Love Sweat Love explores physical attraction in connection to people’s body scents through a performative olfactory dating experiment. Conceptually, it challenges smell’s historically pejorative relationship to animalism and sexuality, which fuelled the neglect and moral repression of the sense of smell in aesthetics and modern psychoanalysis.
Video: Chris Hicks & Mediamatic
During the performance, performers appeared as scientists in traditional white lab coats inviting visitors to collect and donate a sample of their own underarm body scent. Each participant was assigned a number which anonymously displayed their collected sample in a glass jar. While sampling their own scent, participants could smell their way through the collection of body scent samples of the other participants. The smelling experience was guided by a short paper questionnaire which invited participants to reflect upon the associations, feelings, and odor identifications they related with the body scent samples of up to three body scent samples they felt most attracted to.
The “scientists” informed participants via short message service (SMS) or email when someone liked their scent. These messages would for instance read: “Number 63 likes our scent”. With this information at hand, participants could seek out to smell the body scent samples in jars from the number(s) that liked them. When two participants both fancied each other’s smell, the “scientists” offered to connect the pair and provide them with a free drink at Mediamatic’s bar.
Love Sweat Love grew out of my research interest in the perception and aesthetics of smell. Olfactory perception plays an integral part in both our relationship with ourselves and with the world, and even though smell is an extremely valuable tool for gathering knowledge, it has historically been stigmatized and repressed by philosophers and psychoanalysts (Le Guérer 2002). The main arguments claim that smell has an animalistic nature and is closely associated with sexuality (Diaconu 2006).
For instance, philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries associated smell with insanity and animality (Classen et al. 1994) which became a deeply engrained moral judgment. Immanuel Kant did not include either smell or taste in his highly-influential theory of aesthetics. According to him, these two senses encourage subjective sensuous pleasures and displeasures that do not foster the cognitive faculty of reaching a universal understanding of objects. That is to say, Kant, among other philosophers, understood smell as lacking in objectivity. One of Beardsley’s primary arguments in support of the marginalization and exclusion of the sense of smell from aesthetic appreciation is that because smell is utilitarian, i.e., it satisfies primary needs, and does not lend itself to contemplating objects (Benson et al 2001).
In addition psychoanalysis heavily contributed to the cognitive devaluation of the sense of smell. Psychiatrist Richard Krafft-Ebing believed that a discernable interest in odors indicated an aberrant sexuality (Le Guérer 2002). For Freud, smell was too closely connected to animalism and sexuality, and had to be transcended in order for civilization to evolve (Drobnick 2000). He argues that when, in the course of evolution, humans developed an upright posture, the previously predominant sense of smell faded into the background. Consequently, smells were more prominent to evoke disgust which had a huge impact on the repression of sexuality. As a result, in psychoanalysis, keen olfactory sensitivity was perceived as a primitive characteristic exposing a preoccupation with anal sexuality (Le Guérer 2002).
Here first insights into people’s felt perception towards others’ body scents. This has been presented at the Human Olfaction conference (June 2017, Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen).
** Roughly 400 people participated in Love Sweat Love.
Classen, C, Howes, D & Synnott, A 1994, Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, Routledge, London.
Diaconu, M 2006, ‘Reflections on an Aesthetics of Touch, Smell and Taste’, Contemporary Aesthetics, August 2006. Available from: https://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=385. [18 May 2019].
Drobnick, J 2000, ‘Inhaling Passions: Art, Sex and Scent’, Sexuality and Culture, vol. 4, no. 3, pp 37–56.
Le Guérer, A 2002, ‘Olfaction and Cognition: A Philosophical and Psychoanalytic View ‘, in Olfaction, Taste, and Cognition, eds Rouby, C, Schaal, B, Dubois, D, Gervais, R, Holley, Cambridge University Press, Cambrige (UK) & New York.
Benson, J, Redfern B & Roxbee Cox, J (eds) 2001, Approach to Aesthetics: Collected Papers on Philosophical Aesthetics Frank Sibley, Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York.
Co-producer: Stichting Mediamatic