Session at the 108th College Art Association of America Annual Conference

Debra R. Parr, Columbia College Chicago 

The smell of things is at once overlooked, repressed, and resolutely part of everyday life. Olfactory experience can be evocative, troubling: an unarticulated, unrecognized, unanalyzed unconscious. The sense of smell in the writing of Kant is aligned with the animalic, dismissed as too proximate to be valuable in the formation of knowledge or as a basis for aesthetic experience. Unlike sight, the sense of smell is categorized as suspect and fugitive, not at all a reliable source of information beyond being a most basic alert system to danger: the smell of rotten food, the smell of natural gas or fire. Drawing on the theories of Deleuze and Guattari (becoming animal), Walter Benjamin (the optical unconscious), and Laura Marks (the olfactory unconscious), this panel proposes to think through the contemporary situation of environmental urgency. Contemporary artists as diverse as Sissel Tolaas, Rashid Johnson, Matt Morris, Sean Raspet, Gwenn-Aël Lynn, among others investigate the power of scent to open up understandings of identity, gender, race, and planetary collapse. Their work raises several questions: what is the smell of the urban landscape; are there descriptors that could frame the smell of climate change; could scent draw humans together in resistance to regimes of oppression; what comes of experiencing the most elemental smells of the body and the earth? This session welcomes papers, research, speculations, and analysis of contemporary art and the sense of smell, its capacities and its discontents. Is the sense of smell a critical skill for the 21st century?