Words by Joseph Akel
Trying to put in words what the works of artist Sean Raspet “do” seemingly goes against the very nature of what makes his multimedia, sense-based installations so profound. With his emphasis on the embodied, physical experience of his work, language often seems to come up short. How does one describe the effect of smelling an odor that challenges conventions of where the scent originates and upends notions of what is natural or synthetic?
Raspet’s work illuminates the failure to reconcile experience with sense-related preconception. Scent, as Raspet points out, has become a chosen medium for him because, “in our culture, there’s very little language for the experience of scent.” That olfactory encounters are most often relayed by simile or metaphor is for Raspet reflective of the fact that, of all the senses, “the realm of scent perception...is actually quite an unknown.” And, indeed, the science of olfaction—the measurement of why one thing smells like vanilla, the other like banana—is a field that offers far more questions than answers. One current theory holds that scent differentiation occurs due to the particular vibration of molecules (hardly the stuff of exotic Persian ouds and honeyed ambers).
If Raspet’s works can be said to concern themselves with the relationship between sensuous apprehension and cognitive recognition, there is also a larger conceptual line of interrogation that the artist gestures toward in his work. For Raspet, who worked as a flavor engineer in 2015 at Rosa Labs—the company behind the meal-replacement beverage Soylent—the utilization of synthetics and techniques of commercial production to create his installations is very much a commentary upon “the modes of production and materials,” as he notes in an interview with curator Ceci Moss, “that underlie…[the] ‘consumer economy’ and our day to day lives.” The myriad ways in which our embodied experiences of the world are imposed upon by science, industrial economics, and cultural conditioning would seem to be at the root of Raspet’s artistic enterprise. “We live,” he notes in the same interview with Moss, “in an extremely chemophobic society.” He adds, “Many people are unaware that a specific molecule or chemical compound is exactly the same, whether it was extracted from a plant or produced synthetically through chemical reactions.” In the end, he underscores, “a molecule is a specific arrangement of atoms in a particular configuration. It doesn’t matter what process that formation of matter went through to get to where it is now.”
Such language is likely to rankle many proponents of strictly organic movements that rally against scientific interventions, such as the genetic modification of produce or the introduction of synthetic ingredients into the foods they eat or the fragrances they wear. But such knee-jerk reactions miss the deeper implications at work in Raspet’s art or overlook that such reactions are, in fact, what Raspet is aiming to elicit. “We are a culture that is fundamentally afraid of, and repulsed by, our own mode of production,” he points out, “and this is very absurd, since we ourselves, and everything around us, are composed of chemicals.”
Raspet’s interest in the manufacturing of synthetic odors and flavors began early in his career, during his time pursuing an MFA at University of California, Los Angeles. His graduate thesis focused on obtaining a patent for a composition comprised of the ingredients that differentiate Coca-Cola from Pepsi. While largely conceptual in nature, Raspet’s foray into the realms of manufacturing, proprietary law, and synthetic ingredients presaged later works that would bring this all together in physical forms—be they liquid, gaseous, or somewhere in between.
In 2014, Raspet’s exhibition at San Francisco’s Jessica Silverman Gallery, titled “Residuals,” marked a cohesive presentation of many of the conceptual threads that have now come to define his work. Included as part of the exhibition was the installation Standard Recovery (GC/MS VOLATILES-WHOLE AIR: 37.784749°; -122.414129°), 2014, in which Raspet had the gallery’s walls coated with a “scratch-and-sniff” emulsion, the odor of which was a concentrated distillation of the gallery’s ambient air. To create the emulsion, Raspet set up a “SUMMA canister,” a vacuum of sorts that, over the course of a week, collected air from the gallery space. The air was then sent off to a laboratory where its molecular composition was analyzed and used as the blueprint for creating a liquid, which became the emulsion’s base. As Raspet described the installation in an interview at the time, “It’s almost like a background noise of the air space, but very intensified.” Other pieces in the exhibition included Hydrocarbon Reformulation (Reconstituted Crude Oil with 2-Point Resolution: Molecular Weight Average), 2014, which was comprised of five large glass vials affixed to the gallery wall that contained, as the name suggests, reconstituted forms of crude oil. Importantly, for Raspet, the use of technology and manufacturing is an extension of his desire to use materials and mediums in the same way that other artists are preoccupied, say, with paints, albeit in contradiction to what he views as an emphasis on the handmade. As he noted in that 2014 interview, “I react against something that’s too handmade…it’s an artificial, arbitrary position that society has placed on art, being this thing that’s quote-unquote creative, individual and unique.” For Raspet, what is more compelling is to take the “pre-existing reality of mass-scale manufacturing and have it as much as possible exist in the space of art.”
That interest in introducing mass-manufacturing into the sphere of art assumed an added dimension for Raspet in 2015, when he took a job as a flavor engineer for Rosa Labs. It was at that time that he began work on his first prototypes for “Technical Food” and “Technical Milk,” two synthetic food products. Raspet first “exhibited” the two supplements at New York’s Swiss Institute in 2015 and then again in 2016 at the city’s annual Frieze art fair for an installation with the gallery Société Berlin. Part exhibition, part trade show, Raspet’s installation at Frieze quite literally played with notions of the consumption of art. Raspet, along with several of his Rosa Lab coworkers, served samples of the concoctions—the taste of which was described by one art critic as “aggressively chemical, an implacable parade of Latex, burnt plastic, damp earth, and smoke”—along with prototypes of an algae-based paste that Raspet had been developing.
As Raspet notes, the impetus behind the works stemmed from multiple points of interest. On one level, “Technical Milk” and “Technical Food” underscored his desire to use processes of industrial manufacturing. As he notes, “I want to use…modes in the regular economy to make my work, as much as possible.” In that regard, Raspet aligns himself with the likes of Andy Warhol, who appropriated forms of commercial printing and production to create works that critiqued media-infused culture while also upending traditional notions about the authorship and production of art. For Raspet, the use of such modes of production highlights a desire to “question the division between art and the rest of the world,” a division that Raspet sees “fundamentally as an economic” one.
On another level, Raspet’s Soylent offshoots addressed what has become a hallmark of the artist’s work: The interrogation of our assumptions regarding what is “natural” and what is “artificial.” As Raspet noted in his interview with Moss, “In our present culture, many people believe that all things ‘natural’ are good and all ‘artificial’ or ‘synthetic’ things are bad. In fact, the entire division between ‘natural” and ‘artificial’ is a construct.” Importantly, for Raspet, this argument extends beyond the critique of the differentiation of the two terms put forth by the likes of Frankfurt theorists such as Theodor Adorno, who saw the separation of the “natural” from the “man-made” as byproducts of Enlightenment thinking. For Raspet, it’s far more empirical: There is no differentiation, owing to the fact that both the “natural” and the “artificial” utilize the same basic fundamental molecular structures, albeit in differing combinations, that exist throughout the universe.
Yet, if one finds in Raspet’s outlook pause for concern about the importance of eating organic or all-natural, consider his 2016 startup, nonfood. Launched with his business partner Lucy Chinen, the Detroit-based company aims to produce food products from algae-derived ingredients on a mass scale, well beyond the elite territory of the art world. Among the company’s initial offerings is the “nonbar” and the upcoming “noncoco,” an algae-based alternative to chocolate, without the cocoa ingredients. If that sounds less than appetizing, Raspet is quick to point out that, with the use of algae-based products, nonfood aims to drastically reduce the carbon footprint related to standard food production: Agriculture is responsible for 15 percent of the world’s carbon-related emissions, of which cows generate half. With noncoco, he hopes to find an alternative to cocoa, an ingredient that is all too often harvested by exploited farmers in the global south.
To be sure, Raspet’s play with synthetics is an artistic gesture that is intended to cause a sense of discomfort in its viewers, a sensuous game of “can you guess the ingredient” that is at once intriguing and unsettling. For his most recent exhibition, “Receptor Binding Variations,” at New York’s Bridget Donahue gallery, Raspet created 10 “scent molecule formulations,” which were released into the gallery space via electronic diffusers—think Glade room misters with a decidedly high-brow bent. These were designed by the artist to target specific human olfactory receptors—proteins embedded in the cellular membranes of the nose, of which there are some 400 types—activated by various molecular structures. By targeting these structures, Raspet is, in effect, playing directly with the viewer’s own biology. Diffusers in the exhibition included 52D1, 2018, described by arts writer Evan Moffitt as “giving off a strong whiff of citronella, with notes of the artificial pineapple aroma of white gummy bears,” while 1A2, 2018, was described as “utterly confounding, first as sharp as nail polish, before curdling into a nutty tone of marzipan.”
That confusion that Moffitt highlights is key to Raspet’s overarching interest in working with synthetics—the destabilization, the “grasping at straws,” so to speak, of our encounters with his creations. In our inability or confusion, Raspet’s works lay bare the fabricated structures—ontological, phenomenological, linguistic—that have come to codify our apperception of the world we live in. Take something as simple as the smell of a banana. “There’s a molecule called isoamyl acetate,” Raspet points out, “that is found in bananas, but it’s not the only molecule that’s found in banana flavor and scents.” He continues, “If you smell isoamyl acetate by itself, most people will say, ‘That smells like bananas.’” However, linger over that scent longer and you might get hints of “paint thinner and some other things.” Ultimately, for Raspet, what would seem to matter most is not that we give name to our sensual experiences of his works, but rather that they cause us to pause for a moment and consider the uncertainty they provoke, and in so doing, making us aware of the ways in which our perception of the world around us is structured. After all, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.