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On Sunday October 2, the Sensory Modernisms Research Group, working in conjunction with the Hyde Park Picture House, organised a showing of Luis Buñuel’s L’Age D’Or, accompanied by a range of aromas. The plan was, in part, to revive the shock value of the film; it was originally conceived as an affront to bourgeois sensibilities, and provoked a riot when it was first screened. But, in addition, we were motivated by the long, and largely unsuccessful history of odorous cinema, and its failure to achieve widespread usage. ‘Odourscope’ was an experiment, an attempt to harness olfaction in the service of mass entertainment.Odourscope at the Hyde Park Picture House

It’s a given that our exposure to films and news bulletins has habituated us to a particular type of visual and auditory experience. True, there is a smell of the cinema, which we might associate with going to see a film – the aroma of popcorn would be an obvious example. But we don’t, generally speaking, experience aromas as deliberate contrivance, a conscious aspect of film’s narrative.

 

Why Smell?

We know that olfaction is one of the most affective senses. We know the recollective power of odours; that smelling something can evoke a whole host of memories, and this property is, for example, exploited by Marcel Proust in A la recherche du temps perdu, when the narrator dips a madeleine biscuit in tea and the smell and taste of it takes it back to his childhood in Combray.

But more importantly in the case of L’Age D’Or, smell provokes reactions that vision and hearing can’t. This could be demonstrated by showing an audience, for example, a picture of a pile of vomit. Disgusting as this might be, you very likely wouldn’t be nauseated by it. However, if the smell of fresh sick were to be wafted under your nose that would very likely provoke a much stronger reaction. Our plan was to harness that affective power to enable the audience to experience L’Age D’Or in a new way. After all, when we smell something, we’re actually absorbing it into our bodies, through the smell receptors in our nose, so in this way, it’s much more intimate than merely seeing something. And this is noted by philosophers such as Kant, for example. You can turn your head away from an unpleasant sight, but it’s more difficult to do this with a smell.

And this leads on to another important property of smell; that it suggests that which is real, rather than illusory. When we go to a cinema, there’s a willing suspension of disbelief going on. We know that the things we’re seeing on screen aren’t real. But if we smell them, it means that an actual odour must be present for us to detect. Odorous cinema, therefore, offers a means of expressing a form of hyper-reality – that is, the extension of the sensorium beyond merely seeing and hearing a performance, to encountering it olfactorily as well.

 

Making Smells

Finding appropriate and convincing odours was key to the whole performance; if we couldn’t find smells which complemented the action on screen, then Odourscope wasn’t going to work. Our methodology for selecting the odours for the event was pretty simple; we watched the film and jotted down moments which seemed easy to illustrate with a particular smell, or which were particularly arresting and demanded some kind of odorous, complementary effect. While in some cases this was relatively straightforward – the smell of burning, of perfume, of shit – the visual content of L’Age D’Or didn’t always suggest an obvious odorous counterpart.

For example, the films opens by depicting a fight between a scorpion and a rat. It’s a great (and unsettling) scene, but we couldn’t discern exactly what rats and scorpions smell of, and no-one else had come up with a commercially available odour (I’ll return to this in a moment). In addition, even if we had been able to create a smell appropriate to this moment in the film, the effect would probably have been lost on the audience, as most people don’t have an olfactory preconception of either of these animals.

We faced a similar problem when trying to odorously communicate two of the film’s major preoccupations – sexuality and religion. L’Age D’Or is permeated with eroticism – repressed or explicit – and it seemed necessary to provide an appropriate erotic odour. But, given the complexity of erotic behaviour, it seemed reductive and silly to try to create an all-encompassing odour. We toyed with the idea of creating and using the aroma of fresh semen or menses, but worried that again, the audience might not associate the odours we transmitted with the events on the screen. Eventually, we decided to complement the film’s infamous toe-sucking scene with the aroma of sweaty feet. Comparably, we discussed whether religion was too complex a topic to address through the medium of odour. It was agreed that we needed to generate some kind of effect for the closing scenes of L’Age D’Or, and we considered a range of options. One idea was to use an intense odour of strawberries or flowers to suggest the Odour of Sanctity. In hindsight, I wish we had used this; it would have been surprising, and slightly less linear than the option we eventually chose, which was a combination of essential oils of frankincense and myrrh.

It is, however, important to stress that throughout Odourscope, we were faced with a limited repertory of available smells suitable for the performance. In creating a smelly performance of L’Age D’Or, we were constantly faced with the practical question of where to source the necessary odorants. After a Google search, we came across Dale Air, a company which specialises in the manufacture of aromas. The company has extensive experience in supplying museums and associated organisations with ambient and historical aromas, including York’s Jorvik Viking Museum. It also boasts a huge range of aromas, and seemed a good place to start. We knew that we wanted an array of unusual smells – the sea, putrescence, shit, sweaty feet, petrol fumes – and hoped that they might be able to help.Handmade Smells for L'Age D'Or

In the end, Dale Air proved very useful. Some of their commercial aromas were spot on – Sweaty Feet smelled exactly right, as did Rotten Egg and Pollution. However, some of the smells we wanted simply weren’t available ready-formulated. Given the budgetary constraints governing the project, we were unable to request the creation of scents appropriate to ‘Odourscope’, although Dale Air would have been equipped to carry out this work for us. Surprisingly, we had real problems sourcing an accurate aroma of shit, designed to coincide with the famous toilet scene in L’Age D’Or, in which the sound of a lavatory flushing transitions into a sea of mud. In the end, we had to settle for the inelegant, but accurately named Liquid Ass, which provided a convincing stench. There are numerous city scenes in L’Age D’Or, which would suggest the appropriateness of a petrol or diesel smell. However, we were unable to source a petrol odour to use in the Hyde Park Picture House. One suggestion was to soak a rag in petrol, let it dry and then use this as an odour source, but given Health and Safety regulations (entirely sensible in this instance) this wasn’t an option. There is also a scene in the film in which a character is revived with sal volatile; it would have been great to hit the audience with a concentrated ammoniac smell at this point, but there was no convincing artificial aroma available. As with petrol, the only way to do it would have been to use the real thing, and for obvious reasons, we couldn’t spray the audience with an ammonia solution. For some other smells, such as the smell of pine trees, we were able to use simple essential oils. We were unable to find a good, convincing burning smell available as a pre-prepared product and eventually settled on Cade Oil, which has a very strong, smoky aroma which worked really well. Discovering a good smell of the sea was also problematic, as most commercial formulations seemed to have a very noticeable acetone note, presumably to evoke the smell of suntan lotion. This wasn’t the direction in which we wanted to go, however, and we eventually found inspiration in the Fat Duck cookery book, which recommended the use of seaweed essential oil to evoke the smell of the sea. It was a good smell, but not very assertive, at least not for a performance such as Odourscope, so we augmented it with a dash of Dale Air’s Fish Market smell.

There were a range of options available for directing the smells of the audience, but every solution seemed to involve one of two broad approaches – either mass broadcast (everyone in the audience is subjected to the aroma, or individual smell experiences, in which the participant is obliged to trigger a smell event. The latter approach was used by John Waters in performances of Polyester (1981), in which audience members were issued with a scratch and sniff card to trigger particular smells at key moments in the film. For us, the main drawback to this approach was cost; it would have been prohibitively expensive to have these cards printed. The advantage of course, was that the smell was delivered instantly (provided the audience followed their cue to scratch and sniff correctly) enabling a close synchrony of visual and olfactory effects.

In the end, we opted for a decidedly low-tech approach, essentially the same as one of the first recorded (although disputed) attempts to create an odorous cinema experience, which used a fan to direct the smell of rose oil at an audience during a news reel of a Rose Bowl game. Our method used three fans, placed in the balcony of the cinema, each directed to funnel air directly down to the audience below. Working to a cue sheet and a smartphone timer app, each of us took it in turns to spray a scheduled odour in front of the column of air.

Odorscope, Hyde Park Picture HouseThere were, of course, drawbacks to this approach – tests revealed that it took on average a minute and half for the smell to adequately disperse throughout the stalls. This delay was no doubt complicated by the varying volatilities and viscosities of the odorants we were spraying at the audience, along with the air currents moving throughout the theatre. If we had the time and expertise, we could have calculated more accurate dispersal times (just as we could have formulated our smells ourselves, rather than relying on ready-made odours) but our prime concern was creating a memorable effect, rather than achieving a perfect accord between what the audience was smelling, and what was happening on the screen.

Audience Reaction

On the whole, the audience responded positively to the experiment – we were very keen, throughout, to stress that this was an experiment, rather than representative of finished technology. Some participants suggested that there was too much variation in the intensity of particular smells, reflective perhaps of our decision to err on the side of caution by spraying large quantities of particular odours at the audience. Better to smell too strongly than not at all, we reasoned. Another audience member announced that he had thought of walking out mid-performance, which we took as a compliment. After all, the first screening of L’Age D’Or in 1930 had provoked a violent reaction and it was part of our ambition to rekindle some of the film’s shock value. Post-event, audience members discussed the ways in which the odours we produced illuminated/negated aspects of the film’s narrative. It’s said of L’Age D’Dor that it’s structured, segmented like a scorpion’s tale with discrete, but interrelated sections. However, when we used smell to accentuate the impact of these vignettes, we faced the problem of disposing of one scent before succeeding it with another – smells linger in a way that visual and auditory impressions don’t. And while the lingering presence of some aromas might serve to indicate an underlying olfactory meta-narrative, it meant that each scene was, odorously speaking, haunted by the lingering presence of the last. This could, of course, be interpreted as a positive effect – one of the film’s key assertions is the equivalence of gold and shit. Buñuel’s presentation of the commemorative stone laid by civic dignitaries is immediately preceded by the infamous lavatory scene, but this jump in narrative emphasis was modified in ‘Odourscope’ by the lingering presence of the smell of shit – it was still detectable in a scene which was notionally distinct from its predecessor, but which was still intended to support the analogies of filth and bourgeois propriety.

Congruently, smell proved effective in underscoring the film’s other two central motifs; sex and religion. I’ve noted that we couldn’t come up with an appropriate aroma to evoke the smell of sex. We were able to come up with a smell befitting one of the film’s fetish objects – the odour of feet – but the authentic smell of sex eluded us, comparable to the way in which sexual gratification is continually deferred throughout the film. The audience may have been expecting an erotic aroma – whatever that might be – but instead encountered its deferred presence in the form of the smell of sweaty feet. Moreover, the scenes in which we used the odour of feet were notable in that smell, in this instance, did not support a form of hyper-realism (which might, it could be contended, run counter the non-linearity of Surrealist cinema). The toes that Lya Lys pseudo-fellates belong to a statue, rather than a living, breathing person. By deploying an unpleasant human odour at this point, we created a dissenting odorous counter-narrative, or rather, one which indicated the repressed presence of biological imperatives – that what is desired, in this instance, is human flesh, albeit expressed in an encoded form.

Interestingly, none of the audience commented on whether the odours we produced enhanced or negated the comedy of L’Age D’Or. The film has many humorous moments – who can forget the discovery of the cow in Lya Lys’s bed? My own feeling is that the visceral affect embodied by odour is not conducive to humour, particularly in relation to bodily functions. A fart may be funny as a sonic entity, but is less appealing as a faecal stench.

More broadly, audience questions which addressed the linkage of the odorous content of Odourscope with the images of L’Age D’Or highlighted the foundational difficulty of discussing odour per se, and the lack of an available repertory of descriptors for evoking olfactory experience. Smell embodies an appeal to the irrational which makes it difficult to discuss as a form of intellectual content. While it was possible to critique L’Age D’Or, and to critique the use of smell in conjunction with L’Age D’Or, it proved more difficult to disentangle these odours from their presumed referents, other than making a declaration along the lines of “I like/I don’t like smell x/y”.

Conclusions

Odourscope enabled us to engage practically with the difficulties plaguing the creation of olfactory cinema:

  • A lack of appropriate odours for a range of experiences.
  • The difficulty of transmitting these odours to coincide with the action onscreen.
  • The tendency of odours to a) commingle, and b) linger, hampering attempts to orchestrate a succession of distinct smells.
  • Particularity of recall; the smell, for example, of lavender might have entirely different associations for you than it would for me.
  • Lack of seamlessness of odour effects. Reports of early experiments in smell cinema indicated audience dissatisfaction with the hissing sounds made by operators releasing smells into auditoria. The audience at the Hyde Park Picture House were certainly aware that there were people scurrying above them, and the noise of the fans was continually audible.

Despite these limitations, we achieved a large audience for a marginal, experimental event (90+ spectators/olfactors), most of whom seemed to enjoy L’Age D’Or, and its augmentation with odour. In addition, we learned valuable lessons about what can be achieved when harnessing odour for performative effect, inviting the prospect of a more ambitions performance of this kind in the future.