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Mapping the European Breton Lai



‘Does smell make you nostalgic?’ Nostalgias exhibition, Margate Pie Factory

uclfecd13 November 2013

Kate McLean, 'Summer Aromas of Newport, RI'

Following on from my previous post about Kate McLean’s wonderful smell maps, on Friday I went down to Margate to see one of them for myself! Her map ‘Summer Aromas of Newport, RI’ was one of the exhibits at Margate Pie Factory’s Nostalgias exhibition (1-12 November), held in conjunction with Canterbury Christ Church University and The University of the Arts London’s Nostalgias: Visualising Longing conference, and offered a delightfully (and sometimes stinkily) aromatic tour of the New England harbour town.

So, what does Newport, Rhode Island, smell like? According to Kate McLean, it’s a mixture of the sea, juniper bushes, lobster bait, ice-cream, freshly-cut timber and beach roses, amongst other things. But visitors to the exhibition didn’t have to take her word for it. The various scents of the seaside town were arrayed on a table in tiny medicinal, Bristol-blue glass bottles, like eccentric phials of perfume; visitors were invited to sniff each bottle, decide what it smelled like, write it on a Post-It note and stick it on the wall. Responses ranged from precise attempts to pinpoint the scent to the highly idiosyncratic: smell no. 3, for example, which had a fresh, fishy tang of the ocean, was variously described as ‘Margate today’, ‘the harbour’, ‘school science lab test tubes’, and even ‘at school, pencil sharpenings’. In the middle of the sea of mint, teal and powder-blue Post-It notes was Kate’s own ‘smell map’ of Newport. This showed the sources, range and intensity of the different scents, illustrated by colour-coded circles (for the sources) and wavy contour lines (for the range) on a parchment-cream background, like some dreamlike oceanographer’s chart. The whole exhibit was extremely visually (and nasally) appealing, mapping – and literally bottling – an aspect of landscape which is often both almost imperceptible and wordlessly accepted without further analysis.

Sniffing the bottles

Post-It notes of smells

Although Nostalgias didn’t focus explicitly on maps, in their different ways all the artists in the show used mapping as a way of exploring nostalgia for places, constructing their own private maps of different geographical areas. For instance, Chu YinHua’s Encoding Memories: Tainan traced the streets of the Taiwanese town by collecting stories about the different foods for sale there, recording these in a beautiful, woodcut-precise book of mingled street maps and stories. Meanwhile, A Collected History of Light by Michaela French was a luminous curiosity cabinet of a sculpture, capturing the precise colours of daylight from various locations and storing each one, fixed and unblinking, in the lightbulb-lined drawers of an old-fashioned wooden card catalogue.

Taiwan food box

Chu YinHua, Encoding Memories: Tainan

Michaela French, A Collected History of Light

Michaela French, A Collected History of Light

From specimen drawers of light to bottled lobster bait, Nostalgias explored ways of distilling, fixing and categorising memories of places, whilst recognising the flickering subjectivity of these nostalgic reflections. As exercises in mapping, the guided routes into real or imagined pasts offered by the various exhibits were frequently beautiful, occasionally whiffy, and invariably intriguing.

More maps: From mapping the Brut to smellscapes

uclfecd2 October 2013

Following my last post, I’ve just come across three fantastic mapping projects which I had to share:

On the medieval side of things, the Imagining History project, which ran a few years ago at Queen’s University Belfast,  have done some ingenious Tube-style maps of manuscripts of the Middle English prose Brut. This was one of the most widely-disseminated texts of the English Middle Ages, with 183 manuscripts having survived (to put this into perspective, there are 83 surviving manuscripts containing at least part of the Canterbury Tales), and mapping the connections between these is a complex task. However, as the project team suggest, the ‘information architecture’ provided by the Tube map is a very useful way of showing the various types of connections. With these maps, the ‘interchange stations’ are given different symbols to indicate manuscripts, the types of places owning or producing manuscripts, and people and places connected with manuscripts.

Moving to the present day, Victoria Henshaw of the University of Sheffield works on an entirely different kind of mapping: smellscapes! Her work traces the connections between cities and the smells associated with them, considering how scents such as grass, breweries, street food and drainage systems all influence our sense of place. As well as recently publishing a fascinating-looking book, Urban Smellscapes, she also leads ‘smellwalks’ through cities around the world, encouraging participants to think about the way in which smells contribute to our perception and memories of streets, squares and other public areas. Victoria is going to be running a smellwalk in London next month at UCL’s Institute of Making, so I’ll see if I can book a place!

Looking at Victoria’s work led me to researcher and designer Kate McLean, whose amazing maps on her website Sensory Maps chart the smellscapes, tastescapes and even touchscapes of Edinburgh, Paris and other cities. Beautiful works of art in their own right – have a look at the delicate paper-white tactile maps of Edinburgh, or the crayon-colourful contour lines of her smell maps – Kate’s maps bring a whole new range of sensory experience to the idea of the city map. Kate has also created several exhibitions related to her smell maps, where viewers are invited to sniff samples of the various scents, from fish and chips to penguins at the zoo. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next one on her engaging blog, where she discusses her work on smells, smell-mapping, and even an experiment in bottling the scent of a horse.

Kate McLean, smell map of Edinburgh

Kate McLean, smell map of Edinburgh (reproduced by kind permission).
The coloured dots indicate the origins of scents; the contour lines show where the scents blow in the wind.

Kate McLean, key to smell map

Kate McLean, key to smell map

From mapping the Brut to the scents and reeks of Edinburgh, I hope you enjoy these maps!