Saturday, October 8, 2011

Scent of a Human Piranha

What does this title mean?
You will see at the end of this post. Also, Michael Lewis  has a new book out, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World
 out. Yes,  I know he didn't make up that phrase, Tom Wolfe 

This post has something for everyone!
  • Latinists
  • Beauty/fragrance junkies
  • Finance buffs
  • Black swans
  • museum-goers
  • Ma and other persons who buy me perfumes or receive perfumes from me.
You will enjoy this post!

Intro to the Sensorium

I have visited museum exhibitions on three continents and this one was definitely unique. The Sensorium was up there with the Guinness Factory in Dublin,  the asteroid/dinosaur national science museum in Buenos Aires and the rare book room at the NY Botanical Garden. (I would never say foreign beer, dinosaurs or asteroids are superior to American ones, but they are a close second. The more I think about this, Purdue Galleries put together some of the most interesting, small exhibits I've seen, such as the one of religious icons. Boiler Up!). 

I was the second visitor  Saturday morning, and there were a few others behind me. The collection was well managed and had a good layout; Refinery21 has a slideshow. Given the fact that this is a ticketed art installation, there is no photography. I look forward to going back with friends and out of town guests. 

Moreover, I think this could be a great trip for English language learners since the signs are easy to read and there is a huge number of interesting things to talk about. One of the best classroom activities-or social/anytime museum visiting activities that I of know, was one I learned at a Met teacher workshop: the  5-line, 5-sense, 5- part-of-speech poem. I think it would be quite useful for students or visitors to write about what they smell and observe throughout the experience in a structured way. Talking about odors can be tricky. 

I was especially happy to get a little booklet to write down my impressions at the perfume bar. 
All perfumes featured at the fragrance bar, are for sale at Sephora across the block. Sadly, the really awesome, theoretical/experiential perfumes such as "bacon and biscuits" or "6:01am" are not for sale. 

When is this exhibit open?

 This runs until November 27, and opened October 8th. The fact that this exposition occurs now,  in the fall of the year, is interesting since with this change of seasons comes a number of olfactory memories for most people. I'm talking, of course, about pumpkin pie.  For example the pumpkin pie spice latte- which I started drinking at Purdue around the same time I started translating real Greek, reminds of of the Iliad. However, it is not for this reason that Thanksgiving reminds me of the Iliad. When I smell turkey, I smell how gracious the Trojans were to Helen sitting on top of the wall and how angry everyone was at Paris. They deal with it and go about their activities. For some people, Thanksgiving is about being nice to people you have to be nice to. 

But wait, there are a ton of things you dislike about cosmetics, fragrances and museums? Did you enjoy this?

The Sensorium presented a pair of things I love to hate-which didn't materialize in the ugly form I was expecting: 

  • glaring factual inaccuracies-or obvious, ridiculous bias-in museum signage  
  • ridiculous, unscientific, yet science-y sounding claims that are intended to appeal to superstitious, senseless consumers.
In fact, I especially liked the "nature vs. man" display  of natural poisons, allergens and whatnot. The take-home message was that man should help Mother Nature-which is more or less the essense of cosmetics. I am only helping nature with my skincreams, not fighting it.

Similarly, nature-for-nature's sake ingredients are frequently not "pure" and contain many natural "fillers" that may not be desirable. I was intrigued by the Egyptian Magic Cream, whose CEO and founder is Lord-Pharaoh ImHotep-AmonRa himself (not only am I a user, I'm also the owner). This is also supposed to be an example of an all natural product. What is the point? I don't think I am the type of consumer this sort of thing is meant to appeal to, but obviously it works for people and they like it. 

Other neat tidbits to share?

Yes, the sponsors like science, quite a bit. One of  Firmenich's scientists won a Nobel Prize. Fortunately, it was not for economics. 

This hard science reminds me of the Bug Bowl which I believe used to have-years ago-a booth representing the scent laboratory in Department of Consumer Family Sciences on the West Lafayette campus. The more I think about this, this whole interactive exhibit was, in no way,  any different from a well done Bug Bowl Booth. Boiler Up! For new readers, let me point out that this is a huge compliment. 

There was a bizarre, antique vending machine that vends tiny decanted bottles of Chanel No. 5 and other perfumes. 

Did you think any part could have been different?

I'm not sure what to make of this next little bit of artful hyperbole, that  smell is the only sense controlled by the brain. All senses are controlled by the brain, but in one-or really, several ways, smell is unique in that it hooks up to the brain not only via the sensory cortex, but also through its own cortex. This is for a sexual purpose my husband and wikipedia tell me. Sadly, I cannot locate my Intro to Cog Sci book to double check on this. I want to think that a multidisciplinary lab of grad students in cognitive science, biochemistry and history got paid to craft the signs and check the facts in this presentation. The Latin was good-and I'll get to that in a minute-the name itself, is actually not a made-up Latin word, but a real, old-timey English word. 

First, the sex. Odors can be a very alluring thing, and there was not a lot of ridiculous sex-nonsense in this presentation. Having said that, be alert for the TV with the flashing fragrance facts as there were some facts I would rather not know about-this is on the right as you leave the fragrance-experence component and enter the fragrance bar. 

On that note, I'm not sure if there is a minimum age limit on this exhibit. Speaking of children, if I were a dude-tourist, and did not realize that BIlls Bar and Burger is right down the street-I would probably be able to manage having a good time pressing buttons and smelling neat things at this exhibit, if my loved one wanted me to see it. 

You mentioned this would be interesting to Latinists. Why is that?

There were some great Latin words- in the correct case-as well as a recipe from Apicius.Sensorium's website says it should take about 30 minutes to experience,  but I read all the signs and so took a bit longer.  The recipe was delightful to look at, even in English with a semi-cheesy Gothic style font (at least it was not Papyrus). Do what Apicius says once it gets colder, make spiced wine with honey! 

If you have Lewis and Short nearby, look up "lenocinium" if you need to, or buy the iphone app, etc.This word was not in the exhibit, and if you cannot get to NYC you can have a lot of fun reading about Roman cosmetics at wikipedia.  In short: pimping is quite closely related to primping. Bobbi Brown and Laura Mercier style cosmetics did not exist for Seneca and Juvenal. Obviously,  Romans did not have the beautiful cosmetic creations modern science can make. 
A great photo-which I had not seen before-outlines the Scents of  Roman Woman. Her feet, smell like one type of lotion, her toga smells like something else (apparently not urine from the fuller) her hair and hands, something else, etc. It was really delightful, but I forgot all of the details to this. This could be a great Latin classroom poster illustrating the parts of the body and names of different scents or lotions and colors. 

Anything else catch your eye? You said there would be something finance-y? 

Yes, the word volatility, from the Latin verb, to fly! It was both cute and a little ironic how they explain what volatility means in the context of molecules. I had forgotten that not only financial markets, but molecules, can also be volatile! This presentation is well-aimed at a variety of audiences: local NYers, serious Sephora shoppers, touring families, etc and so the mini science excursus was great. 

 I will generalize and rant here about attitudes towards volatility: some New Yorkers, are uniquely unaware of what volatility means in a finance sense. The absence of volatility does not mean the absence of risk. (More on black swans and perfume, to come later). I don't know if Mr. Taleb would agree that New Yorkers- being in many ways insulated from the economy, and also given some assumptions their various financial models make -unlike other Americas, are deeply surprised when things "fly away" or a 6 sigma event happens, compared to other folks who have endured longer-runs of bad luck and depend on industries that rely on things such as the weather. City-dwellers are inherently a little bit different from others. End of that thought. 

 This is a great excuse for me to share one of my favorite NYC anecdotes about  the financial services industry, which is a big deal here in town. Once upon a time, my not-yet husband and I were waiting in line for opera tickets, observing the list of benefactors in the box officer foyer. A bubbly, bouncy old man had a great amount of fun reading the names of the banks like a child who just realized that he can read not only the newspaper, but also beautifully ornate, etched marble columns. After each name, he said, DOES NOT EXIST. Suffice it to say, no Met benefactor, except perhaps 1 or 2, existed in January 2009.    

Okay, so you read all the signs and talked about random stuff in the Perfumology area. What was the actual exhibit like?

The "Sensory deprivation" rooms, in Senselessness, reminded me of a radio show done  I think by Ira Glass, about people who had lost their sense of smell. To sum up, it is a horrible experience. The next room, Life at First Scent featured smells that call to mind various feelings. Again, you need to see this to appreciate it. It did remind me of a neat thing called the McGurk effect and I wondered, if the video screen says "6:01am" but the scent machine-due to a technical glitch or whatever-sprays the "summer vacation" scent, will I notice? Will I smell what I see? Having spilled things on other things, I know that yes, one can smell a bad odor while looking at a beautiful thing. Basically, I don't know how smell works, but I do know how this works. And it is very neat. Watch it-without looking, listen carefully, then watch it again. It also took me a minute to realize that only one scent is released at a time, and that its name appears on the screen and the display. I got confused and tried to interact with the not-in-use scents, so don't laugh at me. The docent was on top of things and let me know the correct way to experience the exhibit. 

I would like more info about how the machines releasing the odors actually work, and how they came to be crafting: using focus groups, what type of statistics they use to make an average scent, etc. I think the postman from Cheers has a TV show in which he explains how the science of smell works. I should see if that is on netflix/hulu/amazon on demand, since it is really very interesting stuff. 

What was your favorite scent in the scent lab?

My favorite scent from the scent lab, Lab of Emotions,  was  from the "Addiction" variety-not sure what this says about me- I didn't care for the playful, relaxing or other emotions. The point of this wasn't, "which is your favorite perfume to wear" but rather, how do you feel when you smell this. All of the scents were right on, in a delightful and slightly creepy way. Those silly men of science! Making chemicals that smell exactly like things such as relaxation or addiction!  I felt like I was in Clockwork Orange, or perhaps the MK-Ultra program in Conspiracy Theory.  I also felt a little bit like I was reprogramming my brain to turn me into Jason Bourne. Or someone who had to go to the nearest Sephora and buy new perfume, right  now. T

The more I think about this, I  can see some helpful, therapeutic uses of positive-smelling things. 

I  don't recall any of the particular notes in the perfume I liked: spicy, floral, etc. Perhaps this was because it was brainwashing me.  I'll have to go back and pay more attention.  The woman finishing the exhibit after me asked the same question I asked the organizer: were any of those scents for sale? She indicated that  they are not really wearable, but for demonstration only.

 Let me describe the interactive/experiential (for demonstration only) scent I liked: it was one of the addiction scents and smelled like a Human Piranha. It was very intense and intimidating. I love human piranhas. I felt like the sample would tear my face off. I think this could be a useful impression to give people, sometimes. I did not share this opinion this with the organizer. 

The scent had a cute name too, "BLACK SWAN." I did not make that up, you can go and check this out for yourself. I know, I know, a black swan is not the same as a human piranha. I'm only describing my impression of the scent. I don't know what went into naming the scents. 

I work for Sephora, or Firmenich and would like to give you BLACK SWAN perfume. How can I reach you?

I would love to have it. In fact, I would even pay you for you for such an item. On second thought, I think you should remunerate me for giving you the idea of selling this particular, currently "unrbranded" fragrance in the first place. Please email me at blackswanera at gmail dot com to set that up. As you know, there has been both a very popular book and movie with that title. Any reader of this blog would know that black swans are my favorite thing and that they are happening more and more frequently now, given a variety of complex, intertwined factors. 

I am a blog reader and would like to visit this event. How can we plan this?

If you visit, please leave a comment about it! Or, leave a comment first and  we can set up a blognic, blog+picnic for readers in the area! Thanks!

I am responsible for purchasing perfumes for my loved ones. What perfume should I buy?
I do not know your loved one, but you should probably ask them and then figure that out. 

No comments:

Post a Comment