Tonya sent me three samples of smells from or inspired by the Seafield site in Portobello. I attempted to react, make work, or write about these scents, trying to find some clever, tidy response to them.
A series of failures ensued.
So, I decided to keep it simple and follow my own advice.
As part of a PhD I have come up with a series of Deep Smelling Protocols, to help us tune into our sense of smell. Following these protocols allowed me to find a way to relate to Tonya’s scents.
The first protocol asks us to take some time.
I found this hard to follow.
To take some time and contemplate the scents that Tonya posted to me has been a struggle.
A quick curious sniff when I first got them home was easy (albeit complicated when I realised the blotter strips I had pinched from a department store during my lunch hour were pre-perfumed).
and really contemplate them was harder.
I was treating it like a job to get done. This was a mistake and symptomatic of a busy few weeks and maybe of 21st entury life.
Returning to the protocols and working through them with Tonya’s scents gave me the prompts I needed,
taking some time.
Immediately the instruction resonated.
During Tonya’s residency at Seafield, she has taken time to get a nuanced understanding of the area and invited others to spend time with her there, in an area that is neglected by many.
The second protocol is to breathe.
Another simple instruction, but
an action that insists we smell with every inhalation
is integral to human life
can help calm our nervous system.
The third protocol asks, what can you smell?
Before opening, spraying or sampling Tonya’s scents I thought about the smells that were already in the room. Luckily, I’m in the fairly sterile surrounds of a university office, so there aren’t many smells to distract me, except a trace of the peppermint tea I’ve been drinking and a smell of dry, warm air.
*I spray the first scent, labelled ‘Encroaching Coastal Liquid’.
At first sniff I barely notice anything,
except maybe a slightly fusty odour,
like a dry cupboard that hasn’t been opened in a while,
almost like old paper.
Despite its faintness there is a weight or slightly rough texture to this smell,
I can’t decide which.
For a moment I think I’m smelling the card I sprayed the scent on and not the scent,
so I spray again but this time into the cap of the bottle.
The fusty odour is still there but begins to fade away quickly.
A few moments more and it has evaporated completely.
I read the label,
‘a basic smell of nothingness’,
it’s a relief to know there isn’t supposed to be much to smell.
It is synthetic seawater.
*The second scent is labelled ‘Firth of Forth sea water’.
This is the smell I think of when I think of the sea.
The salty, almost fruity scent of fresh seaweed.
I imagine this arriving on a gust of sea air.
It’s strong at first and then
starts to fade,
but not as quickly or completely as the
‘Encroaching Coastal Liquid’.
It lingers, a trace remains.
I keep going back for another sniff.
*Lastly there is ‘Seafield Sea Mist’.
This is sweeter and has something both more earthy and more human about it.
Going back for a second sniff
I’m reminded of the gas cooker in my grandma’s kitchen, or maybe a camping stove.
Could this be right?
I sniff again,
it’s still that smell,
there is something comforting and familiar about it.
The smell remains, it does not fade.
I check the ingredients list,
not trusting my nose.
‘Dimethyl sulphur’ jumps out as a first clue, but the internet describes this as a
faint onion-like smell, sometimes produced by marine algae.
Maybe this is it?
There is also a smell of body lotion on skin, in a very generic way.
I notice the liquid in the bottle has separated,
so give it a shake and smell again.
I ask the person at the desk next to me to sniff it.
After a minute she identifies it as sudacrem.
This isn’t a smell I know, but we discuss that it does have the odour of a body lotion, maybe from the vitamin E, witch hazel and sweet almond oil that are also in it.
Having read that it also contains lavender, I can now notice the slightest trace
of it too.
Protocols 4-7 ask me to take in my surroundings, the weather, and the time of day.
Usually, I would be practicing these protocols in situ,
but this is different.
I’m not in Seafield, Portobello, Edinburgh or even Scotland.
Both the scents and I are
from the environment that inspired them.
Yet I bring my subjectivity to them.
I went to Edinburgh as a child and to the west coast of Scotland, although Aberdeen in winter is different to Edinburgh in summer/autumn. Perhaps this gives me some idea of its smells and the knowledge that it is to some extent similar to the east coast of Ireland, Belfast and County Down where I am from (and Tonya too).
Tonya’s labels give me clues to follow, with her descriptions giving a sense of time, both of the day and the season.
She also tells me that the increasingly cold weather made it difficult for participants to pick up on the smells they encountered during her workshops. This is similar to my own experiences of trying to concentrate and find the smells around me as the seasons change from early autumn to winter.
Often the smellscape becomes so quiet that you can barely scent it.
Protocols 8-11 delve further into our surroundings,
near and far.
This highlights both my displacement from the Edinburgh coastline and Tonya’s scents from the warm, dry, inanimate office that I am smelling them in. The lack of a breeze means I am more able to smell the fabric conditioner on my cardigan and the perfume I put on this morning,
and then forgot all about.
The difference between the location I’m smelling these scents in and the place they are inspired by, makes me think all the more about how I might encounter them there.
Would I notice the ‘Encroaching Coastal Liquid’ at all?
Or only if I made a concentrated effort to do so?
Does the fresh, lingering odour from the ‘Firth of Forth sea water’ mimic how the odour behaves in real life?
Pleasantly surprising me on my first breath of it, as it might when I open a car door on arriving at the beach. Then becoming part of the backdrop to a walk by the sea.
Is the ‘Seafield Sea Mist’ a more musky intimate smell that travels with you on your skin? Or is it conjured up by the activity of those around you, as opposed to a smell that passes by, or swirls around you, intermittently dipping in and out on a breathe before floating off again on the wind?
A later set of protocols ask if we can describe what we are smelling, taking into account all the spatial and temporal qualities of the previous protocols.
When thinking about this I’m always reminded of Virginia Woolf’s essay, ‘Craftsmanship’, broadcast in 1937 as part of a series called Words Fail Me.  It’s one of the only known recordings of Woolf’s voice. She speaks about the evasiveness of words, how they live in our minds, are transformed by each other and often are nowhere to be found when we most need them. When I try to describe a smell, words often fail me. If Virginia Woolf felt this way about words too, then I don’t feel so bad about it. I admitted at the start of this text that I had failed in my first attempts to respond to Tonya’s scents. If I can identify a smell, I will say what it is, yet this is not a description of a smell, but a labelling.
Some languages with their roots outside Europe  have a lexicon of words to describe smells, but not English.
I have no ease of language in describing Tonya’s scents; instead, I reach for words about how they move in space, their temporality, strength, and the feelings they evoke. But, remembering to do this without returning to the default of labelling them is a practice that I must continually prompt myself to return to.
Tonya encountered this limit of language too, describing the difficulty everyone had during her workshops on the beach, while trying to make sea mists. Words failed them as well. So, they abandoned words, concentrating instead on drawing the essence of the smells, and the feelings and senses connected with the environment they were in, as they walked through it.
Then they moved a step further and started adding sand and soil to their drawings, perhaps using a cross-modal way to describe the feel and texture of the smellscape.
This makes me think of Robin Wall Kimmerer  and her book Braiding Sweetgrass (2013). In it she discusses the animacy of language, how in Potawatomi, the language of her ancestors, things that we might refer to as ‘it’ and therefore as inanimate objects, like the sea, the beach, sand, rocks, and seaweed are thought of as sentient, living, beings. This transforms them from objects to subjects. Having this animacy in language and, in turn, in how we think of the world around us, can offer a valuable perspective and approach to understanding both landscapes and smellscapes. The use of touch, texture and images as a way of describing the smellscape of Seafield beach provides the possibility to break free from the constraints of the English language and its words that fail us.
 Woolf, V., The Death of The Moth and other essays, Reader’s Union, London, 1943. www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcbY04JrMaU
 Majid, A., & Huisman, J., Psycholinguistic variables matter in odor naming, Memory & Cognition (2018) 46:577–588 doi.org/10.3758/s13421…
Jan Uprichard is a Belfast based artist and freelance curator/producer. She is currently a PhD researcher at Ulster University, developing a method of Deep Smelling. Deep Smelling is a meditative, experiential, and process-based art practice, bringing our attention to our sense of smell.
Jan works with smell as a device to reprogramme how we perceive our surroundings, whilst themes of friendship fuel her curatorial practice. Her practice oscillates between participatory events and obsessive research, using smell, walking, archives, mapping, food, sound, film, bookmaking, botany, and interventions as tools. januprichard.com/
Tonya McMullan is a multidisciplinary artist with a socially engaged practice. Her work explores everyday life in the public space through context-specific, process-based, participatory and performative interactions and interventions within a place. McMullan has immersed herself in the world of insects for several years: ongoing projects with beekeeping, urban agriculture and pollinators have developed into explorations of our sensory and extra-sensory connections. www.tonyamcmullan.co.u…
This text is one of a series of new writing commissions in response to SALT, Art Walk Projects’ ongoing season of artist residencies. It also forms part of an editorial partnership between Art Walk Projects and MAP, working together to support contemporary art writing via experimental approaches to commissioning and publishing. SALT culminates in the publication of a book in spring 2023. www.artwalkporty.co.uk…