As part of “Smell it! The Fragrance of Art,” one the largest event dedicated to olfactory art yet to be organized in Europe, German artist Stefani Glauber presents an exhibition entitled ≈350 at Kunsthalle Bremerhaven, in which she questions the possible digitization of smells within the museum.
“Smell it! The Fragrance of Art” is an ambitious project in Bremen state, Germany, involving 10 exhibitions at 8 different museums and a rich series of lectures and education programs around the sense of smell. Among specialists from various fields, a selection of contemporary artsts using smell as one of their creative medium have been invited to display their works or explore existing collections to open new sensory, aesthetic, and cultural perspectives around smell.
Among them, German artist Stefani Glauber demonstrates interest in both the socio-cultural categorizations of smells — based on gender, ethnicity, age or social status — and their digitalization — devices recording, analyzing, replicating, and emitting odors. In her solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Bremerhaven, entitled ≈350 based on the approximate number of different odor receptors in the human nose1According to Dr. Rinberg, associate professor at NYU’s Department of Neuroscience and Physiology, she presents a series of new works considering the invisible aura of things and beings as well as digital communication through olfaction — a form of teleolfaction to use the term coined by Takamichi Nakamoto in 2008 — all while questioning and challenging the ethos of the art world.
Upon entering the exhibition, two large collage-like prints gather information about various olfaction-related subjects and perspectives the artist has found relevant to think about the digitization of scent. “I have no real definition of the digitalization of scents,” says the artist, “rather a shaky but constant helicopter flight above a definition”. As a form of didactic research journal her inaugural prints provide valuable context for the experimental works of great conceptual but little visual significance displayed in the exhibition. In a few shorts graphs and paragraphs, visitors can learn about the biology of smell perception and its possible medical applications, about olfactory otherness and discrimination, about the history of speculative design meant to detect or disperse scents in science-fiction literature (such Aldous Huxley or Kurd Lasswitz’s smell organs), but also actual experimental devices, from the tubes installed in the Roman Coliseum to vaporize saffron and herbs to cover the smell of blood on hot days, to Wolfgang Georgsdorf’s Smeller 2.0.
Although today exists a variety of technologies allowing the digitalization of olfactory information and reproduction of odors — gas sensors, artificial noses, digitally controlled scent diffusers, etc —, none of them live up to the accuracy of our audio-visual technologies yet, as many of the characteristics of smells prove particularly challenging. For instance, when considered as an input, how can smells be translated in numbers, or images? Stefani Glauber pondered upon the difficulty to find visualities when talking about olfaction. “It’s sort of like the movie-adaptation of a book.” she says. “The book conjures images in each readers’ mind, images which do not need to be very sharp, it may be a mood or a complex atmosphere, but with the movie-adaptation the effect can lose its complexity through delivering a sharp image on the screen.”
In ≈350, she installed Sniffer, an electronic nose constantly analyzing the atmosphere to detect the presence of a person in the space thanks to the VOCs they emit. As a result, no sharp images but a fluctuating mathematical representation, an online graph documenting live the output of the atmospheric analysis so that it can be known from the outside whether a person is standing in the space or not. This olfacto-visual feedback, which evokes the many artworks with mirrors or video cameras and screens in which visitors can see themselves as performing presences in exhibitions, also illustrates how visitors cause an olfactory disturbance in the gallery atmosphere with a visualization of the invisible volatile aura that each person carries.
Elaborating on the idea that atmospheres are versatile and living, an audio work, which can be listened through headphones, narrates the story of the air inside the museum. “It is a mixture of factual information, for example on types of olfactory cells and emitted proteins, of semi-scientific elements such as an explanation of the chromatogram of the air of the Kunsthalle, and of narrations about the residual scent from formerly exhibited artworks,” Glauber explains. “I talk about Katharina Grosses’ work, who colored a large piece of a corner in green paint, about Leni Hoffman who worked with installations of plasticine, and Annika Kahrs’ large format prints.” Although none of these previous works were intended to be smelled, what Glauber’s narrative exposes is that all of them — just like visitors — necessarily emitted volatile compounds, leaving an ephemeral invisible imprint in the gallery’s atmosphere.
Once again subverting elements of the traditional museum experience — the audio-guide — the artist directs the visitors’ gaze to things that cannot be seen — or even smelled for that matter! — by using the very technology that usually comments on artworks and making it an artwork in its own right: “I used the audioguides of the Art Museum Bremerhaven, which is right on the other side of the street. I liked the image of people with the explanatory voice in their ears positioning themselves in front of the absent work described in that moment.” While hoping to prompt active smelling on the parts of visitors who might not be used to the exercise, Glauber also touches the discourse of institutional critique as “with audioguides comes an alleged moment of objectivity and a normative moment.” Indeed how can we get objective explanations about something as elusive as residual molecules? But here the question might be extended to a more general query: can we ever aspire to objectivity in an art museum?
The last installation in the show, entitled VS, puts together in the same room a drop-like shaped white diffuser on a metal pedestal emitting a commercial scent by Muji bearing the name Work, and an industrial scent neutralizer. “I heard a talk by Slavoj Zizek years ago. Asked how his preferred date would look like he answered that he and his date would bring an electronic sex toy each, would watch the two devices do their work while he and his date can sit few meters away and talk while drinking red wine,” recalls the artist. “I liked the story obviously due to its humor but also because it sharpens the view on situations where two devices interact in any form with rather few human interaction. With the two devices not built in order to interact, the outcome of the interaction is unknown. So with the diffuser and the scent neutralizer, built to fulfill almost diametral purposes, I just love to see, to smell in that case, what happens […] This is intended to be humorous but also ambiguous, as electronic devices fighting with no further human interaction is something that exists in diverse fields as stock market and military.”
In a gallery context, VS also takes on a specific meaning. For a very long time, a scent couldn’t be considered a work of art and were not welcome in art museums, nor in art galleries as they prove particularly challenging to sell — hence the not-so-random choice of fragrance used by Glauber, which title also evokes “(turbo-)capitalist images.” The traditional white-cube gallery space, which appeared at the beginning of the 20th century and has become the norm in most modern and contemporary art exhibition spaces, is expected to be, as a physical and ideological space, an enclosed, clean, smooth, geometric, bright, and absolutely deodorized space, separated from the external world to allow artworks to be contemplated within their own aura with no sensory interference with the gaze. To achieve these ideal atmospheric conditions, galleries have been equipped with climate control technologies such as air extraction systems. The scent neutralizer in VS then embodies this long-standing norm and attitude and the work cleverly extends the reflexion of the exhibition about the many invisible flux, norms, rules, and bias, governing the microcosm that is the art museum.
Finally, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, VS could also easily be interpreted as a metaphor for both the widespread anosmia caused by the virus and the cancelation of art that resulted from the global shut down of cultural places. ≈350 itself could not open to the public in its first weeks, leaving the Sniffer’s graph flat and useless…
Subtly tackling the politics of smell around bodies, things, and spaces, Stefani Glauber offers conceptual variations on the material and ideological atmospheres of the art world through a polymorphic approach of the digitalization of smells— of the exhibition space, the museum goers, and the artworks themselves — leaving us to better consider the many things that can’t be seen.
≈350 by Stefani Glauber
May 9 – June 27, 2021
Karlsburg 1, 27568 Bremerhaven
Artists’ website: http://stefaniglauber.com/sniffer.html
Kunsthalle’s website: https://www.kunstverein-bremerhaven.de/kunsthalle-de/aktuelles/
Smell it! program: http://www.museeninbremen.de/smellit/
Invited artists for “Smell it! The Fragrance of Art” include Effrosyni Kontogeorgou, Kornelia Hoffman, Luca Vitone, Camille Nicklaus-Maurer, Esther Adam, Claudia Christoffel, Peter de Cupere, Anja Fußbach, Brian Goeltzenleuchter, Bernadette, Barbara Haiduck, Susann Hartmann, Anneli Käsmayr, Laura Pientka, Jana Piotrowski, Mari Lena Rapprich, Anne Schlöpke, Stephan Thierbach, Maki Ueda, Clara Ursitti, Martin Voßwinkel, Zhé Wang and Doris Weinberger, Oswaldo Macia, Klara Ravat, and Stefani Glaubert.