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On 19th – 21st of Jan, the Institute for Art and Olfaction teamed up with Klara Ravat (Berlin’s Smell Lab) and Caro Verbeek (Amsterdam’s Odorama) to produce a weekend devoted to exploring and re-envisioning how we communicate about scent.

For those not familiar with it, a hackathon is a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development collaborate intensely on software projects. We adopted the tech-centric term because we were attracted to the culture of collaboration and sharing inherent in the hackathon format. We thought to apply the principles of the hackathon to the question of scent taxonomies by inviting perfumers, artists, programmers, technologists, scientists and thinkers to think about how we speak and communicate about scent.

The goals of our hackathon were to explore potential global signifiers in specific odorants, to create theoretical data points for a taxonomy of aroma, and to create a better linguistic structure for scent, as well as to open the floor to participants’ ideas and questions. The hackathon was also an exercise in tackling issues, projects and ideas in non-centralized, non-hierarchical ways.

This event was generously supported by IFF, who provided 25 hard-to-clasify molecules from their unique palette of materials.

We would also of course like to thank our host, Mediamatic. Additional support came from WOW Hostel.


The morning began with a brief introduction to the weekend by Klara Ravat, where she explained the purpose and philosophy of the event, reminding people to be generous and kind to one another’s ideas.

This was followed by a talk by London-based Cecilia Bembibre. Using her PhD research as a starting off point, Cecilia explored current approaches for interpreting and communicating scent, with her work on the smell of old books as the primary example.

After that, Saskia Wilson-Brown led a 2 hour session where the group smelled each of the materials provided by IFF, labeled only by a letter. Each participant was encouraged to throw out descriptors along certain themes or restrictions (e.g. no food language, using gestures, etc).

The most interesting aspect of this grueling smelling session was how diverse perceptions were when it came to smelling, as well as how quickly we defer to familiar objects and food. Noting that, Caro Verbeek suggested a round using only synesthetic language which helped break the pattern, and members of the group supplemented her suggestion with their own ideas: Using a type of place, for instance, or a gesture, or a sound. Here are some examples of some of the descriptors that the group came up with:

MATERIAL A: SIMPLE WORDS Cello White Red Dry Antiseptic Hospital Tar This material was later revealed to be AmberXtreme, from IFF, whose odor category is Amber, and whose descriptors are amber and woody.

MATERIAL M: SOUNDS high pitched shriek slurpy inhale blub blub blub (underwater) oi-oi-oi-oing (a spring distending) vibrating lips hahaha boop-boop-boop (high pitched) high pitch screech, underwater violin concerto in spring triangle ding (instrument) repetitive / pulsation sounds This material was later revealed to be Khusinil, from IFF, whose odor category is citrus grapefruit, described by IFF as sparkling, blooming, with grapefruit and rhubarb notes.

After smelling the materials, Caro Verbeek took some time to explore how humans have attempted to classify scent through time: From Plato to Linnaeus, up to Sissel Tolaas’ ‘Nasalo’, and the group finally separated into smaller teams to explore specific questions, based on their common interests.

Here are some of the topics that were proposed, including an additional exploration of digital scent.

How we can help people anticipate what kind of smell they can expect from a product or experience from the package or a smartphone screen? Can we create a new scent “wheel” for unclassifiable scents? Create a smell whose goal it is to universally signify a concept (eg. desire, fear, love, etc) – in the same way that the gas smell signifies a problem with the pipes. Explore the facial gesticulation/non-verbal communication associated to the act of smelling, or the possibilities of corporeal communication with/of smells (eg. through movement). Explore the digital in scent (proposed by Simon Niedenthal). Can we create a new physical structure for referring to scent (replacing/enhancing fragrance wheel) – unused How can we use symbols, pictograms, runes, patterns or other non-Roman characters to signify scent – unused Stress test existing fragrance wheel – unused Explore a new structure for classifying scent – unused Design a structure for an aromatic dictionary or thesaurus – unused

The rest of the day was spent by the groups engaged in deep conversations, the goals of which were to refine their topic, and to decide what approach to take in their problem-solving exercised. The pictures above say it all, and the cabbage is explained here.


Abel Jansma Andrea Mohr Andreas Wilhelm Anna D’Errico Ashraf Osman Bernardo Fleming Boris Raux Caro Verbeek Cecilia Bembibre Christiana Kazakou Claudia de Vos Claus Noppeney Eddie Bulliqi Eliza Douglas Eva-Marie Lind Flavia Romana Frank Bloem Franziska Josteit Haryo Sedonho Iara Magalhaes Bambirra Julianne Lee Julianne Lee Justine Kontou Kate McLean Klara Ravat Laura Speed Leanne Wijnsma Liza Witte Maija Zitting Malgorzata Bugaj Marcello Aspria Margherita Soldati Marine Hetheier Marta Siembab Miguel Matos Nenad Popov Niklaus Mettler Priscille Tariel Sanne Boesveldt Saskia Wilson-Brown Simon Niedenthal Sonja Tobé Spyros Drosopoulos

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