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Sissel Tolaas in her Berlin laboratory
Sissel Tolaas is an artist and researcher known for her work with smells.
Sissel Tolaas was born in 1963 in Stavanger, Norway and is based in Berlin. Tolaas has a background in chemistry; mathematics, linguistics; languages and art; she studied at the universities of Oslo, Warsaw, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Oxford.
Tolaas is working actively on diverse aspects of the topic of scents. She began to concentrate on this in 1990, researching its importance in different sciences, fields of art /design and other disciplines. At that time she developed a "smell archive" in over 7000 airtight jars. In January 2004 Tolaas established the Smell Research Lab Berlin, for smell and communication / language, supported by IFF International Flavours and Fragrances. Her research has won recognition through numerous national and international scholarships, honours, and prizes including the 2014 CEW, New York award for chemistry & innovation; 2009 Rouse Foundation Award from Harvard University GSD; an honorary mention at the 2010 ArsElectronica in Linz, Austria; and the 2010-2011-2012-2014 Synthetic Biology / Synthetic Aesthetics Award from Stanford and Edinburgh Universities including a residency at Harvard Medical School. Tolaas founded the Institute of Functional Smells in 2010 (i.e. health, education, well-being) and in 2016 became a founding member of Future of Education, a collaboration with the Nanyang Technical University Singapore and The Future Education Platform, Berlin.
She has worked and is working with numerous companies and institutions; she participates actively in international colloquiums, conferences and networking. Her projects and research have been presented in institutions such as TED Global, US; Interactive Africa/Design Indaba, South Africa; What Design Can Do, Holland and Brazil; World Science Festival, New York; World Congress of Synthetic Biology, Stanford University; Documenta 13, Kassel Germany; MOMA New York; MOMA San Francisco; Fondation Cartier, Paris; Serpentine Gallery, London; Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin; Tate Gallery, Liverpool; Venice Biennale; Kochi Biennale; Liverpool Biennale; Sao Paulo Biennale; National Art Museum of China Beijing; Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York , Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai; Art Institute of Chicago; Architecture Biennale 2015, Shanghai; Time Museum Guangzhou, Edinburgh International Fashion Festival 2012, Louisiana Museum, Denmark.
She has had engagements with many universities around the world. These include MIT; Harvard University; Liverpool University; Oslo University; Moscow State University; Stanford University; TU, Berlin; Toronto University; Lund University; Edinburgh University; Bangkok University; Hong Kong University; University of Michigan; Pasadena Art Centre; Cape Town University; Koc University Istanbul; Brown University; RCA, London; Aalto University, Helsinki; Hong Kong Polytechnic University; Montreal University; Princeton University; Yale University; Humboldt University, Berlin; Tsinghua University, Beijing; Columbia University, New York; Parsons The New School For Design, New York; Aalto University, Helsinki; Vienna University; Oxford University; Montreal University; Princeton University; Yale University; Strelka Institute, Moscow; Polytechnic University, Moscow; London School of Economics; Design Academy Eindhoven, Netherlands.
The institutes with which Tolaas has worked include Fraunhofer Science Institute, Germany; Grenoble INP, France; Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel; Copernicus Science Gallery, Warsaw; Charité Humboldt University Hospital, Berlin; Max Planck Institute, Berlin; San Francisco Neurosciences Institute; Hexagram Science Centre, Quebec; Institute for the Future, Palo Alto USA; Sandberg Institute, Amsterdam, Chronus Art Center, Shanghai;
Clients in government agencies and business have included Science NASA; ESA; IEEE Aerospace Research; BBC London; Sony Computer Science Lab, Paris; IFF Inc. New York; Statoil New Energy Program, Norway; Louis Vuitton, Paris; E. Lauder Paris/NY; KPMG (law) Berlin; BMG SONY, Germany; ShowStudio/Nick Knight; Mercedes Benz Future Lab, Berlin; ADIDAS; New York; Johnson & Johnson, New York; Bangalore High Tech Park; Deutsche Bank, Germany; Beijing Olympics; NESTA, London.
Tolaas has completed 52 City SmellScape research projects since 1998, of, for and with major cities all over the world such as Paris, Stockholm, Kansas City, Kansas, & Kansas City, Missouri, Berlin, Oslo, London, Cape Town, Kochi, Istanbul, Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo, Amman, New York Central Park and Seoul.
In 2018 Tolaas is working on an archive of the world's oceans and a project on the morbidity and decay of Detroit. Since 2014 Tolaas has been active in several start-ups in the field of the senses. In 2016 Tolaas launched the world's first Smell Memory Kit; several other devices and sense tools are in the pipeline.
The Re_Search Lab continues to support interdisciplinary projects and research involving smell, odor, and fragrance. It establishes communication among experts in different fields dealing with olfaction
Her project Sweat Fear | Fear Sweat from 2005 examines the body odors of twenty men, all of whom have a severe phobia of other bodies. Their smells were collected and chemically reproduced. The simulated sweat molecules were painted onto the gallery walls using a micro-encapsulation process, where they became activated by touch.
From her artist's statement about the installation the Fear of smell — the smell of Fear at the 2005 Tirana Biennale, Tolaas explains:
"In the modern West, we tend to think of smell in purely aesthetic terms, pleasant or unpleasant. In many other cultures however, smells have provided and still provide a basic means of defining the and interacting with the world. This is particularly the case in so far as odours are closely associated with personal and group identity. The study of the history, anthropology, and sociology of smells is, in a very real sense, an investigation into the ‘essence’ of human culture itself."
Topics and applications
Some of the topics of concern in Tolaas’s work are:
- Can one learn and make systems of smells the way one learn other systems i.e. ABCs and 123s?
- Can an abstract smell molecule portray or convey a specific learned meaning by itself?
- Can one get rid of prejudices towards certain smells, and how?
- How can one describe and remember smells?
- Can smells be measured?
- How can one make tools to trigger smell memory?
- How can one use the information in smells?
- How smell can have a better and bigger impact on life and living?
- How to better interact with smells and through smells.
- Can smell as an information unit be combined with other sensory information in communication systems?
- Can smell per se as an information unit be used for the purposes of communication, tolerance and navigation?
- Can smell be used to defend, protect, concentrate, attract?
- Can smell molecules have a function, i.e. sleep; learn; memory; navigation.
Applications for and projects on:
- The use of smell per se conveying information purpose i.e. preservation, archiving, researching.
- The use of learned smell codes to convey information.
- The use of smell to convey information.
- The use of smell in education i.e. to aid in memorizing information.
- The use of smell to convey information in combination with other sensory information.
- The uses of smell to convey information; how this could be applied in language.
- The use of smell to train tolerance.
- Rushton, Susie (August 27, 2006). "The Sweat Hog". The New York Times.
- "Sissel Tolaas; An alphabet for the nose". Retrieved 2015-03-07.
- Jones, Caroline (2006). Sensorium; Embodied experience, technology, and contemporary art. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 9780262101172.