So this scent graffiti by Mitchell Heinrich really charms me. Scent is a particularly interesting medium for several reasons. Heinrich says:
Scent is interpreted by the limbic system which is very closely tied to emotion and memory. This leads me to believe that interacting with people using scent can potentially be a much more powerful medium than paint since people experiencing it can’t help but react to it. The goal of this project is to realize the potential of smell as art and to explore different ways of using it to interact with people.
True, but this is only part of the story. Scent requires proximity in a way that vision does not. Visual understanding is nearly immediate once something enters our eyeline. But scent is based on the diffusion of volatile chemicals through the environment, so it reaches us in a more gradual way. It’s like vision is a sudden downpour and scent is a slowly increasing drizzle. So the quality of the surprise achieved is fundamentally different.
Also, in a chat I had a few weeks ago with Dr. Pamela Dalton at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, I learned one of the most important factors in scent processing is context. Many scents occur in multiple contexts. One example is butyric acid, a molecule that in some situations we recognize as aged cheese, and in others we recoil from as the odor of sweaty feet. Without realizing it, we constantly use contextual information to interpret scents and determine how to react emotionally to them. This fact creates some interesting possibilities for scent art. By taking scents strongly identified with a particular context — say cut grass or baking cookies — and pairing them with urban contexts that have a strong associated odor, the effect could be quite dazzling and dislocating. It could also work the other way, creating a powerful negative emotional response. But either way, it likely would cause to reflect on the environment more mundane sensory stimuli as well, and develop a clearer picture of how those make us feel.
Scent graffiti is also fleeting, and that transience is appealing. So often graffiti is not about destruction but about reclamation: the desire to form some kind of personal relationship with the anonymously-designed city that contains and constrains us. To shape this looming environment in some small way. The evanescence of aroma allows for continually shifting scent-images to alter the city, allowing a constant redesign and rediscovery of public space.