Scented Trip: Sean Raspet

Sean Raspet interviewed by Chiara Moioli


“The math ahead
The math behind it
The path ahead
The path behind it”
—Bon Iver, “M◊◊n Water,” from 22, A Million (Bloomington: Jagjaguwar, 2016)


Talk to Sean Raspet and you’ll find yourself asking questions like, What is the specific materiality of sodium laureth sulfate? What does SMILES (simplified molecular-input line-entry system) have to do with the naming of an artwork?
Raspet is an artist; flavor and fragrance chemist; and cofounder of the algae-based food company nonfood. He did not primarily train as a scientist, but developed a visceral interest in chemicals, and in the chemistry and materiality underlying the built environment and the economy at large, as a result of looking into the material conditions of our present times. Raspet’s practice involves the registration, circulation, and translation of matter—mostly tweaked chemical formulations of his own creation (in the form of fragrances and scents)—within our economic, scientific, and legislative systems, reflecting on the temporalities of mass-production processes.
In his latest solo show, New Molecules & Stem Cell Retinoid Screen at Empty Gallery, Hong Kong—which is a collaboration with the scientists Kiara Eldred and Shengping Zheng—the artist presents three new fragrance molecules and the sculpture Screen (all 2019). In the exchange below, he defines his artistic path, which is inextricably intertwined with his scientific eagerness; his interest in the Soviet Constructivists and Productivists and the Bauhaus; creating new molecules as a challenging and aesthetically transcendent process; experiencing new materials through smell; the scope (and slippages) of presenting works in an art context while also opening up their potentialities as goods intended for further commodification; and sharing the rights to his productions with the scientists who worked with him on their development, all the while reeling off a vocabulary of substances and nomenclatures worthy of a scientist’s white coat.


CHIARA MOIOLI: I find the evolution of your artistic practice rather amazing. You started out as an artist dealing with the surplus of images circulating on- and offline, working primarily with stock photography; you enrolled in a chemistry course at the University of California at Los Angeles and started to investigate the field of flavor engineering; you then applied for a job as a fragrance and flavor engineer at Rosa Labs, Los Angeles; in 2015 you began working for Soylent; and finally, in 2016, with Lucy Chinen you cofounded the algae-based food company nonfood. Your work and studio life seem so entangled, in a Bauhausian sense. Can you unravel how your interest in chemistry came about, and how it affects your practice as an artist?

SEAN RASPET: With my earlier works, I investigated images in relation to a systems aspect—in particular systems of circulation and replication, and the economic systems that underlie them. I was particularly interested in what I saw as the kind of parallel world-building/abstraction that resulted, especially in the case of stock photography, advertising, and the internet in general—the semiautonomous, recursive mirror-world that was arising in this space. At the time, around 2006 or 2007, palpable changes were happening culturally, in the everyday environment and even neurologically in relation to the quantity, type, and context of images in everyday life. In many ways I think I was responding to this environmental change and trying to think of this image world as a self-sufficient or autonomous system of variables: What are its rules? Where is it headed? Et cetera. But also simply looking at its strangeness on its own terms.
At that point, I was also interested in the circulation of material substances and the material-economic systems that underlie and perpetuate them. I had been making work using hair gel and other cosmetic ingredientsfor many years, including reformulating hair gel’s primary chemical ingredients. Increasingly I was interested in these chemical materials themselves and the chemistry and materiality underlying the built environment and the economy at large. What is the specific materiality of sodium laureth sulfate, for example, or polysorbate 20? What is its economic-material function and production process, and how might those be contingent on the by-products of another segment of industry within our present mode of production? And so on.
Eventually, the image-focused aspect of culture and art became less interesting to me (and many other artists had started to work in this area within a few years), so I moved away from that in favor of focusing completely on questions of chemistry and material economics. There was a tendency at the time to think of the internet’s influence on society as “dematerializing,” and I felt this was misguided. Everything is still resolutely material regardless of the existence of the internet, and of course there’s nothing that exists in the universe that is not material.
So, my interest in chemistry was the result of looking at the material conditions of the present and materials in general, since chemistry is fundamentally related to the underlying structure of matter.

CM: As you said, your practice involves the registration, circulation, and translation of matter (mostly tweaked chemical formulations) within our economic, scientific, and legislative systems. Your works are presented in an art context but also, through a patenting process, function as goods intended for further commodification. Working within the sphere of a corporation—be it Soylent or nonfood—further pushes you beyond the filtered bubble of the art world, reaching the daily lives of people. Could you elaborate on the scope, and slippages, of this openness?

SR: Focusing on material-economic circulation and chemical formulation led me fairly quickly to want to reintroduce the material reformulations I had been working with back into the mass production process. This was essentially their ultimate goal. To me it was an important shift from art that is reflective or representational to art that is productive and aims to change material conditions directly.
Prior to this I had been interested in the historical period of the Soviet Constructivists and later Productivists and their merging of art with industrial production in service of society at large. This was also a component of the Bauhaus and to some extent the Artist Placement Group and other, later initiatives and movements. Among other things, I felt that these moments showed a kind of potential that was never fully realized and they stand in almost polar opposite to the retrenched conservatism of the present regarding the economic circulation and societal reach and role of artworks.
Quite frankly, part of the reason I’ve had a long-standing interest in economic and material systems of circulation is that they are overdetermining of nearly every aspect of our day-to-day, psychological lives and the planet. Our current material-economic system is incredibly irrational, wasteful, poorly managed, and exploitative, and needs a complete overhaul. This is obvious to many people, but I think the question is what to do about it. What steps can be taken that have a material impact rather than just “raising awareness”? In the case of art, rather than the life of an artwork being a single item that is collected by someone who typically has acquired their material wealth from a large-scale industry, I think it’s far better for the artwork to operate within industry and infrastructure itself and to ultimately be scaled on that basis.
I’d like to try to push the “Overton window” of the function/practice of art in society toward where it was during the Constructivist and Productivist moment (as difficult as that is to do in the present moment). However, rather than an expansion of modernity and industrial production to all of society, which was largely the ethos of the Constructivists and Bauhaus, the present challenge is in part a “drawing down,” diminishing, and reformulating of these systems in light of the present ecological crisis and the limitations that have clearly been reached. By the way, there’s actually an interesting history with the Bauhaus and the development of the practice of recycling and the circular economy, which Lucy Chinen has been researching.

CM: On the occasion of New Molecules & Stem Cell Retinoid Screenat Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, you are presenting three new fragrance molecules that have not previously existed in the natural or industrial realms. Could you expand on the meaning of these two categories in today’s world? Do you feel like the creation of molecules from scratch can be deemed an act of “divine” creation? And can you describe the process of patenting a new molecule?

SR: I don’t think of new molecules as divine creations. It’s fairly common in chemistry labs, though still often challenging. But what isinteresting to me, and what I do in a small way find aesthetically transcendent, is the process of creating something completely new on a fundamental level and then experiencing that new material firsthand through the sense of smell.
In the case of visual art, there are no new colors. All the colors that can be seen by the eye have been seen (there can be new chemical pigments, however, which exhibit particular colors within the spectrum of human vision). In the case of scent, the space of perception is far vaster than the visual realm. Human scent perception uses approximately four hundred types of olfactory receptors, while all the colors we can perceive in the visual spectrum are the result of only three types of visual color receptors. Because of this, a completely new molecule will typically have a new scent as well (though sometimes the difference can be subtle between it and a related, existing molecule).
In terms of the categories of “natural” versus industrially produced or “artificial,” I simply don’t subscribe to them. It can be a somewhat useful practical distinction in common situations, but there is no basis for it philosophically or scientifically. I refer to these molecules as new, or not previously known to exist.

CM: I’m interested in your choice of scent as the primary focus. Perfume, fragrances, and flavors are immaterial but embody a strong narrative and allow for memories and epiphanies to arise—Proust docet. At the same time, despite being immaterial ephemera, they carry a strong sculptural component. What led you to dismiss the “visual” aspect in favor of the olfactory one?

SR: The materiality of scent and flavor is quite interesting. Culturally, we tend to think of them as abstract or disembodied, but they are of course fundamentally material and very directly somatic. They are “about materiality” in that they are our body’s way of understanding and experiencing matter and differences between basic molecular structures. I’m more interested in creating new scents than referencing memory or nostalgia. But, that said, the experience of new scents is generally mapped onto our previous experience of and associations with other scents. And any Proustian epiphany is the result of a scent or flavor that was new at some point in time.

CM: The presentation of your work in the gallery space is, aesthetically speaking, rather aseptic. Once out of the laboratory, what’s the process for displaying the work? I’m curious especially in regard to the sculpture Screen(2019), also on view at Empty Gallery.

SR: Typically there is a division between the “work” or material versus its display in a particular instance/exhibition. In strict terms the work is usually the specific material—the new chemical compound or the retinal stem cells themselves. But this material needs the support of an apparatus (such as a container or a diffuser) to be placed in the environment of the viewer. I see it as similar to the relationship between a video projector and a video. The work is the video itself, but the projector or a similar apparatus is necessary to present or contain the work.
In terms of presenting the material, I typically look for a default or standard version of the apparatus: something that is commonly used in dealing with or containing a similar material within the mass economy or on an industrial scale. In the case of Screen(EP1.1 iPSCs stem cell line-derived human retinal organoids) the retinal stem cells are the work/material (along with their specific arrangement in a grid/screen formation), but as a living, human material, they require certain specific conditions. So they are held within a specialized incubator that was designed by Joseph Stewart based on stem cell biologist and collaborator Kiara Eldred’s specifications for what is needed to keep the cells alive. The incubator basically mirrors the internal conditions of the human body within a sterile environment: high humidity, a temperature of 37 C / 98.6 F, and an atmosphere of 5 percent carbon dioxide. Otherwise, the vials and certain other facets of the incubator are standard laboratory vials used in stem cell R&D, among other things.

CM: The titles of your works make intriguing use of semantics derived from chemistry and mathematics. Resembling abstract poems, they prompt the viewer to Google them to understand what’s going on. I’m interested in the underlying level of worldliness.

SR: For chemical compounds there is a system of nomenclature called IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry), which typically is incorporated in the title or material information of the work. The IUPAC system is effectively a grammar for delineating the precise molecular form of a chemical through language. In the past I have also used another system, SMILES (simplified molecular-input line-entry system), which also delineates the structure of a molecule through a string of letters.
For example, the molecule in the exhibition Hyperflor© (2-benzyl-1,3-dioxan-5-one)has the been given the commercial name “Hyperflor,” but its IUPAC name, “2-benzyl-1,3-dioxan-5-one,” delineates the arrangement of molecular features and their placement within the overall structure like a kind of map. The “1,3-dioxan” segment refers to a ring structure called a dioxane, which contains two oxygen atoms and four carbon atoms. Attached to this ring structure on its fifth-numbered carbon atom is a ketone section (hence the “5-one” suffix which is short for ket-one). There is also a benzyl substructure attached to the dioxane at the second-numbered carbon atom. “Benzyl” denotes a particular type of six-carbon ring structure, with an additional carbon atom attached to it.
So when a molecule is referred to by its IUPAC name, the chemical structure can be drawn based on the word itself (and there can often be more than one valid IUPAC name that accurately describes the molecular structure). It’s very much a concrete language system. Perhaps the mostconcrete, in that it is dealing with matter and materiality itself. That relationship between an abstract system like language and a precise, concrete one such as chemistry is very interesting to me. And it’s something we are to some extent familiar with on a day-to-day basis through the names of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics ingredients, and other mass-produced materials.

CM: The rights to your works (molecules) are shared with the scientists who collaborated with you on the project, which is quite different from what happens in the domain of the art world. Does this choice-turned-habit derive from the ethos of the scientific community, where it’s common practice to give people credit for their contribution to a study? How do you feel about it?

SR: It seems to me just a straightforward, common-sense way of doing things to share ownership of and credit for the artwork/project, as well as any new resulting intellectual property (unless some of those involved don’t want to retain IP rights), with those who worked on it. So in the case of the new molecules, we created an LLC and a royalty agreement where any resulting proceeds if the molecules are commercialized will be shared among myself, Shengping Zheng (the professor at Hunter College who collaborated on the project), and the grad student who helped synthesize the samples (either Jing Wu or Sihan Li, depending on the molecule).
As to how the work is presented in an art context, I feel it’s important that the main collaborators are listed on the same line as myself. So for example the checklist at the gallery lists me along with Shengping Zheng in the “artist” field. Likewise, in the case of Screen, the stem-cell biologist Kiara Eldred and I are listed as the artists, and both Kiara and Shengping are listed in the “header” and invite for the exhibition at Empty Gallery.
I’ve seen too many collaborations between an artist and a scientist or other expert where the “artist” field omits the scientist. I’ve actually seen an entire biennial where this was the case, across the board, in the wall texts. In a collaboration, a scientist or expert shouldn’t be considered a footnoted helper applying their expertise to realize an artist’s fanciful dreams; they are as much the artist/creator as the traditionally recognized artist. One instance in the art world of an organization handling these kinds of collaborations well is Rhizome’s Seven on Seven series, where artists are paired with technologists. They do a good job of putting both sides on equal footing.
Of course, the scientific field hasn’t always been great about giving all collaborators on a project full credit. Consider the historical example of Rosalind Franklin. But today I would say that it has much better practices than the art world in terms of giving credit to the individuals who contributed. It’s fairly common for a scientific research paper to have five or more primary authors with additional acknowledgments of other collaborators. This is definitely an example that the art world can and should learn from.


Sean Raspet (b. 1981, Washington, DC; lives and works in Los Angeles) is an artist; a flavor and fragrant chemist; and cofounder of the algae-based food company nonfood. Recent solo exhibitions include Structure, Artist’s Institute, Hunter College, New York (2018); Receptor-Binding Variations, Bridget Donahue, New York (2018); and Soylent R&D Promotional Trade Show Booth, Frieze New York (2015). Raspet’s work has been exhibited at the Artist’s Institute, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit; the de Young Museum, San Francisco; Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; M Woods, Beijing; Societé, Berlin; the 9th Berlin Biennale; Artists Space, New York; SculptureCenter, New York; the Kitchen, New York, and other venues.


at Empy Gallery, Hong Kong
until 7 September 2019


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