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The smell of gas is synonymous with danger, but that wasn’t always the case. A school in Texas exploded in 1937. The deadliest school disaster in American history, 295 students and teachers were killed. Nobody had smelled the leaking gas pipe – indeed, that was impossible then. Gas is odourless, although that would change shortly after the accident. The State of Texas passed a law that required the addition of an artificial odour which would alert people with its stink, and prevent them becoming too easily used to it. Shortly thereafter the rest of the world followed suit.

Whenever we smell gas now, a variation on the smell of rotten eggs, we experience the human attempt to bridge the gap between human instinct and new, self-created dangers.

Online privacy violations constitute just such a new, human-created danger. The question always comes up: why doesn't it interest people very much? Where has rebelliousness gone? The 2018 Privacy Monitor, conducted by the data marketers’ association, shows that a majority of Dutch people are concerned about their privacy and 78 per cent want more control over it. Although the researchers also write: “The average Dutch person is concerned about privacy, but their behavior contradicts that.”

Artist Leanne Wijnsma has also noticed the contradiction between what people say they want, and what they do. “After Edward Snowden’s revelations, everyone was keen and called on everyone else to protect their data better. But the problem is that our instincts are not geared to guard ourselves against online risks.” Wijnsma did research, read about the school disaster in Texas and discovered that our noses could once again offer a solution.

“The sense of smell helped early humans to survive,” she says in her studio in the Houthavens in Amsterdam. “But now that hunters and gatherers have moved to increasingly digital environments, we are missing the odours that might warn us of new dangers. The internet is not very instinctive, and I want to change that.”

In front of her on the table is an angular object of transparent epoxy, with a multitude of cables, lights and computer chips on the inside, but also a perfume reservoir and wifi options so that it can be connected to the computer. As soon as you visit an unsecured website or try to make contact with an unsafe internet connection, the device releases an odour: The Smell of Data, as the project is called.

Powerfully lemony, it stings the nose slightly, but at the same time it also has the sultry, warm aroma that you associate with printers or other electronic equipment. It also has a smoky note. “It could of course have been anything,” says Wijnsma, who designed the scent herself. “That's the difficult thing. How should data smell? It has to be quite artificial, I believe, but at the same time natural, otherwise you don’t trust it. Citrus was important to give a sense of alertness, but people must be able to take action.” Designing with scent appears to play mainly with our associations; our response to it is largely learned. 

“My reaction to the data fragrance is different from that of most people,” says Wijnsma. "Because I had to explain the object on stage and in lectures, I associate it with nervousness. When I get home, unpack this and smell it, I immediately get nervous and my heart starts beating faster. But for a boy whose YouTube account was hacked, this could become the scent of danger.”

The internet has never been a fragrant place. In fact, in the increasingly sterile and digital world in which we prefer to talk about visual culture, experiences, and information overload, the nose has always been absent. Even now, when ‘feeling’ through virtual reality (VR) seems to be making its appearance. “People can get dizzy, fall ove,r or feel like they are moving really fast,” says Wijnsma. That may be a visual trick, but one that brings the world of feeling realistically close.

Nevertheless, there have been plenty of experiments using odour. The gaming world and companies such as Samsung have made efforts, and five years ago the American David Edwards proudly presented the “first transatlantic scent message.” A scent combination of champagne and passionfruit macaroons was sent from Paris to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It was also the launch of the ‘oPhone’, an addition to your mobile phone that you could use to send scents. It soon died. The complexity of aromas cannot easily be translated into digital codes, let alone the multitude of ingredients that are needed. With this, Edwards’ attempt joined a decade-long series of failed start-ups that attempted to digitally convey the sense.                                                                   

“Smell has been ignored for a long time,” says famous biophysicist Luca Turin in a telephone conversation. He is also a perfume maker and has written several books on the subject. "Of course, it isn’t true that we fully understand all the other senses. Vision, taste, feeling and hearing are also wrapped in mystery, but one big difference is that smell is less easily translated. You can make waves from sound, and colours all fall under three primary colours, just think of your printer cartridges.” Fragrance, on the other hand, consists of hundreds of molecules. “It’s simply too complex,” says Turin. “You can’t convert that to a language that you can easily communicate. There is no keyboard on which to make combinations that will trigger a certain scent sensation. How to do it remains a mystery and you have to wonder if it will ever be solved.”

In addition to technological bumps, we must also override a basic human aversion to the inscrutable mysteries of the nose and how they affect us. Our problem with smell is relatively new, yet older than we think, says scent historian Caro Verbeek of the VU University Amsterdam. She organizes monthly Odorama evenings, in which scientists and artists discuss odour. “In the eighteenth century, when industrialization led to an accumulation of people and garbage in filthy cities, the phenomenon arose that we now call ‘odourphobia,’ she says. “That wasn’t strange in itself. People got sick, but mainly fought the stench and not the cause.” Smell became suspicious; everything had to be clean.

What also doesn’t help is that scent appeals to our subconscious, making smell perhaps the most instinctive sense. “It’s difficult for us to relate to it intellectually, it immediately appeals to our emotions,” says Verbeek. She refers to writings by Plato and Aristotle who already considered smell a ‘lower sense’ because you cannot view it from a distance, or Sigmund Freud who pigeonholed it as animal and sexual, “something you really shouldn’t be concerned with.”

In the end, it was up to artists, the Symbolists, to reevaluate the sense that got lost. Driven by strong competition from photography and film, they felt the need to lure people into their shows with more intimate senses such as smell. “Now we seem to be experiencing another fragrance renaissance, through the rise of the internet and social media with the exclusion of intimate senses such as touch, taste and smell,” says Verbeek. “It is exactly the things you cannot transfer digitally that are becoming interesting. In response, commercial parties are trying to implement that in their online products.”

In the end, smell is primarily a cultural taboo, says Verbeek. “That we particularly fight human smells can be explained historically, but is actually crazy because they determine our behaviour so much.” For the past 15 years, scientists have started to show, step by step, how human odour is largely determined by the many living entities, microbes, which live on the human body. And how these creatures indirectly influence our behaviour. “It is necessary to find out to what extent our brains depend on the puppeteer, the microbes that we collect on our bodies during our lives,” write the neuroscientist authors of the paper, ‘The Brain’s Geppetto – microbes as Puppeteers of Neural Function and Behaviour?’ After which they offer the comfortable reassurance that there is no need to fear the multitude of living things that live on humans. The biotope is actually a healthy thing.

Still, people are busy day after day to wash it all off. “We shower every day and use large amounts of shampoo and perfume to mask our own scent,” says Wijnsma. On the artist’s desk there are numerous research papers and books, by scientists she has been meeting for a year. “The one and a half kilograms of microbes that people carry around with them determine, for example, how attractive we think another person is.” This fact raises essential questions about free will, rationality and the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature. Especially in a culture that increasingly revolves around text and image.

"Nowadays we swipe our romantic interests via apps, without first having a sniff of them".

In her studio, Wijnsma puts three pots of potion on the table – her new project, A Wildlife. Together with a large fragrance company, she is engaged in a search for smells that appeal to the zoo on our bodies, and therefore to our instincts. This time not to signal danger, but to recognize and admit others. When she spins the top off the first pot, a mossy, earthy aroma rises from it. The second jar is sour and reminiscent of yogurt. The third contains ‘musk’, the pungent odour that is characteristic of deer.

“Soil, worms, compost and animalism are a perfect contrast to the sterile beauty that is now so dominant,” says Wijnsma. Meanwhile, a dispenser has been ordered which will contain the lotions. So that people will be able to infect themselves with natural instincts, rather than disinfect themselves: “We have to use our noses again.”

Text: Coen van de Ven

Guus Beumer, artistic and general director, Het Nieuwe Instituut
Angela Rui, Marina Otero Verzier, Francien van Westrenen
Rudy Guedj
Olivier Goethals