Saturday, September 17, 2016

Osmodrama Report: Scent-Tracking Literature

Madzirov, Mattes, Kissina, Georgsdorf in front of Smeller 2.0
This evening I witnessed the world premiere of a reading of poetry and prose accompanied by a scent track produced by Smeller 2.0 It was an absolutely fascinating and intriguing experience which raised many questions and pointed to many new horizons.

In the first segment Mazedonian poet Nikola Madzirov read seven poems, each preceded by a scent prologue, followed by a reading of the poem in German by Eva Mattes and then a scent epilogue. These programmed scentscapes by Wolfgang Georgsdorf  worked as a form of olfactory translation/commentary/interpretation. Madzirov loved the idea, pointing out that his poetry (each word like an uncried tear, which I found both moving and terrifying) works towards silence, which is wonderfully fulfilled by an olfactory translation that maintains the presence of meaning without language.

Ukranian/Russian author Julia Kissina read a bit from her novel Elephantina's Moscow Years, a quasi-autobiographical, surreal account of the underground art scene in the last years of the crumbling Soviet Union, followed by Eva Mattes reading a full chapter in German. In this case Georgsdorf played a scent-track live along with the reading via a Midi-Keyboard that triggered the smell releases - a daunting task, as he had to play 24 seconds ahead for the molecules to reach the audience in synchronization with the words (and since scent molecules are slower than soundwaves, there is a latency issue for the audience in the front and back - the sweet spot was gauged for the middle of the tent-auditorium). I sat in the third row and the timing worked pretty well. Kisseva, who was able to smell the scent-track (Madzirov was reading in a dead olfactory angle) and understands German seemed thrilled and joked that the scents were now "in the book" forever for her.

My impression was, that, on the one hand, we are still olfactory illiterates struggling with this new art form because we tend to underestimate scent in Western culture and lack an established vocabulary to describe it (if we are not perfumers, wine critics or coffee testers), as well as an emotional grammar to grasp precisely what it does to us. But we also lack the reference points we have when it comes, e.g., to the language of film (even if it isn't explicit, we learn the conventions of what a close-up or a panoramic shot mean). The scent experience is there, but how to link it up to the spoken word, onto which, in these cases, it is grafted as an added layer? I, for one, despite being deeply involved with smells, lacked the ability to integrate the scents with the language in the way that a film score is automatically connected to visual input by years of exposure to genre conventions. On the other hand, this experience of an added olfactory dimension has the potential to break through the conventions of literary language and the setting of "the literary performance." Thereby, apart from its sensory contribution, it may actually help liberate language from these constraints which even the finest and most experimental writers cannot evade. There is certainly way more to this than releasing a rose scent when love is spoken of:  multiple new layers of metaphorization, representation, relationality and meaning come into play.

One problem I encountered - like in my perfumista life - was the use of synthetics. A monomolecular scent doesn't trigger emotions or memories in me except within the boundaries of its self-referentiality. Melonal is Melonal (yuck), undecagammalactone doesn't work as peach/tropical/fruit/imagined south sea paradise for me but only as an obnoxious air freshener. The scent effects worked on me when they appeared "real" - animalic, moldy humus, church incense, plastic and that would bring a smile to my face or cause reverberation connecting scents and imagery from a poem in interesting ways (reenforcing and contrasting).

Wolfgang Georgsdorf is highly aware of all of theses isues and pointed out that this artform is in its infancy, as moving images once were. A whole number of firsts have occured at the Osmodrama-Festival and the feedback will be used to think about and further develop the technology of the Smeller apparatus and the conceptual backbone of "olfactory painting" and multimedia-interactivity.

Tonight, for sure, was a great, enlightening, no: ensmelling evening and it felt like watching the Wright Brothers lift off and fly into a new era.    

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