Re-odorant and Olfactory Memories

Gauri_ScentscapesIn Fall, 2017, the NICE Lab embarked on our first collaborative project with Srishti School of Design. Over the course of several weeks, our lab members and Srishti students discussed many aspects of our research such as olfaction, insects, object identification, pest management, and others.

One of the students, Gauri Nagpal, developed a wonderful exhibit called “Re-Odorant” that urged us to “un-mute odor” and think about scents and our memories of them in new ways.

Poster - Re-odorant.png


Rather than try to recap the experience, let’s hear about Re-odorant in Gauri’s own words. Here is her brief for the exhibition, Re-odorant:

Object identification is the process most organisms use to survive in the natural world. Knowledge of the physical environment gained through perceptual experience is central for creatures such as insects that lead individualized lives relying on their natural instincts and not on offspring care. For such creatures, senses, olfaction in particular becomes the primary tool bridging the gap between body and environment.

Since humans are biologically more complex than insects, we create formal systems to counter our diminishing evolutionary instincts. Language is one such system that adds the layer of definition to object identification. Our words and sentences form the net in which our sensory perception is caught but it is not always woven quite fine enough to retain it all. In the specific case of odor, whole chunks of experience escape. A compulsion to define rather than to experience is what gives rise to this primacy of language that admits defeat in the face of the ineffability of odor.

Little attention has been paid to the olfactory modality of cognition due to a lexical deprived of definitive classificatory schemes in the case of smell. However, the entire process of olfactory reception is also a cognitive process wherein odors are interpreted, memorized, lexicalized and associated. Domination of the visual has relegated smell to the sensory sidelines and all we have today are vestiges and historical relics of genes that were one active, of genes that are still there but forgotten.

Re-odorant presents memories of smell along with literary evidences that have bridged the gap between language and odor. In a time where the western traditions of perfumery are taking over the modern Indian consciousness of smell by dictating an aesthetic of odor, the work aims at building a collective olfactory identity. The viewer is expected to smell and to define, not the object but the odor itself.

It is imperative that we un-mute odor.

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