Carrie Paterson

We are in danger of reducing our magnificent and complex world to one “thing” via the journey into space to look at “it” in a Cartesian fashion; therefore, the insertion of scent-memory devices which engage multi-sensory perception could be a counter-balance to the spectacle.

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Los Angeles-based artist Carrie Paterson has been conducting an experimental, spatial practice in visual art since 1993 with an emphasis on the fertile nexus between the disciplines of science, art, and engineering. Her work is conceptual, often interdisciplinary and collaborative, and comprises multi-sensory artworks, installation, performance, text, and drawing. She has spent years experimenting with uncommon materials, innovating forms, tinkering with machines, and making what can best be described as “pataphysical” models—as in Alfred Jarry’s “science of imaginary solutions.”

Paterson’s current work combines horticulture, perfume, product design, and organic chemistry with a study of the cultural impacts of human use and imagination about outer space. Her unique scientific glassworks, which double as functional perfume bottles and were developed in 2007-2010 in collaboration with glassblower Bob Maiden, are models for the concentric relationships in the universe at both a macro and micro level. This can be observed in the way the physical structure of solar systems and atoms also reflect human consciousness and how the “embodied mind” experiences the world—mind within body, body within society, society within world, world within beyond-world.

Paterson’s Homesickness Kits are being developed to mitigate the psychological and physiological discomfort of space travel with time-lapse scent-journeys for both the space tourist and astronaut. Homesickness Kits are designed to counter-act feelings of unease, panic, or claustrophobia with scent memory-triggers related to important plants on Earth. These palliatives can be custom-tailored to passengers on sub-orbital flights or come as standard offerings to all passengers, much like airsick bags are provided on all airlines. According to Paterson’s research, on longer trips, this kind of environmental engineering may have implications for astronauts’ health, performance, and social relationships.

There is no neutral experience of any space, and in terms of space tourism, it is clear that particular experience will be at the very least as highly designed as malls and amusement parks, which create narrative cues to amplify and manipulate the sensory experiences of consumers. Because the space journey will be highly designed, will it not also be the place to emphasize design with values? The value for Paterson as an artist to intervene in this set of relations is to introduce awareness about the microcosms of Earth and the cultural relevance of particular scents. We are in danger of reducing our magnificent and complex world to one “thing” via the journey into space to look at “it” in a Cartesian fashion; therefore, the insertion of scent-memory devices which engage multi-sensory perception could be a counter-balance to the spectacle.

Related to heightening awareness about the specificity of Earth environments, in other perfumed sculptures in the Free Enterprise installation Paterson explores what she calls the “embodied perspective” for space travel and interstellar messaging. These related projects suggest how radio astronomy can use organic molecule signatures to represent embodied experiences of terrestrial inhabitants and explore the connections between scent, art, and science with the history of humans using the sky for navigation, forecasting, and preservation of cultural memory.

The recent discoveries via radio astronomy of scented molecules that are part of amino acid production, and the discovery of nucleotide bases found off-planet in interstellar mediums as well as in meteorites, give added weight to this study. These discoveries suggest that the ingredients for life are plentiful in the universe. The possibility of combining the idea scent with radio astronomy brings haptics and physicality into the scientific thought experiment of METI (messaging extra-terrestrial intelligence). Radio astronomy demands complex computation to decipher or send signals that are distinguishable from the background cosmic radiation of the universe but in the end uses a simple one-channel binary signal to do so. To bring a local, terrestrial, body-centered experience into the study of “space” in this respect requires changes in the technological approach to sending signals. In 2011, Paterson presented a possible solution for Optical METI using polarization of colored lasers at Heavenly Discourses: Astronomy, Myth and Culture, a conference at the University of Bristol, UK. This was developed in coordination with astronomer David Reitzel at the Griffith Park Observatory and would allow for a broader multi-channel signal band. Moving beyond the binary signal would become an important aspect of making pursuits in radio astronomy more palpable to the average person. A multi-dimensional signal such as that which could be sent with polarized light could handle the kind of complexity required to translate scent-compositions, a recipe for the embodied experiences of Earth-based life, into a signal.

This line of inquiry brings up existential questions involved in the search for extra-terrestrial life: What is life? Are we alone as intelligent species in the universe? Will humanity be extinguished before we ever know or communicate with an extra-terrestrial life form? How will humans make a legacy project that will last long after we are gone? Or, more optimistically, will our radio signals precede us as an interstellar calling card? Who will decide these values? How might we distinguish ourselves? What is common and valued in humanity? What represents us, in our “better” and most passionate selves, as well as our evolution? What would we choose to communicate about our species to “others,” and thus reflect back to ourselves, in the process, about our values?

Paterson’s original idea is that a signal in response to an ET signal could include signatures of molecules that have a specifically recognizable scent and are meaningful to humans and other creatures: blood, sweat, plants, the ocean, iron, etc. This type of signal would convey our understanding of chemistry and the composition of the universe, as well as sending an aspect of human culture. It is worth noting that searching for exo-planets by looking for shifts in the light spectrum emitted by stars is sometimes referred to as “sniffing.”

Paterson engaged product designer John Datema to work with her on the Homesickness Kits and artist Karen Reitzel to compose the scents. Research on scents commonly related to human cultural memory triggers comes from artist and perfumer Gayil Nalls, who for her World Sensorium global-fragrance project for the Y2K millennium celebrations compiled interviews and data from over 250 countries through the United Nations. More information is available at Space habitability researcher Sandra Haeuplik-Meusberger, author of Architecture for Astronauts (Springer Press 2011), has been Paterson’s coauthor on papers related to the use of greenhouses on long-term space missions that were given in 2012 at the Global Space Exploration Conference (GLEX) in May in Washington D.C., “Dwell on Design” in June in Los Angeles, and at the International Astronautical Congress in Naples, Italy in October.

Paterson has contributed essays, reviews and critical articles to a variety of art and culture publications including Sculpture, Flash Art, X-TRA, Artillery: Killer Text on Art, and Artweek. She was guest editor for the art | science issue of Artillery in May 2009, and has been Reviews Editor since 2011. In 2010-11 she edited and contributed to a book about the Modern architect Adolf Loos, Adolf Loos–A Private Portrait by Claire Beck Loos, published by DoppelHouse Press. Escape Home, a book she has coauthored with her father, Charles Paterson (Karl Schanzer) is forthcoming in Spring 2013, also with DoppelHouse Press.

• left: Copernican System No. 1 Borosilicate glass, 2009-2010. 8 x 8 x 8 inches. Collection of Sweeney Art Gallery, University of California, Riverside

• Installation view of works that incorporate perfumes as a means of navigating the cosmos and for communicating with other intelligence life in the universe. Photo courtesy of the artist and Carl Berg Projects.

Armillary Sphere, 2009-2011, anodized aluminum and glass, 6 x 6 x 6 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Midnight in the Anthropocene, 2009-2011, anodized aluminum and glass, 4 x 4 x 6 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Star Map, 2009-2011, Ink, pencil and scented oils on vellum, 20 x 57 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Homesickness Kit, Mixed media, 20012-2013. 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 inches.