Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Pre-Raphaelites and the Olfactory Anti Camera

An early concept design
“Camera phones being as ubiquitous as they are, it’s common at any public gathering – firework display, festival, parade or sunset in a beer garden – to see a forest of arms raised above heads, awkwardly waving miniature, two-dimensional proxies of the spectacle ahead. Everyone with their arm in the air is not looking at the point of interest, but their own screen, carefully making sure they are ‘capturing’ every detail for some assumed posterity. The problem is, we become so distracted, busy trying to record these memorable events, that we’re actually missing out. Ironically, whilst making sure an imagined ‘future self’ has access to a tinny, shaky-cam approximation of what once occurred, we’re actually divorcing ourselves (our ‘current self’) from the moment, and any consequential sensory or emotional attachment.”Pan Studios

An experience-production company, Pan Studios have recently been wrestling with the problem of how to enable people to live in the moment, whilst also fulfilling the need to capture memory. One solution they have come up with is the Olfactory Anti-Camera. “The Anti-Camera doesn’t record …. Rather, it coerces our mind into recollecting the essence of a moment – something less tangible than an image can capture. The device is designed to tag a moment in time with a unique olfactory identifier code – a bespoke smell. Then, when wishing to recall the moment at their leisure, the user of such a device could recreate the unique smell.” The prototype contains three ‘magazines’ representing top, middle and bottom notes. Each of these three compartments contain a choice of 8 notes.  By choosing one note from each of the magazines, there are 512 possible scents that the user would be able to create. Whilst this may enable the sharing of similar memories, amongst others who were present at the original event, it will not enable the past to be captured for future audiences.

Despite this problem, I like to think that the Victorian sculptor, poet, critic and writer John Lucas Tupper would have seen the value of the olfactory-anti camera. In 1850, he observed in the Pre-Raphaelite journal, The Germ, that some years previously, on his first visit to the British Museum, he had found the whole museum permeated with the smell of camphor and that this smell was ‘suggestive of things scientific or artistic.’ Years later a chance whiff of camphor had brought to his mind ‘the whole collection from end to end,’ starting with an enormous stuffed walrus. This prompted him to suggest the idea of attributing an artwork or museum object with a smell, in order to enhance not only the viewer’s memory of the piece, but perhaps also their reverence of the artistic or scientific importance of the piece. It leads me to wonder, could his call to artists and writers to ‘let a poem, a painting, or sculpture, smell ever so little of antiquity and every intelligent reader will be full of delightful imaginations’ have had some bearing on the Pre-Raphaelite interest in the depiction of scent in works such as Millais’s painting Autumn Leaves (1856) or Rossetti’s poem Lady Lillith?

Certainly, Tupper’s influence upon his peers at the Royal Academy schools , Holman Hunt, Millais and Rossetti has been undervalued. Eight years before the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed, he published an article in the American journal Crayon 1841, in which he wrote that “the painters before Raffaelle's time were better, i.e. more Christian, than Raffaelle himself; and that [Raphael] introduced the heathen element into modern art."