New York

Sean Raspet, OR: 52D1 (1G1), 2018, scent molecule formation, diffuser, dimensions variable.

Sean Raspet, OR: 52D1 (1G1), 2018, scent molecule formation, diffuser, dimensions variable.

Sean Raspet

Sean Raspet, OR: 52D1 (1G1), 2018, scent molecule formation, diffuser, dimensions variable.

While researching Soviet Constructivism for her book The Artist as Producer (2005), Maria Gough uncovered one of history’s great ironies: After the Russian Revolution, the avant-garde agreed on the common goal of integrating art with mass production. The artist who came closest to succeeding, Karl Ioganson, is now the least well known of his peers. Ioganson so dedicated himself to improving factory-floor efficiency that his records were not housed alongside those of Aleksandr Rodchenko or Lyubov Popova but were instead located in the Soviet Union’s archives of industry and labor.

I sometimes wonder whether the artist Sean Raspet might be staging a similar disappearing act. While studying for his MFA at University of California, Los Angeles, Raspet began to research the science and business of artificial scents. This interest led him to apply for a job as a “flavorist” at Soylent, the notorious Silicon Valley start-up known for nutrient-rich beverages marketed as an alternative to the waste and inefficiency of preparing daily meals. More recently, Raspet cofounded the company non/food, which sells ecologically sustainable snacks made from microalgae. At present, non/food seems to inhabit a categorical gray zone between Conceptual art project and “disruptor” business model, but Raspet could very well be one venture-capital investment away from appearing more frequently in the columns of Fast Company than in the reviews section of Artforum.

For now, however, Raspet still exhibits. “Receptor-Binding Variations” featured ten electronic dispensers of different scents designed by Raspet to activate specific olfactory receptors. The dispensers themselves were white boxes installed around the gallery at a uniform height, in a manner reminiscent of Minimalist wall reliefs. This sculptural allusion could be considered a fashionable art-world default—more Calvin Klein than Donald Judd—but when visiting the exhibition I felt the need to consider its full implications. The blank forms of Minimalism were never mere exercises in refinement; they were conceived as a means of heightening the phenomenological awareness of one’s own body. It followed, then, that Raspet’s dispensers were more than elegantly arranged laboratory equipment; they were prompts to consciously record the scents’ minute somatic effects.

For the Minimalists, a phenomenological understanding of the body was the bulwark against spectacle. Yvonne Rainer, for instance, responded to televised coverage of the Vietnam War by proclaiming, “My body remains the enduring reality.” My experience of Raspet’s aromas, by contrast, was one of feeling compromised, exposed, and, well, porous. To get a good whiff, I needed to position my nostrils directly over the dispensers, bending over as if I were furtively peeking through a keyhole. The longer I spent inhaling, the more probing the encounter became. The English language’s vocabulary for smell is so impoverished that sense data inevitably coalesces around similes. Raspet’s scents were like licorice, like latex, or like the damp odor of an unheated barn in early spring. Each sniff dredged up memories connected to my own specific tastes, travels, pleasures, and aversions.

But were the experiences I was recalling actually my own, or were they implants, like the artificial memories of Blade Runner replicants or Westworld hosts? Every scent possessed the faintest undercurrent of plastic. I made a second tour of the dispensers while consulting a binder of “technical specifications” that listed the chemical makeup of each compound. These scents weren’t Proustian madeleines, but molecular simulacra, engineered to bypass my critical faculties by entering my brain through mucous membranes. Much as Raspet’s expansive interests leave me wondering whether his artistic practice will eventually dissolve into the lifestyle industry, his art pushed me to ask whether my own sense of internal coherence might one day evaporate out into the artificially freshened air.

Colby Chamberlain