Scent It Out – reflections


For the TAXT benefit/event at 21Grand/New Series, in which writers were invited to present work/performance throughout the space & ongoingly over about two hours. The idea was that I would distribute text throughout the audience, in the form of paper bags filled with strong odors, presenting a bag & its text & asking recipients to pass it on in the form of gossip. The text consisted of 8 8-line stanzas, using the text/form/spirit of John Suckling’s 1637 poem “Sessions of the Poets,” a kind of coterie/court-poem/satire (thanks Stan Apps), ‘updated’ by replacing proper names with roles/types such as the blogger, the trust-funder, the scenester, the court-queen, the bitter poet, etc. The concept was to stage a few questions/problematics: how to make material & ‘stage’ the sociology of a coterie that traffics in gossip? How to foreground the textual poetics of gossip? How to use odor/scent as an aid to memory &/or as olfactory complement to the textual content? What happens when you foreground the social forms of gossip such that the transmitter must literally ‘pass the bag’ & publicly collaborate in its dissemination? What is the relation between the content of gossip (as text, as poetics, as ‘dirt’) & the forms of its dissemination (as coterie-building, , as sociology, as ‘scandal’)? To what degree is gossip the primary (if not sole) content of the (my? our?) coterie? & what does that say about the coterie? 

The odors were: garlic, beer, herbs & spices, tobacco, compost, Axe body spray, vinegar, & my body & its excretions.


Here is the text on the card I attempted to pass out with the bags:


Smell changes the surface of things before you into a volume in which you are caught. The air you breathe is the index of the world into which you have been introduced—be that of an illness, of grace, or of a spell. When you smell it, it means you are already in it, or more precisely, you are of it.

                                                                     M. de Certeau, The Possession at Loudon

The senses therefore become theoriticians in practice 

                                                                      — K. Marx, 1844 Manuscripts

If you look at it, it’s a barn. If you smell it, it’s a stable

                                                                       G. Marx, Monkey Business

A durational thought-experiment in social-spatial practice — through dispersal of gossip by means of olfactory distribution. Before leaving the space, please find the table with the paper bags, breathe deep of each bag, write down your remembered version of each gossip-stanza & put in corresponding pile. The cumulative texts will become the template for the development of a coterie-body-odor-wax for social lubrication & reenacted ruttings. Spread liberally over surface area. Chin up, chest out, wrists & ankles, scent it out.




A very disappointing if interesting mess.

I did not adequately think through the time required to set the process in motion. It required a lot of instruction, & thus took a lot of time just to get the thing started, much less to make sure the bags kept moving. 

The project was under-theorized & under-cooked.

Separate from the event itself, I was disappointed with my lack of rigor in its formulations.

I allowed my cynicism to infect my practice.

I mistook 21Grand for the site, when the site in question in this case was the audience/coterie itself. 

I made a lot of assumptions about the audience & its openness to participation. Given the recent discussions of collaboration, participation, community & coterie, I was surprised by the degree to which people resisted or refused participation, to the point of refusing to hold the bag, smell the bag, or even listen to the text. It seemed that few people who took the bags actually passed them on, as I would find them left on a table, or someone ‘left holding the bag’ would hand it back to me. More than a couple of poets assumed the texts were about them, or were jibes aimed at specific poets in the audience. Of course, I wanted there to be some discomforture around the content & how close to the bone it might ‘feel’, but then in the moment I just felt bad/guilty, even though I had no individual local poets in mind when writing them.

Most of the people who agreed to participate in the way I requested & take the bags and pass them on, were people I did not know. Those that asked out, resisted, or refused were all people I knew personally. (This is from an admittedly small sample size, and only of those I interacted with personally. Not sure how it went ‘out there’) I’m not yet sure what to think about this, but it was interesting.

The smells were disappointing, & their relation to the textual content not adequately thought-through.

The relation between form & content was under-cooked. Though I am interested in projects that use formal structures as containers for text, I tend to gravitate towards a relationship in my own work where, as much as possible, the formal aspects of a work or performance “come out of” the content. (though it’s always pretty chicken-egg, of course). Here the content might be characterized as the text itself, but also the social content of the coterie, the broader thematics of gossip & court-poetics. The form then would be the expression of that content in rhymed stanzas (thus ‘safely’ – or so I imagined – framing the content in anachronistic & satirical/ironical poems), the connection of each stanza to a specific odor, and the performance/method of its distribution among an audience in live space.  I’m still not sure that there was any ‘necessary’ reason as to why scent/odor should have been the primary formal means for the expression of this content. I could have simply spread gossip all night, & allow the dispersal of that gossip (which of course travels well beyond the boundaries of the event itself) to become my text/reading/performance, & which would more ‘naturally’ bring others into collaboration (which is of course what gossip does all the time). 

Perhaps my ‘everyday performance(s)’ (ie my behavior & its public expression), & its subsequent dispersal among various coteries in the form of gossip, is ‘my’ textual production, my poetics. (at least that’s what I’ve heard…)

Only one or two people ever returned to the table to write down responses.

I allowed myself to be unnerved by negative audience reactions, concerned about those who felt upset, and disappointed that my ideas did not pan out as I’d planned.

As if by letting the coterie produce the work I could somehow still control it.

As if I could still control the gossip that I disseminate. 

The stanzas were not particularly good. In fact they were pretty bad, but not bad enough to be interestingly stoopid or stuplime.

Two of the bags dripped & ultimately broke.

I was asked why there were no ‘nice’ smells.

The event took place at the end of a long weekend of poets performing & socializing together, with a perceived sense (by me) of the coterie feeling very good about itself & excited by its own sense of scandal (at least as judged by the gossip being distributed to me prior to & during the event). I think this effected the reception of my admittedly more cynical/dark work. 

I allowed my cynicism to infect my practice.

I did not get much of a chance to see the other works going on simultaneously. I had hoped that I could simply spread some shit, disseminate some gossip, & let the process work itself out, thus leaving me time to participate as an audience member. 

Of the very few things I did check out, I noticed that I liked things that did not require me to interact with anyone else, but just listen or read. This of course says more about me than the interactive works.

I was and was not surprised how many people did not want to spread gossip once it required actually ‘carrying the bag’ & thus perhaps taking responsibility for it dissemination. 

I was asked “is this one about X?” I was told “that one about Y is mean.”

It was assumed that the judgments expressed in the poems were my own personal judgments. 

I was and was not surprised by the narcissism of paranoia, that anything that might be ‘about’ one must be about one.

If the roles were reversed, I imagine I would do much the same – worry that the text might be about me or my ‘type’, resist or refuse to hold &/or pass the bag. I might to some degree judge the performer personally rather than the project. 

I allowed my cynicism to infect my practice, as well as how I interpreted its reception.

I allowed myself to forget that if you stage a thought-experiment, its ‘success’ has nothing to do with whether or not the work was ‘good’ or well-received, or even if it ‘went as planned.’

In fact, if the thought-experiment is simply ‘what happens if…’ then the results cannot not be a ‘success’, i.e., whatever happens is precisely the (contingent, context-specific) ‘correct’ result.

But there are still better and worse ‘successes.’ More and less interesting/ compelling/ challenging successes. We’ve all no doubt been to a lot of ‘successful’ readings & performances in which too little is at stake, or the successes are merely evidence of one’s chops or cleverness, or are instantly forgettable.

My stakes were perhaps too low. Too many scare quotes.

Success is the wrong word. Its terms need to be challenged. 

What would happen if I did something similar elsewhere, in another context, scene, city…

All of the gossip-stanzas were (probably) about me.

I allowed my cynicism to infect my practice.

I was not happy with this performance/project at all. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

Each failure is a learning opportunity.



2 responses to “Scent It Out – reflections

  1. This is an intriguingly fierce self-critique David. . . maybe too fierce? I thought the biggest issue with the piece was that it might have asked for too much attentiveness from the participants in a very distracting, de-centered environment where many other activities and people were vying for attention, plus tipsiness, plus endorphins, etc. As for cynicism infecting your practice. . . I think cynicism is interesting. Maybe your cynicism just wants to be integrated more into your practice.

    much fondness, S

  2. hey stan-
    thanks for this. yeah, i think i had a bug up my ass or something that night & allowed my sourness to inflect my reflections. have heard from others who had different, more ‘positive’ (?) experiences that mine, as well, which is nice to hear.
    on cynicism, some time i’ll have to tell you about my first failed dissertation – Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason continues to be a touchstone for me…

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