Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Nose: An Interdisciplinary Art+Science Collaboration

"The Nose" is an art and science collaboration featuring animation by Seán Vicary. "Nose Song," the soundtrack that accompanies the video, was written by Sam Lee and Llywelyn ap Myrddin. Vicary used the experience of coping with his mother's dementia to explore the sense of smell in a surreal olfactory landscape inspired by science. Smell is memory's sense and one of the first senses to dissolve when neurodegenerative diseases of the brain like dementia take hold. It's not hard to imagine the role catharsis played in Vicary's creative process, which has the visual sillage of a neuroscientist asleep on a surrealistic pillow.

Art and science are equally elevated in the video for "The Nose" and multiple arts at that. This is a natural extension of artist-animators, musicians and scientists combining disciplines in order to solve a problem. How does one communicate the sense of smell when smells are invisible along with the wiring for olfactory perception, which cannot be seen?  An interdisciplinary approach answers this as multiple ways of seeing and being in the world create an integrated point of view that speaks to more than one audience.

There is a genuine need to know more about who we are and how we're made when it comes to the reality of being a human organism. Stories that feed the desire to understand one's physiology and chemosensory system cannot be found in the pages of academic journals and textbooks alone; we need artists of all kinds to bring the unseen and seemingly inexplicable to life in meaningful ways that can be understood by everyone.

Songwriter Sam Lee drew on the expertise of pathologist Dr. Laura Casey and Dr. Simon Gane (both of University College London Hospital), Dr. Darren Logan (Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge) and fragrance expert Nick Gilbert in order to write "Nose Song" with Llywelyn ap Myrddin.  Seán Vicary added the medium of animation to bridge sight with sound. The only thing missing in the video experience is scent, which must be imagined.

Labdanum and Ambergris are mentioned in the soundtrack for "The Nose" which uses footage from 8mm film taken when the videographer's mother spent time in India as a child, surrounded by aromas of Balsam and Jasmine. Imagine what it would be like if one could smell the scents inferred and declared in "The Nose" while the video was being played. The experience isn't currently available, but research will ensure that it lives in the not-too-distant future. Glass Petal Smoke predicts that digital scent delivery will first be implemented in virtual environments and migrate to other platforms afterward. Until then we can depend on a method used in the perfume arts; smelling essence-dipped fragrance blotters.

The world needs to experience more art and science collaborations like "The Nose" in order to transform the sense of smell from its status as the bastard stepchild of the senses into a legitimate sensory modality that is valued and understood. Art and science collaborations will flourish as research into neurodegenerative diseases of the brain reveals findings that allow us to inhibit and potentially eradicate memory-destroying diseases for good.

The video of "The Nose" is one of several songs inspired by body organs that can be found on Body of Songs. The Body of Songs project is supported by Wellcome Trust and Arts Council England.

Sam Lee talks about the sense of smell and songwriting as it relates to "The Nose" on Soundcloud. You can listen to it here