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'SmellScape' Encourages Nose-First Exploration

Berlin-based artist Sissel Tolaas travels the world collecting scents.

Her latest project with Grand Arts, SmellScape, maps the invisible city – well, actually, two cities: Kansas City, Kan. and Kansas City, Mo. - through her sense of smell.

At Grand Arts, a contemporary project space in the Crossroads Arts District, visitors hover and pick up thin smelling strips from glass beakers. Each is labeled with a number.

"I really like the Municipal Court smell. I think it smells like traffic."

"Is that #11? I think that’s the smell of Kaw Point."

"#19...it smells like root beer."

If you’re not sure what you’re smelling, there’s a list. This "menu of smells" links numbers with places, #1: Ed’s Trophies & Awards on Central Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas, #9: Public Levee Space at Kaw Point.

Investigating the smells of two Kansas Cities

Sissel Tolaas's SmellScape KCK/KCMO is a smell mapping project, a smell scavenger hunt of sorts including six different areas in the two cities. In a quiet office at Grand Arts, Tolaas, with her trademark platinum blonde bob, says she doesn’t consider smells good or bad.

"For me, every smell has the right to survive. Every smell is interesting," says Tolaas. "So I don’t call the sewage worse than the roses."

The artist grew up in Norway and Iceland and she's lived in Berlin since 1987. With graduate degrees in chemistry, art, linguistics, and an undergraduate degree in math, Tolaas says SmellScape is about collecting layers of information with her highly trained nose.

"The nose is an amazing tool. It’s the most advanced tool you have in your entire body," says Tolaas. "It’s the oldest sense and the oldest equipment."

Tolaas combines this equipment, her nose, with the collected samples she takes back to her lab – and an innovative technology called Headspace that's often used to replicate the smell of plants or flowers. But she uses it for the smells all around us: sweet grass, car exhaust, pastries, mildewed fabric, chicken, and dirt.

"I go into different areas, different parts of the days, different seasons to reassure that the smell is really part of the entity of the area," says Tolaas. "Not just a smell that’s there for a second, you know?"

Alert to the power of smell

It's a cool, sunny afternoon outside the Kansas City Museum, a stately Northeast neighborhood known for its mansions of former lumber barons. This is also one of the six main posts scattered across KCMO and KCK where you can pick up between one to four scratch and sniff smell cards.

Addie Harte and her seven-year-old daughter, Lina, select two yellow postcards.

"What’s it smell like?" asks Addie.

"Cardboard," answers Lina.

"Did you scratch yours?" asks Addie; she scratches and sniffs, adding "whatever it is, it smells old."

This smell walk, led by Tolaas and writer and artist Jose Faus, continues along Independence Avenue.

"This little block area tells you more about what this city is becoming as opposed to what it has been," says Faus as the group pokes noses into the strip of shops, takes sniffs of scents in a Halal market, a barber shop, a Haitian and Ethiopian restaurant, and a Laundromat.

Scratching the surface of the invisible city

The SmellScape project marks a five-year commitment for Grand Arts artistic director Stacy Switzer.

In 2007,  Grand Arts exhibited another Tolaas project called the FEAR of Smell: the Smell of FEAR. The sweat of nine men, who suffered from panic attacks, was collected, then simulated; visitors could scratch and sniff the walls at Grand Arts for "invisible portraits."

As Tolaas puts it, "the wall became a metaphor for the skin, so you touched the wall and you touched somebody's skin. Here (in SmellScape), you touch the skin of the city." She adds that a smell card is "a metaphor for the surface of a city, the invisible city."

Switzer questions Tolaas during the smell walk: "Throughout the project and researching this project, you’ve been keen on laundromats, can you talk about that?" Sissel replies,"You meet a lot of interesting people in those places."

A game, on foot and nose-first

That aspect of engagement is one reason the project is also designed as a game: to explore neighborhoods on foot, and meet interesting people. There are also prizes: If you pick up two different smell cards, you can trade them in for an entire set of 20. Or you can compete to win the Golden Nose (that's Tolaas’s nose in gold).

The game can be a bit of a challenge. Near Kaw Point, you’ll walk around industrial buildings where you’ll need a nickel to purchase a smell card from a white-washed magazine rack. In downtown Kansas City, Missouri, at the Kansas City Municipal Court, you can expect to wait your turn for a smell card.

"Is this where I pay a parking ticket?" asks a man in line at the Traffic Violations Bureau.

Marcia Coulson is a traffic violations clerk at the court. Coulson says she usually talks to people concerned about a ticket, a warrant, or a court date; but the other day, she handed out a map and a scratch and sniff smell card to a frustrated customer as she waited for her supervisor to help resolve the case. At first Coulson says she was disappointed the card didn't smell like barbecue.

She scratches and sniffs the card. "Mmm, kind of powdery. Maybe a little spice, citrusy," says Coulson. "It’s very easy to appreciate, it really is."

Again, artist Sissal Tolaas: "This is a subjective portrait of the city. I don’t predict that this is the only one. If you do it, it will smell completely different."

So, go on, put your nose out there. And let Sissel Tolaas know what YOU smell.

SmellScape KCK/KCMO (2007-2012), Grand Arts, 1819 Grand Boulevard, Kansas City, Mo. September 7 - October 31, 2012.

Find out how to play the game here. Download the app here. Or print a map here.

The Artists in Their Own Words series is sponsored by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency. 

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