MIT Exhibits Fear Smell

MIT exhibit allows visitors to experience the smell of fear by scratching a wall

The white paint coating the walls of “The FEAR of smell—the smell of FEAR” exhibit at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center appears upon first glance to be in typical art gallery style. The neutral paint, however, belies the fact that this art stinks—literally.

Upon rubbing or scratching the walls, visitors are enveloped in the scent of sweat that has been chemically reproduced and infused into paint by Berlin-based Norwegian artist Sissel Tolaas.

The work is the first part of a two-part installation called “Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art,” running from Oct. 12 to Dec. 31 at MIT.

According to the exhibition’s brochure, the artists featured seek to evaluate whether “technological advances in digital smell, haptic technologies, and embodied computing” will be able to replace “vision’s long held-dominance over the other senses.”

Tolaas’s exhibition explores how the body uses varying physiological states to communicate different moods—focusing on body odor elicited by fear.

According to Vadim Bolshakov, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, sweating is a typical “non-specific fear response.”

Tolaas wrote in her proposal for the installation that in the West, smell is thought of in “aesthetic terms—pleasant or unpleasant,” whereas in other cultures, body smell is an important personal defining feature.

“Since our representations of the world are most of the time scentless, this indeed reinforces the social drive for deodorization of the world,” Tolaas wrote in an e-mail. “We can be tolerant in many ways, but this physicality of not being able to stand each others’ smell stops any kind of communication.”

The wall paint contains synthetic replicas of chemicals characteristic of the sweat generated by individuals with varying chronic phobias. Over the course of five years, Tolaas gained the trust of the nine men whose body odors are featured in the exhibit, collecting their sweat after they were exposed to fear-inducing stimuli.

Using advanced technology, the scents were analyzed and reproduced in chemical form. These chemicals in turn were mixed into wall paint through a process called microencapsulation—a descendant of Scratch-n-Sniff technology—which releases odors when the paint is rubbed or scratched.

The reactions of the approximately 3800 visitors to the gallery since the exhibition’s opening in October have varied immensely, according to Bill A. Arning, a curator for the List Visual Arts Center.

“Some people don’t want to experience it at all, and some people are very happy to rub the walls and smell,” Arning said. “We’ve had people refuse to spend time in the room at all. If you smell something, the actual molecules are entering your nose—it is a very intimate encounter with the senses.”