Artist Brian Goeltzenleuchter wants you to mine your childhood for scent

Brian

PerfumeThis week I submitted one very smelly piece of writing to Olfactory Memoirs, a participatory art project by San Diego-based post media artist Brian Goeltzenleuchter.

How does it work? Well, you pick a scent from your childhood and then you write a scent memory piece it in whatever form you choose. Memoir here is loose — you don’t have to adhere to any conventions of the genre. Some of the entries in the existing archive read like stream-of-consciousness (appropriate for scent, no?), some are in poem form, some haiku, others, like mine, feel like essay.

If you want to try your own and are having trouble getting started, Brian and his collaborators have put together this handy list of writing prompts.

I thought it might be fun to talk to Brian about why he’s doing this. Why get strangers mining their past for scent stories?

Brace yourself.

This is one very thoughtful super-sniffer.

In other words, if you share a scent-related memoir with one person this year, let it be him!

Q & A with artist Brian Goeltzenleuchter about the Olfactory Memoir project

Emily: Can you tell the story about how the Olfactory Memoir project come about?

Brian: One of my preoccupations as an artist relates to me finding great interest in other people’s passions. The stories they tell and consume, the objects they collect, the way they build worlds in which they can lose themselves. Basically, these are all examples of meaning-making engineered by people who make no claim to be “artists.” Call it an ethnographic dimension in my work. At first blush, it might appear to be an artistic liability or shortcoming – not desiring to develop an artistic voice of my own. But I love to hear other people tell stories. And I am good at collecting and representing multiple narratives to find connective tissue, discursive meaning, and radical juxtapositions. Olfactory Memoirs came out of this context. The project asks, What’s your earliest scent memory? It’s such an innocuous question. It doesn’t have an agenda other than to produce stories. And it has been my experience that stories beget stories. Producing and consuming stories is such a pleasurable way to learn about one another.

So I thought it would be interesting to tie this into my research in olfactory art and transmedia storytelling. Olfactorymemoirs.com was launched as a way to collect and archive scent memories of childhood. Down the road I will begin curating readings from the archive that will be performed in a transmedia environment which overlays conventional storytelling with scent compositions designed to unfold in temporal relation to spoken-word narratives.

Emily: Why is scent important for your collaborative art projects?

Brian: Scent is important insofar as it is a grossly underestimated sense; so many of our cultural biases are made painfully apparent through the various ways we have tried to keep the sense of smell at the bottom of a hierarchy of senses that has shaped the way we relate to the sensorium since the Enlightenment.

And yet, I’ve found that people are more than curious about the sense of smell. It feels like a zeitgeist moment in which we’ve come to realize that the visual can only tell us so much. Scent is wondrous. It represents, but not in the way an image or a sound represents. The volatile molecules of an odor change over time, which give it a temporal dimension. And, of course, the fact that it is the only sense that directly interfaces with our central system means that it’s the only sense in which emotion precedes cognition. For me it has all the elements for an engaging art experience.

Emily: Why does the project focus on scent and childhood in particular?

Brian: This project was sponsored by a Creative Catalyst grant for socially engaged artworks. “Social engagement” is a term that makes me bristle a little because it sounds like a euphemism for something more dubious. That, and the fact that it is often used naively by people who have not yet learned that there is no free lunch. With this project, I didn’t want to be didactic, nor did I want to preach to the converted. By focusing on childhood, a theme that I earlier referred to as innocuous, I felt it limited the risk of polarizing my audience, while simultaneously increasing the potential for meaningful reflection on diversity. Everyone has been a kid. And most people have memories of childhood that inform the stories they tell. By beginning with the all-inclusive theme of “childhood” I present readers with a range of childhood scenarios designed to resonate in collective memory and expand the complexity and diversity of what it means to “grow up.”

Why scent? Because it destabilizes our storytelling routines. You can infer a lot about a person’s identity from the way they mine their personal histories for narratives.

It’s not uncommon for people to possess and draw from a collection of narratives that in some way attempts to explain who they are as individuals. Most of us have told these kinds of stories so often that they become a little too slick. By asking someone to begin with a scent memory I prevent them from deploying story for tactical purposes. Instead, there is something akin to innocence or an unconscious working-out of things when someone begins with scent.

What made me remember that? And where did those details come from? I haven’t thought of that in years. I host writing workshops led by Judy Reeves, who for decades has been a writing provocateur in the San Diego area. She has so many good prompts that lead writers to arrive at scent memories that reveal a raw portrait of the writer as a child.

Emily: What have you learned about humans’ relationship to scent and childhood from your ongoing project?

Brian: If I were to rephrase your question to read, “What have you learned about humans’ relationship to scent and memory,” I would say that scent memories are packed with details. Usually, surprisingly vivid details, such as the pattern of a dress your friend wore thirty years ago, or a dialog you suddenly remember verbatim, or the ambient sounds that occurred simultaneously with the smell.

This is not terribly linear in the way that written narratives often unfold in a sequential order. Rather, it comes as a collage of sensory details that not only adds a certain authenticity to the narrative, but in the right hands, can allow the author’s voice (at that time in childhood) to speak. That is a specifically moving part of reading scent memories of childhood; the author can assume the voice of herself as a child.

But to your question about scent and childhood, I’ve learned that our attachment to odors are incredibly subjective. I knew that there are cultural biases in smell, but collecting scent memories has taught me that individual bonds or aversions to smells are formed early, and often in unusual ways. One example is an olfactory memoir that was recently submitted to the website about the smell of pickled pig’s feet. The feet, which the author claimed smelled like silicone caulking, were an early memory of what he referred to as “the smell of truce” that would occur between he and his abusive father. Hearing his father pop the lid and smell the sour vinegar from the jar told him he could join his dad around the table for a rare bonding moment. Even 40 years after these moments, and although he has never popped a jar of pickled pig’s feet as an adult, he still salivates whenever he smells silicone caulking! Apparently the response is automatic.

Emily: I’m writing a book-length olfactory memoir myself right now and I’m finding that scent is a subject that you have to make sneak up in the writing to be effective. Do you have any thoughts on what writers need to do to use scent effectively in writing or storytelling?

Brian: I like the phrase “sneaking up.” In daily perception smell also sneaks up on us. We see a clean kitchen but smell the burnt toast. We can choose not to look at something but unless we hold our breath we are constantly confronted our olfactory environment. Why should it be any different in the way a reader experiences it on the page? Beyond that, I imagine there are additional challenges, since descriptions are often limited to what something smells like or how a smell makes you feel.

I have this ongoing conversation with a polymath of sorts named Richard Gleaves. Richard has a plan to counter the Anglo-American smell aversion that has limited the way in which we verbally describe smell and the perception of smell. His project would involve perceptual scientists and professional writers. The scientists would delineate the various phenomena and principles of olfaction that people are capable of receiving (as measured by scientific tests), but not necessarily consciously aware of, due to the existing gaps in their language and culture. Once this inventory of perceivable olfactory phenomena is established, the writers would be commissioned to collectively coin new language which artfully defines the perceptual inventory, with the goal of introducing the coined language into common usage. Such coinages would include (but not be limited to) new words, semantic extensions of existing words, and new metaphors. Maybe you two should collaborate!

Emily: What will happen to all of these olfactory memoirs you are gathering?

Brian: In addition to the website functioning as a participatory archive, which invites readers to become writers, there is a performance element that is in the works. The performance takes a hybrid form: A literary reading of olfactory memoirs that is choreographed to coincide with an orchestrated delivery of fragrances that I design. Throughout the performance these fragrances play the role of olfactory landscapes (“scent-scapes”) intended to add a sensory dimension to the performance by connecting audiences more deeply to the narrative texts read on stage.

Presently I am working with Dave Ghilarducci, a very talented artist with a deep engineering background. We are designing scent distribution devices that will release trace amounts of fragrance into the audience and then filter them out just as quickly. Dave is working on a keyboard that will essentially allow me to DJ the scents from a computer and disperse them simultaneously to a seated audience. We will do some preliminary test events in a couple of months with major performances expected in 2017.

Emily: Thanks so much, Brian!

If you’d like to contribute an Olfactory Memoir to the project I’d say retrieve those memories and tackle those scents to paper! If you decide to do it, I’d love it if you’d link to yours in the comments.

Notes from a Travel Writer: A DIY Writing Retreat in 6 Steps

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Given a choice, I’d write in this cabin at the Lake of the Woods in Southern Oregon. Given no time and money, I’ll take the backyard.

airstreamI work from home, and it’s a nightmare every day. All around me, my house and family beg to be tended. Dishes call to me from the sink. I’m sure I can smell the decay of laundry piling up from a floor away. The dust gets downright sassy. And yet, I’ve found a way to make it work — to ignore what must (eventually) be done in favor of what must be done right now:

The work of my writing life.

But a writing retreat? In the home? Can’t I just go to the San Juans or something?

My area of the country is home to a ton of writing retreat areas, but it’s not in the cards for me right now. So I thought I’d try to do one at home to see if there is something to be learned from retreating from your daily life while you’re still in it.

The Problem

Information abounds about how to make the most of an at-home writing retreat. The number one approach is to make a solid commitment to yourself and your writing for a specific space of time. Some recommend doing it with a friend. Most everyone says that setting goals for your writing retreat should be the number one priority.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any problem  setting goals. I am a goal-setting monster, which is why you could line a marathon route with my list of to-do’s. What I do far less is free-write — simply write in the old-school hand-to-paper method and see what comes up, take these handshakes and mental high-fives happening constantly in my mind and just get them down, see what happens.

For me, this is the goal of a writing retreat. It’s a mind dump of the best sort — a space for free-flowing activity that exists wholly within the structure of a place and a time. The challenge is to come up with that SPACE.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer my tips for an at-home, DIY Writing Retreat.

1.Prepare Your Retreat Kit

Kit

You can have your writing retreat packet ready to go, and because the barrier to entry for writing is so minimal, you don’t need much. But a word about coffee cups. You know how when you arrive at an amazing destination you often find they have the WRONG COFFEE CUPS. Like giant thick-lipped ones, or dainty saucered ones? Pick one of your cups that you don’t like. Remember: You’re on vacation! The goal is to feel different from routine.

2. Disrupt Your Routine

Office

Here’s my normal routine. Not bad, right? But if the goal is to get away…

You really have to be somewhere other than where you normally are for a writing retreat. Otherwise it’s not a retreat, is it?

  • If you write at a desk, try on your lap
  • If you write at a laptop, try by hand
  • If you always write in the same chair, choose a different chair
  • If you write inside, write outside
  • If you write alone, consider inviting a friend

3. Add Sensual Details

Lavender
No surprise here, I find scent particularly transporting. If I can’t travel by foot I can always travel by nose. Here is how.

  • Light a Modern Mint aromatherapy candle.
  • Smell a favorite perfume before you begin.
  • If you have a place you wish you could go (say, Bend, OR), smell something associated with the place (like Pure Organic Ponderosa Pine Essential Oil)
  • If you are working with memory, get an object to smell or touch that evokes the memory

4. Read a Travel Passage (or four)

TravelWriting

A few of my favorite transporting writing, a style for every mood.

If the goal of getting yourself in a different space feels impossible, find some great passages of travel literature that will transport you from your NOW, something from Paul Theroux (The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific), or Pico Iyer (The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere), or Alain de Botton (The Art of Travel), or Kaui Hart Hemmings (The Descendants: A Novel), whatever transporting work can take you somewhere else. Basically you need words that feel like a plane ride (or a surf board, or a train trip, whatev).

5. Find Your Blinders

Just try feeling the same with this guy on your hand...

Just try feeling the same with this guy on your hand…

What do I mean by blinders? I mean, some kind of token item you can wear that you wouldn’t wear otherwise, something that would help you feel a little different, more on vacation, more playful. Anything at all that’s different from routine.

Some ideas:

  • A feather boa. Okay, not for me, but maybe for you, or just a killer scarf
  • A cool hat. I’m thinking a sun hat for me since I ended up outside
  • Flip-flops — especially if you don’t wear them normally
  • A puppet — to act out your dialogues that come out
  • A pair of shades

Does this sound silly? It is. But it might work for you. Best to leave judgment at home and see what you like.

6. Work Those Prompts

NatalieI have always loved Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within and was deeply happy when her book Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoircame out a few years ago. It has some truly excellent writing prompts for writers of memoir. Not all will yield something of value for your work, but that’s not the point. It’s about getting in the work flow and seeing what emerges.

Or not. You don’t need writing prompts, but they are there if you do. If you have no time to go to the library, you could always just print out this list.

Best wishes for a happy, productive, or just plain awesome brain dump! If you have any ideas on how to create space for creativity in your own space, I’d love to hear them!