Saskia of The IAO

Watercolor by Natalie Toren

Interdisciplinary artist, curator and filmmaker Saskia Wilson-Brown founded The Institute for Art and Olfaction in 2012 in Los Angeles. With its multi-pronged commitment to supporting experimental scent practice in art, access to perfumer education, a database of open source online resources, and annual industry awards, the IAO has had an outsized impact globally in the years since. Meaning that if you’re having a conversation about independent perfumery anywhere in the world, chances are the IAO will come up more than once. Saskia spoke with me about her personal journey with scent and the evolving mission and work of the IAO at the end of June. The pandemic has posed unique challenges to her team, and in response they have initiated a robust transition to online programming, including accord classes, lectures, seminars and conversations available online at a sliding scale.

Interviewed by Natalie Toren, an LA-based journalist

Can you share your earliest memory associated with a particular smell or fragrance?

My mother was a tomboy, so there wasn’t big splashy perfume usage in my childhood home. My first conscious memories with a specific fragrance were in my teenage years where my first forays into love were tinged with CK One. The other day I actually brought home some Obsession by Calvin Klein—because I heard that cats are drawn to the scent—and my husband was instantly retraumatised by his high school years. But the first time I really clocked scent was in France; I grew up in San Francisco with long punctuations in Paris. I remember spending my 9th grade year there, and it was the height of the supermodel era: Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell. It was the heyday of grand, excessive perfume advertising, like the ads for Angel by Thierry Mugler, and I remember being so influenced by these images that were all over the city. They represented a femininity that was everything I was not. I recently found drawings of perfume bottles and perfume ads in sketchbooks from when I was that age. So, in a sense, my first attraction to it was visual.

I was fascinated by what was happening to these structures in the media, especially with filmmaking transformed by Youtube, and realized that this shift wasn’t yet happening in perfume.

You are at the intersection of multiple artistic realms and because of this, the go-to-source for droves of people who have scent questions (or want referrals) whether it be for art, commerce or resources. Can you share some compelling artists working with scent?

Aleesa Cohene is an artist who explores identity through visual mediums. A lot of her work has to do with editing film media into an uber-narrative of how identity is perceived or depicted in media. She collaborated with the IAO years ago on a scent project relating to protest, and she’s done a lot of research since then. I’m so excited about her new work because she’s socially conscious and seeing the impact scent can have in the public realm. She’ll be giving a talk in August online through the IAO.

Anika Yi is an incredible artist who examines the immigrant experience and scent. The scent of otherness, or the scent of othering, or how scent has been used to “other” people. She is based in New York and does really excellent work. 

Miles Regis is another amazing artist. He’s a LA-based artist originally from Trinidad. A few years ago, he did a residency at the IAO, and used his time to create a scent relating to police violence against Black people. 

Could you point us in the direction of a few perfumers you are really interested in right now?

There are pockets of independent perfumers all over the world. Because it’s my home turf, I’m really excited about the movement centered in the West of North America – From California up into British Columbia, and even Colorado and New Mexico. Different brands that are focusing on staying intentionally small and foregoing mass consumerism, inspired by people like the great natural perfumer Mandy Aftel. There’s the Coalition of Sustainable Perfumery that recently started up based in the Bay Area and they’re committed to sharing the tools, education and resources for scent production that adheres to the breadth of what sustainable means now. It’s a group of four independent perfumers: Heather D’Angelo of Carta Fragrances, Mauricio Garcia of Herbcraft Perfumery, Molly Brennan of House of Sacred Scents and Sydney Buffman of SYD Botanica. I’m so excited about their work and their social impact. And I’m really intrigued by Italy’s scene. Italians have class, they have style, you know? Typically even if the brand is super small, they’ll have this careful and conscious examination of branding, not a rote luxury reproduction. There’s this brand called Extrait D’Atelier that creates scents devoted to specific artisan crafts, like ceramics, shoemaking or couture, that is very worth checking out. I also love the brand Folie à Plusieurs which has at their core a trans-medium approach.

Why do we always have to grow? I love the punkiness of the IAO…

How did you start the Institute for Art and Olfaction?

I was in London doing my masters at Central Saint Martins, and afterwards I came to LA where my dad lived and ended up staying. I was working at Current TV for a period, up in San Francisco where I was responsible for the team that went out and found filmmakers who made the content. I was dealing with rights and ownership and I became very well aware of artist ownership and access problems. I was fascinated by what was happening to these structures in the media, especially with filmmaking transformed by Youtube, and realized that this shift wasn’t yet happening in perfume. Bear in mind, this was in 2011, it has since opened up quite a bit. But that was the dynamic that initially got me interested, and it’s evolved so much since then.  

How are people finding the IAO?

A lot of people are coming from a sensorial place, the kind of “I’ve been smelling things my whole life” that leads them to us. Similarly, many have very strong scent memories and a lot of emotions associated with loved ones or people who have passed. We get a lot of artists interested in working with scent in their art practice or politics. And we get a lot of people who want to make something pretty with application. An aspect that I’ve found interesting is that the intangibility of scent is refreshing for people. In a way it’s like digital media in that it lives and then disappears. It’s in your face and then in the ether. Even if people don’t verbalize it that way, I think they find it interesting and comforting somehow. There’s something parallel about how we consume media, but smells are so evanescent that it’s one extra level of abstraction. 

The IAO offers advanced classes, rigorous units, and lectures way beyond introductory levels. How have you developed this programming?

We’ve always offered ourselves as a resource. As more brands have started in LA, or more people have gotten involved in perfume in LA, the community’s needs have evolved, and it’s reflected in the development of our education. Ashley Eden Kessler who is classically trained as a perfumer, has been a really important part of expanding and advancing our programming, in many ways she is a godsend. Perfumer Spyros Drosopoulos based in the Netherlands is also teaching regular classes. We’re getting more technically proficient perfumers to help raise the offerings of what people want to learn and is actually useful.

What difficulties did or do you face with the growth?

Well, growth means that we rely on our community all the more. I had worked in the non profit sector before and knew what I was getting into: a vow of poverty, basically. You have to be driven by your sense of justice, not by love of money or recognition. I’ve had a day job this whole time, and still do. The unique problem of the IAO is a challenge of perception. People think that we’re much bigger than we actually are. Really, we’re tiny. Along with the help of our board of directors, I’ve been trying to figure out the next stage of the organization. I got a severe case of burnout a few years ago and felt that I’d hit the limits of my skill set. As an example, I’m great with doing big things on no budget, but that is exhausting (especially after 8 years of it). Conversely, I’m not good with corporate sponsorship: terms like ROI and etc. I just don’t get it. This blind spot is always going to limit the institute’s growth. On the other hand, why do we always have to grow? I love the punkiness of the IAO. I’d hate to see it get glossy and corporate. What I love about the institute is that we keep it human, and down to earth. We’re the opposite of exclusionary or intimidating – and that serves our mission of creating access and facilitating experimentation. If we were too sleek, we’d be serving the illusion that perfume is all about glamour, wealth, blah blah. While we can’t be a teenager forever, and while I am very keen not to hit another burnout, the IAO does have to maintain the spirit of teenagerdom. So… it’s a bit of a challenge. But I think we’ll get there. 

Can you tell me about the Open Sourcing Smell Culture mission?

For the sake of simplifying a complex issue a bit, there’s a culture of secrecy and exclusion in the industry that is fueled in part by inadequate protection for creative work. Formulas aren’t protected by intellectual property law, so the tendency has been to keep them locked away. However, it’s increasingly pointless as technology allows most people to get any information they want. This stuff is on the internet. And if it’s not online, people can take your perfume and get a GC and get a sense of the materials, anyway. This narrative of secrecy and holding things tight is pointless, and not sustainable. It’s the same thing that happened in film with YouTube. The best we can do is create structures for attribution and be respectful of each other in this new reality. If your stuff is going to get copied, you may as well have a say in how it’s copied and credited.

In it’s perfect form, an open source database would be something that’s owned by everybody like Wikipedia. Good Scents Company does a great job of this, they’re amazing. I don’t know who they are but they deserve a Nobel Prize in perfume if there is such a thing! Our database is hosted on the Institute’s site. The challenge for this is how to create a structure where the user agreement upholds a user code of conduct: for example, preventing people from sharing what they shouldn’t (a formula that is very toxic, formulas from a prior employer). We’re working out how this infrastructure will self-support. People police each other pretty well: call out culture, in it’s best form promotes responsibility, although it can be hard to watch. 

Are you getting support from the industry?

Independent perfumers are really behind the IAO. People from some of the bigger fragrance houses are also really behind it, but more quietly. It’s challenging for them to get involved, but by and large most people I’ve met in the industry – with one or two glaring exceptions – are hungry for change. Infrastructures at corporations are designed to protect corporations. Change takes time. Of course, people are entitled not to share as well. You have to get away from the sense that there’s not enough business to go around; the sense of scarcity that makes it hard to accommodate all these competitors. On the flipside, the more people do it, the more they’re going to create appetites for it. Their friends, their community will get involved and get excited about perfume. The more you share, the more people get involved, the better for everybody in the long run. 

How has the IAO responded to the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent investigations into dismantling privileged narratives in industries like the fragrance industry?

The IAO entirely supports the BLM movement, of course. Our mission has been and remains to create access for people who don’t have access to the field so we’re literally set up to subvert these problematic power structures, using the perfume industry as our lens.  
The core of what we do is in line with the narrative of inclusion. Having said that, since the most recent wave of protests (and the police brutality and murder that sparked them) I’ve done a lot of thinking about these issues and realized that we need to make our position more explicit. We’ve published a statement of commitment detailing what we’re going to do specifically for perfumers who have been excluded from the 20th century Western perfume industry. And we’re reinvestigating our programs. One of the things I am working on is an accelerator program for projects that are designed to create or further visibility for people who have been excluded from this iteration of the industry (and don’t forget, perfumery is a practice that belongs to everyone  – and HAS belonged to everyone – until relatively recently). We also just put all our programming on a sliding scale. Economic injustice is a huge part of this problem, so we are tackling any hurdles to taking our classes. A third thing we are working on is an ongoing program that is devoted to relearning perfume history, changing this European-heavy story and better representing the truth of perfumery which is that perfume has been an inclusive field. It’s only the modern industry that has become exclusionary. The Eurocentric narrative of Louis XIV as the king of perfume, it’s nonsense. Yes, some great beautiful perfumes have been made in France, but there are a multitude of other practices that deserve recognition.

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