The idea is to get people thinking with their noses and making community connections through scent. If you’re wondering what exactly that means, it’s essentially a mixed bag of talks, practical events to stick your nose into and skill sharing curated around smell, with the sessions taking their cue from their founder’s self-taught DIY approach to olfaction.
“It actually isn’t difficult to get into olfaction and that’s one of the reasons the Smell Lab exists, because it sounds complicated but it’s really not,” says Klara Ravat. “I have my own glass lab work equipment, which is kind of expensive, but you can actually work without it and build it yourself with household pots. If you really want it, it’s easy!”
After studying ArtScience at The Royal Academy of Arts in the Netherlands, inspired by the other senses lectures of her tutor Caro Verbeek, Ravat began experimenting with smell in a serious way. As a child she would concoct her own perfumes, collecting plants and bottling them with alcohol for weeks to see what would happen. Her favourite game at that time was a memory game that involved smell capsules and cards, where you’d have to match the description on the cards to the smell - in retrospect it sounds exactly like a prototype Smell Lab activity.
“That was the start of my obsession,” Ravat laughs. “I always said I wanted to be a perfumist and my mum said I should study chemistry. I was so bad at chemistry in high school, I thought, no way is this going to be possible. I ended up going to med school for a few years and quit to go into arts. Then I refocused and started experimenting by myself.”
Experimentally is exactly how Ravat works today, her process is all about simple trial and error, “I try things out and if I like them I use them, if I don’t then I don’t use them,” she explains. This approach marks the difference between her informal olfactory experimentation and the work of professional perfumers, “They know so much about each ingredient and what they do and how they react to each other that they can focus on what they want to create and achieve it in a more direct way, from an olfactory perspective it’s the other way around, you play around and then collect things that you like.”
I ask her if she feels her own work would benefit from some more formal perfumery training and she relents that, “Now that I’m working more professionally with smell, I realise that there’s a lot of knowledge that would be beneficial to what I’m doing. For example, I was asked to make a smell for a shop and I realised, I do need this knowledge where I know which part of the smell is going to last longer, or how the smells are mixed and how that effects how long they last. So I probably do need to study some chemistry after all.”
The very first Smell Lab happening was a Smell Walk, essentially an exercise in “collecting things you like” that aimed to capture the scent of the local area. Ravat herself started tracing the smells of places in her work back in 2015 during her smellSCAPES artist residency between Belgrade and Athens. Since then Ravat has repeated the process of distilling the scent of urban landscapes, having been commissioned to capture the smell of Naples in an art piece titled ‘Two or three things I know about Ciro’ (the scent was sweet, radiant and oceanic, incase you’re wondering).
“For Smell Lab we went on a smell walk to trace the smell of Neukolln and Kreuzberg to figure out how it smells,” Ravat says of the Smell Label project Collected Smells. “We made a few smells, including shawarma, sweat, cigarettes, dry leaves, the market - which was a combination of things we found on the floor like orange peel, coriander and pepper. You can try to use words to describe the smell of a place, but it’s hard to collect the smell out of real objects, so you end up finding smell components that are similar to recreate it.”
Smell Lab workshoppers were taught a traditional steam distillation technique to create smells from these found components. In theory the process sounds complicated but all you really need is a pressure pot, a silicon hose and a bucket with cold water. You add the material to be distilled inside the pressure pot aka the pot with water boiling water, use the silicon hose to capture the steam and then insert the silicon hose into the bucket with cold water which acts as a condenser. Ravat admits home setups can look “ugly” but swears by their simplicity and effectiveness.
I always want to understand people, why do they think the way the do, why do they act the way they act, smell is a simple way to see how the same thing can connect so differently to different people.
Smell Labs activities also aim to make connections between smell, memory and emotion. “Smell has this social connection, it works like a connector between people,” Ravat attests, “So as soon as you’re presenting something to do with smell the audience they become hooked quite quickly and open up.” Memory’s unique connection to smell has a scientific basis with smells processed by olfactory bulbs in our noses that in turn have direct connections to two brain areas strongly connected to emotion and memory - the amygdala and hippocampus. Sight, sound and and touch information are processed in a totally different way and don’t pass through these brain areas, which might explain smells unique relationship with triggering emotion and memory.
“I always want to understand people, why do they think the way the do, why do they act the way they act, smell is a simple way to see how the same thing can connect so differently to different people. I’m also interested in how we can create a new language with smells, for example if you smell rose and it reminds you of your mum and I smell rose and it reminds me of a summer holiday in France. Through talking about smell you can learn so much about other people and their lives.”
The Connected Smells workshop was an exercise in connecting the dots between smell, memory and collective experience. Participants were asked to bring a small amount of substance that reminded them of a person they knew - literally anything dollop of honey, an old sock, a collection of herbs, shards of a plate, a handful of candies - and these objects were distilled together to contribute to a smell made up of materials from many people’s memories.
Ravat has her own unique experiences with the power of smell and memory. She tells me how the scent of her exes perfume is a real trigger for the memories of how their relationship ended badly. She adds that they have positive transportive powers too, explaining how a soap she found that smelt of lemon and neroli suddenly transported her back to the grandmothers house of a childhood friend, remembering that the whole house was rich with the smell, “I don’t think I’d ever thought about it until I found this soap” she smiles.
Other happenings have even found Smell Lab trying it’s hand at matchmaking via its Smell Dating event, where participants that matched were given complimentary drinks and left to make connections. Smell Lab regulars have also been paying back into the meetups by inviting people to come and talk about scent, like Marcus Oshea from Berlin’s Gentle Gin company who came to talk about how he produces gin and finds inspiration in scent or Ramina Puzhina who discussed her cosmetic art project Per Se and her experience with skin care with smells.
So is Ravat surprised at Smell Lab’s success?
“I’m surprised but also it in my experience anything that has to do with smell is attractive to people. Really! Any other artist I know that works with smell, we all find we get a lot of attention quickly. My intention is to set up more Smell Labs in other places. There’s this network happening in Kreuzberg but it would really cool if I could start a Smell Lab in Amsterdam and in Barcelona and there’d be another circuit of people connected through smell.”