When Denice Brown was invited to tour the immersive olfactory exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art, she imagined an encounter of familiar smells of Philadelphia.
“I thought about all the odors I normally smell as I’m walking through the city,” said the 64-year-old North Philadelphia native, who is visually impaired. “A garden, or green peppers and onions from a restaurant.”
Some city smells aren’t so great, Brown acknowledged, “like when someone has urinated in an elevator.” But she still didn’t expect what happened with the work titled “Fear.”
Scandinavian artist Sissel Tolaas created this particular “situation,” as she terms her scent-based works, with “recorded and replicated body sweat from anxious and paranoid men. The wall becomes the skin of the person. Only by touching the wall/skin one can smell the person’s physiological state of mind,” Tolaas explained.
And it was apparently effective. After kneeling down and scratching at the wall, Brown got an up-close whiff of anxiety. “I smelled vomit,” she told Billy Penn, “which I guess is something you might smell in the city.”
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Brown was part of a small group of visually impaired people invited to view the exhibition, called “RE_____,” by Trish Maunder, a lecturer at the University of the Arts and cofounder of the nonprofit Philly Touch Tours.
“It felt important to invite colleagues with vision loss to this exhibit because it was based on smell and tactile, [and] the ICA is keen to provide inclusionary experiences,” Maunder said. Maunder also brought three of her UArts students, giving them “real life experience in guiding and describing.”
David Goldstein, 58, was also among the touring group. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but found the museum and the exhibits accessible.
“I loved that I didn’t have to worry about reading captions,” Goldstein said. “It was liberating, it felt like it leveled the playing field.”
As members of Touch Tours’ “Visionary Council,” Brown and Goldstein have visited other institutions, including the Penn Museum, and the Museum of the American Revolution, helping Mauder create disability awareness trainings for museum staff.
“We appreciate museums taking the initiative to make their spaces more inclusive, and using the community of people that actually need the accessibility — and not [just] your board of directors, who may not have any type of disability,” Brown said.
She added that accessibility is more than just providing ramps: “It’s great that you can get in the place, but we want to be able to really explore it like everyone else.”
“RE_____” is unique in that it’s based on scent, but Goldstein said it was a more accessible experience than he has had at other institutions.
“The fact that it was accessible is half the battle,” Goldstein said. “Whether I like it or not is secondary.” Goldstein too had an unpleasant encounter with Fear, literally turning up his nose throughout the situation. “Most of the smells weren’t too bad,” he said, “except for the Wall of Fear. There was nothing good there.”
Tolaas, a Norwegian-born artist, chemist, and linguist, who works in Berlin, said she began to wonder why we look at our environment solely through the visual sense. That led to her exploring “the invisible reality that surrounds us.”
The exhibit title stands for “remember, reveal, revive, regrowth,” and it’s Tolaas’s largest to date, representing thirty years of collecting smell molecules. Using her chemistry training, Tolaas crafted the scents from a library of over 4,000 compounds.
“Challenging people to use their noses gives them new methods to approach their realities,” Tolaas said. “Our society and culture have traditionally been dominated by the visual. Vision clearly distances us from the objects we see. By contrast, smells surround, penetrate the body, and permeate the immediate environment, and thus one’s response involves a very strong memory effect.”
Perhaps proving that smell is just as subjective as any other cue, both visitors reported that some scents were faint, or they identified the smell as something else.
Goldstein was the only one in the group that correctly detected the vanilla variations in “Vah-NIHL-uhhhh,” while Brown said she could not identify “Liquid Money.”
Accessible as the exhibit already was for them, both Brown and Goldstein said the guided assistance and audio descriptions were essential to their experience. “It helped set up the scene and helped us navigate around the unique layout and some of the delicate pieces,” Goldstein said.
Elizabeth Chong was hired as visitor services coordinator at ICA just before the pandemic, and she co-leads its accessibility committee. This was her first audio descriptive tour at the museum, and she found it extremely useful.
“I learned so much and got such incredible feedback to share with the staff,” Chong said. “I hope we can use it for future programs and exhibitions.”
“RE_____” is on display through Dec. 30. The Institute of Contemporary Arts, run by the University of Pennsylvania, is free to all visitors.