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"Scent Concert" Lets You Take An All-Smell Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes

A new project in California transports visitors across the ocean via olfactory technology.

Photo by Bennett Barbakow

In 1902, art critic, poet, and artist Sadakichi Hartmann tried to produce a "scent concert" in which the audience would be transported from New York to Japan through a succession of fragrances—basically an early version of Smell-O-Vision. But due to unfortunate circumstances, Hartmann was booed offstage, never to attempt the ambitious experiment again. Now, thanks to advanced technology and a deeper appreciation of scent as a medium for art, Los Angeles-based Institute for Art and Olfaction is reprising Hartmann's failed attempt over 100 years later, taking audiences back to Asia with fragrances in A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes, Revisited, a series of intimate, already-sold-out shows at the Hammer Museum January 9-12.

L: Sadakichi Hartmann, 1913. R: Hartmann as the court magician in the Douglas Fairbanks' film The Thief of Bagdad, 1924 (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

Sadakichi Hartmann was born in Nagasaki in the late 1860s to a Japanese mother and a German father. He moved to the US when he was about 14 and worked as a journalist and art critic, collaborating with the likes of Walt Whitman and Alfred Stieglitz before writing books such as the two-volume History of American Art, a standard textbook during the early part of the 20th century. By the mid-1920s, Hartmann relocated to the San Gorgonio Pass near Beaumont on the Morongo Indian Reservation in California, building a clapboard shanty near his daughter's adobe that he dubbed "Catclaw Sliding." He continued to work and even landed a small part in Douglas Fairbanks' 1924 historical epic, Thief of Bagdad. But at the dawning of World War II, Hartmann's Japanese-German background made him a target of harassment from both his community and law enforcement. He died in Florida in 1944 while visiting his other daughter.

By all accounts—and there aren't that many—Hartmann was a complicated character: a brilliant man and prolific worker who was nonetheless regarded by his peers as a moocher. He died in poverty, and despite his achievements in the arts, his life was punctuated by a series of failures, few of which were as public and as humiliating as his catastrophic scent concert of 1902. The main reason it was such an epic disaster was due to a last-minute change of venue from an avant-garde theater to a burlesque house in New York, where the audience came to see half-naked women, not to be transported to Japan through smells. Yet while events surrounding the original experiment created a fiasco, thanks to new technology, the show actually has the potential to succeed today.

Photo courtesy Institute for Art and Olfaction

Design by Micah Hahn

Saskia Wilson-Brown is the brains behind the Institute for Art and Olfaction and one of the people responsible for re-imagining Sadakichi Hartmann's scent concert more than a century later. She first learned about it a few years ago while shopping at a used book store, and quickly set out to find out more at Hartmann's archives at the University of California, Riverside, where she sifted through more than a hundred boxes full of his letters, papers, and other related ephemera. But Wilson-Brown still kept hitting dead-ends when it came to the concert itself, so she resorted to Twitter. That's when she came in contact with Christina Bradstreet, who was working on her doctorate in art history at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr. Bradstreet helped fill in the blanks, ultimately enabling Wilson-Brown to reprise the scent concert at the Hammer.

Photo courtesy IAO

The way Sadakichi Hartmann first set up the concert was with six two-minute scent "modules," and the new iteration follows the same basic format. Yet while the original’s first module begins on a boat in New York Harbor, the present show has the audience taking an airport shuttle van to LAX. The modern version condenses a one-month voyage into the 11-12 hours of travel time that it takes to go to Japan today, reflecting our own fast-paced lives as experienced through our senses. Wilson-Brown says the team didn't reenact Hartmann's version because hardly any records of the original performance exist, not to mention the fact that it was never completed in its entirety onstage.

Photo courtesy IAO

Hartmann's visuals consisted of the man himself along with a pair of actors dressed as geishas. In the updated production, there's a major visual element that precedes the concert, thanks to the smellable ticket and program-design by Wilson-Brown's husband Micah Hahn (the two actually collaborate on their own art practice, too). The audience also gets a major visual surprise when they first enter the venue and encounter the brand-new scent-propagation machine, but during the concert itself, everyone is blindfolded. There are lights—a drone-like one for the airplane; bright lights for Tokyo—but the design and the machine really create the visual context for the otherwise redolent experience. Wilson-Brown decided to suspend visuals during the show in order to force people to pay attention to the scents and sound design, which ultimately shape the production.

Photo courtesy IAO

Sadakichi Hartmann himself narrated the original concert, but in lieu of casting a Sadakichi Hartmann impersonator, the team decided to use sound rather than words to go along with the fragrances. While the scents in the new show are metaphorical, the sound is comparatively straightforward and unembellished. Bennett Barbakow and Julia Owen worked on the aural composition and foley. There’s an audio track that kicks in during the shuttle sequence, and the sound of an airplane taking off, for example—all of which ultimately provide the story's structure.

Sherri Sebastian of Sebastian Signs, working on the perfume composition.Photo courtesy IAO.

If the visuals set the stage and the audio tells the story, then the fragrances are the players. In A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes, Hartmann used simple, one-note scents like roses and other floral essences. In A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes, Revisited, perfumer Sherri Sebastian used between 10-30 ingredients for each fragrance, building a complicated series of "scent compositions" that are each designed to convey the mood of a separate module.

The airport-shuttle sequence smells like a passing ice-cream truck and plants, which Sebastian says she created with aroma chemicals naturally found in milk for the creamy notes, as well as rose absolute in honor of the original performance. It’s followed by the airplane module, which smells like bourbon and jet fuel during take-off,  with notes of floralozone—a synthetic aroma chemical not found in nature—combined with the natural smoky note of birch tar. The Tokyo subway composition smells like a curious kind of antiseptic, which Sebastian says was created with layers of sheer floral green notes, musk, and dry woods. The city-center interlude uses rhubarb and salty air to represent neon, and the high-end hotel room has an overall "white floral" vibe brought about by orange flower absolute and hedione, which Sebastian says is one of the most common synthetic aroma chemicals used in floral compositions. Finally, the dreamscape module uses bucchu leaf extract, a strong natural oil from the leaf of the herb Barosma Betulina, grown in South Africa. Everyone agreed the final sequence should be as powerful as possible to effectively convey the triggering of intense memories during the REM phase of sleep.

"Fragrances can be linear, layered, textured, rounded, or based on classic pyramid structures," says Sebastian. "I used natural and synthetic notes to emphasize and enhance different stages of the journey." Sebastian also points out that "it was important to honor Sadakichi’s original vision while reinterpreting it with contemporary ingredients."

Kamil Beski of Beski Projekts and Eric Vrymoed test out the Scent Machine. Photo courtesy IAO.

So how did Sadakichi Hartmann manage to disperse the scents? Details are fuzzy, but we do know that he created large wooden frames with cheesecloth and dipped them into separate slots filled with the perfume for each module. He may have used electric fans, but more likely, Hartmann just had his geisha-girl assistants fanning the scents into the audience.

Installation experts Kamil Beski and Eric Vrymoed asked themselves how Hartmann would articulate the concept today, so they designed a device they've dubbed simply the Scent Machine, spending roughly about a month working on it and estimating the total cost at $3000 for the whole thing. The machine's principal elements include a compressed nitrogen bottle that delivers pressure to six atomizers outfitted with electronic valves. The atomizers in front of the blower fans are connected to polyethylene tubes that run above the audience and deliver the fragrances. Controlled by a custom electronic circuit, the valves and fans can either be manipulated manually with a simple switch or through a program that runs the entire sequence.

Photo by Bennett Barbakow

The mechanism itself is very large, and despite its purpose, it has evolved into a piece of visual sculpture that also happens to operate. But how did Beski and Vrymoed manage to pay attention to the machine's design while also working on its functionality?

"Ultimately it has to work. 'Work' in the sense of delivering six different scents in such a short amount of time, but also 'work' sculpturally," says Vrymoed. "Since there is almost six of everything, we used repetition and seriality to help organize the different parts, trying to create some sort of rhythm throughout the work."

But designing a scent machine was not without its challenges. Wilson-Brown says that the biggest problem from a technical point of view wasn't getting the scents into the audience, but getting them out, which is why Beski and Vrymoed also worked on what they call an "air-flow river" in order to make sure the scent is going in the right direction and can be pumped out of the room with the help of large-scale fans. Additionally, the perfumer cleverly designed the fragrances to build on one another, so if the scents don't pump out all the way, the everything still works.

Photo by Bennett Barbakow

And that's just it: will it work? Not just the machine, but the whole production: the blindfolds, the soundscape, the fragrances? At least it's a reminder that art can transcend visual boundaries. After all, when it comes to design, it's not all about what we can see or even hear, but what we experience, and when it comes to experiencing, one of the most powerful senses is smell. So even though it wasn't possible for Hartmann to effectively convey emotion through scents to an audience, thanks to technology, it just may be possible for the Institute for Art and Olfaction to do it today. But in the end, it almost doesn't matter whether it works, really. What matters is that someone's actually doing it. Right?