Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia – determining current knowledge

 

Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, USA 
Visiting Scholar & Public Lecture

Research Oversight: Dr. Danielle Reed

Overview

The Monell Center is one only a very few facilities in the world dedicated to research addressing the chemical senses; among those institutions the Monell Center stands out as exceptional for its accessibility and public-facing programming. After submitting a research proposal to Monell I was invited to undertake a research residency which included access to almost all of their research and researchers. The elation of receiving such a distinctive privilege came with a burden of responsibility; I was to be engaging with the most brilliant minds in the field of the chemical senses and I fell under enormous pressure to represent the art world in way that would facilitate constructive dialogue and build collaborations between the "Two Cultures" (C.P. Snow) of art and science.

I believe that the people at the Monell Center were fascinated, if not a little confused by my research. Most of the artists that they have had in residency were practicing art and seeking to utilize Monell Centre for its library of materials and 'tricks of the trade'. I, on the other hand, was not particularly drawn to the materials, but instead to the knowledge, with an imperative to engage the scientists in conversation. This curatorial approach worked to my benefit as the pursuit of knowledge is the gold-standard of the scientific method, and they were very pleased to see it coming from the side of Critical Studies in Art; a field that many scientists believe possesses a pedestrian attitude towards scientific knowledge.

Through the course of the two weeks that I was with Monell I was able to interview six of their scientists, which I had identified for their specific disciplinary foci, as well as one lab assistant. I was also able to observe some of Monell's research practice, a fascinating world of flavours, fragrances, mice and human trials.

During the time that I was with Monell, I took a side visit to New York where I visited the School of Visual Arts, as well as the department of Food Studies at NYU. It was my great pleasure to have the Chair of the BFA Fine Arts Department, Ms. Suzanne Anker, show me around the school; as a biologist by training, Ms. Anker had developed an impressive Bio-Art workshop in the school and was keen to discuss the development of a molecular gastronomy workspace. As a result of our meeting I was invited to publish a paper for their upcoming conference, Molecular Gastronomy: the Politics of Taste.           

Research Description

During my research concerning the context of the chemical senses in art I encountered situations where the philosophical arguments that passed judgement upon the chemical senses were erroneous for scientific reasons. This is to be expected in a body of research that spans from ancient Greek thought to the present day, however, what I found to be unacceptable was that the those exclusionary arguments remained in place even after the science that underpinned them was debunked. In many ways, the critical discourse concerning the chemical senses in art was, if not intentionally then at least conveniently, detached from scientific knowledge. In some regard this was acceptable, as it has only been in recent decades that science has begun to unravel the mysteries of these senses. A core aim of my research became to position any proposition for the chemical senses in art onto firm scientific footing. As one important function of art is to explore critical questions pertaining to the 'human condition', we must accept the emergent knowledge concerning the realities that frame the human journey through time and space; realities that are identified in large part through the process of science.  My aim has been to reconcile the differences between current scientific knowledge pertaining to the chemical senses and the old paradigms that dictate the terms for these senses in art.  

Findings

Perhaps one of the most pleasant discoveries during my time at Monell was the creativity that was expressed by the scientists in the Monell Center; although the creativity that emanated from the  scientists took a different form than that of the arts, it was born from the same place inside of the human spirit. From the common starting-point of creativity, I also found other tangents between the practice of science and that of art.

One notable example was a series of experiments that concerned human test subjects, with the aim to determine which chemicals were produced by humans under duress and how/if those chemicals  reacted with other humans in a sort of chemical conversation. In order to realise a situation of duress the test subjects consented to be stressed during their tests; it was explained to me that very often the subjects were students at one of the city's universities. Test subjects were required to abstain from the use of perfumed hygiene products for the period of a week prior to any lab tests in order to minimise the influence of outside chemicals. When the subjects arrived at Monell, after passing through security, they were led into a room with a 'dentist's chair', a large flat-screen monitor and one-way observation glass. Sweat samples were harvested while the subject was in a relaxed state and then electro-monitors were placed onto the subject's skin. The lab techs then entered the room and began to 'interrogate' the subjects, beginning with a questionnaire so shocking that I was compelled to question the ethics of the procedure with my host. Multiple choice questions such as, Childhood Trauma: "I was punished with a belt, a board, a cord, or some other hard object?", and "Someone threatened to hurt me or tell lies about me unless I did something sexual with them?", gave way to tasks such as, "Count backwards from 7326 in denominations of 17. Each time you make a mistake you will be required to repeat the task from the beginning. You have three minutes to perform this task." After significant stressing, the test subject was once again swabbed in order to harvest sweat, which was later analysed for its chemical composition. With exception for the objectionable questionnaire, the situation was not unlike a performance art piece - uncomfortable, situational and focussed upon evoking an emotional reaction.      

The overall outcome of the Monell research was a success. As a result of my research I was able to re-frame the language of my discourse, move into specific directions of inquiry that would yield positive results, and ultimately progress down an avenue of research from physiology, through cognition, to conceptual art. Additionly, I felt as though I had opened a door to an industry partner that, as a result of my work, was open to continued collaborations at the border of science and art in a more comprehensive way.  

 

 

 

 

 Tour of Monell Center with Chris Maute

 

 

 

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 Public Lecture - Ryan Bromley

 

 

 

Dr. Leslie Stein

Biological Psychology
Focus: Salt Taste 

 

Leslie Stein

 

 

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Interview with Dr. Leslie Stein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Danielle Reed

Geneticist
Focus: genetic variation in taste and obesity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Interview with Dr. Danielle Reed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Johan Lundström

Psychology
Focus: cerebral basis for chemosensory and multimodal processing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dr. Johan Lundström Interview

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Graeme Lowe

Physics
Focus: cellular mechanisms important for the coding and processing
of olfactory information in the nervous system

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dr. Graeme Lowe Interview

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prof. Gary Beauchamp

Director & President, Psychology
Focus: Salt Taste

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Interview with Prof. Gary Beauchamp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Marcia Pelchat

Physiological Psychology
Focus: Development and modification of food preferences in humans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dr. Marcia Pelchat Interview