Site and Smell: an immersive performance of olfactory-spatial memory

Partners and collaborators

Pigeon Theatre, University of Durham


Funded by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award Dr Anna Fenemore and Pigeon Theatre (specialists in immersive performance) are working on a year long collaboration with Cognitive Neuroscientist Dr Colin Lever at the University of Durham on the project ‘Site and Smell: an immersive performance of olfactory-spatial memory’. 

This project explores the neuroscience and psychology of spatial and olfactory memory and explores how some smells are associated in the brain with certain places, as in Proust’s tea-dipped madeleine.  The project addresses the importance of the hippocampus in this process, where the association between odour and place/spatial context is coded, and examines the processes of pattern completion. 

A performance titled The Smell of Envy premiered at Light Night in October 2012.  A complex ‘smell-scape’ has been developed as the central performance strategy of the work, and the performance explores how smell links to our processes of long-term memory formation, specifically our memories of space or site.

The project is driven by three fundamental and overlapping objectives, addressing the process at different levels:

1. To disseminate current thinking re smell and site and memory to new audiences through performance, online resource and peer-reviewed journal article.

2. To explore, document and disseminate the use of smell-scapes in performance, as a means of interrogating how smell links to our processes of autobiographical memory formation, specifically in relation to our memories of space/site.

3. To gather a range of participants’ memories of specific spaces/places/sites attached to certain smells, in order to develop a site/smell memory resource through an online presence that will outlive the duration of the project.

A further, subsidiary objective that underpins the first three objectives is:

4. To establish methodologies for the engagement of performance makers and scientists in effective iterative and creative collaboration.

The project is a natural extension of Principal Applicant, Dr Anna Fenemore and Pigeon Theatre’s interest in sensory environments in performance, and an extension of their last project The Twice Removed, which began to interrogate notions of autobiographical memory formation.

The project focuses on an emergent artistic field of ‘immersive’ and sensory performance environments, and the scientific background to the project includes:

  •  generally, the high-profile research field, containing two Nobel Prizewinners (Kandel and Tonegawa), investigating explicit spatial representation in distinct classes of neurons in the hippocampal formation (place cells, grid cells, head-direction cells, boundary vector cells), including the context-specificity of place cells;
  • the hippocampal-based association between places and smells, embodied in hippocampal place cells (rodent data), including the demonstration that the human hippocampus is required for place-smell associations (eg Goodrich-Hunsaker et al, Chem Senses, 2009);
  •  the long-theorised, influential, idea (Marr, 1971) that hippocampus supports attractor-based pattern completion, now demonstrated (Nakazawa et al, Science, 2003; Wills et al, Science, 2005 – ie Q14 Lever publication 3), supporting its role in autobiographical memory;
  •  the neuroanatomically-grounded suggestion that smells have privileged access to the hippocampal formation and autobiographical memory;
  •  the importance of novel/first-time experience in generating long-term memories (Endel Tulving’s conjecture) ;
  • likely related to (E), the well-established result that autobiographical memories are not evenly distributed over the lifespan, but show a concentration in an extended late-adolescence period (ie when subjects were c.15-30 years old aka the ‘reminiscence bump’, see e.g. Conway and Pleydell-Pearce, Psychol Rev, 2000).

Review of The Smell of Envy: