Coffee and Cinnamon Buns

Some time ago, in the early 1970s, my mother and father were looking to buy a house. They found one that looked nice, and arranged a viewing. When they got there, though, the smell of the house wasn’t right; it smelled foisty, mouldy, damp, and they decided that the place wasn’t for them.

In July, I presented a paper on the meaning potential of smell, at the European Systemic Functional Linguistics Conference (ESFLC) at the University of Salzburg. As an example, I considered real-estate agents’ use of smells as part of property viewings. I investigated what smells, deliberately used or otherwise, were part of the viewing’s ‘smellscape,’ and what those smells might mean to visitors. Below is a copy of the presentation. (For more on smell, have a look at this.)

Smell as Social Semiotic

Smells can evoke certain moods and memories, reminding us of different people, places, and times. But we don’t just experience smells. We can also produce, combine, and manipulate them, making choices and creating “messages” that can be interpreted and evaluated by others (good, bad, sweet, sour, soothing, irritating, enticing, nauseating, etc.)—like the blending of oils by perfumers and aromatherapists, or the use of coffee and cinnamon by real-estate agents. Here are a few thoughts, based on work by the conceptual artist Luca Vitone, on smell as a socially constructed system of meaning, a resource for meaning-making.

At the 40th International Systemic Functional Congress (ISFC40), I happened to talk (briefly) with Michael Halliday and others about the Rhubarb Triangle. It seems that the area of West Yorkshire I grew up in is (or was) renowned for its production of forced rhubarb, producing in its heyday up to 90% of the world’s winter rhubarb. This brief conversation reminded me of my grandmother’s rhubarb crumble. It also reminded me of Luca Vitone’s rhubarb-based installation per l’eternità

Vitone’s per l’eternità (“for eternity”) is an olfactory portrait or sculpture (see curatorial notes opposite), created in collaboration with perfumer Maria Candida Gentile, for the Italian Pavilion at this year’s 55th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. The piece is a comment on the former manufacture and continued use in Italy of Eternit, an asbestos-fiber cement (at least in its original form), and the damaging effects of its inhalation. The installation is made from absolutes and essences of three different types of rhubarb: one Swiss (the top note), one Belgian (the middle note), and one French (the base note), which also happen to be locations for the founders of Eternit, according to one gallerist’s notes.

My first impression of Vitone’s installation, without actually realizing it was an installation, was a rather pleasant smell on entering the Italian Pavilion, a huge warehouse in the old shipyards and armories of Venice’s Arsenale. But that sweet smell, of what I thought was a popular perfume, was cloying too, like the smell of stargazer lilies in a hot room. I couldn’t really decide whether I liked the smell or not. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. (Either way, per l’eternità is an invasive piece that you can’t really ignore, unless you hold your nose while walking through the gallery.)

I don’t know whether the artist intended to create that particular effect (ambivalence, in my case), and I don’t know if anyone else reacted the same way as I did. But based on the explicit reference to perfumery’s three notes (top, middle, and base), I suspect the installation was meant to be experienced as a dynamic scent: first the top or “head” note, followed by the middle or “heart” note, and then the longer-lasting base note, all set in a continuous loop by two hidden-from-view dispensers—the overall effect being one of varying degrees of olfactory dissonance or consonance, as notes of differing scent, intensity, and duration overlap.

This got me thinking about Theo van Leeuwen’s work on sound (Speech, Music, Sound, 1999), and in particular the way that sound technicians in radio and film describe soundtracks in terms of proximity, as close, middle, and far, or Figure, Ground, and Field, to use R. Murray Schafer’s and Theo van Leeuwen’s terms. If combinations of sounds can be manipulated in this way, in this case to construe perspective and social distance, might smells be used similarly?

As a start, I’ve made a series of networks for “organized smells,” using perfume notes (Top, Middle, Base) as the basis for what might collectively be called PERSPECTIVE—which smell or combinations of smells are more or less prominent at any given time. From a systemic-functional or social-semiotic view, PERSPECTIVE might be part of a smell’s textual or compositional meaning, from which one might construct, say, an interpersonal system of AFFECT.

Here are the systems for what I’ve called PITCH, INTENSITY, DURATION, and HARMONY. (There’s a musical flavor to the names of these systems that I’ve retained based on the descriptors used in perfumery, but there are better descriptors, I’m sure.) Perhaps something to do with the quality or timbre of the smell could be added too.