the scent of berlin’s infamous nightclub berghain

There are many reasons you might go to Berlin’s legendary nightclub Berghain: for the music, (obviously) to dance, to drink. But one night, Isabel Lewis went there with a very specific mission: to smell.

"I went this particular night and decided I'm not going consume any alcohol," she says. "I'm just going to go with my nose switched on. And that was, I am telling you, the trippiest time I've had at Berghain. Putting the attention on the sense of smell was so intense. You can smell 30 years of partying coming from the downstairs, you're smelling huge waves of smoke, you're smelling the spilled alcohol on the floor, body sweat, hairspray, cheap cologne."

The reason for this unusual olfactory adventure? It was all in the name of research. Thirty-five-year-old Lewis is a Dominican/American dancer, artist and DJ, now based in Berlin, who creates events she calls Occasions. Somewhere between a party, a happening and a salon, these Occasions often take place in galleries (she's performed at Frieze Art Fair, Paris's Palais de Tokyo, New York's Dia Art Foundation and will be in residence at Tate Modern in March). There Lewis hosts an evening of speech and dance where every element in the room is carefully curated – from the music and décor to food, drink and, yes, smells.

The use of smell is intended to engage Lewis's audiences fully and physically in the moment. She doesn't want viewers to merely watch her performances, or witness from a distance, she wants them to be involved in the energy of the room and to become part of the work. "The smells are meant to be evocative," she says. "To bring your awareness back to your own sensory perception and thus your own body." She knows it's a powerful weapon in her armoury. "Smell hits the subconscious brain faster than any other sense, so it is influencing you in ways you don't know," she says.

The scents for each Occasion are created in collaboration with Norwegian chemist and artist Sissel Tolaas. "She's got this incredible lab in Berlin with floor-to-ceiling shelves full of tiny phials of scent molecules," says Lewis. The pair went through a long process of conversation and smell tests in order to develop the scents for Lewis's events. "Sissel would tell me to come to the lab and be ready," says Lewis, "So I would make sure I'd eaten, I was well rested, and she would have maybe eight different smells for each of my ideas. I would smell something and then just speak whatever came to mind. We would go through these different scents – more of this, less of this – and keep sculpting them until we arrived at what we wanted."

The ideas Lewis was trying to capture were a mixture of the abstract and the concrete: themes such as the question of "what does it mean to live a good life in the 21st-century", the importance of intellectuality in our lives or the suppression of the bodily in western culture. They're complex ideas to illustrate using such an ungraspable sense, but it gave them a starting point. "So if intellectuality had a smell, what would it smell like?" asks Lewis. "We were imagining what a lecture hall smells like, what a science lab smells like, what a hospital smells like, a place of science." And what was the recipe that they came up with? "In our version it's an airy smell, ever so slightly metallic and giving an impression of coolness," she says. "It also has the scent of something fresh but nonetheless artificial – a lot of people are reminded of either citrus- or melon-scented disinfectant." Probably not a perfume best-seller, but surprisingly popular, says Lewis.

The second task they set themselves was a complete contrast, to define the smell of bodily culture. This is where the Berghain trip came in, but Lewis didn't want to just recreate the smell of a club, it was something more subtle than that. "It's very pheromonal," she says of the final scent, and it's one that tends to polarise people who smell it – women often like it, men don't. "The strongest note is probably male body sweat," says Lewis, "and it has these other notes of perfume, cologne, alcohol, burnt tobacco. It's a very earthy, heavy, pungent smell. Pleasantness is not what we're going for," she laughs.

What they are going for is deep resonance. "We talked a lot about the smell really having a presence," says Lewis. "It's not background, it's not a secondary player, but just as effective as all the other elements in the Occasion, the music, the speaking, the dancing, the visual composition." Scent might seem so elusive and ephemeral, but it can be very powerful. "Sometimes I get messages months later that people have pulled out a jacket they haven't worn since that night and it all came back to them," says Lewis. Just one sniff to be instantly transported to the dance floor, complete with the aroma of vodka, hairspray, piss and euphoria.

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