Catching a whiff of days gone by

May 21, 2004

Two performance artists set out to harness smell. Harriet Swain tracks down a very fragrant pair.

A mysteriously exotic smell pervades the office occupied by Helen Paris, a performance art lecturer at Brunel University, and her collaborator Leslie Hill. Could it be a lingering aroma from their latest work, "On the Scent", a smell-based performance that takes place in people's homes? Or have I unwittingly wandered into a new piece of performance art? "Actually, it's probably a cinnamon Altoid," says Paris, passing me a tin of sweets. "Would you like one?"

Paris and Hill are generous with their taste sensations - "On the Scent" audiences are offered a shot of tequila and a luxury chocolate as part of the show - but this is perhaps because sharing smells is so tricky. "The thing I find entrancing about smell is that it's so ephemeral," says Paris, who argues that this quality should make it ideally suited to performance art. In fact, it also makes it "bloody difficult to work with".

They found out just how difficult in the course of developing the show.

Armed with a Wellcome Trust Science on Stage and Screen award, they set up a link with Upinder Bhalla, a researcher at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India. Their intention was to learn from him how to harness particular smells to use in the performance - perhaps even to find ways of recreating them via technology. After attending the first trial of the centre's newest "olfactometer" - a machine designed to isolate and deliver different smells - it became clear that this would be far too complicated. The olfactometer had to operate in a room containing a giant vacuum tube to suck out existing odours, and had to be continually cleaned and rebuilt to stop one smell contaminating another.

"We changed from the idea of a kind of museum where there was a technologically easy way of issuing smells," Paris says. "We have gone very low tech." "On the Scent" therefore relies on vividly written and related descriptions of subjective memories of smell and their associations, on sounds (drums beating, cooking hissing, popcorn popping), sights (flowers and cushions strewn across a room, Hill snorting a line of scarlet chilli powder, Paris performing acrobatics on a bed), tastes - even touch (audience members take the key to the home where the performance happens and let themselves in).

Instead, where Bhalla did help was in explaining the neurological side of smell. He suggests that it is the oldest of the five senses and differs from the others in transmitting messages directly to the brain rather than through the intermediary networks of synapses that other senses rely on.

This is why it is so powerfully linked to emotions.

Just how powerfully becomes clear in one of the by-products of the show - a series of brief interviews with members of the audience on smell memories.

Everyone who visits the performance is asked to recall a particular smell that reminds them of home, or homesickness, and these are filmed and collated, to be used, eventually, in a documentary and as an archive for future researchers. Watching some of the interviews already collected is a rare chance to see emotions develop. Interviewees begin by telling a story plainly, but many quickly appear overcome as they recall the smell of a grandparent, a mother's cooking, a newly mown field. "You get people being taken back to that moment, not just reminded of it," Paris says.

By the end of next year, the show will have travelled to every continent but Africa, where they are now trying to get a run, and should have collected 2,000 interviews from audience members from many different walks of life. They try hard to involve people who would not normally think of attending performance art, and are helped by locating performances in real homes. This means that the people living next door often attend, if only to find out more about their neighbours' tastes in interior decor. What people recall differs from place to place - the English tend to talk about freshly cut grass, Sunday dinners and bread pudding, Brazilians are more likely to remember wet earth - but Paris says she is also struck by the similarities.

Everywhere people talk about their grandparents - perhaps, Hill says, because they represent something familiar from childhood that smells different from home - and many talk about loss. "Smell crosses boundaries that are geographical but also other kinds of boundaries," Paris says. "For me, at a time when boundaries seem particularly fragile, it has been extraordinary to see a communality of human remembered experience."

She and Hill have explored this further in another research project, "Essences of London", in which they have interviewed Londoners living or working in particularly smelly environments - fishmongers, florists, rubbish collectors, people who cut the grass at Wembley stadium. They have found that while young people tend to talk about how London smells of pollution, older people say it doesn't smell at all any more, except, perhaps, of curry - another example, they say, of how smell memories seem to be associated with the unfamiliar.

Paris and Hill concede that it can be difficult to distinguish performance art either from art or from performance, and their backgrounds reflect this. Hill did a PhD in theatre history at Glasgow University, where she also worked as a lecturer, and is now a full-time director of their arts company, "curious". Paris studied English and drama in Northern Ireland and taught arts students at the Arizona University for three years before studying for a PhD at Surrey University on technology and live performance and taking up her current post at Brunel University. While Hill's work is more textual, often inspired by her experiences of growing up in New Mexico, Paris' is more movement based and sensual, and very English.

She says that the popularity of performance art at university is growing.

Brunel has just introduced an MA in response to the demand, and most institutions now offer it to undergraduates and postgraduates in some format, as part of either contemporary art or drama courses. It fits in with the current emphasis on interdisciplinarity, allowing students to perform, write, make films, direct and edit without having to specialise in one area.

But Paris also feels strongly that it is important for students to combine theory with practice, including the mundane tasks of writing grant applications and dealing with the legal aspects of work.

As part of this commercially practical side to their work, Hill and Paris, authors of Guerilla Performance: How to Make a Living As an Artist , are to produce a DVD of "On the Scent" and "Essences of London" and, from next month, you will be able to see clips from both on a website. You will, of course, not be able to smell anything at all.

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