An Odor Artist's Vision of a Smelly Future

In 2004, for example, Tolaas presented an art project on her adopted city of Berlin, where she has lived since 1987. She went to four very different districts -- Reinickendorf, Neukölln, Charlottenburg and Mitte -- and walked around, identifying the neighborhoods with her "professional nose." She then reproduced the smells in her lab and returned to the areas to confront the local people with the odors and asked them to speak about them. "They just let loose like children, speaking about the smells and telling me stories. It went beyond what any kind of visual material or sound could have allowed." These reactions then became part of an installation which was shown during the third Berlin Biennale art exhibition.

Personal Smells Like Finger Prints

Tolaas's success in the field of art in turn prompted the commercial world to come knocking on her door. The International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) company now sponsors her and has provided her with equipment and 2,000 molecules to work with in her lab. "This for me is heaven," she says. "It changed my life." Yet Tolaas doesn't produce perfumes. "I have nothing against perfumery or deodorization, but we have to know what we are covering up before we deodorize it." Everyone has a unique smell she says, like a finger print, and that smell interacts with any perfume that is applied.

Tolaas has also worked with academia. She exhibited a show on the smell of fear at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2006 and has worked with a Harvard University research team on assessing sources of pollution in Mexico City. She developed methods to engage with people in the city and their awareness of the causes of pollution. "If you get the message through your nose, you really get the message," she argues.

At the moment she is working with sports giant Adidas on developing the company's corporate identity and has projects in the works with the American cities of San Francisco and Kansas City. "I am really busy," she says with relish.

Tolaas is positively evangelical in her striving to improve our olfactory skills. "There is so much out there that we don't know about the nose. What would happen if we started to train the nose for other purposes than just breathing in and out?"

Yet her work is almost always playful and full of humor. "It's all about getting humanity to become kids again," Tolaas says. "As far as the nose is concerned, we are all babies, we haven't got a clue. I give you the playground and let you run loose."

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