Osmodrama Festival Berlin [Event]: The art of olfactory storytelling

A few days ago I finally visited Osmodrama, a crowd-funded interdisciplinary art project which is currently taking place in cooperation with Berlin-based arts space Radialsystem V and the International Literary Festival. Osmodrama – illustrating/telling soundscapes with scent – is an new art form developed by Austrian multimedia artist Wolfgang Georgsdorf who is also the inventor of the world’s first electronic olfactory organ, the Smeller 2.0.

Osmodrama (33)

Smeller 2.0. premiered at an exhibition in Linz (Austria) in 2012 and since then, the organ has travelled to various art spaces in Germany and Austria. It is currently installed in St. Johannes Evangelist church in Auguststrasse here in Berlin – and it truly is a most amazing instrument: the Smeller 2.0. generates electronically controlled time-based scent sequences that can create an olfactory picture or even tell an entire story through scent only. However, the scent compositions can also be combined with other art forms (sound effects, audio installations, music performances, film sequences) to add an extra layer of sensory perception. Either way, it is a unique experience. Frankly, I can’t describe it better than the official website does: ” [the Smeller 2.0. is] an olfactokinetic art device for composing, producing, interpreting, programming, recording, storing and playing back compositions made up of scents and scent chords.”

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Osmodrama (14)

As you can see in the pictures above, the olfactory organ looks a bit like a silver kraken; Georgsdorf often describes his creation as a fragrance sculpture/art installation rather than a “technical instrument”. For the Osmodrama festival, the organisers put up a white tent inside St. Johannes church. You enter through one of the tent doors and take your place on one of the chairs. Most of the actual organ is hidden behind a thin perforated steel wall. The black tubes (the “organ pipes”) that extrude into the room diffuse the scents; once the performance is under way and the lights are turned down, the other half of the Smeller is illuminated so you can see the silver “arms” of the kraken.

The scent notes are streamed through the black “pipes” as separately adjustable air streams.  And this is what make the Smeller so remarkable: you can program entire scent sequences, a series of individual notes that are diffused in a particular order, at various speeds and at different times. The tent walls have tiny little nozzles distributed at regular intervals; these nozzles blow fresh air into the room which helps to transport the scent notes throughout the entire space.

These nozzles also “suck” up the fragrance after it has been diffused; otherwise you’d get an unpleasant, lingering scent mish-mash. Thanks to the controlled scent diffusion and the nozzle system, each scent can be clearly detected before it disappears and the next scent note “arrives”. According to the information on smeller.net, the ambient air in the room is changed 1-2 times per minute. And twice I detected a sharp whiff of coffee beans in between the individual “sound pictures”; presumably to help clear the noses of the viewers.

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Osmodrama (27)

From the photos I have seen, the “fragrance keyboard” of the olfactory organic looks like a regular piano keyboard, with black and white keys. Each fragrance key “plays” a particular scent component and a combination of different keys will result in a specific olfactory effect.There are 64 scent pipes altogether through which the fragrances are diffused. When I use the work “fragrance” I don’t mean blended perfumes, by the way  – no, the Smeller 2.0. generates descriptive fragrance notes which can smell rather unpleasant: the sweetish notes of rotten vegetation,  sharp metallic scents, warm plastic, sweat mixed with perfume, wet dog, an ozone-laden fresh breeze…

Wolfgang Georgsdorf designed the scent organ together with German perfumer Geza Schön (one of the most innovative young perfumers working at the moment) and US fragrance manufacturer IFF. The entire scent organ is controlled by a software which runs on a normal computer. This software actually resembles a conventional music/sound sampling software, with multi-track timelines and editing. The sound sequences are programmed, recorded and then saved as a midi files.

Ok, this is a basic overview of the technology; for more information check out the official Smeller 2.0 website which has all the technical data, material and descriptions.

Osmodrama was officially opened on 16th July 2016 and is still running until 18th September. From Thursday to Sunday, there are continuous performances of scent-illustrated soundscapes, either sound & scent combined or scent-only sequences (check out the festival program for more info).

Thursday and Friday the program starts at 12noon and finishes at 8pm; Saturday and Sunday the program begins at 2pm and lasts until 10pm. You can drop in any time, sit inside the Smeller 2.0. tent and listen to as many sound/scentscapes as you like. I “watched” Miniatures (a scent & sound composition from 2012) and Five Silent Pieces (scents only, also from 2012).

Imagine the following sound pictures: wild animals in a zoo (monkeys screeching, chattering birds), an evening in a restaurant (the sounds of crockery and cutlery, quiet conversation, glasses clinking, saxophone in the background), someone entering a flat and walking to the bathroom (a bunch of keys is thrown on a table, footsteps, clanking pipes, toilet flushing, running water), a factory floor (loud machinery, metallic sounds), an airport terminal (the sound of wheeled luggage, people walking, planes taking off, loudspeaker announcements), an evening at an club (sweaty people, thumping basses, club music, spilled alcohol) – one soundscape after the other and all are accompanied by evocative scent compositions; sweet, metallic, plasticky, sour, tart, bright, aromatic and bitter scents. Some fragrances were very figurative, others more abstract. It was a unique experience: sometimes my brain was still trying to identify and “describe” the scent while it was already gone. And for the rest of the day I paid a lot more attention to the scents around me than usual.

The Osmodrama program also includes scent-illustrated film and video screenings, music performances, book readings; there is a workshop for deaf people and for speakers of sign language. If you are in Berlin, a visit is highly recommended!

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