(Re)Confirming the Conventions - An Ontology of the Olfactory

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Paris, H., 2001. (Re)Confirming the Conventions - An Ontology of the Olfactory. Body, Space & Technology, 1(2). DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/bst.269


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Live performance engages the spectator in a same-time same-space reality with performer and performance; a phenomenon referred to by Walter Benjamin as a 'cult' event, ephemeral in nature. Contemporary digital and screen arts have engendered a new body of discourse around increasingly mediatised - and increasingly reproducible - performances enabled by new technologies. This article examines the unique aspects of live performance, with which technology can not (yet) compete and posits an 'ontology of the olfactory' - citing the sense of smell is an emotive and powerful sense for both performer and audience within a live context. Whilst I am not interested in prioritising live over mediated - indeed I am drawn to find a more reciprocal, even symbiotic relationship between the two - I am interested, as an artist who works within both live and mediated formats - to explore the visceral in the age of the virtual.

The human sense of smell, linked to the cognitive centers in the brain[i], is a powerful evocation of memory, 'Smell may be to emotion what sight or hearing is to cognition' (Engen,1991, p. 3 ). In Smell: the Secret Seducer, Peit Vroon writes that there are reasons to assume that a child's first sensation is in the sphere of smell, 'We begin our life, as it were, not by seeing the light of day, but by smelling a kind of 'Life smell' diffused in the fluid of the womb' (1997, p. 21). In terms of the technology/performance relationship, smell is as yet unique to the live presence/performance /audience dynamic. Technology has not found a meaningful way to (re)create smell.[ii] It is the emotive impact of smell that I am most interested in exploring particularly with respect to its impact when used in live performance. 'The perception of smell, thus consists not only of the sensation of the odours themselves, but of the experiences and emotions associated with them'' (Classen et al, 1995, p. 2). Smells can be highly evocative, conjuring up the vivid memory of associated events and places, even from remote childhood. In Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, Classen et al argue that:

Smells can evoke strong emotional responses. A scent associated with a good experience can bring a rush of joy. A foul odour or one associated with a bad memory may make us grimace with disgust. Respondents (to a survey) noted that many of their likes and dislikes were based on emotional associations. Such associations can be powerful enough to make odours that would generally be labelled unpleasant agreeable, and those that would generally be considered fragrant disagreeable for particular individual (Classen et al,1995, p. 2).

In The Foul and The Fragrant, Alain Corbin states that, 'As the sense of affective behaviour and its secrets...the sense of smell was viewed as capable of shaking man's inner life more profoundly than were the senses of hearing or of sight' (1994, p. 8). Piet Vroon writes that:

When people are asked what sense they would be prepared to do without if necessary, smell comes at the top of the list and sight at the bottom. This is a debatable choice, given that smell plays a significant part in many psychic processes and behaviour patterns. Smell is essential for the operation of the sense of taste; it affects one's sex life, motivation and memory processes (including learning, health and feelings of security and well-being); and it has an alarm function in life-threatening situations (Vroon,1997, p. 4).

It is of little surprise then that the world of theatre was quick to realize the emotive power smell could have on an audience. Corbin cites that toward the end of the eighteenth century, 'the sense of smell did form part of the sensual palette available to the artist who wanted to vary the production of sensations and feelings. Perfume could help to perfect a strategy of emotional satisfaction' (1994, p. 80). By Mid-Nineteenth Century, 'Whiffs of perfume scented the stage for English fairy plays,' and in 1858 the perfumes of Charles Frederick Worth, 'gave new impetus to the stage set of the boudoir' (1994, p. 98).

Alan Read asks why, in his view, 'the nose is being downgraded.' For Read, the demise of the olfactory coincides with the post-industrial period, 'the collapse of the olfactory is synonymous with the collapse of the old factory'(1993, p. 119). For Read it is important to, 'Register an inevitable loss which will bring with it the loss of an inducement to memory, a loss that will join other forgettings in a city of amnesia, where a theatre will simply become a memory chamber'(1993, p. 20). Read points out how the olfactory can be seen to find its most 'natural' placing in the world of live performance:

The introduction of smell into the cinema in the form of 'scratch and sniff' cards...like the short life of the Sensurround film, these became distractions fraught with miscalculation of the 'users' of the art form. On the contrary, those whose work in theatre derives most deeply from everyday life are intuitively able to confront the everyday's most meaningful odours. The miasma that hung over the turf of Pina Bausch's 1980 encompassed dancers and audience in a canopy of nostalgia and unease, and from the epic to the domestic, the smells of Bobby Baker's Kitchen Show were a reminder that this was a workplace as well as, for the moment, a play space (Read,1993, p. 121).

Smell in Random Acts of Memory

Over the years, I have used the sense of smell in live work as a strong source to evoke memories, both as a tool with which to generate emotionally charged and viscerally engaged performances, and as a prompt to personalised interpretations senses by the audience in response to that work. For example, Sniffing the Marigolds, premiered at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1995, was informed by the scientific fact that smell can induce instinctive, physical reactions in the body and act as a potent evocation of experience/memory. Smell was used in the piece as a catalyst for releasing body memory, acting as a stimuli for producing the work, in the performance itself the body is affected by and physically responds to smell and there was also a real presence of smell, (flowers, earth) for the audience, 'Paris extends the range of languages at the performer's disposal. She incorporates film and video footage, projection, movement and choreography, smell and taste into her performances, using every means of communication at the performers disposal...There is a totality, a wholeness, a truth and honesty in Paris's work, an overarching representation of experience'(Barbra Egervary, Acts of Passion, p. 34). In terms of this discussion I take the performance Random Acts of Memory, created and performed by artist Leslie Hill and myself at the Institute for Studies in the Arts, Arizona State University, 1998 as case study. Random Acts of Memory investigated the relationship between digital and synaptic memory, between replication and interpretation, between live and pre-recorded, between mediated and 'raw', and between high tech and low tech moments and sensibilities. It was a performative exploration of the visceral in the age of the virtual, achieved through full employment of the visceral, live presence, the sensory; sometimes amplified, repeated, manipulated, distorted and/or obliterated by technological apparatus.

According to theatre critic Philip Auslander:

One of the main conventional explanations advanced for the continued appeal of live performance is that it offers a fuller sensory experience than mediatised performances. Whereas mediatised representations appeal primarily to the visual and auditory senses, live performances engage all the senses, including the olfactory, tactile, somatic, and kinesthetic (Auslander,1999, p. 55).

Auslander passes swiftly over this area, going on without elucidation or example to conclude:

I would argue that this is not the case, that these other senses are engaged by mediatised performances. It certainly can be the case that live performance engages in the senses differently than mediatised representations, but a difference in kind is not the same thing as a difference in magnitude of sensory experience (Auslander,1999, p. 55).

As a performer I posit that the 'difference' Auslander mentions does in fact have a substantial effect on the magnitude of sensual experience proffered in live performance. The sense of smell is a case in point.

In Random Acts Of Memory smell is the first real presence in the auditorium. The auditorium is filled with the intermingling scents of licorice and pumpkin, into which the audience enter. Pumpkin has been found in scientific research to be a smell which arouses men, for women the smell is licorice. Licorice sweets are handed to all the female audience members as they enter the theatre space. Pumpkin pie has been cooked in the auditorium prior to the show starting and pumpkin spice scattered underneath the chairs. Amelia Jones describes Maureen Conner's 1991 piece entitled, The Senses as probing:

The unlocatable limit between the body and the world that Merleau Ponty explored as flesh of the world, marking this flesh as specifically (but not inherently) gendered and its embodied experience as always highly charged, sexual, and - by definition - intersubjective (Jones,1998, p. 210).

In addition to the smells that greet the audience as they enter the theatre space, a sound recording of a Radio 4 program loops quietly in the background on the subject of smell. Within the aroma-filled auditorium the performance has already begun. One of the performers, Helen, picks up an antimacassar and inhales the lingering odour of the cloth. Part of the cloth has been worn away and Helen starts to speak through the worn bit in the antimacassar. Suddenly Helen's memory becomes clear, obviously triggered by the smell from the material. The sound of football score results fades in, and drones in the background as she is transported by the memory back to its site, a moment in her childhood:

Helen: This smells just like my grandparent’s house. My grandmother had these antimacassars on the back of all the armchairs. Their whole house smelt like their chairs. You could bury your face in those armchairs - deep in the crevices between the arm and the seat and smell the whole house. We went there every Sunday. There were wooden bowls of toffee on the table and football all afternoon.

'Westbromich Albion: 1 Manchester United: Nil

Bristol Rovers: 2 Liverpool: 1'

This was on my grandfather's chair - you can see where my grandfather's head wore away the material. He sat in the chair to the right of the fireplace as you came in. He died in that chair. The cat from next door was still asleep on his lap. He was wearing his blue and white striped apron still on from cooking the dinner. It was New Years eve. I found him. I came in to see if he wanted to go for a drink. ' Granddad, do you want to go for a drink? He was dead in the chair.

'Crystal Palace: 1 Queens Park Rangers: 1

White Hart Lane - Huddersfield: Match postponed'

Thus, in a sense it can be seen that smell activates the performance as it stimulates the performer to speak. According to Vroon:

Sometimes the sense of smell can function as a kind of 'starter motor' that evokes all kinds of apparently forgotten experiences and events from the past, even though sometimes one cannot name or describe the smell concerned more precisely. This mechanism is called state-dependent retrieval (Vroon,1997, p. 103).

The sound effect of the football scores in the background emphasizes that the performer has been transported back to the time she speaks of, and because the audience hear it too, so have they. The memories released in the piece are central to the ontology the performance itself. In a sense the rest of the performance of Random Acts of Memory can be seen to have been triggered by smell, plunging performers and audiences into an environment where smell serves as a strong, emotive evoker of memory stories, providing the performers with segues and transitions between the action as smells they remember or sense on the set jog their memories.

The whole notion of authenticity engendered by real olfactory encounter is a recurrent theme within Random Acts of Memory, where at one moment true stories, triggered by real circumstances, are related, and in the next moment lie about the truth or even ownership of those stories. For example, the story about the death of the grandfather was evoked by placing the antimacassar over my face at one point of the rehearsal process - the smell of the fabric did indeed actually trigger the memory of my grandfather.[iii] Although the story about the Grandfather is authentic in that it was literally triggered by the smell on the antimacassar, in the performance some details of the story are not exactly true, which the audience discover when he story is repeated:

Leslie: Could you repeat that story about your grandfather, but this time cheat your face towards the camera a little?

Helen: ...This was on my grandfather's chair - you can see where my grandfather's head wore away the material. He sat in the chair to the right of the fireplace as you came in. He died in that chair. The cat from next door was still asleep on his lap. He was wearing his blue and white striped apron still on from cooking the dinner. It was New Years eve.. Uncle Michael and cousin David found him they came in to see if he wanted to go for a drink. ' I know I said before that it was me that found him, but it wasn't. It wasn't me. It was in fact my Uncle Michael and cousin David. So I don't know why I said that. It's just that sometimes I see it that way. Sometimes I remember it like that.

Helen willingly repeats the story, word for word until she comes to the ending which is now different. The audience half listen as the speech about the performer's Grandfather is repeated. As it is already part of their own 'performance memory' and they assume they know what is coming, and are, therefore, caught out when they instantly pick up on the change in the second version. In this moment the audience experience their own memory process.

An intermingling of stories happens through out Random Acts of Memory which coincides with the intermingling of smells. The smells are always authentic and the stories true, however the ownership of the stories, of the memories, is questionable. For example, after telling the story about her own dead grandfather Helen gets up form the chaise longue and goes over to the bar cart. Picking up a shaving lotion bottle that was on the 'memory game' tray she unscrews it, inhales deeply. She then proceeds to claim a story about Leslie's grandfather as if it is her own, and the audience are momentarily tricked.

Helen picks up shaving lotion bottle. Frozen image cuts to live feed of Helen at bar cart.

Helen: When my grandfather died, he left me his shaving lotion bottle collection. Which was odd, really. Considering that he had eight grandsons. I suppose it was because the shaving lotion came in bottles shaped like cars and when I was little I used to love playing with them on the carpet.

Leslie crosses to cart and takes bottle from Helen while video source switches from live feed to prerecorded section: Leslie standing in front of bar cart saying, 'When my grandfather died, he left me his shaving lotion bottle collection. Which was odd, really. Considering that he had eight grandsons. I suppose it was because the shaving lotion came in bottles shaped like cars and when I was little I used to love playing with them on the carpet.' Source switch back to live feed, Helen at bar cart, heads and shoulders.

Next, Helen begins telling a story evoked by smell as if it has jogged her memory. It becomes apparent, however, that she can only remember the story as long as the smell is present for her and thus tells it on long intakes of breath. As Helen inhales, Leslie dabs her grandfather's shaving lotion onto the antimacassar, which has previously been associated with the smell of Helen's grandfather, as if erasing Helen's olfactory memory in order to replace it with her own. Simultaneously, timed with Helen's inhalations Leslie pours the shaving lotion onto the antimacassar, and as Helen relates the stories triggered a series of different smells that she senses in the atmosphere around her, Leslie polishes the smell of the shaving lotion meticulously into the surface of a curved metal table:

Helen: Breath. The thing with smell is that you remember the whole smell - not like half remembering a face that was definitely the pantry I can feel the light coming in the tiny side window and the biscuits kept in the yellow and blue Tupperware boxes so all you can smell is the Tupperware and all you can taste is the Tupperware. Breath. There is this man who works on an exhibition called the London Experience and he has to create the smell of London in the old days that was father's suede jacket smoke city air leather and him coming home every Friday in his dark suit with sweets in his brown leather briefcase. Lime chocolates for my sister and black licorice for me. Breath. So that is his job and it's not just the smell of food and street fumes that he recreates he even does the great plague apparently a dead pig smells just like a human corpse that was the building we used to have history in it took me ages to realize that was the smell of a damp building rather than the smell of history or the smell of the history teacher. Breath. Once a week a group of old people come to the exhibition on a trip down memory lane as he takes them past recreations of old fireplaces and the smell of the blacking reminds them of their mothers there is a smell that has always scared me I don't even know why I don't know what it is I can't define it but sometimes without warning I can suddenly smell it. Breath. The smell of Brilliantine reminds them of fast boys or was it more that the boys who wore that had reached the age when they were interested in girls and then they wonder what came first the hair wax or the sex and then they all go back home the smell that most excites men is pumpkin pie whereas women respond more readily to licorice... .

The duration of the story she is telling literally depends on breathing in the smells which trigger her memories. Read states that the 'Olfactory is an intelligence of survival'. He is referring to the fact that the sense of smell gives warning against danger, disease; it can alert us to the proximity of friend or foe (1993, p. 123). Here the survival mechanism is needed in this world usurped by machines, by mediation, by simulacra. Vroon writes that:

A person who lost his sense of smell was amazed by how much he lost. 'Sense of smell,' he said. ' I never gave it a thought. You don't normally give it a thought. But when I lost it - it was like being struck blind... . You smell people, you smell the city, you smell the spring - maybe not consciously, but as a rich unconscious background to everything else. My world was suddenly radically poorer' (Vroon, 1997, p. 168).

In terms of memory not only is the ability of smell to trigger memories made clear within Random Acts Of Memory but the very function of synaptic impulses within the brain are included within the text. In Random Acts of Memory a direct connection is made between these areas of smell, the brain and memory. Pouring the shaving lotion on to the antimacassar Leslie rubs the smell, the memory, the presence of her grandfather into the silver chrome table, as if enervating the chilly metal techno environment. When she has covered the entire surface, she lights a cigar, inhales and then slowly exhales a fog of smoke over the table three or four times until the smoke has touched the entire surface. The cigar smoke and the after-shave evoke personal memories of her grandfather which are interwoven with comments on RAM and synaptic memory, as if all share a homogenous relationship:

Leslie: One cell, one memory may not be exactly the way things work, but it seems to be the first way that people think about the problem of locating memories in cells. Even if you aren't familiar with how computers store data, the take home message of most introductions to the brain is that there are pigeon-hole memories - highly specialized inter-neurons, the firing of which might constitute an item's memory evocation. On the perceptual side of neurophysiology, we call it the grandmother's face cell (a neuron that may fire only once a year, at Christmas dinner.) Obviously, my father has many more memories of my grandfather than I do and I've come to realize that this is the reason I liked my grandfather better. Recall, of course, is not the same thing as recognition, and my grandfather never gave my father the recognition he deserved. No present technology provides an analogy to help us think about the problem of associative memory and distortion. He never forgave him, but he was holding his hand when he died.

The personal, emotive and poignant memories triggered by the smell of the aftershave are intertwined seamlessly with ideas surrounding the memory of the machine and with precise descriptions of what is happening in the brain at the very moment of remembering and telling the stories (similar to when the audience in a sense experienced their own memory process as Helen repeated the story of her Grandfather). Here, at the very moment when the performer is saying these lines, her brain is following out the functions of which she speaks, all the time her outside presence is being 'remembered' recorded, and projected by the camera. The seamless interflow between smell, the synaptic functions in the brain and memory is expounded by Engen when he states that, 'Regarding the notion that perception of odour is closely tied to emotion, neurological evidence indicates that the right temporal lobe is more important to short-term recognition memory of odours than is the left lobe (1991, p. 109). He states that:

The neurological impulses in the olfactory system seem to have a more direct route from the receptors to the brain. They have direct access to the limbic system and then to the cerebral hemispheres. Olfactory information may therefore be processed more quickly and with less editing than visual and auditory information. Odour memory may last longer because of a larger number of connections to different parts of the brain that may make possible more associations (Engen, 1991, p. 109).

In Random Acts of Memory smell is used to trigger thought and memory throughout and in a sense highlights the moments when the performers interact on their most honest, personal level. Certainly smell engenders deeper and more emotive reactions in the performers that the plethora of audio and visual stimuli which surround them.

Shared Ontologies: Smell and Performance

As argued above, a direct connection can be made with the synaptic function of the brain and odour memory. I want to compare this with performance critic and writer Peggy Phelan's descriptions of the ontology of live performance and her thesis that performance is recordable only within the memory. As previously mentioned, not only is smell a distinct, and an emotive dynamic, unique to live work, it is actually like performance because of its ephemeral, unrecordable nature. For example, Alan Read states that, 'it is frankly difficult to deal with, notoriously hard to pin down, and of interest only to an analysis which begins from the everyday realm in which it plays such as important yet unthought part' (1993, p. 121). This statement refers to the olfactory and yet could so easily be viewed as describing performance, for instance when compared with Phelan's statement that, 'Without a copy, live performance plunges into visibility - and disappears into memory, into the realm of invisibility and the unconscious where it eludes regulation and control' (1993, p. 148). I wish to further explore Phelan's statement by comparing the ontology of performance to that of smell.

In Aroma, The Cultural History of Smell, the authors state that odours cannot be recorded, 'There is no effective way of either capturing scents or storing them over time. In the realm of olfaction, we must make do with descriptions and recollections' (1995, p. 3). The mortality and ephemerality of smell is emphasized at the end of Random Acts of Memory, when the electricity has been switched off and the performers are only illuminated each by the flame form a match. Leslie refers back to the bottles of shaving cologne bequeathed to her by her Grandfather, stating that, 'The devastating thing about my inheritance is that it smells like him, but it doesn't smell of him.'

Similarly, as the authors of Aroma state, 'Smell, like taste, is a sensation of the moment, it cannot be preserved. We do not know what the past smelled like, and in the future our own odour will be lost.' (1995, p. 204). I want to compare this notion that smell cannot be preserved with Phelan's definition of the unmarked, ephemeral and undocumentable nature of performance:

Performance's only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representation of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology (Phelan,1993, p. 46).

Phelan’s statement, one of the most frequently cited within academic and artistic fields, and certainly one of the statements that seems to be most problematic for Auslander, is comparable to the statement about the impermanence of smell (as cited above). Both reflect an intangibility, an ungraspability which defines their very nature. The 'unpindownable', elusive nature of performance is similar to the indescribable nature of smell. Vroon writes that:

Our terminology for describing smells is generally meagre or inadequate, due to our neural architecture. The parts of the brain that are closely involved in the use of language have few direct links with the olfactory system. Because consciousness and the use of language are closely connected, it is understandable why olfactory information plays a part mainly on an unconscious level (Vroon,1997, pp. 110-111).

Similarly, Alan Read states that:

What reaches us through the nose is a knowledge, not drawn from the encyclopaedic tradition but a doxa, a wisdom, that belies the splitting of the mental and the material...what could be a more distinct individual yet profoundly social interface with the world than that conducted through the chemical senses? (Read,1993, p. 124).

This statement echoes Phelan when she claims that, 'Having no particular home, no boundaries dictated by genre, the unmarked can be mapped across a wide terrain...Poised forever at the threshold of the present, performance enacts the productive appeal of the nonreproductive' (1993, p. 27). Similarly, a comparison can be drawn to the statement that, 'smells resist containment in discrete units, whether physical or linguistic; they cross boundary lines.' (Classen et al,1995, p. 204). Just as live performance cannot be captured and reproduced, even in writing, without the documentation changing it, so smell and the memories it evokes are of the moment, as Engen states, 'Time seems to play no role in odour memory' (1991, p. 107). In tandem with this is Phelan's belief that, 'without a copy, like performance plunges into visibility - in a maniacally charged present - and disappears into memory, into the realm of invisibility and the unconscious where it eludes regulation and control. (1993, p. 148). Smells can be 'remembered' long after the initial sensation has been experienced and recalled, spontaneously, years later. Like performance, smell can live on in the memory, unlocking a personal history; 'lieux de mŽmoire'. I define this phenomenon as 'body memory', locating it directly within the totality body.[iv]

Artificial Olfaction

The notion of the intermingling of truth and falsehoods, of real smells in a mediated environment, leads me to another area concerning smell and its comparable relationship to live and mediated performance, namely synthetic or artificial smells. 'Today's synthetic scents...are evocative if things which are not there, of presence's which are absent: we have floral-scented perfumes which were never exhaled by a flower, fruit-flavored drinks with not a drop of fruit juice in them' (Classen et al,1995, p. 205). The ability to reproduce smells synthetically, even though they may bear little or no resemblance to the actual smell they are attempting to replicate - certainly they do not necessarily contain any of the essence or tincture of the actual smell - is interesting to analogise in reflection to mediatization in terms of performance. For Auslander, 'in terms of the cultural economy the live actors are only pale reflections of the mediatised representations that dominate the cultural landscape (1999, p. 37). Synthetic smell is certainly at the heart of the commercial and economic market. Can mediated performance be said to be like the smell which has been 'artificially created?' In Aroma, The Cultural History of Smell, Classen et al cite Baudrillard in reference to artificial smells and flavors stating that, 'the world has come to be, "completely catalogued and analyzed and then artificially revived as though real." In the same way artificial flavors are created 'by the synthetic reproduction of individual flavor notes present in the original' (1995, p. 204). This description certainly seems to comply with Baudrillard's claim that, 'The real is produced from miniaturised units...and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times' (as cited by Classen et al,1995, p. 204). Similarly, this idea about the synthetic reproduction of smells, can be seen as complicit with Walter Benjamin's description of photographic reproduction: 'From a photographic negative...one can make any number of prints; to ask for the 'authentic' print makes no sense' (as cited in Auslander, 1999, p. 50). For Benjamin authenticity and presence are bound up in 'aura,' which he defines using the example of nature, stating that aura is based on:

The desire of contemporary masses to bring things 'closer' spatially and humanly which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction (Benjamin, 1968, p. 223).

Does odour/odour/aroma, however one writes it, produce aura? Does the object pried from its shell, its aura destroyed lose its smell, which gave it a sense of self, of place, of identity? Does odour, like aura work best at a distance? 'The best place to smell perfume is at a distance from its owner' (Read,1993, p. 122).

In Aroma, The Cultural History of Smell, Classen et al include at the end a section which is entitled, 'Smell: The Postmodern Sense?' Therein they state that:

In our postmodern world smell is often a notable ...absence. Odours are suppressed in public places, there are no smells on television, the world of computers is odour free, and so on. This olfactory 'silence' notwithstanding, smell would see to share many of the traits commonly attributed to postmodernity....The past irrelevant, the future uncertain, postmodernity is a culture of 'now', a pastiche of styles and genres which exists in an eternal resent. Postmodernity is also a culture of imitations and simulations, where copies predominate over originals and images over substance (Classen et al,1995, p. 203).

All these notions of smell can be applied directly to the performance of Random Acts of Memory. In terms of the proposition that in postmodern culture 'copies predominate over originals', it is interesting to note that the experience of performing with technology oftentimes left Leslie Hill and myself, as performers in Random Acts of Memory, feeling all the more messy, uncontrolled; we became the unprogrammed element of our media performance, particularly in terms of the clones. One of the reasons that we made the decision to include this smell/breath session, cited above, was to emphasise this visceral, physical presence, thereby asserting control through emphasising the 'unprogrammable, uncontrollable elements. For example, the visceral energy of the performer as she performs the smell/breath text, each smell only allowing her one breath, is juxtaposed with the cold, chrome set, the steely surveillance of the digital camera, the glare of the video monitors and projection screens. The performer forces the ends of the sentences out from the last breath left in her lungs; the sound coming from deep inside, uncontrolled, jagged, rasping, in direct contrast to her controlled, static post-modern environment.

Will smell, seduced by an endless procession of olfactory simulacra, succumb to its postmodern life, or will it - ever elusive - transcend its postmodern categorizations to remind us of our organic nature and even hint at a realm of the spirit (Classen et al,1995, p. 205).

As the audience leave the theatre the smell, the odour, the aura remains, intangible, in the air.


1. In his fascinating account of the olfactory history of Paris, Alain Corbin states that, 'Doctors since ancient times have untiringly stressed the importance of the nose as the sensory organ closest to the brain, the 'origin of sensation.' (Corbin, Foul and Fragrant, p.7).

2. It is interesting to note the emergence and popularity of the cybercafe, where the computer and the smell of coffee are at least in proximity! (See Levinson, The Soft Edge, pp. 231-232). Also see www.placelessness.com/cafe, Hill and Paris's online cafŽ.

3. Interestingly, Vroon writes that generally speaking, thirty-year-olds have the best olfactory memory. This is the age I was when I made Random Acts of Memory (see Vroon, Smell, p, 190).

4. The Desana peoples of the Amazonian rainforest of Colombia believe that smells are apprehended by the whole body, not simply the nose. (Classen et al, Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, p. 100).


Auslander, Philip, Liveness, (Routledge: London and New York), 1999.

Benjamin, Walter, Illuminations, Essays and Reflections, Trans. Harry Zohn, (Schocken: New York), 1968.

Corbin, Alain, The Foul and The Fragrant; Odour and the Social Imagination, (Picador: London), 1994.

Classen, Constance, Howes, David & Synnott, Anthony, Aroma : The Cultural History of Smell , (Routledge: London and New York), 1995.

Engen, Trygg, Odor Sensation and Memory, (Praeger Publishers), 1991.

Jones, Amelia, Body Art: Performing the Subject, (University of Minnesota), 1998.

Peggy Phelan, Unmarked; The Politics of Performance, (Routledge: London and New York), 1993

Rapi, Nina, Chowdry, Maya, (eds.),Acts of Passion: Sexuality, Gender and Performance, (Harrington Park Press), 1998.

Read, Alan, Theatre and Everyday Life, (Routledge: London and New York), 1993.

Vroon, Piet, Smell: The Secret Seducer, Trans. Paul Vincent, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York), 1997.



Helen Paris





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