Words by Manal Aziz
Smelling. Not a day goes by, the majority of us don’t do it. It’s something you only miss when you don’t have it, and hardly do we vocally appreciate it. Unless you’re Klara Ravat, the Barcelona-born olfactory artist and experimental filmmaker who found her passion in the sense of smell. I was curious to find out who this person is, what this art form is and how the two met. What I found was way more.
Of all our senses, the smell is considered to be one of our most primal ones. Yet, hardly have I ever encountered someone with such curiosity towards, and understanding of scent as Klara Ravat. As an olfactory artist, she uses scent as a medium of expression of communication. The Berlin-based artist explains “It’s not necessarily having a bottled scent, you know. It’s more about playing around with scent, finding interdisciplinary ways of combining it with other media like sound or video or performance.”
Many of the olfactory art projects by Klara are interactive, involving installations and engagement by the audience. However, this is not necessarily a way of working that’s consciously instigated. Instead, she argues that it’s an almost inevitable aspect of the art form. “When you’re at the point that your audience has to smell something, it’s hard to make something that’s not interactive. Because, what I figured out when working with scent, is that people really want to give you their feedback. It’s really a lot about their associations, about what they think, about what they experience. To me, when that feedback-part is not there, it kind of misses the point a bit. In the end, you want to communicate something to people, right? So, if people don’t get the whole thing or the opportunity to say their part, I think the piece is not complete.”
But it’s not only that. Throughout the years, like many artists, Klara had to figure out how to earn money. “I started giving workshops and somehow the workshops started to also be part of my art. Some of the workshops are even half performance half workshops. So it also just happened.”
Unlike many other art forms, olfactory art has not been acknowledged as an official art for that long. As a matter of fact, the art form has only been recognized in the art world from the 80s onwards, mainly thanks to revolutionary pioneers like Marcel Duchamp. The novelty of the art form brings along some obstacles for those who wish to master this medium. “Because not that many new people have used it [olfactory art], you see that when artists get interested and start exploring the art…” she pauses as if choosing the right words to describe the triggered frustration “it’s like we all do the same things. There’s no common base. I think it needs to be a bit more institution-based so it can advance a little more. It’s like we’re starting all over again with the same stuff every time someone joins.”
“Slowly we are connecting and hopefully, we leave a base for people to work with scent.”
However, the lack of an institutionalized infrastructure hasn’t stopped Klara from finding her own path from which she has drawn inspiration. “It’s rarely taught in schools, but I was lucky I studied at the KABK in The Hague. There I had a teacher (Caro Verbeek) who is a curator and historian and she talked about olfactory art. Then there’s my curator, a Japanese artist (Maki Ueda) who also teaches there every once in a while. And there is or was this master program in Brussels about senses which was, for a big part, about scent because the guy who runs it (Peter de Cupere) is an olfactory artist himself.”
Times are changing and so is the artistic work field. Klara sees that. Besides from a project in Los Angeles she often collaborates with, she has her own non-commercial project called the Smell Lab in Berlin. The Smell Lab (2015) is a meeting space for anyone with an interest in the sense of smell. With meet-ups, workshops, and projects, the platform serves as a hub for education, innovation and support of artistic practices revolving around the olfaction. “Slowly we are connecting and hopefully we leave a base for people to work with scent.”
I ask her whether she feels olfactory art is becoming more approachable for other disciplines to collaborate with, to which she responds: “I think slowly it will get there.” She starts laughing, “It’s funny because when I moved to Berlin I approached Ellen Allien to see if she wanted to collaborate because I really like her music. She never answered. Of course, she’s just busy, but I think it would be fun to try out [scent] in a big club.”
Just like music, scent can be used as a powerful tool. “Yeah, scent can affect people’s behaviour a lot. So, maybe it can be used as more than a translation of the music.” Intrigued by this, I ask her to elaborate. “Let’s say it’s party and rave harder, then you might put some scent that is not relaxing but instead more vibrant. In this case, I see it [scent] more as complementary to the music.”
The conversation slowly transforms into a brainstorm with ideas going back and forth. We start discussing ways of working with scent in which the sense is not complementary to music per se. Instead of it being a mood-enhancer, she plays with the idea of connecting technical aspects of sound and scent. “The ingredients of scent have different molecular waves. This means they are heavier or lighter and that they evaporate at different times.” She continues explaining how, in theory, noise affects the way you smell. “I don’t know why exactly, but it does. This means there is some sort of connection, it just needs some more research.” Although there is a lot of research done regarding psychology and scent, sound and scent remain quite a mystery.
“It's actually my parent's fault I'm an olfactory artist now.”
As we talk, I remember one of her projects: The Multi Sensory Album. In this project, Klara Ravat played around with the strong link between scent and memory. The album is created with the idea of creating olfactory and tactile memories of unforgettable moments in your life. This aspect of scent is something that’s researched a lot in the field of psychology especially in regards to dementia. Unlike sound, research is done “more on memory and how we create autobiographical memories with scent.” There are also a lot of interactive games using scent. It turns out, this is how she first started experimenting with her sense of smell.
“When I was young, my parents gave me a memory card game. I had to match the scent of capsules to the description on the cards.” She laughs and continues, “It’s actually my parent’s fault I’m an olfactory artist now.” But Klara’s career-choice is not that straightforward. When I ask her whether she needs a chemistry degree to perform her art, I found out that the old-school and new-school differ quite a bit.
“Most of the old-school perfumers are chemist or evaluators – which also have some kind of chemistry background.” Whether or not you should, depends on how far you want to go with perfumery. “These old-school perfumers or chemist say you first need to play around with the materials for ten years. That’s before you get to mixing a fragrance. I think that’s a bit excessive,” she says with a smile on her face. Nowadays more and more people train themselves, “like I’m doing. I’m not a chemist.” However, she does think chemistry knowledge about the molecules of your ingredients is useful. “But of course, you can learn that by practice too.”
Trial and error. A style that fits this young self-taught olfactory artist like a glove. But with self-taught successes come hurdles. Mostly organizational hurdles. Just because it’s so new. “It’s really hard to get someone to really take care of your installation.” She starts telling a story about a little scent-spreading-machine she had made. It was a hack of breathing machines for asthmatic people. She knew that if it empties of water, the machine would break. “So I told them, you really need to fill it in every day.” I could already sense where the story was going as I listened to her confirming my hunch. “Suddenly, one month later they call me saying there was a short-circuit in the building. Oh, and your machine broke down.” Needless to say, I got her point.
The organizational hurdles might be too many to count, creative boundaries, on the other hand, are very rare. Really, the novelty of the art form seems to work to her advantage. “Most of the reactions of the audience is quite positive. Especially because they [the audience] never thought they would stick their noses somewhere. Paying attention to smelling somebody else like that.”
Whether there are any new things she wants to try in the nearby future?
“Yeah, I have always had this idea, but I think it’s a bit complicated.” With the excitement of a child sharing an impossible dream, she starts explaining her plan. “I’d love to make a room where you can divide three different scents. Literally. In the air.” The volatility of scent is what makes it so difficult. But that hasn’t stopped her from exploring the possibilities. This top-down way of working is applicable only to her olfactory art. When I ask her about her work as an experimental filmmaker she explains “that’s actually the opposite.”
Apart from her olfactory art, Klara Ravat works with film. She started creating installations and performing with film seven years ago. Using all kinds of materials from film negatives to projectors, her workflow is undoubtedly bottom-up. Why do I bring this up now? Because whereas her olfactory art revolves around a concept wherefrom a scent is created, Klara’s experimental filmmaking is all about playing around with the materials, then finding a way to make the creation fit the space.
This put me on a thought train. Maybe this difference can be explained by the earlier discussed intangibility and subjectivity of scent. Maybe, its conceptualization serves as the much needed common ground, a reference point from which the conversation can be started. The inevitable human urge of making sense. An attempt to concretize what is the epiphany of something abstract. Literally, capturing air.