Smell and the City

Urban smell enthusiasts

An Extraordinary Workshop: Representing Smell in the City – The Results!

Over twenty students and six academic staff from eight universities across the North of England gathered together in Manchester this week for the exploratory ‘Representing Smell in the City’ workshop. The intensive day-long session included artists of various specialisms, anthropologists, marketeers, architects, landscape designers and psychologists and was hosted at the Manchester School of Architecture. It also brought together students of different levels and experience, from first year undergraduates through to final year doctoral candidates.

The explicit aim of the workshop was to ask the students to investigate and develop ideas for capturing, recreating and representing smells in, and of, the city. However, such a goal is notoriously problematic, presenting a challenge to scientists and artists alike in communicating urban smellscapes (click here for further background details included in the workshop brief).

The session started with a Manchester smellwalk, following the DIY Smellwalk route that can be downloaded in PDF format on this blog, (click here). After welcoming the students to the School, the students were briefed on various aspects of the senses of smell. The presentations, which can be viewed online through clicking on the presentation titles below, were as follows:

The Psychology of Smell – Dr Mark Sergeant, a Psychologist at Nottingham Trent University.

Representing Smell in the City – Dr Victoria Henshaw, from the Manchester Architecture Research Centre, University of Manchester

Art of Representing Smell –  Kate McLean, Artist in Residence at the Edinburgh College of Art

(Please note that the content of these presentations is the copyright of the individual authors)

The students were then separated into four inter-disciplinary groups and armed with a maximum budget of £25 per group, a grab-and-go lunch-bag each and plenty of bright ideas, set about tackling this extraordinary challenge.

The Results:

Group A: This group followed a multi-sensory approach to the challenge, gathering environmental materials including sticks, stones, moss and leaves to name but a few, and placing them in black plastic bin liners for people to put their hand in to and rummage around and try and identify the objects. They also investigated synaesthetic elements of sensory experience by fishing some water out of the canal and covering the container so that workshop participants could smell but not see the liquid, and then using a colour chart selection, participants were asked to identify what colour they associated with the odour. As you can see from the images, the results were varied!

Group B: This group recorded interviews with people on the streets asking them about their favourite smells, the smells of their local environments and their homes. People were also asked to describe what certain smells reminded them of (e.g. cinnamon). They created a poster (above this post) of the results and a short film (to view the film on YouTube, click here).

The group also collected local materials (cut grass) and purchased products and branded goods (Limes, Marmite, Coffee, Red Bull). These were placed separately in covered containers and workshop participants were asked to sniff and identify the products. All participants correctly identified the smell of the coffee and the majority identified the odour of the red bull energy drink, however only to people correctly identified the limes (resulting in healthy debate regarding the subtle but important differences between odours of citrus fruits) and even the cut grass, one of the favourite smells of the Brits, was correctly identified in only around half of cases.

Group C: This group explored smells associated with specific genders (including perfumed condoms !!!!) and visited the local chemists to purchase different perfumes and products. After infusing fabrics with odours, the students placed the smelly fabrics in a lift in one of the university buildings and made observations about how people responded to them. One observation the group made of their study was that the odours selected were predominantly associated with people – such as perfumes, toothpaste etc and they felt that influenced findings in that people did not want to comment on the smells for fear of offending others in the lift.

Group D: Last but not least, this group explored the impact of sensory deprivation upon smell perception by blindfolding one another and leading each other around the city centre. Each blindfolded participant described their smell experiences as they were led, with this being filmed and presented back to all workshop participants at the end of the session. Group members described enhanced smell observations occuring as a result of being deprived of their sight, and they were able to detect environmental odours often quite far away from source, such as when approaching the canal. They also reflected upon the limited vocabularies they had when describing smells, often falling back to using the same words that described the intensity of the smell (weak, strong etc.) or relating these to other sensory modes (sweet, sour, spicy etc.)

Overall, the workshop enabled students to think about some of the challenges faced when researching smell perception and when attempting to recreate or represent smell and the city, and for these lessons to then be taken back and applied to their own work.

For further details email or follow her on Twitter @VictoriaHenshaw

Additional images of the day can be viewed on Flickr by clicking here

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This entry was posted on May 4, 2012 by in Smell and the City Project.
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