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Can you describe your city’s ‘smellscape’? Viola Levy talks to Kate McLean about her unique project, which aims to do just that.
For those familiar with her work, artist and designer Kate McLean’s passion for sniffing out the city’s less palatable elements makes perfect sense. (“I’ve just stuck my nose in a litter sweeper’s truck! The poor guy looked at me with complete confusion and sorrow … and pity! It smelled of an ice cream wrapper!”)
For the past few years Kate has made her name mapping the smells of different cities, such as Paris, Amsterdam, Singapore and parts of London. Smells are conveyed on the maps via coloured dots and concentric lines, similar to maps of the night sky. There’s something mesmerising and magical about them – even if they only provide “olfactory snapshots” as opposed to the permanent and definitive nature of a conventional map. It makes you wonder why such an endeavour hasn’t been previously thought of. Having listened to her talk about this project at the 2017 IFRA Fragrance Forum, I was keen to meet up with her and find out more.
Each map involves a ‘smellwalk’ where Kate and a group of volunteer ‘sniffers’ head out to document a city’s different smells.
“People I take out are quite sceptical at first, as it feels like transgressive behaviour - we’re not expected to go around sticking our noses into things! Getting people to put their noses in litterbins probably the most difficult task.
“My smell map of Amsterdam was commissioned by the major fragrance house IFF. I took a group of their perfumers out on a smell walk - they stuck their noses into all sorts of things. But I could tell it was outside of their comfort zone. Possibly more so that an average person, as they’re almost protective over their noses, whereas ordinary people will just sniff anything. It’s like taking a chef into McDonalds!”
How does you decide on what scents are worthy of mapping?
“It depends on the scale of the city, I tend to do a block at a time for each neighbourhood. I haven’t really tackled inner London yet. The smellwalks might take place over a period of a week, ten days or a single day. The maps are all impressionist paintings, trying to capture that moment in time.”
Can one forage for odours in the same way as physical objects?
“Yes, absolutely. What’s interesting in the process of foraging as you’re actually touching, picking and interacting with different things – and they’re going to release odours as a result of that. Some smells are ‘long distance’ i.e. you encounter them just by breathing. Others much more proximal, which involves you taking something, crushing it, smelling it and seeing if anything comes out of it.” *Suddenly sniffs the flowers on the table* “Curious! Here, have a sniff!”
She puts down the vase and continues. “In a similar way to how standard foraging works - in terms of knowing the likely terrains where different plants will grow - you can forage for smells in the city in a similar way. For example, if you go to a parade of restaurants along a street and find a back alley, you can get some brilliant smells, as that’s where all their kitchens are.
“A good game to play is crossing over thresholds of shops and noting the difference in smells. As soon as you enter an enclosed space that’s potentially a different temperature, then you’ll inhabit a completely different ‘smellscape’. If we went into that wine merchant’s across the road, you might get a bit of barrel and wood floor - which has that caramel scent. If there’s some spilt alcohol on the floor there might be a whiff of that too, etc. The route we did in Greenwich included a sausage café, which emitted a wonderfully intense, greasy, bacon-sausage smell that came out of a doorway in a side-street.”
People tend to associate cities with unpleasant smells, such exhaust fumes and dog mess. With the smellmaps, did she set out to try and change that perception? “That wasn’t my initial intention, but I felt like they’ve helped in that respect. People I take on these walks mostly like what I make them smell, which tends to take them by surprise. If you just analyse what’s there with an open mind, you do end up with a different sense of how many smells you like in a city - as opposed to how many you dislike. I didn’t shy away from the city’s grimier aspects, as that’s where the more unusual smells come from.
“There are times when I’ve asked people to find four litterbins to smell. They can end up smelling four completely fragrant ones, which challenges the expectation is about smelling a litterbin. It might smell of orange peel or peppermint chewing gum. It usually smells of the thing closest to the top – very rare that it has that ‘bin juice’ smell!
“Equally, the smell of leaves isn’t just the smell of leaves. Some are like wet laundry; others smell like decay, while others are more resinous and pine-like in odour. It’s a complete mix and quite often it’s the unexpected ‘green’ smells that people don’t like, more than the artificial ones.
Does she gravitate to more unpleasant smells?
“They’re almost like a car crash, you’re drawn to things that aren’t altogether pleasant but you can’t stop sniffing. Like cheese, cheese is awesome!
“The role ‘unpleasant’ smells have in a city is closely related to perfumery,” she explains. “Perfumers use intense faecal or animalic smells that are very overpowering and quite disgusting when smelt alone, but when used as a base, they hold the other odours in place. The city has something similar going on. You’ve got the base less palatable layer to it and you’ve got the background smells as well. That base is incredibly important and it does hold everything together. There’s a difference between a strong smell and a disgusting one.”
Are there any smells that are off limits?
“For me, a smell that conjures up negative childhood memories is public toilets – cold tiles, a whiff of urine, bleach etc. I wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to try and smell round a toilet, but I’m happy to stick my noses into bins and other things that people might find disgusting, and encourage other people to do so as well.”
Which smells sum up London?
“Sadly a lot of exhaust fumes. It’s a big issue here. Otherwise, I’d say very much London’s green spaces. Hyde Park’s cherry blossom when it’s out is completely intense and very beautiful. Food smells are another London specialty, thanks to the amazing variety of restaurants and food stalls we have. You walk along the back roads here and the restaurants start pumping out smells around 5pm. You get that hum and the buzz, it’s incredible. There’s a real sense of food and drink being brought out onto the street for a small period of time. But generally in terms of smell, London’s more zoned, a bit like Singapore. There are lots of different scents depending on where you go - you can’t summarise it in one main description.”
Historically, as with most cities, London’s smells reflected its socio-economic structure. “Globally winds are westerly, which is why east ends of cities like London are notoriously poorer and west ends richer. Factories existed in the city’s centre, and the winds blew their smells east. People didn’t want to live in the smells of their own factories, so west ends became posh and east ends became poor. Obviously times change and now the east ends of cities reflect gentrification – now they smell of coffee beans and beard oil (!)”
“But my favourite London smell? It’s the Underground, when the train’s coming through and pushes the air in front of it - there’s a really distinctive, rusty, ozonic smell of dry heat. It’s totally different to the Paris Metro. I’ve got no way of describing it particularly well, but different cities’ underground transport networks all have incredibly distinctive smells. The smell of the Clockwork Orange in Glasgow has been written about for years. When I’ve been away travelling, and come back to London and get on the underground, that scent is reassuringly familiar - I know where I am.”
If someone wanted to go on their own smellwalk, what pointers would she give them? “You can download a smell walking guide on my website, called a Smellfie Kit – it breaks down the different types of smell you can focus on, from curious or unexpected smells (books and paper, perfume on a passer-by); to the episodic smells that reveal specific areas of town (wet fish, flowers, fried food, medicine); as well as background smells that are seen as a constant (canal dampness and humidity). There’s also a grid template to print out, where you can write down 12 different smells that you notice.”
When’s the best time of day to go?
“When it’s warm and humid. If it’s winter, choose the middle of the day. If it’s summer, go when it’s about 70 degrees as it’s more comfortable to walk then. Windy days can get problematic, once you smell something it’s disappeared - unless you’re picking something up, crushing it and sticking your nose in it.”
Our sense of smell often gets overlooked in this day and age, being bombarded as we are by sights and sounds from digital devices. Does she hope that through smellwalks and smellmaps, people will be more encouraged to sniff out their surroundings? “Definitely. We’ve got five senses and tend to only use one. We believe our eyes and don’t tend to think about what our smell tells us. The world’s a much more interesting place if you momentarily pay attention to what you’re smelling, as well as what you’re seeing. If you’re in a place you really like, questioning its smell can help you understand why you actually like it.”
Learn more about Kate and her work at sensorymaps.com