Lauryn Mannigel, born (*1983) and raised in former East Germany, works as an artist-researcher and curator. Since 2015, she is based in Berlin, but has also worked and studied abroad in a number of countries (France, Canada, Netherlands, Great Britain) over an 11-year period. Lauryn holds an M.A in Contemporary Art and New Media from Université Paris 8 (2009).
Lauryn’s artistic practice is both experimental and interdisciplinary. Since 2005, she has been mainly interested in tackling the issue of the Western cultural dominance of visual aesthetics and epistemology by exploring primarily non-visual modalities and perception. Inspired by narratives of empowerment and resistance, she has previously examined the influence of the physical and socio-cultural dynamics of space on body perception through site-specific interventions (e.g. Occupation Sonore, 2007) and tactile-sound installations (e.g. Internal Earthquake, 2014).
Lauryn initiated the nomadic meeting spaces Think Tank (2007-8) and the Think & Action Tank (2014-15) to foster informal discussions on diverse creative research processes and presentation formats. Since 2016, she has curated the Sensory Culture Club reading group, which tackles aspects concerning the role of society and culture of the historically repressed sense of smell, touch and taste. In 2018-19, she co-supervised a Master of Science thesis project on consumer science of body odour in food at Wageningen University (NL).
Since 2016, Lauryn has been investigating the politics of body scent by unveiling feelings and assumptions that people have pertaining to experiences of others’ smell and body odour. Lauryn creates performance-based experiments combined with interdisciplinary surveys. From a feminist perspective, she critically draws from laboratory practices of human olfactory (smell) perception in psychology and neuroscience. In this line of work, she recently presented her projects Love Sweat Love (2016), Eat Me (2018), and Smell Feel Match (2019). In addition, she showed the first results of her research into people’s felt perception towards others’ body scents at the interdisciplinary Human Olfaction Conference (2017).
During the bangaloREsidency, Lauryn will collaborate with the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. There, she will begin to explore ideas related to processes of “othering” by investigating people’s perceptions about body scents. As a starting point, she will examine “othering” as a form of social exclusion based on the premise that a person or group is perceived as "different", and therefore not considered as part of one's own social group. Through research and discussions on postcolonial narratives of “othering” with Indians and the Indian diaspora, Lauryn will design artistic experiments, in which participants can investigate their own olfactory judgment of others’ body scents. Most importantly, she seeks to engage in an open-minded discussion on the perception of body scent, which she intends to maintain past the residency period.
My second notable olfactory experience was elicited by the savoury smells of a delicious home-cooked Indian lunch that both the residents and the staff from the Goethe-Institut shared at the art space 1 Shanthi Road. Suresh Jayaram, the founder of the space, had prepared various dishes to welcome us. The food was delicious, and yet it was surprisingly quite different from the Indian food I had been cooking at home for many years. This lunch marked the beginning of a mouthwatering daily culinary discovery that I found with every following meal.
The Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology was my host organisation. Both of my contacts, Meena Vari — Dean of the School of Media, Arts and Sciences and Dean of the Department of Contemporary Arts and Curatorial Practice, as well as Yashas Shetty, the head of Art Science BLR, supported me in getting started on my research. I spent some of my time working from a desk that was offered to me at Art Science BLR. The Srishti Institute also provided me with a room in a shared apartment that was located in a green gated community in Yelahanka, a suburb north of the city. The apartment’s location was very convenient to get to Srishti Institute, as it was only a five-minute ride in a rickshaw. However, getting to the city centre usually took a good hour and a half. Since I ended up working a lot from the apartment to do research, partly because I fell sick several times, I felt increasingly isolated.
I began my residency project after an intense first week of being ill. Initially, I had intended to explore ideas related to processes of “othering” by investigating people’s feelings, potential assumptions and judgements about others’ body scents. The term body scents is what I use to refer to the entire spectrum of human smells, as they occur in everyday life. Body scents can be both solely natural body odours, as well as any modification to them through addition of products such as shower gel, aftershave, essential oils or the like. Overall, all activities (such as working, exercising, food, etc.) and the spaces we inhabit construct the mixtures of scents and aromas that make up our body scents. Moreover, I use the term “othering” as a word to describe a form of social exclusion based on the premise that a person or group is perceived as "different", and therefore is not considered as part of the broader social group.
Since I was completely new to India’s cultural landscape, it seemed necessary to first gain an understanding of how people perceived and constructed their world through smell. To begin with, I decided to search for contemporary academic texts on the cultural history of smell. I had multiple seminal conversations with Yashas Shetty, as well as with Suresh Jayaram. To my surprise, I only found one book written in English — “Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture” (McHugh 2012) — which provided cultural insights into smell in pre-modern South Asia that were based on Sanskrit texts. The book showed comparisons made between Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religious practices in relation to smell. One particularly interesting insight that I gained was that urine, dead bodies and human excrements, as well as sick people had been perceived as foul smelling in pre-modern India.
The more I started to learn about smell in Indian culture, the more eager I became to look into academic writing on the social perception of human body scents in India in the fields of the social sciences, psychology and neuroscience. During my research, I discovered one article — “Theorising Sensory Cultures in Asia: Sociohistorical Perspectives” (Low 2019) — which examined the role of the senses through Asia’s historical context. One thing of note was that the article explained how “Imperialist attitudes governing sensory conduct, property and civility in [India] meant that local sensory behaviours were interpreted as transgressive and thereby pathological” (Low 2019, p. 629). Besides this article, I found the amount of literature in the English language on my chosen topic to be sparse. I was surprised that I had not yet been able to find any contemporary academic texts that documented how people perceived each other through their body scents.
At the beginning of my residency, I had planned to explore the social perception of people’s body scents by creating a new version of my olfactory performance-experiment titled “Eat Me” (2018). I had designed “Eat Me” to ask participants to imagine a world in which experiencing others by tasting and smelling (retronasal smell) them would be the norm. Originally, I had created “Eat Me” by conducting interviews at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. During these interviews, I had asked people if they could imagine eating body scents, and if so, what texture, taste and colour they would ascribe to them. Based on people’s replies, I designed four snacks and one beverage, which I served at a public presentation.
For my new project in Bangalore, I had aimed to identify the aroma of a few carefully selected individuals’ body scents in order to insert them into the composition of snacks and drinks. To be able to determine a person’s aroma, it is first necessary to assess the person’s molecular make up with the help of a scientist who is familiar with the process of conducting a chemical analysis on odours. Second, the scent molecules have to be translated into aroma molecules for the purpose of mixing the flavours of a person into the food objects. When searching for a collaborator for the chemical analysis component of my research, Yashas Shetty introduced me to chemical ecologist Dr. Shannon Olsson from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). After some fascinating conversations with Shannon about olfactory communication between insects and plants as well as among humans, she agreed to collaborate with me. In our discussions on the concept of my project, three questions arose: (1) From which body parts should participants collect their own body scent and why? (2) Which materials would be suitable for body scent collection? (3) And most importantly whose body scent would I want to collect? As part of my investigation to determine whose body scents to explore, I wanted to first get an understanding about the role that social and cultural groupings play in contemporary Indian society. Thus, I arranged a meeting with social scientist Sobin George, an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Change. He pointed out that many people still think about society according to the caste system.
I then began to initiate discussions with women living in Bangalore about how they think they are being perceived, based on their smell. A larger group discussion took place during the workshop “I smell a rat”, which I ran at the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan on December 12, 2019. The workshop invited participants to critically engage with gender-related perceptions in relation to body scents, through a presentation, discussion, and hands-on experiments. While this session was informative in many aspects, I walked away from the event having learned that female body scents as a whole are more stigmatised than male ones.
I responded to this new information by re-focusing my project to be about the social perception of women’s body scents. My initial attempts to engage in a dialogue about this topic quickly led me to realise that body scents are a big taboo in Bangalore. The only open conversations I had during my trip were with women of the millennial generation, all of whom have also completed some form of higher education. I held interviews with five women to inquire about their experience of how other people perceive their body scents as well how they perceive their own smell. I audio recorded these exchanges. In 2020, I plan to follow up with my research by asking the interviewees to collect their own body scents from their necks.
From my research, it seemed to me that a women’s neck is the most suitable and respectful body part to focus my exploration of the social perception of women’s body scents in Bangalore because it can be both partially exposed to the world, as well as covered up by clothes. The variety of scents on a women’s neck might be perceived by others during particular types of exchanges, for instance by hugging. However, these smells can also be experienced in the public domain, for example, when traveling on a crowded bus. Although the neck is considered an intimate space, the scents of the area do not seem to be as stigmatised as the other intimate areas of the body, such as the scents of a women’s underarm. Overall, it is my intention to have my work raise an awareness about the social perception of women’s body scents by trying to avoid reinforcing existing stigmas on the way women smell.
During my residency, I had encountered big resistance and a lack of understanding towards my project idea to present women’s everyday body scents in the form of snacks. Some of the feedback I had received suggested that my work was being perceived as insensitive, inappropriate, and cannibalistic. It has become clear to me that if I continued to pursue the idea of creating experiences for eating snacks that contain women’s body scents, I would most likely drive people away instead of possibly catching their interest in the social perception of women’s smell. As a result, I am now reconsidering the further development of my project which I am excited about. I wish to present the final project in Bangalore as an exhibition in 2020 or 2021.
A big thank you to the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, Moira Heuer, Charlotte Rauth, Marie Knop, Meena Vari and Yashas ShettY from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Prof. Shannon Olsson and Srinivas Rao from the NICE Lab at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Prof. Sobin George from the Institute for Social and Economic Change, 1 Shanthi Road, Blank Noise, Sandbox Collective, The Courtyard, and all the women in Bangalore with whom I had discussions.
McHugh, J 2012, Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture, Oxford University Press, New York.
Low, KEY 2019, ‘Theorising Sensory Cultures in Asia: Sociohistorical Perspectives’, Asian Studies Review, vol. 43, no. 4, pp. 618-636, DOI: 10.1080/10357823.2019.1664985