You Are Here

IMAGE: Artist Liz Hickok is gelatin-mapping Manhattan’s skyline for “You Are Here.”

Katherine Harmon loves maps, and is the author of two gorgeous books that collect unexpected and idiosyncratic applications of the cartographer’s craft — You Are Here and The Map As Art. She has spent a lot of time considering the appeal of maps, telling The Seattle Times last year that, “It perhaps comes down to us locating ourselves in an inconceivably vast universe on one hand, and in our own complicated lives as well.”

I think it will come as no surprise to regular readers to hear that I also love maps. Really reading a map — a landscape translated and re-presented as curated spatial data — is frequently a swift and enlightening way to change the way you see the world. Which is why I’m thrilled to be back in Manhattan this week for the opening of “You Are Here” — an exhibition at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery, guest curated by Katherine Harmon, and filled with newly-commissioned works that explore New York in terms of its personal, emotional, and sensory geographies.

To add to my delight, several of the maps on display reference food, either as the medium or the metric. Liz Hickok is using jelly to add breath-taking, stained-glass beauty and alarming wobbliness to a scale models of Manhattan’s iconic skyline, while Liz Scranton has enlisted 20,000 local honey bees to build a honeycomb map of the city.

IMAGE: Sweat batteries, from Waste to Work by Olivia Robinson and Daniela Kostova.

IMAGE: Sweat-powered map, from Waste to Work by Olivia Robinson and Daniela Kostova.

Also on display will be works by Edible Geography favourites, Bill Rankin and Jeff Sisson. Their maps (charting a landscape of New York’s NIMBYs and bodegas, respectively) will be joined by the lonely coordinates of Ingrid Burrington’s Missed Connections map, drawn from Craigslist data, and sweat-powered pinpricks of anxiety scattered across the five boroughs, as charted by Olivia Robinson and Daniela Kostova.

IMAGE: Detail, Missed Connections by Ingrid Burrington.

I will even be contributing my own installation, Scratch ‘N Sniff NYC. Indeed, I spent most of yesterday pipetting smells into vials under the expert tuition of Andreas Keller and Peggy Hempstead at the Vosshall Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior at The Rockefeller University.

IMAGE: My smell pipetting set-up at The Rockefeller University’s Vosshall Lab. Hours of fun!

The relationship between smells and maps is complicated: in her essay in the Smell Culture Reader, “Vagueness Gridlocked: A Map of the Smells of New York,” Eleanor Margolies writes:

Maps are made of permanent features, while smell is evanescent, temporary, and transitory. A practical map allows users to relate its markings to the landscape they see, but a smell-map records odors that may exist only at the moment of its making; modern maps take an imaginary aerial view, but a smell-map has a human viewpoint, and is made on the ground, walking.

Nonetheless, people continue to try to map smell. While Margolies goes on to describes the hygiene-focused smell-maps of Paris made by Jean-Noel Hallé in the 1790s, it seems as though every summer, bloggers and journalists compete to produce an olfactory cartography of New York, cataloguing its range of odiferous delights from asphalt to urine.

IMAGE: Scents and the City (interactive feature) by Jason Logan for the New York Times.

Of course, each of these maps is different — the smells are sometimes temporary or weather-dependent, but, more significantly, the analogies each cartographer uses are shaped by their own genes, experience, and cultural context. In some senses, then, there can be no single smell-map of New York City.

But what about a map of New York City that showed how different New Yorkers smell, rather than what? What would a map that showed our olfactive abilities, preferences, biases, and contesting analogies look (or smell) like?

For the past five years, Leslie Vosshall and her “Smell Lab” team have been conducting research to find out “how New Yorkers interact with the odorous universe.”

IMAGE: Andreas Keller with the smell descriptor board.

In one experiment, Vosshall, Keller, and Hempstead recruited hundreds of people from all kinds of backgrounds and all parts of New York City, and brought them back to the lab to find out what they think about smell. After sifting through the data captured during six hours of describing sixty-six different smells, and a DNA test, Vosshall has arrived at what she calls “an olfactory demography of New York.”

Some preferences are shared — New Yorkers’ favorite scent is vanilla, and they universally detest isovaleric acid (commonly described as “sweaty gym socks” or “locker room” smell). But, fascinatingly, many are not.

IMAGE: Nystrom World ISR94 by Kim Baranowski, showing world sites not yet hit by a destructive asteroid. Baranowski will be showing new work as part of “You Are Here.”

For example, during the process of creating my scratch ‘n sniff map, I discovered that I can’t actually smell galaxolide, a synthetic musk widely used in perfumery. It was completely bizarre to watch my testers inhaling and smiling in response to an odour experience that I will never share — a visceral realisation that, all along, I have been living in my own separate, shrunken smell universe.

IMAGE: My smell cheat-sheet.

Apparently, galaxolide anosmia is not uncommon. In fact, Keller explained to me that humans have been developing widely divergent smell perception abilities for generations, due to a lack of evolutionary pressure. Other than a propensity to become a serial perfume abuser (wearing too much fragrance due to an inability to detect its base note), the genetic inability to smell galaxolide does not put me at a reproductive disadvantage. My mutation — and many others — are thus able to persist and diverge further still, due to smell’s relative insignificance in the human sensory hierarchy.

IMAGE: Peggy Hempstead helps stick guaiacol impregnated stickers from Arcade Marketing onto my printed backgrounds.

Amazingly, Keller noted that even complete anosmia — the inability to smell anything at all — is not classified as a disorder in the U.S. This means that while insurance companies pay to treat vision defects and hearing loss, smell disabilities are not recognised as such. It also means that smell research is sadly underfunded: since there is no illness, there can be no “cure” to discover. When talking to smell scientists, it seems that for four questions out of five, the answer will begin with: “We don’t yet know…”

The result is that, while smell is deeply tied our moods, memories, behaviour, and even sense of place, we actually live in separate and uncharted olfactory universes, lacking even a shared language with which to describe them to each other.

IMAGE: (left) decyl aldehyde and (right) menthol stickers. It was a curious discovery that, at least for me, the synthetic odours seem more straightforward than the “naturals,” which smell quite peculiar once stripped of their normal context.

My installation for the “You Are Here” exhibition explores this idea, mapping our shared preferences and individual differences in smell perception onto the city.

Scratch ‘N Sniff NYC consists of two maps, twelve smells, thousands of scratch ‘n sniff stickers and a variable number of linguistic descriptors. A “majority preference” map on the left-hand side extrapolates from Vosshall’s “olfactory demography” to show the dominant odour perception framework in each neighbourhood. Next to it on the right, a crowd-sourced “personal favourite” map will ask each exhibition visitor to position their own smell biases and understanding within the city. It’s hardly a scientific study, but I can’t wait to see the different patterns that emerge over the course of the exhibition.

IMAGE: Rick Meyerowitz and Maira Kalman‘s New York Sub Culinary Map will also be on display.

If you’re in New York, you can come along to the exhibition opening on Thursday (September 23), between 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. — and if you do, please say hello, as I’d love to meet you.

“You Are Here” will be on display at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery, 144 West 14th Street, 2nd floor, from September 24 until November 6, entry is free, and my fellow exhibitors have created some beautiful and thought-provoking maps, so don’t miss it!

While we diluted chemicals together yesterday, Andreas Keller told me that after each study the Vosshall Laboratory runs, they get several calls from participants expressing gratitude that a world of odour has been opened up to them: they can’t stop noticing and thinking about their own relationship with smell. Then he added, “It’s probably the same number of calls as we get from people calling to complain that they can’t stop noticing and thinking about smell.”

IMAGE: Andreas found my scratch ‘n stickers amusing, for some reason.

I’m very definitely in the first camp, and can’t say thank you enough to Leslie Vosshall, Andreas Keller, and Peggy Hempstead at The Rockefeller University for all their help and support as I embarked on my amateur explorations of the olfactory universe.

I also owe a huge thanks to Marine Ravera, Gary Akins, Anne Spratt, and Diane Crecca of Arcade Marketing, who have been unbelievably generous and equally patient with me this summer as they fabricated the scratch ‘n sniff stickers. Arcade’s business is to provide sampling solutions to the world’s leading beauty, fragrance and skin-care brands, and their micro-encapsulation technology is the magic behind my scratch ‘n sniff map. I could not have done this without them.

International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) kindly donated two of the smells (including the galaxolide, which I sincerely appreciated without being able to experience!), while Geoff Manaugh and Peggy Hempstead spent hours putting stickers together (without their help, I would not have slept at all this week). And finally, thank you to Kitty Harmon for the invitation, and to Nick Battis, Jen Osborne, and the team at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery for all their support.

My introduction to both Leslie Vosshall and Arcade Marketing came through the fantastic MoMA/Parsons co-sponsored event, Headspace: On Scent As Design, last spring — thank you to Paola Antonelli and Jamer Hunt for helping me follow up on those connections.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted September 29, 2010 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    So wonderful to know the background! I just enjoyed the stickers and watching visitors choose scents (often asking their companion for thoughts on one or another scent). Congrats!

  2. Posted September 26, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Wow. This is is amazing, Nicola! Genius.

  3. Posted September 25, 2010 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    Jelly sky scrapers, sweaty honey bears. These are the images of which night time dreams are made. Very cool.

  4. Posted September 23, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Congrats! I wish I could be there to see the opening.

  5. gregorylent
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    so nice. would love to do this in shanghai … would also love time based maps, commute times, etc

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