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S(c)en(t)sory Foraging

Research project Tracing the eros of olfaction in multi-species metabolisms

Scentsory Foraging is a transdisciplinary research project in design and molecular biology which ventures into the sense-ability and in/tangibility of olfaction in multi-species metabolisms. Odorants are fundamental within metabolic relations, ingested, digested, excreted through the living, the non-living and the semi-living. This project positions olfaction as a transcorporeal, queer eros; a haptic interspecies communication.

Head of project

Natarsha Bates
Postdoctoral fellow, postdoctoral position

Project overview

Project period:

2023-08-21 2025-08-20

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Molecular Biology, UmArts, Umeå Institute of Design

Research area

Design, Molecular biology and genetics

Project description

Olfaction is the sensation experienced by the caress of volatile organic compounds on the membranes of cells. Ephemeral and intangible, these chemicals are exchanged at all scales, from the nano to the atmospheric, flowing between microbes, fungi, plants, animals, soil, air & water. This project is a web of scent-based foraging actions oriented towards understanding how odours move between and through bodies, ecosystems and cultures.

This project has three streams of research:

1.       Scents of Solastalgia (SoS)

2.       Scents of Dis-ease (SoD)

3.       Scents of Consumption (SoC)

1. Scents of Solastalgia (SoS), developed in collaboration with Susan Hauri-Downing, examines the significance of olfactory landscapes to the rapidly changing, multi-species experiences of place. Smellscapes are recognised as an important part of human wellbeing and health and are vital aspects of culture and memory, including grief rituals. However, the role of olfaction in human and more-than-human experiences of environmental change and loss is not well understood. We explore solastalgia (the distress caused by environmental change) through a more-than-human olfactory lens, asking how smellscapes contribute to place-making by humans and non-humans and trace how olfaction contributes to human and non-human distress at the changes or loss of place. Through a series of eco-sensory community workshops, we examine how olfactory creative practices can help us understand and manage ecological distress and welcome or imagine novel ecologies. This project compares experiences in Sápmi, Sweden and Noongar Boodja, South-Western Australia.

2. Scents of Dis-ease (SoD) explores microbiomic, biocultural and ethical aspects of disease using odour; aesthetic, social and cultural significance of smell loss; and the interspecies entanglements involved in these phenomena. Within bodies, human and microbial cells produce pheromones and other aromatic chemicals (the human volatilome) which change depending on cell health but are a poorly understand aspect of human-microbiome relations. COVID-19 drew attention to olfaction in two ways: viral-induced smell change (parosmia) and loss (anosmia) reminded us of the importance of smell as a sense; and the ability of dogs and other non-humans accurately detected dysbiosis and disease. Although research into the biology and psychology of health-related olfaction has increased significantly in the past decade, particularly for cancer and Parkinsons Disease, aesthetic, ethical, social and cultural implications have been neglected. Scents of Dis-ease uses molecular biology, microbial ecology and olfactory art to explore the metabolomics of the micro-human volatilome: how microbes and human cells sense, consume and excrete volatile chemicals, their actions within various ecological niches within the human body and the microperformativity of holobiont relations.

3. Scents of Consumption (SoC) brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers and experts in art, design, science, humanities, food and fragrance to trace odours through multispecies food webs in the Arctic, exploring how they are affected by climate change, pollution and bioengineering and implicated in food insecurity. Participating researchers engage in a series of olfactory food explorations to co-develop transdisciplinary research methods to explore the materiality and agency of odorants in more-than-human food webs, experiment with olfactory food phenomena and artefacts, and foster research alliances. What vibrant, kind and just imaginaries might emerge when individuals with diverse knowledges and histories practice transdisciplinary and multispecies participatory research, sharing and listening, teaching and learning, inhaling and exhaling, foraging and cultivating materials, concepts and methods with a commitment to decolonial and regenerative Arctic food futures oriented towards multispecies flourishing?


I pay my respects to the Sami people of Ubmeje, Sápmi, the land on which this project is undertaken, and their Elders past, present and emerging.

Latest update: 2024-04-11