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The Smell of Art

Over 700 people showed up for the opening night of ICA’s fall season. What a great start! While each of the exhibitions had its own attraction, I, like many others, was thoroughly mesmerized by Alex Da Corte and Jayson Musson’s Easternsports. It’s a surreal multi-sensory experience, and people enjoyed sitting on the lush, multi-colored carpet (or in the colorful chairs) while watching the characters in the in-the-round video installation move from one screen to another (or stay put within one screen). During this opening night, one toddler took it as his very special task to gather all the oranges he could find—and there were many—and make an S-curve out of them on the carpet. Then after accomplishing that to the joy of onlookers, he then destroyed his handiwork by taking oranges and tossing them to an adult sitting nearby, who made them into a neat little pile.

Those oranges looked so real, and the scent of orange was palpable. Only during the following weeks did I learn that those oranges were plastic, and that the aroma came from a bottle. My desk at ICA is directly over the cubicle wall from that of Emilia Brintnall, Temporary Registrar. Having worked as a member of the Installation Crew for the last few years, she got the opportunity to step into the Registrar role after the recent departure of Dana Hanmer, who served as Assistant Registrar. I kept smelling orange scent while working at my computer, and commented on it one day. That’s when I discovered that part of Emilia’s job was making sure that that orange scent remained part of Easternsports for its entire run.

ALJ: What is it like to be a Registrar?

Emilia Brintnall: It’s like being this really intense record-keeper. (laughs) I kind of think of it as storytelling, because that’s the way my mind works. ‘What new thing is happening to this piece? It’s at the ICA and it’s going up here and it’s going back to live in this crate.’ It also helps me to remember all of the pieces we’re keeping track of.

The Registrar creates some of the importance of an object by caring for and documenting that object’s history.

EB: You have to constantly be updating its history. This object can’t speak for itself, so everyone else has to. You’re essentially caring for things that won’t last forever, but you want them to last forever.

ALJ: But is it fun?

EB: Yes. You’re doing all this paperwork, but then things come up that are physical and immediate to the piece, such as the Alex Da Corte and Jayson Musson piece where you saw me running around spraying stuff. It’s an installation and it has this live element to it—to this not-live piece—that is sensory. You have to be making sure that not only is it working and it’s happening, but it’s not affecting any part of the piece that is stable, like the carpets. You’re managing all these different needs and wants.

That stuff Emilia was spraying was a mixture of water and orange essential oil. In working with the orange scent in the exhibition space, Emilia has had to make sure that the scent is staying in that particular exhibition, not wafting into the neighboring one (Moyra Davey’s Burn the Diaries is right next door), or hurting the security guards’ sinuses; a big challenge, given the 30-foot-high ceilings.

ALJ: Tell me about your aromatherapy adventures.

EB: It’s interesting because he [Alex Da Corte] chose orange essential oil, essential oils for aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is meant for healing purposes. But what makes it difficult to use orange essential oil is that orange is not a scent that’s supposed to stay forever.

Basic aromatherapy lesson: there are top-note, middle-note and base-note scents. Top-note scents have molecules that are volatile, and so they disperse very quickly. They spread, and you smell them right away, but they quickly disappear. Whereas scents like vanilla, or cedar—things that are heavier, that are base-note scents—will linger for a longer time. But he chose something incredibly volatile for a very large room, for a very cold room—oils need to be heated up for their oils to disperse and evaporate. And then, the air is constantly changing because so many people are in there breathing in and out, so if we’re going to spray it at one point during the day, that scent will already be taken out later in the day due to air exchange.

But it’s great that he’s using essential oil, because it’s natural. It’s a much prettier smell. It’s a real smell, it’s not a fake orange. It makes it a lot nicer to work with. I’m not hurting myself [with repeat exposure] in any way; technically I’m healing myself. I’m bettering my emotional wellness and mental wellness by doing it. (laughs)

ALJ: Any other side benefits to being Registrar?

EB: I get to learn about all these things that I wouldn’t have taken the time to study before. Right now, I’m learning about olfactory fatigue, and how that happens; how we smell things; how we take in smells and why some things [to create the scent] don’t work. I like it, because you’re doing all this paperwork [as a Registrar], but then you’re getting to interact with other things, too. It’s fun.

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