SASKIA WILSON BROWN: PROMOTING THE INDEPENDENT PERFUME SCENE
2022 . 09 . 08 |
One aspect that characterizes the artisan/niche perfumery world is the plethora of creative, visionary people who we find in the community. Essencional celebrates these individuals in a new feature entitled La Gente di Nicchia, or The People of Niche Perfumery. We kick off the series with an exclusive interview in which Saskia Wilson Brown, founder of the Institute For Art and Olfaction (IAO) in Los Angeles, talks about her organization’s mission as well as the subject of power and accessibility in the perfumery universe.
Tell me about your career path and what led you to creating the IAO.
I’m an artist. My background is art, film and music, and like many artists, I’ve has to cast about to find how I can make a living. This led me to working on film festivals, which really honed my instinct for who has access to creativity and why. When I started learning about the world of perfume, I saw parallels between what was happening in film at the time and what hadn’t happened yet in perfumery. In film, there was a move towards accessibility and my interest in perfume came from that. I wanted to understand why it is that the perfume industry is closed: who has access, who doesn’t, and why intrigued me. But this was ten years ago, and since then things have changed.
The Institute for Art and Olfaction was founded in September of 2012 as a non-profit organization devoted to access, education and experimentation with scent. We serve the independent perfume scene, and the awards program, which I’ll talk about later, points towards that. A large part of what we do is oriented towards creating more points of access for the general public, and a lot of basic education. Topics can be as fundamental as why we don’t need to be afraid of a synthetic chemicals, to why perfume is an art form and why it matters. In our physical location we have a well-stocked experimental lab space where artists can come in to do research and development, as well as tinker with materials to make things. We have a dedicated gallery space where we host shows from contemporary artists who work with scent. We are also an online resource for education and learning, and this really grew during COVID.
What can you tell me about the people who visit the institute? What kind of clientele does it attract?
We attract a broad variety of people. Generally, we attract creative people looking for a new creative outlet, and sometimes people who are looking for a new business idea. Our educational programs attract people who are interested in scent. Maybe they’re perfume fans, or maybe they want to learn to work with perfume. I see them as curious minds who want to expand their knowledge, and who want to get their hands on the materials and blend things. Our art gallery of course attracts the art crowd, and then we have a program called the Experimental Scent Summit that attracts intellectuals in the perfume sphere. They may be deeply involved with olfactory art, or they may be academics, or they could even be outside the margins of the fragrance world. It’s a program we normally do every year in conjunction with the Smell Lab in Berlin, but COVID got in the way recently.
I see the mention of open source strategies on your website. What does that mean for the IAO?
We think of open source strategies as ways that people can access and share information without damaging, discounting or overlooking the role of the creators or the people who commissioned them. For example, in film there’s a movement towards creative commons, which incorporates concepts like attribution: sharing or riffing on a concept or idea, while carefully crediting the original creator. This is a sort of informed remix culture, which is long established and exists in music. But this has yet to happen in perfumery for the simple reason that our intellectual property structures are different. The IAO envisions creating new structures for sharing and attribution within the perfume sector that are informed by an infrastructure that actually supports the artists and perfumers while also allowing for creative freedom.
Let’s talk about the subject of who has power and who has access in perfumery. How do you see it?
This obsession with democracy may be a North American approach, and it’s definitely flawed. But, it’s an idea that’s instilled in me: that everyone should be equal. This implies an erosion of certain power structures, not for the sake of eroding them, but for the sake of making sure there is equal access and that everyone has a fair shake. This topic of accessibility and power in perfumery; who has power and how that translates to access is very interesting to me. I’m in the process of doing a PhD on the topic.
When you think about the process of becoming a perfumer, it tends to be focused on Europe: to attend any school in France, you pretty much have to speak French. And then the programs offered by the Fragrance houses only take a handful of students. There is very limited access, and I think that lack of access is a problem. We’ve seen an increase of self-taught perfumers and independents who launch their own brand. It’s an understandable upheaval. Within the larger industry, as far as I can tell, there’s been a lot of pushback. People ask, are these new independent perfumers “real” perfumers? Of course they are. All you have to do is look at history for the answer. I do believe that independents can coexist with the industry. It’s not an either or situation. What I’m not trying to do is disparage or in any way put down the system as it is, because the system as it is produces beautiful work. The point of the institute is to say there is this way of doing fragrance but also all these other ways and it’s ok, it’s ok for them to exist, it doesn’t threaten the established way, it’s all good.
In fact, the IAO celebrates the independents through the Art and Olfaction Awards. Tell me about the program.
I used to run a film festival so I have a deep and painful experience with the structures of inclusion and exclusion for awards. About 9 years ago a friend of mine, the perfumer Bruno Fazzolari, suggested I do awards for independents and at first I was like “No way”. But then I thought about it, and I thought, if indeed our mission is to promote the visibility of independent practices then it’s an obvious answer, so we decided to do it. The awards are for independent, artisan and experimental practitioners with scent. And by independent brands we mean folks that have a company that is not owned by a conglomerate. There are different understandings of artisan, and we’ve had many debates about this, but as it stands it refers to companies or brands that are owned or co-owned by the perfumer who makes the formulas, so the creative is at the top. Then there’s a further category which is handmade, and includes people that make all aspects of the product by hand. The experimental category is pointing towards people who are working outside the construct of perfume, such as in art or technology, but who work with scent for a different goal, such as for an installation rather than producing a fragrance to sell.
It’s a nine month project from initial submission to when the awards are announced. We have open submissions, and then everything is judged in a blind vial so we equalize the process and there are no financial or budgetary marketing advantages that could sway a judge’s opinion. We have a large and rotating group of judges who go through a long evaluation process. The judges have to know about perfumery but they also have to be removed enough from the industry that they aren’t able to recognize submissions. If they do recognize something, they recuse themselves from judging it. It’s tricky to navigate, but we have a very strong sense of ethics.
We get a ton of submissions so it means a lot of people don’t make it to another level. For every inclusion there is exclusion. I struggle with the fact that some really good projects don’t get beyond the first round, but it’s the nature of award programs. As an artist myself, I am intimately acquainted with rejection.
Another IAO program which you host is the podcast, Perfume on the Radio. I love it! Which is your favorite episode and what can we look forward to later this year?
Thank you so much. We try to explore original concepts, and it all comes down to my own curiosity. The thing about scent is that it relates to everything. I wanted to do a podcast that would explore various topics through smell. We’ve done everything from class systems, to cats, to outer space. We’ve done long form interviews with different people including Mandy Aftel and there’s one coming up with Christopher Brosius who shares some very interesting nuggets. The episode called Mythical Beasts was, I think, my favorite.
Let’s move on to some philosophical questions. What value does scent have in our lives?
The value I see in scent is that it’s a lens from which to explore the world, and it’s a lens that’s sincere and uniquely yours: your impression of what something smells like is true for you. No one can argue that. Scent provides another way to perceive the world, it’s a different approach that you can take to be curious, more open. It’s a great way to launch into any topic you want. As a structure for discovery, scent is incredible.
What do you need to stay creative? To find inspiration?
Travel and even the time between places, like being on a plane or on a train. That space to be and observe without having to give targeted input is really helpful for me. I’m a very curious person and travel feeds that curiosity, and inspires new ideas. But also, I was educated in philosophy at a young age, so philosophical conversations really do it for me too, especially if they are tied to lived experience.
How do you get through uncertain times?
My strategy for life in general is that every big thing can be broken down in to smaller things – you can always do one small task. And be tenacious, don’t stop, just keep going.
Wise advice! Thank you Saskia!
The Institute for Art and Olfaction cites as its mission their devotion to advancing the public access to the practice of working with scent. “We do this by initiating and supporting experimental projects with scent, by providing accessible education in our laboratory as well as in partnership with institutions and community groups, by curating art exhibitions that incorporate scent in our gallery, and by raising visibility for independent, artisan and experimental and artistic practices with scent as a whole.” Everyone is welcome and online programs are open to all. For more information visit: