The social perception of women’s body scents in Bangalore and India

In development, started in 2019 in Bangalore (IN)
collaboration with Dr. Shannon Olsson, National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore (IN)

This interdisciplinary performative experiment explores the social perception of women’s body scents (1) in Bangalore and India. The driving force behind it is my curiosity for why women’s body scents are traditionally more stigmatized than men’s.

This project is part of a series that sets out to inquire into the political and aesthetic (2) potential of human body scents. My previous experiments (art pieces) Love Sweat Love (2016, Museumnight Amsterdam, Mediamatic, NL), Eat Me (2018, Art meets Science, Wageningen University, NL) and Smell Feel Match (2019, Experiment Zukunft, Kunsthalle Rostock) all adopted this same technique to presentation and audience engagement. The experimental format of these projects questions the stigmatization of body scents as well as critically engages with laboratory practices in psychology and neuroscience on human olfactory perception by questioning the process of producing scientific information. For instance, exploring female body scents has historically been neglected in scientific studies in the field of human chemical communication. Although each person has a unique body scent, and smell is socially influenced, these scenarios have not yet been examined fully in scientific research. There is only one case study (Gaby & Zayas 2017) that has investigated people’s feelings towards others’ body scent in a quasi-real life context (3).

When applying to the bangaloREsidency, I had intended to explore ideas related to processes of “othering” by investigating people’s feelings, potential assumptions and judgements about others’ body scents. I define “othering” as a form of social exclusion based on the premise that a person or group is perceived as “different”, and therefore is not considered as part of the broader social group.

After my arrival in Bangalore, I set out to gain an understanding of how people in India perceive and construct their world through smell. In this regard, conversations with Suresh Jayaram from 1 Shanthi Road have been crucial. First, I started searching for contemporary academic texts on the cultural history of smell. Second, I was eager to find academic writing on the social perception of human body scent in India in the fields of the social sciences, psychology and neuroscience. I found one book — “Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture” (McHugh 2012) — which provided cultural insights into smell in pre-modern South Asia based on Sanskrit texts. McHugh made comparisons between Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religious practices in relation to smell. One particularly interesting insight from my reading was that urine, dead bodies and human excrements, as well as sick people had been perceived as foul smelling in pre-modern India. To my surprise, I found the literature on my desired topics to be very sparse, which leaves a lot of room for future investigations. In addition, I could not find any contemporary academic texts that commented on the ways people perceive each other through their body smell.

At the beginning of my residency, I planned to explore the social perception of people’s scent through creating the olfactory performance experiment entitled “Eat Me #2”. Its precedent is “Eat Me #1”, which asked participants to imagine a world in which we could experience others by tasting and smelling (retronasal smell) them through our mouth. I conducted interviews at Wageningen University, asking people if they could imagine eating body scent, and if so, what texture, taste and colour they would ascribe to it. Based on people’s replies, I designed four snacks and one beverage which I served to participants of Eat Me #1. For Eat Me #2, I aimed to create a chemical reproduction of aroma compounds found in people’s everyday body scent that could be inserted into snacks and drinks. In order to being able to identify an individual’s scent, I need to collaborate with a scientist who has expertise with the chemical analysis of scent molecules. Secondly, I required the help of a flavourist to take these aroma molecules of body scent samples and turn them into edible snacks. Yashas Shetty, a local artist and the brain behind the Art Science (BLR) at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, introduced me to chemical ecologist Dr. Shannon Olsson from the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS).

Test 1, December 13th 2019: Chemical ecologist Dr. Shannon Olsson analysed a body scent sample of my neck and upper arm at her naturalist-inspired chemical ecology (NICE ) lablab at the Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore (IN). It turns out that the cotton pads are not suitablefor collecting life style body scents. Left to right: Lauryn Mannigel, Shannon Olsson, Srinivas Rao, Photo: Santosh Rajus

After having some fascinating conversations with Shannon about olfactory communication between insects and plants and among humans, she agreed to collaborate with me on the chemical analysis component of my research. In our discussions on the concept of my project, three questions arose: (1) From which body parts should participants collect their own body scent from and why? (2) Which materials would be suitable for the body scent collection? (3) And most importantly whose body scent would I want to collect?

In preparation of test 2, I was wearing a DIY cotton string necklace and bracelet with medical silicon pieces for one week. Photos: Lauryn Mannigel

As part of my quest to determine whose body scent to explore, I wanted to first get an understanding about the role social and cultural groupings play in contemporary Indian society. Thus, I arranged a meeting with social scientist Sobin George, an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Change. He pointed out that thinking about society according to the caste system still remains in people’s minds.

Through my discussions with women in Bangalore, for instance, via the workshop I smell a rat, I learned that female body scents are more stigmatized than male. I responded to these statements by re-focusing my project on the social perception of women’s body scent. I held interviews with five women to inquire about their perception of others’ experience of their own everyday body scent, as well how they perceive their own smell. My initial attempts to engage in a dialogue about this topic quickly led me to realize that body scent is a big taboo in Bangalore. So far, I have only been able to have open conversations with women of the millennial generation, all of which have also received higher education. In addition, I will ask the interviewees to collect their own body scent. I have encountered some resistance towards my project idea to present women’s everyday life body scent through snacks. Some of the feedback I have received has suggested that my work was being perceived as insensitive, inappropriate, and cannibalistic. I assume that if I was to continue to pursue the idea to make snacks out of women’s body scent, I would drive people away instead of possibly catching their interest in the social perception of women’s smell. As a result, I am now reconsidering the way I want to engage with the public for my project’s final presentation in Bangalore in 2020.

 

(1) By ‘body scents’, I refer to the entire spectrum of natural human body odors and their modification through any added products such as shower gel, aftershave, essential oils or the like. Overall, all activities (such as reading, exercising, working, etc.), as well as food and health situation have an effect on our body scents.

(2) I refer to the philosophical discourse about sense experience. I draw upon Baumgarten’s definition of aesthetics as a “science of perception” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2014), as well as Fisher’s definition of aesthetics as “[…] a complex ‘product’ of discourse, [which] constitutes an experiential ‘process’ entailing apprehension” (Fisher 1995, p. 27).

(3) This case study “[…] developed a novel paradigm to provide an initial empirical assessment of social judgments based on olfactory cues conveyed by the whole body in live interaction. Blindfolded […] heterosexual female participants […] made social judgments about the body odor of an unknown donor, seated beside them for 1 min” (Gaby & Zayas 2017, p. 2).

Bibliography

Fisher, J 1995, Aesthetic Contingencies: Relational Enactments in Display Culture, Ph.D. thesis, Concordia University.

Gaby, JM & Zayas, V 2017, Smelling is Telling: Human Olfactory Cues Influence Social Judgments in Semi-Realistic Interactions, Chemical Senses, vol. 42, no. 5, pp. 405-418. Doi: 10.1093/chemse/bjx012.

McHugh, J 2012, Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture, Oxford University Press, New York.

Noë, A 2004, Action in Perception, MIT Press, Cambridge (US) and London (UK).

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2014, 18th Century German Aesthetics. Available from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aesthetics-18th-german/#Bau. [12 October 2019].

Credits

A big thank you to the Goethe Institute Max Mueller Bhavan, Meena Vari and Yashas Shetti from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Prof. Shannon Olsson and Srinivas Rao from the NICE Lab at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, 1 Shanthi Road, Prof. Sobin George from the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Blank Noise, the Sandbox Collective, The Courtyard, and all the women in Bangalore with whom I had discussions.