Manual by Alanna Lynch
Working with my own urine for material processes, I discovered that over time it really starts to smell! In fact I found the effects to be haunting. The memory of such a terrible smell (from my own body) would not leave me. Using it in performance I found that even at a low intensity this smell is incredibly offensive to people and that movement intensifies its effect in space, provoking strong emotional reactions. This began my interest in researching smells, their political potential, and how to use them to engage with larger theoretical discussion around power, identity and the movement of bodies.
Smells resist containment, cross boundaries and are emotionally potent. Odorants (smelly molecules) are dispersed from the source into the air. These molecules travel through the air and enter into the body through the nose where they make contact and bind with the smell receptors. This sends a signal to the brain where the impulse is perceived as a smell. This is the same area of the brain which processes emotion and memory, both of which are closely linked to smell. The action of smelling, taking in molecules from the outside — an involuntary action, demonstrates the porous nature of the body, questions the idea of the self-contained individual, and shifts focus to the interchange between bodies.
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Roman without nose: Empress Domitia Longina, wife of Domitian, from Rome, c. AD 110, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, photo: Carole Raddato, (c) CC BY-SA 2.0
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Roman without nose: Emperor Philip the Arab, from Rome, 244-249 AD, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, photo: Carole Raddato, (c) CC BY-SA 2.0
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Roman without nose: Penelope (the faithful wife of Odysseus) from Rome, Hadrianic copy of Greek work from 5th century BC, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, photo: Carole Raddato, (c) CC BY-SA 2.0
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Roman without nose: lady from the vicinity of Rome, c. AD 200, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, photo: Carole Raddato, (c) CC BY-SA 2.0
“[T]hey are engulfing, difficult to be rid of; any separation from them is not a matter of certainty… [they] flow, they seep, they infiltrate; their control is a matter of vigilance, never guaranteed.” (Grosz on body fluids, 1993, 193-4)
“[S]mells are environmental and immersive: they are inhaled and thus become intimately bound with the body; they permeate the atmosphere and thus are inescapable; they are directly linked to the brain’s limbic system and thus tend to evoke associations more emotional than rational.” (Drobnick, 2002, 33)
Smells take up space.
While the realm of the visual dominates, the neglected sense of smell is powerful. Although invisible a smell can expand through the process of dispersal to dominate the space producing not only emotional
effects but influencing thoughts and behaviors. Smells can influence even when they are not perceived. We communicate through smells.
Smells are implicating.
To be immersed is to be implicated. “Smells… present powerful, emotionally resonant experiences. Invoking the sense of smell also directly implicates the body, especially the viewer’s intimate, corporeal state of being…. [O]dors illicit immediate visceral reactions.” (Drobnick, 2000, 38)
We don’t smell ourselves because of the habituation effect; the smell receptors become fatigued and don’t register any input from a stable environment. What we smell is difference, any changes to the environment. The smell of the other.
“That was what we were taught – the lower classes smell. And here, obviously, you are at an impassable barrier. For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling. Race-hatred, religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect, even differences of moral code, can be got over; but physical repulsion can-not. You can have an affection for a murderer or a sodomite, but you cannot have an affection for a man whose breath stinks – habitually stinks, I mean. However well you may wish him, however much you may admire his mind and character, if his breath stinks he is horrible and in your heart of hearts you will hate him.” (Orwell, 1937, 115-116)
“… the odor of the other is not so much a real scent as a feeling of dislike; transposed into the olfactory domain… smell provides a potent symbolic means for creating and enforcing class and ethnic boundaries.” (Classen, Howes & Synnott, 1994, 169) “…the foulest odors were often those that were imagined…. In the irrational work of racist politics, foreigners would always stink and possess the potential to contaminate.” (Reinarz, 2014, 111)
The Ultimate Stink Bomb?
Skunk is a malodorant (smell-based non-lethal weapon) used for crowd control developed by the Israeli Defense Forces. It is exported around the world to military and police. From the BBC News: “Imagine the worst, most foul thing you have ever smelled. An overpowering mix of rotting meat, old socks that haven’t been washed for weeks – topped off with the pungent waft of an open sewer … imagine not being able to get rid of the stench for at least three days, no matter how often you try to scrub yourself clean.” (Davies, 2008).
However Skunk was ineffective in controlling crowds when used in India, people were able to tolerate the smell (Ahuja, 2017). Similarly, while developing their own stink bomb the US Army was not able to find a universal bad smell across cultures (Dilks et al. 1999, in Herz, 2004, 7). Smells are highly subjective.
The Potential of Smell
My DIY stink bombs are adapted from a recipe found on the website Wikihow. These are crowd-sourced instructions produced by many anonymous contributors with no clear origin and ongoing in development.
From onions, garlic, cabbage, hair and matches, the smell of the stink bombs flourishes with the power of the sun, concentrated through a magnifying glass. With time the point of intense light builds up in temperature until it ignites a flame. Depending on conditions, it could take up to 9 hours to start a fire.
This process of setting fire takes persistence and time. A subtle, gentle action to produce a change. Much like a lot of organizing work that goes on over time in many communities. “Smells… are threatening because they easily subvert the regulation of emotions and behavior supposedly necessary to societal organization.” (Drobnick, 2002, 35)
Who can take up space?
“So, yes, orientations matter. Those who are “out of place” have to secure a place that is not already given.” (Ahmed, 2010, 254) “Step 7: Unleash. Either open or break the jar in the area you want to stink and watch as people rapidly clear away from the obnoxious, haunting, suffocating stench.” (Wikihow)
For the Berlin Art Prize program of events nominee Alanna Lynch gave a workshop on how to make stink bombs. These are small do-it-yourself stink bombs in glass bottles made from household materials: sulfur-based vegetables and hair.
Ahmed, Sara. 2010. Orientations matter. In Coole, Diana H. & Frost, Samantha (Eds.), New Materialisms:Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Duke University Press. 234-258.
Ahuja, Rajesh. 2017. Smelly bomb planned to douse protests doesn’t raise a stink. Hindustantimes. July 27. www.hindustantimes.com
Classen, Constance, Howes, David & Synnott, Anthony. 1994. Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. London: Routledge.
Davies, Wyre. 2008. New Israeli weapon kicks up stink. BBC News, October 2. http://news.bbc.co.uk
Drobnick, Jim. 2000. Inhaling Passions: Art, Sex and Scent. Sexuality and Culture, 4(3): 37-56.
Drobnick, Jim. 2002. Toposmia: Art, Scent, and Interrogations of Spatiality. Angelaki Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 7(1): 31-47.
Grosz, Elizabeth. 1993. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press
Herz, Rachel. 2004. I Know What I Like: Understanding Odor Preferences. Sense of Smell Institute.
Orwell, George. 1937. The Road to Wigan Pier. libcom.org
Reinarz, Jonathan. 2014. Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
wikihow. n.d. . How to Make a Stink Bomb. https://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Stink-Bomb