Smell Is All Around Us: History, Meaning, and (Immersive!) Applications for Scent

Smell Is All Around Us: History, Meaning, and (Immersive!) Applications for Scent

Saskia Wilson-Brown
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2433-6.ch006
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While much of today's immersive media claims to be “multi-sensory,” in actuality most such works have only audio and visual sensory cues. Scent, a powerful human modality that helps us to understand and derive meaning from the world, is often overlooked. However, scent in the service of art has a long and rich history, especially looking back to its ancient uses in establishing power, mystery, or memorability within religious or political domains. Early attempts at incorporating scent into artistic performances were not well received, perhaps due to inadequate technology of the time. Today a renaissance of olfactory art points to broader acceptance and appreciation of scent in artistic productions. Many artists are taking on the mantle of scent today, and the authors look forward to its increasing application in many forms of immersive media.
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Scent And Meaning

When you study history, you find that the most brilliant characters—the ones that come down to us in high definition—tend to share some common attributes: a keen understanding of human psychology, an uncanny ability to get their way, excellent communication skills, and in many cases, a clever understanding of how spectacle can enhance power. Many of them also understood that scent was an important component of spectacle. It is not by chance that Emperor Constantine expected his processions to be scented, that Napoleon practically bathed in Eau de Cologne, that Fidel Castro surrounded himself with an aromatic cloud of cigar smoke. Scent has almost always accompanied great efforts of conversion along with great efforts of cultural shift—most often led by the great efforts of a charismatic, and often aromatic leader.

It is no surprise then many would-be powerful people intentionally utilized scent to enhance their performances, be it on the vaudeville stages of turn of 20th century New York or on the cultural stages of palaces, reception rooms and regal barges. The history of perfume is stuffed with real-life perfumed performers, a veritable litany of the who’s who of geo-political power players.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Accord: A combination of molecules combined to make an aromatic impression.

Synthetic: The term synthetic refers to any chemical, including scents, that was created by humans in a laboratory. It is contrasted with materials derived from a naturally occurring source.

Anosmia: Also known as smell blindness, anosmia means the inability to detect certain or all smells.

Chemophobia: Originally a term to describe a dislike or fear of any chemicals, it has now come to also mean a dislike of synthetic scent materials, or scents in a closed environmental setting that may incur a reaction in some people.

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