How to Explore a City Through Its Scents

Designer Kate McLean on her smell walks, sensory maps, and our neglected senses

Kate McLean is an artist and designer who specializes in mapping smells. She organizes popular “smell walks” in cities around the world, from Singapore to New York, where she prompts her volunteers to note every scent they pick up, which she then visualizes in complex, ultra-stylish maps. This is more revolutionary than it sounds. McLean’s ongoing project is nothing less than a call to reconsider how we perceive the world — reawaken our neglected senses and smell the coffee, the roses, and everything else.

Whether it’s your ongoing project, Anicka Yi’s show at the Guggenheim, or Sissel Tolaas’s scent art, there seems to be a strong preoccupation with smell these days. How do you explain this heightened interest?

Not to be trite, but I think it’s a reaction to digital life. In the digital world, our sensory input is quite restricted. We are only exercising these two senses [seeing and hearing]. This increases the interest in our neglected senses — how they react and work together every day to form meaning in our lives. I think that’s largely responsible for the resurgent interest in smell.

Yeah, there’s no digital conduit for scents.

A couple of people have tried it. It’s a difficult technology to master because you’re trying to synthesize something that is phenomenally complex. For example, strawberries have about 350 different volatile molecular compounds — 350 different things you have to synthesize in order to create the idea of a strawberry. That’s why artificial strawberry, in a milkshake or something, always smells terrible. It’s actually far more nuanced and subtle and complex than that one synthesis could capture. Also, genetically it’s unlikely I’ll smell the same things that you smell. We can differentiate about a trillion different smells as a human beings based on the number of olfactory receptors that we’ve got....more