bag
16.36                                                          visual forms : music slopes
18.02           Vinegar in an oily frypan
22.29            Sourish in a bus
24.20            Stuffy air interior
26.55            Clothes, naphthalene
                     Burnt wood
                    Warm heater, clothes on a heater
                    Steam iron
                    Wood workshop
                    Hot wood
28.00            Wool carpet
34.00            Rain on wool/wet woolen garment
                    Hot heater/heating iron
                    Steam iron
                    Rain on hot wall

About feeling breathless

I feel breathless about being in America– the accents, the expressions, the food, the architecture…

When talking about background odours with Dr. Pamela Dalton she pointed out that  familiar background odour is only noticed when there is a change. I realized that I was feeling breathless in part because  my familiar background of odor had been replaced with the one in Philadelphia.

What matters to the sensory system is change and contrast, so when background odours disappear it gives us a feeling of  ‘a diminished saturation of the world’ ( Dr Pamela Dalton).

Municipialities and city councils regulate emissions in permissible odour units (PELS) which determine the thresholds.

The local nasal ranger detects and records odours from a site using a: At a pig farm, for example the nasal ranger sniffs and monitors 12-16 hours per day, 7 days per week to make quantatitive odour data



Wood smoke

Car exhaust

Dead animal





 Champagne and Climate Change

At Monell I’ve become interested in the bite in the mouth, the cough, ( Dr Paul Wise ) the remedy (sweet cough mixture) , and carbonation.

What relationship is there between carbonation in the mouth,  acidification in the environment, and calcium deficiency ?

• The burning of hydrocarbons -coal creates heat  and CO2…

that precipitates into the ocean acidifying the seawater and rain on earth creating a calcium deficiency that affects the shells of sea creatures and the formation of birds eggs… life longs for calcium ( Michael Tordoff );

•When  calcium carbonate-is mixed with acid it forms CO2….

which is in carbonated drinks–fizzy beverages, soda water, beer and champagne CO2 diffuses into the mouth, human tissue is very permeable by CO2.

• The background of burnt hydrocarbons makes us cough…..

High CO2 levels = eroding seashores, rising in sea levels, warmer oceans, deformed birds eggs…


POD : a smell output device

I made a pod device in collaboration with Brian Harris with the intention of having a gadget to express olfactory material for art installations and also so that I could train myself in unconscious odours. I tested the pod device for both concentration and flow rate using a variety of smell compounds and materials.

Our pod is a device to deliver smell material on a stream of air, because one of the difficulties in olfactory art is finding ways to control dispersal. Its best delivered to the individual at nose level, so  I  was very interested to see  scientific devices constructed for lab experiments, and was excited to discover that most of the scientists that I visited at Monell are engaged in hands-on creating of instruments and materials, eg olfactometers, sensors, steady electronically controlled air flows,  etc… collecting and storing smell compounds sourced from both natural and synthetics sourced from various corporate sponsors…..

Dr. Paul Wise‘s olfactometer – very much more precise and detailed than ours, but seeing this device reminded me that both scientists and artists start with a concept or question and then find material ways to explore it.

Investigating suggestion and expectation in odour detection thresholds

“Like odorant detection, odorant discrimination can improve with learning and practice (Rabin 1988). Increased familiarization was associated with a decrease in discrimination errors of initially unfamiliar odors (Jehl et al. 1995). Odor enantiomers that were initially indiscriminable became discriminable after one of the enantiomers was associated with an electric shock (Li et al. 2008)…Finally, it is noteworthy that the two mechanisms of olfaction considered in this review are very different in macrosmatic mammals. Most mammals likely do have egocentric spatial abilities in olfaction (Rajan et al. 2006), and sniff at a frequency that may prevent change-blindness (Welker 1964). These differences may allow a form of olfactory awareness in macrosmatic mammals that is unavailable to humans. Thus, whereas human olfactory perception is dominated by the perceptual axis of odorant pleasantness to an extent that renders it nearly unidimensional (Yeshurun and Sobel 2010), the mechanisms we have highlighted here may allow macrosmatic olfactory perception that is far richer. All this, however, does not limit the influence of odors on human perception and behavior, both of which may in fact be more susceptible to the influence of subliminal than perceived smells.”

Human olfaction: a constant state of change-blindness. Lee Sela and Noam Sobel. Exp Brain Res. 2010 August; 205(1): 13–29. Published online 2010 July 7. doi: 10.1007/s00221-010-2348-6

Humans as rats: I had my first taste of rat food: it was SWEET! with a texture of pumice….. oh it reminded me of when I ate a whole pumice with salt, I was 6 years old and fascinated by the loaves and fishes story.


Dr Mike Tordoff  pointed out four different types of rat:

Lab rat  controlled

Pet rat  pampered

Food rat gets eaten

Wild rat gets trapped, killed or poisoned

Feeder rat—for snakes in pet shops

And the Hero Rat—trained to detect tuberculosis and landmines

This is a lovely pet rat–Jeffrey Masson’s blog on his Peaceable Kingdom experiment


I became a guinea pig in a dress rehearsal for a taste experiment kit, where the specificity of the design was tested : order, protocol and timing .The smell in taste disappears with a nose clip


II AI became a guinea pig And I became a guinea pig in an experimentCan’t smell anything with a 


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