If we were to give you an exhaustive bio of Saskia Wilson-Brown, it would be a hefty tome—and as interesting as it is long. She’s an American with Cuban and English blood and a French upbringing. She’s an artist in the truest, most borderless sense of the word. She’s done music video production for Madonna, directed major film festivals, and helped Al Gore’s Current TV create some of the most compelling documentary work even seen on cable. She speaks and writes and teaches and mentors—and she just happens to love the art of perfumery.
In 2012, Saskia decided to launch the Institute for Art and Olfaction, a first-of-its-kind nonprofit organization dedicated to exploring scent as an artistic medium. Through the Institute, Saskia and her colleagues have created a space where perfumery can thrive, the public can learn, and artists in other media can add a fourth dimension to their work. In this Q&A, Saskia shares the story of how and why it all happened—and how she came to partner with Olfactif to guest-curate our collection “ ’Tis Better to Have Loved.”
Olfactif: Let's start with the basics. What is the Institute for Art and Olfaction?
Saskia Wilson-Brown: The Institute for Art and Oflaction is a nonprofit space that's meant to help create access and innovation in perfumery.
O: How did you come up with the idea to start the Institute?
SWB: A friend of mine at Current TV gave me a book— The Emperor of Scent, which is an entry point into the perfume world for a lot of people. He and I started thinking about the idea of doing a documentary about it. And as that went along—with all the frustrations that any documentary production entails—I realized that it wasn't really a documentary that I was interested in doing; rather, it was engaging with perfume in general. The documentary was sort of an excuse to learn about the world of scent.
But also, I was realizing what most people learn when they try to get into perfume: It's a very closed industry. The process of trying to learn got me wondering about whether there was room for independent innovation, a space that poked at the industry a little bit. Not with the intention of dismantling, mind, but just to mess around with perfumery and perhaps make it a little more accessible for outsiders: artists and poorer folk, specifically.
So one morning, I woke up with a whim: to start this nonprofit. My husband Micah helped me pull it together, making the whim feel like a reality with a beautiful logo. I bought the domain name and put a little site up and suddenly the whole thing became real. In retrospect, it was obviously the right thing for me to do. But at the time, there wasn't much more thought put into it than that. Thank god: Had I thought about it, I probably wouldn’t have done it.
O: Tell us how the Institute operates and how it delivers on its mission.
SWB: One aspect of our mission is around the art of perfume, and the other is the aspect of access and education. On the art side, we have artists-in-residence and we also work with artists in other media—filmmakers, for instance, and designers. In short, if an artist has an idea that involves scent, we do our best to help them make it happen. Sometimes that’s by connecting them with a perfumer, sometimes we just sit in the lab with them and talk through what’s possible.
The education aspect of what we do has really focused on things around scent—history, concepts—as well as hands-on stuff that we try to keep fairly casual. We like a tinkering, open approach, providing accessible education that allows people to engage with scent without the formality and expense. That's what I was looking for when I was getting into the scent world, so I was just sort of replicating what helps me. But, ultimetely, we're going to expand on that.
O: There aren't a lot of places that focus, particularly in America, on educating the public at large about perfumery as an art form. So how much of the education component is aimed at the general public versus budding perfumers?
SWB: The education is 100 percent aimed at general public. The whole point of this was to have some underprivileged kid in, I don’t know, Venice Beach who says, "I want to learn about perfume"— where the heck would that kid go? Where would he go to learn, to get his hands on the materials? The Institute was entirely designed to help somebody who had zero access, zero knowledge, and zero hope of finding access to get access. So in that way it's definitely geared toward people who are not in the perfume world. But of course as the attendance and needs grow, so will we.
O: How does perfume figure into your personal history? Were you always into scents?
SWB: Not really. I got my masters in fine arts with a focus on photography and art theory. But I was raised partially in Paris, so certainly as a kid I was seeing magazine advertisements with Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, all the top models. That early-90’s top model scene definitely figured into my cultural upbringing, and with that, I'm sure there was a lot of exposure to perfumes and their ads. But it was definitely more of a, "Wow, one day I'll be glamorous like these ladies!" kind of thing. The whole world of fashion definitely felt very alien to me—in fact, it still does. I was and still am a clumsy, dorky, sometimes very awkward art student.
But once I did discover scent, I found it fascinating. Not because I'm particularly into the glamor of it, but because I'm into the potential for perversion or for using it in a way that's interesting or conceptual, or maybe messed up or political. That's what I find interesting about it. The potential for subversion.
O: When we start talking about perfume as an art form, suddenly we have to make way for criticism of it. So what's your approach to, or your feelings on, criticism? What role do you think it should play in the perfume world?
SWB: It's a really interesting question. It’s something I’ve grappled with a little bit because, for instance, when we launch a scent, there's always been a certain approach of, "Well, let's send it to the perfume blogs and get some feedback and critique." But I've grappled with that because what we're doing at the Institute doesn't really fit into that paradigm. I mean, there are a lot of people who are pretty progressive and pretty interested in scent and who have a kind of higher understanding of what the potential could be. But some of the criticism tends to focus on questions like "Is this wearable? Is this sexy? Will it make you feel cute?" And I find that to be a very limited approach—and definitely not what we’re trying to do at the IAO. Luckily, the blog review world has been really amazing at teasing out these high-concept intentions. Most of them get it. And then, of course, we also deal with the art critics, which is a whole different set of parameters. Is perfume an art in the “museum” sense of the word? Nobody really knows. It hasn't really been proven one way or another yet, although people have definitely been trying!
The art people that I've been dealing with are asking: Is it challenging? Is it conceptual? Does it work as an art piece? But mostly, they don't have the vocabulary to judge it. They don't know enough about scents, the medium, and the potential for scents to really understand whether the piece works. So we need to create access to that knowledge first.
O: Let's talk about your Olfactif curation. Tell us about the idea behind it and the perfumers and the scents that you picked.
SWB: I'm interested in storytelling. For Olfactif, I wanted to tell a little story about something inherently human: a painful love affair. But of course we also wanted to highlight scents that are good. That was the impulse behind it. So we picked three scents that click into the narrative from a conceptual point of view, and that are also beautiful scents. Yosh’s U4EAHH! is so lovely. I mean, the name says it all. It's an uplifting scent, and I felt that it really connects to that first phase of falling in love. And then Brent, at Smell Bent, is so great at capturing the honest side of humanity. I felt like that somewhat naughty feeling that comes along with the first blush of love is so integral to the whole experience. Walk of Shame seemed like a very appropriate perfume for the second one.
For the third one, the break-up. Nothing is more breakup-appropriate than fog and rain. I imagined our imaginary lovers meeting in San Francisco, being in love in Los Angeles, and breaking up in Portland. There's this sort of greyness and sadness to the weather in Portland, and I think Josh Meyer of Imaginary Authors really captured the rocky, foggy self-analysis of a breakup with Cape Heartbreak. Cape Heartbreak is a new release. It's fantastic.
O: Do you try to use storytelling a lot in what you do at the Institute? Do you encourage other perfumers to do that?
SWB: Yes. There's nothing more engaging than a story. It's one of the universal things about humans: Everybody likes a good story. So where it's appropriate, definitely, I try to insert narratives.
O: What was your connection to each of these three perfumers?
SWB: Josh participated in our first project (Cult, with filmmaker Mark Harris) and Brent participated in a recent project with an artist called Austin Young. Yosh was the first person who opened up her studio to teach me something. So I have an appreciation for what Yosh does. It's interesting because my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, found out about her on the Internet and signed me up for a class. So in a weird way, Yosh’s “euphoria” concept applies well for me personally: She was the one who first allowed me to experience blending, and it all coincided with my euphoric love for my husband.
O: How could someone who's living in L.A. or visiting L.A. take advantage of the Institute?
SWB: We have weekly drop-in sessions that are open to the public and we're hoping to extend those as I get more support. On the website there's a calendar section that lists open sessions. Also, people just email me and drop in all the time. But do check in ahead of time. We keep odd hours, because we’re all artists and mortal enemies of the 9 to 5.