Sissel Tolaas

Interview by Devon Walsh. Photography by Stephen Conrad

Even in the depths of the dark’s languid hours, Sissel Tolaas has difficulty finding rest. Knowing that the nose is her life’s work, it often proves impossible to deactivate hardware so vital to her livelihood. “I hardly sleep anymore,” she explains. “When I sleep, I smell!” Having devoted many years to the art of inhaling, Tolaas possesses the extraordinary ability to smell history, and often to reproduce it too.

Drawing from a background of equal parts chemistry and art, Berlin based Tolaas has traveled the globe—from Kansas City to Cape Town, from Greenland to Mexico City—in hot pursuit of arousing aromas. Engaging ‘headspace’ technology—a cutting-edge method of extracting air samples for chemical smell analysis utilized by perfumers—she logs and records the scents she detects without bias, curating and collecting vapors both fragrant and foul for later use.

Tolaas’ extensive odor archive exceeds 7,000 distinct scents (the perspiration of David Beckham is rumored to live among them—thanks in part to a collaboration with Adidas). Having employed these synthesized scents in creative, corporate and humanitarian projects alike, Toolas’ work has been exhibited at MoMA and the Berlin Biennial, while also counting commercial juggernauts such as Ikea and Volvo as clients.  Tolaas has fashioned cheese from human bacteria, exposed the interconnected relationship of smell and fear, explored the puzzle of pollution in Mexico City and, luckily for us, rendered Swallow’s Mexico City issue odorous.

Yet to Tolaas, the greatest reward obtained by the avid sniffer arrives with the expanded tolerance, memory, and emotional intuition inherent in increased olfactory awareness. “As long as there are footsteps on the moon,” she explains. “The sky is not the limit.”


On raising awareness of pollution in Mexico City with the help of ‘software nodes.’

“How can you make the inhabitants of that city more aware [of pollution]? What is it, where does it come from, and could one do something about it? By using the software nodes—what I call the senses—people start to understand that they are often the cause of much of pollution that [surrounds them].

We’re living in a world where everything is about image. In the case of environment, [seeing] pollution on the TV doesn’t cause us to react anymore. So [approaching] people on the street and using their noses, they begin to understand the problem much more fundamentally. Smell is emotion. It triggers the subconscious, your memories, and it’s obvious that you’re going to react [to it]. It’s both scary and amazing.”

On chilangos

“People I met in Mexico City have an incredible tolerance for smell—much much more than any other city I’ve ever encountered. For me, that’s a huge compliment. I think that tolerance is what we’re missing. We live in a world that’s deodorized, pasteurized, and sterilized for your protection and, by doing so, we miss out on so much more information. As for in Mexico City—I love Mexico City! How do you deal with [the smell]? What do you do with it? So what I did was trying to deal with it and see how I could use it.”

On the nose that… knows… everything

“I’m curious but the nose is even more curious. There’s no border for it, and as I’m the one with the nose, I also have no boundaries. As long as there are footsteps on the moon, the sky is not the limit!

With the senses, we have amazing tools available to us for free. By triggering them, and telling them to do things, you won’t believe what a completely different meaning life [takes]. I became a much more happy and fulfilled human being after discovering what the nose can do. The nose knows everything!”

On humans, vermin and generalization

“Humans, next to cockroaches and rats, are the biggest generalists on planet Earth. The nose is there to find food. We are born generalists, and all our prejudices come from experience. They come with advertising from the commercial world telling you this is bad and this is good.”

On identity

“What is identity? It’s the way you look? Yes, but most of all, it’s the way you smell. We have a body smell as unique as our fingerprints, but we have no chance to find out—we’re born with deodorant in our hands.”

On tolerance and fatalism

“Why don’t we learn to smell? What kind of consequences would that have? Tolerance is a big issue here. We don’t hate each other because of the [differences in the] way we look, we hate each other because of the way others smell. This can be repaired, I think. It’s a big step towards peace, towards becoming a real unit. It’s where we started—next to the rats and the cockroaches. I think that’s a very good beginning, and maybe it’s the end. At the end of the day we will all end where we started, anyway.”

On hidden histories in her home city 

“Berlin is the first city I ever [captured], and since I studied there just before the wall fell, [it] has a very, very important memories for me where smell is concerned. I [still] know exactly where in the city to go to find those smells from the past. There [are] certain [places] where you move a couple of bricks from a wall, and you then have the DDR  (German Democratic Republic) and Moscow right up front. It’s amazing. So Berlin, I know it like my own pocket and I’m very happy to have gone through it.”

On permanence

“It’s very important that I’m not after smells that are there for a only a second. I really try to emphasize how smells come from a source that is permanent. I [often] go back at different times of the day and at different times of the year—if the situation allows—to reassure that these really are permanent [smells].”


To smell the fruits of Tolaas’ labor, pick up a print copy of Swallow Magazine’s Mexico City issue which features removable scratch and sniff stickers that capture the aromas of 20 of the city’s colonias, or neighborhoods. While supplies last!