Urban smell enthusiasts
Smell and the City launched into 2014 last month with an inspiring visit over to the other side of the Atlantic, or more precisely to Vancouver on the West Coast of Canada, followed by a trip over to a VERY cold Toronto. In both cities I met some amazing, fascinating and equally smell obsessed people, starting with a whole bunch of smell folks at the Design Principles and Practices Conference, hosted at the University of British Columbia, Canada.
Before heading back to the UK after the Designing with Smell Colloquium in Vancouver, I was very lucky to be invited to spend a few days with colleagues Jason Nolan and Melanie McBride at the Experiential Design and Gaming Environments (EDGE) Laboratory in Toronto to find out more about their work. The trans-disciplinary research lab includes a range of high-tech and experimental facilities including a rapid prototyping lab, a virtual world development and the Adaptive Design Studio, not to mention academics and doctoral candidates who specialise in researching learning, play and social innovation with an emphasis on autonomy and user-initiated design in the context of lived experience. I recall some years ago visiting a laboratory in the UK specialising in virtual technologies and 3D screens and at the time it pretty much blew my mind. What Jason and Melanie and their colleagues at Ryerson are exploring in the EDGE Laboratory takes sensory design and technologies to another level incorporating much wider sensory considerations than merely just the visual, with smell, touch and other haptic considerations all being thought about within the context of designing tailored individual learning experiences, in both virtual and real environments. Ultimately, the work of the EDGE Lab works towards creating a ”responsive’ digitally-mediated ‘multi sensory environment’ and a suite of sensory objects and applications that allow individuals to mediate and customize their own spaces… certainly exciting prospects for the future!
I mean, let’s face it, we all have very different unique preferences regarding learning although optimum standards have been explored widely in recent research such as that by undertaken by Professor Peter Barrett, University of Sallford, as part of the Holistic Evidence and Design (HEAD) Project exploring the impacts of the built environment dimension of UK Primary schools (4-11 yrs) on the learning rates of pupils.
In my case, I am so easily distracted that I need silence (sound), soft lighting and ideally the smell of a nice warm coffee! For my partner, music and bright light are great aids and when one of my sons was younger, the noise created by the wind howling around the roof of his school caused him real problems in focussing upon his work. In the environments being explored at the EDGE Laboratory, learning experiences might be delivered in individualised environments, where we have a say and control regarding sensory information gained through a range of different senses. I suppose what particularly interests me on this is to what degree must we also accommodate a lack of control within our lives in order to function as healthy human beings, and how do we strike a balance in order to continue functioning out in real environments too without extreme and unrealistic expectations that might ultimately be harmful to our health and well-being?
It is, however, important to note that the EGDE Laboratory is also exploring sensory learning environments from the perspective of people’s preferences that are neglected or marginalized by the normative sensory order, an area with a significant requirement for more detailed research, so looking forward to finding out more as the work of the laboratory progresses.
The visit also included a much overdue catch-up with Jim Drobnick, Associate Professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design and well known in the smell-world for his edited book ‘The Smell Culture Reader’, and Jennifer Fisher, Associate Professor at York University. In addition to their own individual research work and publications, the two regularly collaborate on writing, curation and artistic projects, and together co-founded the Journal of Curatorial Studies.
Odor Limits (2008) Exhibition exploring smell in aesthetic experience. Curated by Professor Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher (DisplayCult)
For further information on the pair’s curation of smell exhibitions, I’d recommend viewing the presentation ‘Art and Atmosphere: Curating Olfactory Art in the Anosmic Museum’, which he delivered at the Scent, Science and Aesthetics workshop we both attended in Barcelona in May 2013.
Thanks to Jason and Melanie at the EDGE Laboratory for their kind invitation and watch out for the final update from my trip where I will outline my smell and other sensory experiences down at street-level amongst the spaces, public areas and buildings of these fantastic Canadian cities.