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Beauty Disruptor Series: Catherine Haley Epstein on Decentering Scent

April 10, 2022
April 10, 2022
Catherine Haley Epstein

In the Beauty Disruptors series, BeautyMatter speaks to those breaking the mold of the traditional beauty industry, from shining a light on controversial issues to paving an alternative discourse.

“Radical knowledge sharing is the only way the dialogue of our noses can evolve… Scent can be an act of resistance… Scent is political,” writes Portland-based artist/writer/curator/designer Catherine Haley Epstein in the manifesto intro for Nose Dive: A Book for the Curious Seeking Potential Through Their Noses. The publication is a deep dive into olfactory culture, not only focusing on how scent works and the history of fragrance manufacturing, but also how smells can be used to turbocharge creative practices. 

Odorbet, an initiative she co-founded in 2020 with art historian Caro Verbeek, is looking to broaden odor vocabularies through an accessible format which welcomes outside contributions. When not busy exploring the linguistic ramifications of scent, Epstein produces her own range of micro batch-produced scented products, CARNET. Her writings on arts and culture can be found on the Mindmarrow blog.

Her deeper exploration of scent and artistic practice began while researching the Introduction to Scent in Art Practice as part of the c3:initiative. She proceeded to train with natural perfume pioneer Mandy Aftel before writing and self-publishing Nose Dive. BeautyMatter sat down with the creative polymath to discuss how linguistic revisions and expansions will benefit the future of scent, the greater cultural value of smells, and our need to reconnect with primal senses in a digital age.

What was the process of creating Nose Dive like?

Coming from the art arena, I began researching and creating scents for my work exploring the myths of the eros and psyche, “On Forgetting | Filling the Flask.” I went and studied with Mandy Aftel, and when I came back, did the installation. I later led a scent and art practice workshop as part of the c:3 Initiative. Despite it being Super Bowl Sunday, so many people showed up, which shows you what an interest there is for this subject. Afterwards, people were coming up to me and asking me for the slides. I told them it wasn’t going to make any sense if I only sent them the presentation, but suggested I would email them a pamphlet instead. My pamphlet turned into a book. But when I pitched my exploration of scent, fragrance, and anthropology to publishers, they didn’t get it, so I just published it on my own. People got very excited about it and I feel very lucky that it's since circulated all over the world. 

I wrote it because I wanted all people to get involved in scent—it's not just for perfumers. The materials are available to us all. As artists, it benefits us so much to use it: it's like doing push-ups if you're an athlete. Using the nose, being full-bodied, is going to help you. This is the invitation for everyone to be doing this, and it's not about just making scents. It's about thinking in smells.

Coming from a background of anthropology and curation, how does that inform your perspective on scent?

I am traditionally trained in art, so drawing, painting, sculpture is all in my wheelhouse. When I started bringing scent into my practice for this particular exhibition, in retrospect, over the course of three years my work changed completely. My painting was normally very tight and then it moved into being abstract. Spending time in that liminal space where you're smelling things, don't have words for it, and there's no closure, it's a special abstract space, and that is everything in art. I was blown away. Why we haven't been more attuned to it is major. I decided to write about it in a way to understand why this happened, what's out there right now in scent that we do know, where are the holes and why aren't we connecting the dots more around scent and fragrance. 

The anthropology part makes sense because scent and fragrance are part of so many other cultures. I wanted to get less of a Western point of view about it. In the science world, scent remains a bit of a mystery. It's powerful, Google just doesn’t know how to make a translator for it.

That's why I think your work with Caro Verbeek at Odorbet is so interesting because the language around scent is such a big hurdle. Hunter-gatherer cultures, for example, have so many more descriptives for smells than the English language. Whether it's writing about smells or you're a consumer shopping for fragrance, how do you think the language to depict smells could be expanded upon?

Interestingly the same area of the brain where we make language, the Broca's region, is where we're translating smell too. Think of how much scent, even though we don't have a lot of “words” for it, inspires people to write about it. Everyone can have an opinion. In the book I talk about taxonomy and how the words that we use for everything shifts our perception of it. Caro was very kind in sharing her art history research, and I've been broadly researching different types of classification systems within that. You can go all the way back to the 1400s when they started classifying scents, and then today you have someone like Sissel Tolaas making her own words for smells. With Odorbet we're trying to create a new lens into the entire landscape of scent versus descriptors. Our categories range from historical anthropological to neologisms.

In light of COVID, which has resulted in many having either hyperosmia or anosmia, there has been a new emphasis on our sense of smell. That consequence has shifted things for consumers. Another big change has been the recent decision to replace the “oriental” fragrance category with the term “amber.” 

Journalists are in charge of setting certain standards. There's also such a big polarization around scent and fragrance: either you like it or hate it. The goal is to make new standards of smelling, so it's not always around pleasure and a bit more nuanced. Yosh Han talks about decolonizing scent, and that's really an important conversation. I support all of that and also decentering fragrance from perfume.

"People are starting to understand that scent is something you can proactively use to condition yourself."
By Catherine Haley Epstein, Author, Nose Dive: A Book for the Curious Seeking Potential Through Their Noses

What are the challenges of expanding that industry and consumer vocabulary and understanding around scent? On the subject of decentralizing scent, most people don't know that there are perfumers who work on the fragrances that go into household cleaners, for example.

In terms of decentering, the most important thing that needs to be understood, uncovered, and I wrote about to a certain extent in Nose Dive, is that—say in the example of creating scents for household cleaners versus fine fragrance—it’s talking about Lego pieces versus sculpting from clay. That’s not to devalue that they have those capabilities, it’s just to realize that there’s an inability to see it as an art form, if it's functioning in that way. Decentering it from the industry is one very important thing, and giving people agency to strip away all the labels. People love beautiful things, but the terminology needs to go away and return in a different form.

How do you see consumer relationships with scent evolving?

I was asked to speak on artistic fragrances in America at Esxence in Milan recently. I do speak Italian, but didn’t realize that the same word means “luxury” in that language. I was making a presentation about why artists are using scent and very quickly realized we're having a different conversation. It’s a business conversation in terms of how luxury is being redefined, and artists help to do that. My prediction was that art as a luxury is now slowing down. Scent does that, which is why you're starting to see a lot of functional fragrances appear. It can smell like good, bad, ugly, all of it is going to slow you down when you're trying to process it. That's luxury. 

People are starting to understand that scent is something you can proactively use to condition yourself. Whether it’s to remember a beautiful moment or soccer players who use smelling salts before they play. It’s Pavlovian, your brain shifts. There is also going to be an emphasis on handmade objects as luxury, especially when the internet has made everything so fast.

On the subject of handmade, there has been a big explosion of the niche indie category. It used to be very separate, but then you had conglomerates purchasing the likes of Le Labo and Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle. It feels like they're coming a bit closer together. Do you have any thoughts on that kind of development?

I'm a huge collector and consumer of fragrance. Mass stuff and not mass, are both echo chambers. Everyone is trying to appeal to a consumer, but you're talking about appealing to a consumer who is maybe deaf. I don't say that in a disparaging way at all, but we're not taught how to smell. Both of them are riding on the fact that consumers don't know that much, but people are starting to get more clued into what's going on with their noses and quality ingredients. It’s similar to the rise of wine culture in the United States, and now there's a huge market for that kind of thing. 

Some of the access to that information hadn't been available. Websites like Fragrantica or Basenotes, which act as educational platforms, are really helpful. But your book also contains practical exercises, so perhaps we don't know how to fully access and harness that power? 

It’s about process, and less about knowing what vanillin smells like. I would explain it as we've never had a real tomato, we're just eating ketchup. If you’re aware of the difference in smells, going outside and smelling things for real, paying attention to them, then the next time you go into the duty free to pick out your perfume, you're going to unconsciously have a more mature nose.

There's that physical conditioning, but do you think also cultural or social conditioning can play a role in terms of how we interact with those smells? Granted, if you're talking about buying fragrance, it's such an open market, you could get any type of fragrance anywhere, but when we talk about raw materials, certain regions are associated with specific smells.

That's the hope, right—we start to have that conversation and it shifts things, just like it happened in the wine industry. It creates this whole movement, and it's great if it is guided. In the US there is a lot of knowledge sharing going on through the likes of the IAO [Institute for Art and Olfaction], which is really nice. It feels inclusive, so people are going to start to get hip to a lot.

Not having had access to that knowledge has obviously greatly benefited the industry to a certain extent, just in terms of what the ingredients actually are, where they're sourced from, are they synthetic or natural, their allergen potential, etc. I remember the first time someone mentioned prestige pricing to me and it was very eye-opening.

But when you are a small producer, you actually have to charge more because you can't make any money off of it otherwise, since you can't buy ingredients in large quantities. The word “indie” is so funny. Christophe Laudamiel points out that one should not say that word, and the logic behind it is in the realm of decentering things, because there's this hierarchy in that word. Now that hierarchy in perfumery is flattening, thank goodness, but you would never tell someone that you're a master or junior painter, for example. No, you're just a creator.

In terms of not using the word “indie” or “ independent perfumery,” would you just say perfumery for all products across the board, from a L'Oréal-produced scent to a homemade creation?

I think so. If you separate out this divide, when it's all the same stuff, and then you smell one with the other, you see one is made very differently than the other, and then having that kind of dialogue, it makes it different.

Something else that I found very interesting is the the proliferation of scent within cultural institutions

It’s so important for the whole culture of scent to shift. You always have fragrance manufacturers involved in terms of creating scents for these spaces, so it’s a crossover of culture and commerce to a small degree.

The thing that stopped scent from being art, full stop, is that there aren't any rules of aesthetics. You have it in fashion to a degree, in painting, video, music. Scent has to have its own terminology, it can't keep leaning on analogies to music. Those are the things that need to happen. 

Sometimes it's easier to go with those associations because inventing a new vocabulary around scent feels quite daunting. 

We wouldn't throw out what's already there, you would bring it back in along with other things. There's 42 or 50 descriptors I can think of that would be so great to have in your toolkit. Right now people only have eight, not just perfume houses, but also artists could start to think about those things, like what's a sticky smell.

But then the tricky thing is we all smell slightly differently. I might pick up on different notes than you would. Where's the common denominator?

The material is the common ground, and then how you put that material with other materials, just like in a painting. We could look at the same painting, but have a very different experience. People don't have a vocabulary for that right now but in general, once they do, there'll be more dialogue.

Speaking of interpretations, what can you tell me about your CARNET creations?

I make things in my studio and gift them to people who said I should make it commercially, so it's a fallout from that. I have great pleasure in sharing it with people. 

I'm constantly making things and that supports me and my other projects, but right now my bandwidth is super tight. If I could grow two more arms and eight more hours in a day, I'd be like gangbusters. At the moment I do 25 candles at a time and that's it. I work with Tracy Tsefalas at Fumerie, who sells a lot of my candles, but it's kind of like making chocolate chip cookies. I have my formulas I'm working on, but there's a huge learning curve in terms of how I put it out into the universe.

What are your thoughts on the realm of fragrance critique?

We live in a culture of critique, which is something that I'm actually writing about at the moment. I'm trying to understand it myself, but what has to happen, especially as perfume evolves, is we need to make a new composition. When you critique something, you're always in the position of being like, “I'm right, carry on.” That's not enough, and that's why the Odorbet is something that I'm really passionate about because it's a very collaborative thing. We need to compose something else to move things forward.

Where do you see the tension between our primal sense of smell and technological innovation coming into play?

The handmade is important because we're so far into the digital realm that it’s going to swing back. It’s what we do. A long time ago we did full-body work in the fields and then we invented machines, so our bodies took a little snooze. Our prefrontal cortex is on fire, right, because we don't have to use our bodies as much. Then we made computers, so then that goes on snooze because the computers are doing all the thinking for us. Our limbic system is in charge nowadays for everybody. The limbic system loves scent, everyone wants it, and it will become digital because people want it that bad. 

Current examples I am seeing is AI-interpreted scent, and the oPhone, which was a couple of years ago. 

There's a lot of energy around VR scent behind the scenes. I predict that maybe 10 years from now, people will want it, and we'll make it happen.

There are so many facets to this. I think of things like breaking down gender stereotypes of scent, but that also feeds into breaking out of that European-centric lens. If we look to the Middle East, for example, men have been wearing rose scents there for a long time, whereas in the West men wearing floral scents is a much newer development. 

There’s actually an anthropological term relating to that: WEIRD, or Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic. 

The whole idea is moving beyond that, because staying in that frame is not going to help anybody progress into the deeper realms of our noses. Interestingly, our government knows how powerful our noses are and are researching into that potential. In ancient times, in order to get everybody in one space with one mind frame, they would light incense. Really what we’re talking about here is the unconscious mind.

We even have unconscious biases, like how much am I trained to believe that a sweet floral scent is feminine and how much of it makes me feel feminine so therefore I associate it with femininity?

Putting a scent on a skin, obviously it smells different on everybody. We're depriving one another of the things when it stays in that box, so throw all that out. 

The most important thing is having your own agency in the world of scent, and what does that feel, look, and smell like?

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