Can You Really Know A City By The Way It Smells?

We're talking scents and sensibility.
Woman smelling fresh orange
Woman smelling fresh orange

If you were asked to conjure a scent that encompassed your experience of a city, what would it smell like? Where would it come from and what memories would it be tied to?

Perhaps it's the subtle scent of jasmine stemming from the summer nights of your childhood. Or simply, it may be the smell of your morning coffee.

Our sense of smell is one of our most basic and powerful forms of identification and yet, so often, we're unaware of it.

We use smell very subconsciously to identify things.

"Today, we live in a world where vision and sounds are our dominant senses," conceptual artist Cat Jones told The Huffington Post Australia.

"In some ways, smell -- from the act of smelling to the amount of smells that we tolerate -- is considered a taboo, particularly in western cultures."

Making sense of scents

For over 25 years, Jones has translated her interest in social constructs, language and the senses into transformative artistic works. Her latest, Scent of Sydney, is featuring as part of Sydney Festival.

The immersive work invites visitors to think about what they're smelling.
The immersive work invites visitors to think about what they're smelling.

And she knows a thing or two about olfactory -- aka our sense of smell.

People are writing to me saying that have re-found their connection with Sydney.

"It is a powerful sense based on the way that it is processed in the brain. It goes through the limbic system which, evolutionary-wise, is the oldest part of the brain and that which is part of our survival instinct," Jones explains.

"If you're in a scary situation, your brain locks in the smells associated with that situation so that you can recognise it in future and decide whether a place is safe or not."

This filters into our consciousness every single day.

"We have olfactory receptors all over our body and in our skin so there is a lot of chemical processing that happens when we're not aware," Jones said.

Scents, cities and identity

Taking a city or place as a starting point can reveal interesting connections between smells, our relationships with them and place's cultural identity.

This was Jones' challenge for 'Scent of Sydney'.

The work has inspired public conversations around what makes up Sydney's identity.
The work has inspired public conversations around what makes up Sydney's identity.

"We began the project talking about what were our first impression descriptors of Sydney's identity. Filtering to the top were five themes: resistance, competition, landscape, extravagance and democracy," Jones said.

"But to identify a city and to name what it is through scent? No one person can do that. Cities are made up of thousands of people who have very strong and different relationships to it and to each other."

Jones interviewed a diverse range of people who have helped to carve out Sydney's social and cultural identity -- from Anne Summers and Aunty Fran Bodkin to Patrick Aboud.

Once you add smells to these conversations, they enter an entirely different realm.

"I asked them about their relationship with Sydney, how this connected to various smells and a particular theme," Jones said.

"They told personal stories or memories of their own experience and also made commentary on Sydney's cultural identity. And they often made discoveries about themselves."

Drawing out the scent component -- literal or metaphorical -- she composed ten signature scents in collaboration with the University of Technology Science Superlab.

"Once you add smells to these conversations, they enter an entirely different realm," Jones said.

Interviewee: Aunty Fran Bodkin

Theme: Landscape

"Aunty Fran Bodkin is an elder and a climatologist. She talked about the land having its own language and our need to study the macro and the micro in order to build knowledge. She talks about combining traditional knowledge and experience with empirical practice of western science."

Her scent:

"We started with 'boronia'. Pink boronias are endemic to her area but also something that she herself holds as an epitome. She combines that with a native frangipani which is who she is within that landscape (the traditional tree planted each time a female is born). The third part is 'mushrooms and fungus', related to the latest research around fungal networks that carry communication between species."

Within the exhibition space at Carriageworks in Sydney, visitors can smell each scent and listen to each interview, whilst adding their own story or experience. Live artists are roaming to encourage and stimulate conversation.

"We are collecting data from the general public that we are excited to collate at the end of this," Jones said.

"The response has been incredible. People are writing to me saying that have refound their connection with Sydney."

Scent of Sydney is on at Carriageworks in Sydney as part of Sydney Festival until January 29.