Smell, emotion, ART!
Last November after waiting in a long line for more than an hour, I joined my friends, who had already been in the line and entered the small cube at Museum of Feelings in Manhattan. “Twist your inner mood to own.” Admission was free, and they were letting us through in small groups. Actually, groups of 20-25 go in at a time. Touch, feel, play, listen, imagine and breathe. Trying to emotion and scent to life through an experience. It was like we were taken on a sensory journey through the museum. We moved from one themed alcove to another, five in total, and each with its own distinctive aroma. Our five scents tied to our emotions, and each room evoked each emotion in the abstract through visuals, touch, sound, and smell. Did it really show how fragrance can impact our emotions? The galleries, inspired by Glade® fragrances, allowed us to experience how the sense of smell, in partnership with the other four senses, create the emotions we feel. Also it was like they tried to ignore negative emotions and focus on the positive. We get to walk through different rooms with mood lighting, kaleidoscopes of flowers and a ceiling full of fiber optic lights (the green forest). So from walking through an enchanted sparkling forest of our imagination to turning on our inner kaleidoscope and capturing serenity in a vanilla-lavender room of fuzzy goodness. The scents played a major part of the philosophy.
The organizers said "Its unique exterior reacts to social media and real-time data to reflect New York’s ever-changing mood in vivid color."
Overall, each room had a different scent, visuals, and emotions/feelings. In fact, the regions of the brain which process olfaction, emotion, and memory are tightly connected. The bond between taste and smell is widely known. But, researchers are realizing that olfaction mixes with the other senses in unexpected ways. Smell is an ancient sense. The more closely scientists look, the more evidence they find that odors play a role in our emotions, our cognition, and even our health. Clearly, there’s a lot to learn.
Artist working in a Lab
This sounds like a really wonderful exhibit! I love the idea of combining the senses for a more immersive experience. I look forward to chatting this week about how we could play with some of these ideas.
This week, Pooneh asked me “do you have your own lab? If not, how do you get into a lab?”
I don’t have a lab, but I’ve done a number of art projects that required laboratories. As far as I know, there isn’t a specific protocol for an artist wanting to enter a lab, there isn’t a form, or any approval process. This is a really interesting area for any artist who is interested in crossing over into someone else’s area of expertise, be they scientists or professionals of any other field.
How do I do it? It takes some work and a lot of trust!… I’ll walk you through it.
I generally read a lot - news articles, science books and scientific papers. Once I become interested in on a topic, I’ll look for anything going on around it: who is researching this topic? What questions are they looking at? Are they looking at basic science or at applications? Why or why not? My background is in cellular biology and genetics, so it’s very important for me to understand the science rigorously - even if only a small amount of it ever becomes a part of an art project. This process of study usually leads to inspiration: an interesting uncertainty, some boundary-crossing idea that escapes the narrow focus that science investigation requires but that art can boldly embrace.
In this survey, I attempt to contact folks in the field who are doing this work - or I reach out to collaborators I’ve worked with before for their guidance. This contact is not to immediately ask for something (like access to a lab! who would let a total stranger into their workspace?!) but to continue learning more about the topic. What guides their research? What discoveries are most exciting to them? How do they see these ideas fitting into the larger context of defining who we are as individuals and our place in the world? While most scientists are often working on incredibly specific questions, most folks that I’ve been lucky enough to get to know have a very deep understanding of the context of that small question - and my representation of this “small question” might seem funny to them, since they understand its complexity much better than I can.
As I learn more and get to know folks in the field, I will start to define a more specific idea. Not necessarily a finished product but an angle, an approach. What if… we looked at this and that together? Or sometimes, the conversations themselves start to become naturally a collaboration, and new ideas come directly from this exchange. Many such conversations feel like magic, as we jump from idea to idea, loosely making connections, comparisons, translations… Not all ideas will come to life, but sometimes that creative exchange can be more satisfying that the creation of a finished work.
I’ve done a few projects now whose expression required a laboratory. Some of these I accomplished while at special residency programs, such as the School of Visual Arts Bioart residency; another I started at the open community biology lab Genspace, several others have been at university and museum research labs that generously offered me space and support to explore different ideas.
With each laboratory that I’ve worked with, I always seek to do a few things:
- communicate very clearly about what I’d like to do so my hosts can feel comfortable they know what I am doing
- explore in detail any safety considerations and do my best to follow all relevant lab protocols
- be very respectful of people’s time: generally, if I am in someone’s lab, I am taking someone’s time or space (and not necessarily at a convenient time or place!)
- understand what equipment I need (these are valuable resources, other people may need them!) and what materials I need (I often use very common lab supplies that labs donate - but this is not always possible and I try to be cognizant of cost & payment)
- ensure I understand exactly what I’d like to do & how to do it: I’ll usually be learning new techniques or protocols but I am the one responsible for doing the work
- remember that there is no protocol for this interaction, and it’s my responsibility to over communicate and ensure my host feels comfortable (and hopefully excited and delighted!) with the collaboration
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Pooneh Heshmati is an award-winning cognitive neuroscientist, physician, and post doctoral researcher at Northwell Health in New York.
Joana Ricou is an award-winning NYC-based artist, and creative director of Regenerative Medicine Partnership for Life.