Thursday, 6 June 2013

Geza Schoen Scents Belfast: Jan Uprichard's Odourific Odyssey

Abridged magazine
The other night in a Facebook status update, fellow blogger Danielle de Medeiros wrote that she had been out for dinner and was now going home to read the Iliad.  Fair play, I thought, and a considerable step up from the 'bones-forward' thrillers that are my own staple 'literary' fodder.  And Danielle's mention of Homer's Iliad put me in mind of its sequel, the Odyssey, which in turn reminded me of the latest olfactory project by Jan Uprichard, Odourific Odyssey.  Jan is an artist with an MA in Art in Public from the University of Ulster.  Now based in Bedford, she has exhibited internationally but retains strong links to the province, and in 2011 I wrote a post about one of her earlier fragrance-themed projects - 'Howser's Law'.   

I was alerted to Jan's latest venture by my friend Ruth, who works in the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast.  Back in February the magazine Abridged released its latest edition, '0 - 28: Once a Railroad', which explores 'the destruction of the dream' through thought-provoking images and texts, and includes this summary by Jan of the Odourific Odyssey project:

'Over two days at the beginning of October 2012 I travelled around Belfast with a perfumer. We were searching for smells that were distinctive, that people would relate to a particular place. We chose 4 smells and each one was made into a scratch and sniff card. The cards are distributed in Abridged 0 - 28: Once a Railroad.'

Ruth sent me a copy of the magazine, together with its single sample card, which immediately piqued my curiosity about the rest.  So she suggested I write directly to Jan, and ask her to send me the other cards and fill me in generally on the background to Odourific Odyssey.

So I did, sending Jan a big wodge of questions about the aims of the project and the mechanics of the creative process itself.  I have edited and intercut my questions with Jan's answers below, followed by my own take on the scents/smells themselves after she had kindly sent me the complete set of cards.

The Odyssey Arena - source:

How did you get together with Geza - did you approach a number of perfumers or target him specifically? 

'I met Geza during my MA - I went on a research trip to Berlin and I asked him if we could meet just so I could find out more about perfume.' 

I would also be interested to know where you went, how you decided where to go or whether you just wandered about, following your noses, as it were? 

'So, yes, he came to Belfast for two days, which was great. I had thought beforehand about smells that I think are particular to Belfast and asked people from different parts of the city to tell me what smells they associated with the parts of the city where they lived/worked. I thought it would be useful to have a starting point to make the most of the time that he was here.

Also a lot of the work that I make takes the form of conversations between me and members of the public - in the past I've invited people to sit down and map out their own histories in terms of smell and that's something that I'm still really interested in. If I had more time to spend on this project I would have liked to make the research for it a much bigger part of the work. Although in this instance I wanted to recreate how Belfast smells now, or at least on the two days that we were there, so not for it to be nostalgic, which made it great that Geza hadn't been there before.'

Belfast city centre - source:

Was it a collaborative process or did you let Geza - as a perfumer coming afresh to the city maybe - take the lead?

'I'd say the process was fairly collaborative: we went to all parts of the city, North, South, East and West, and so even though I had done some planning beforehand it was all really open. We discussed the different smells of places in terms of the practicalities of recreating them: sometimes they were dependent on things like temperature, sometimes it was my own nostalgia of how I remembered the smell of a place that wasn't actually how it smells now. So in the end the four smells we picked were a mixture of places I had thought would be good and places that we decided on over the two days.'

Also, were there a number of contender smells which you whittled down to just four, or did you just home in on four from the word go?  

'There weren't really that many distinctive smells to choose from. I think that that reflects the fact that Belfast is a post-industrial city now, so a lot of the smells that we might have associated with it (for instance the tobacco factory that you mentioned) aren't there anymore.' 

And may I know what the smells were?  Is the card in the magazine the same one in all the issues, or are they all mixed up in a random fashion?

'The cards were distributed at random in Abridged and I purposely haven't said what the smells/places are, our smell associations are so subjective that I think it's better to leave that open, it's really up to chance whether or not you recognise or associate them with a specific place.'

Did Geza go back to Berlin to develop the scents or stay in the province? 

'Geza went back to Berlin and recreated the four smells we had chosen.'

Geza Schoen - source:

So far, so very interesting.  On to the cards themselves...  As someone who grew up in Belfast, and lived through the worst of The Troubles, my own perspective on the city and its smells is perhaps inevitably skewed by the 23 years I knew there (1959 - 1982), even though I go over to visit friends every few years, so I am notionally up to speed with how the city smells now.  And that is what Jan and Geza were keen to capture...

A word first on the scratch and sniff cards themselves.  They don't have a defined strip or capsule containing the scent, just an instruction on the flat card saying: 'scratch and sniff here'.  On the first attempt - I also had my poet friend in attendance (she of the perfume bottle earring featured here), as I thought her more literary take on the scents might be interesting! - neither of us could actually generate much odourific material - our odyssey was still firmly at the starting blocks. We had admittedly just eaten curry and so may not have been in the right digestive space as it were to pick up on the smells.  Especially when you factor in the couple of glasses of Chardonnay we had downed by this point.  Both of us mostly smelt card, which we attributed to their minimalist design, also in terms of odour molecules.

Over the course of the next couple of days, however, the cards gradually began to yield a fragrance that transcended the paper medium - quite subtly, mind, and it is fair to say that the base note of card persisted throughout my trials.

Now I can only refer to the cards by the colour of their typeface, and will endeavour to assign them to different compass points of the city, on the offchance that there is one representing each area.  But only if that genuinely squares with my own take on the scents and their location.

Magenta type - a pretty, spring-like floral.  It would be a stretch to say what notes are in here, but it is conjuring up in my mind memories of magnolia trees in the elegant Georgian streets around the university.  This is a carefree scent, evoking a warm, lazy day in that eerie calm before exam season begins in earnest.  (Location - South Belfast)

University Square - source:

Green type - I realise the print colour may be a bit suggestive, but I am getting a green scent here.  It isn't forest-y as such, more fresh and bright, citrus-y even.  It doesn't smell like grass at all, but I am reminded of the freshly cut lawns at my first primary school, and the dappled light filtering through the trees. It is another happy scent, but more summery than spring-like.  It also evokes long drinks of lemon barley water and occasional lessons outside.  If I was to shift this scene slightly up the road to a more iconic Belfast location with a similar summery / grassy vibe, I would pick the Parliament Buildings at Stormont and their even more spacious grounds.  (Location - East Belfast)

My old primary school, just as I remember it...

Dark blue type - I am getting spices and a sort of curry aroma here, and the images that come to mind are around the docks, though that are is not a district noted for its curry houses as such.  Indeed I am not sure where the Indian restaurants are in Belfast these days, because back in the 70s they were almost unknown.  This is definitely some kind of exotic woody, spicy number.  I can see the offices of Nambarrie tea, and the narrow alleyways by the harbour.  The Gallagher's tobacco factory in York Street - once the largest in the world - is gone now, but that is the sort of architectural backdrop I am imagining for this smell.  There is a slightly offbeat note which could be curry leaf or tobacco leaf maybe.  Can I also be getting lime pickle / kaffir lime or something?  It is flitting in and out of my nose's eye.  (Location - North Belfast - just!)

Site of the former Nambarrie tea warehouse - source:

Orange type - Okay, so I hope I am not also being influenced by the visual cue of the orange type here, but this smells to me of oranges!  Nowhere in Belfast is there orange blossom that I can recall.  Instead, I am reminded of Spelga Mandarin yoghurt, a tea-time staple when I used to go to my babysitter in Strandtown straight from school in the 60s.  I don't think there is even a marmalade making plant in Belfast, but let's just check that anyway.  Right, I am going to go with Spelga yoghurt and the Orange Order, which are my primary associations with oranges and the province.  (Location - West Belfast)

Orange Hall, Shankhill Road - source:

It occurred to me that two of my olfactory associations are at opposite times of year to Geza and Jan's autumn walkabout, so I am probably way off the mark with my interpretation of these smells.  But Jan did say she wanted to leave it to chance whether I or anyone would recognise these 'scents of place', and even now that I have nailed my olfactory colours to the mast she may still prefer to play her odourific cards close to her chest...!

NB I note that Jan has been careful to refer to these odours as 'smells' throughout our exchange, whereas my instinct is to call them 'scents'.  I guess this is because they do smell more like actual perfumes than the word 'smell' suggests to me, though I don't believe there are any plans to release them commercially as fragrances.  ;-)

UPDATE - Since I wrote this post, I have had a further email exchange with Jan - here is her response to my experience of 'sniffing Belfast':

'It's really interesting to read about how you perceived the smells.  You guessed some of the locations pretty well, but in a way you couldn't be right or wrong in this situation because what it reminds you of is just as important as the place that I think the smell emanates from. Also it fulfils one of my goals with the work, that is to get people to refocus their senses on smell instead of sight.'


Undina said...

Vanessa, thank you for the interesting report: I would have not heard about it otherwise (and I welcome most scents-related projects since I hope the attention to scents, perfumes promote them "in the wild".

If those were produced, would you consider using any of them as a perfume or a room spray?

Tara said...

How great that Geza was up for this project and travelled to Belfast. I imagine with all his training and work it was inevitable they would be more like perfumes than mere smells. Too bad card is such a poor medium.

Trying to figure out the location of these aromas must have been fun. Judging by your taste in books you obviously enjoy a good mystery!

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Yes, I agree that all initiatives to promote scent 'in the wild' are to be encouraged!

I am not really one for room sprays, I'll be honest, but the green one might be a contender. The orange one seems to have entirely lost its orangeyness today. I remember when I first smelt it that I got some kind of an acrid burnt note, which put me in mind of the shootings in the troubles, the 12th July bonfires etc. But curiously that wasn't there yesterday when I wrote the post! Or just a hint of something darker and more 'burnt'.

The green one has been consistently pleasant and green / citrus-y, ditto the spring-like floral. If the floral smell was a perfume it would be quite a commercial one, like that Eau des Jardins from Clarins. But of course the medium of paper is a tough environment for these smells to really shine.

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

That does make sense about Geza naturally turning these smells into something approximating to a perfume. Even the curry one could be an Amouage or something in that vein!

I do enjoy a good mystery, Tara, and that is how it may have to stay if Jan wishes to keep the mystique of these 'smell recreations' intact. ;-)

Anonymous said...

How timely, Vanessa!

I've just been watching Dan Cruickshank's "Written in Stone" BBC NI programmes (there are only 2 on the BBC IPlayer, sadly) about Sacred Spaces and Industrial/Civic Spaces. These cards would have been a great boon because I'm always curious about how places smell too.

I wish the project well, and wonder if Geza Schoen fancies doing the same in Edinburgh - that warm scent of brewing amid cold wind off the river needs to be captured!

cheerio, and it's lovely to read your thoughts as always,

Anna in Edinburgh

Vanessa said...

Hi Anna,

Always lovely to hear from you!

That series 'Written in Stone' sounds fascinating, and smell certainly brings an added dimension to one's sense of place.

Yes, Edinburgh does do cold wind off the river like nobody else! Given Geza's success with the Escentric Molecules range I'm sure he could pull that off, nae bother!

Anonymous said...

WOW! This makes me so happy. I love when artists create, no matter the medium, having an artistic impression of olfactory place is grreat. I wish there was more of this, and closer to home.
Portia xx

Vanessa said...

Hi Portia,

Glad you are a fan of this concept - maybe Geza could be prevailed upon to scent some of your home country? That would be quite an odyssey! I would also be curious to sniff Berlin, if he ever got round to doing his own backyard. ;-)

Tara said...

I know guessing the right locations wasn't the point of the exercise but it's nice to know you did pretty well!

Anonymous said...

This is utterly off-topic, but where is it possible to buy Artisan Parfumeur bath products if their main London store is now closed ? --AA

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

It's true, but I'll admit to being quite pleased too. ;-) Also, the university location for the spring floral is near the Botanic Gardens with lots more flowering shrubs, so I wondered if that was where they had in mind...I could keep on wondering for ever, couldn't I?

Vanessa said...

Hi AA,

Have you tried calling one of the remaining London branches? If the Covent Garden one has closed - and I don't know which is the main one myself - have you tried the branches in Westfield or Greenwich? Failing that, their administrative HQ is also in London or try contacting them through the website?

Suzanne said...

What a very cool project! Interesting your association with the orange scent ... was Spelga Mandarin yogurt a tea-time staple for many people in Belfast, as well as your babysitter? It would be interesting to know what they were referencing with that one in particular. I would have guessed orange marmalade, which would probably be wrong. :D

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

Good question! Spelga was the brand leading yogurt in my childhood, but the mandarin flavour may not have been the best seller - and I don't even know if Spelga exists any more.

I wondered about marmalade but couldn't find any evidence of its production in the province. Though marmalade on toasted Irish soda bread is the biz!

Anonymous said...

Scratch N Sniff as art, how fun! There is an innate silliness in scratching and sniffing paper, that takes me back to childhood. Thank you, Vanessa, for documenting your experience of this and letting me know it was made.

I really enjoy Geza Schoen's work, and own several of his fragrances. It's neat to hear about a different sort of commission for him. Neat also to hear about Belfast, from your perspective and the artist's. I've never been, and it is a vivid window into another world. Thank you. Be well!


Vanessa said...

Hi HemlockSillage!

Lovely to hear from you and apologies for the fact that Blogger diverted your comment to the spam folder on the first pass. The cheek of it!

I am glad you found this project interesting - my personal connection with the city made it especially appealing to me, as you appreciate.

I like Geza's work too, in particular the Ormonde Jayne line. There are a lot of his perfumes I have yet to explore though.