Photo Alexander Coggin.
(Interview has been edited for clarity)
Jordan King: I was interested to find out that you’re from Vancouver originally. Do you consider Vancouver as having been a part of your formation as an artist?
Aleesa Cohene: I don’t think so. I mean, of course, I grew up there so for sure there are creative ties to my childhood and upbringing. I left when I was 18 and moved to Toronto. I did my undergraduate in philosophy and from there, went to film school and then trained in editorial. It was there that I started making more experimental work, still thinking that I would work for clients and in post-production houses, which I continue to do today, in different ways. When I was at school, I was doing assignments for school. When I first started making artwork, I worked with found footage exclusively, caring a lot about the history and politics of found footage practices, specifically in Canada. I was really interested in getting to know artists in the Toronto community, who were making this genre of work at the time. While in my last year of film school, my final project was collage based consisting of a collection of clips from media sources that contained gestures and body movements I saw connected to acts of activism. This was anything from a drama, where a main character is in a union, or a thriller with a demonstration scene. One clip I included was from a science fiction film of two people falling from the Twin Towers. The film was made about a month before 9/11, and the day my video first screened in the classroom was the day prior to 9/11. So as this image played, news was coming in about what was happening in New York city. No one had mobile phones at the time. People were coming back from lunch and had listened to the news in a car or restaurant. Following this experience I had really new questions about the work: What is this image now and what was that image then? What did this image mean in its original context, and does it matter? The use and weight of the image had a resonance that allowed for a kind of deeper relationship to what I was making.
Eventually I took the video to Vtape and it was programmed in many programs across the world, because of that one clip essentially. There was no real context for it yet, the context sort of became what people gave it over time. So I had this very quick and fortunate exposure to film festivals and to conversations around filmmaking early on in my artistic practice, and am really grateful for that now.
I made single channel work for about ten years, and then I moved to multi channel installation, which is how I work now. The methodology of editing is still at the core of my practice and from this I have moved to working with sculpture, scent and sometimes paintings and dance, all of which come from the narrative of the films that I’m building and making. Film is still very much at the core of the work. I think that tension around the responsibility of putting new images into the world, of working with images, and then putting them back into the world. Your question reminded me of that time.
JK: Do you remember feeling creatively invigorated or inspired when you lived in Toronto?
AC: Sure, there were many moments. Especially around the depth of friendships that I have. I find I miss Toronto in many ways, I miss the communities.
JK: Being based in Toronto, I find folks imagine what else is going on elsewhere in the world, or people feel the need to get out or go to other places to make stuff happen.
AC: I also remember those conversations and wonder what about Toronto makes people both love it and hate it; never wanting to leave, always wanting to leave. That desire isn’t even part of so many people’s realities. I went to residencies in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands and lived in Berlin for several years, but I always loved and missed Toronto in different ways.
JK: The artist residencies piece is something that’s really important, I appreciate hearing that as well. A very dear friend of mine in New York, who’s a choreographer and a company director, goes to as many residencies as he can. I’m trying to allow residencies to fuel me as best I can while I’m finishing my program at OCAD and to take those chances to go and be in other places and meet creative people [in] other places, and get inspired that way.
AC: It’s a great way to get to know a city and really no two residencies are the same. With each residency you have to navigate a lot of different conditions. Whereas moving to a new city, or country is a different commitment. I’ve been in Los Angeles for eight years, and I’m still navigating the reality of not being American. Moving is both a value based and cultural adjustment. It took me about five years to feel set up, between healthcare and immigration, neither of which happen quickly. And neither are permanent, when you do achieve something, it still feels like a constant revolving door. This might be specific to America though.
JK: There are all those logistical things we could get into, between the American O1 (artist) visa, all those processes. I am specifically really curious to talk about the art and olfaction part of your work. I was introduced to that by Shannon [Cochrane, director of FADO] through the most recent FADO scented postcards which were mailed out, which I was so blown away by.
AC: The PERFORMANCE YELLOW scent?
AC: Early on in my practice, I think beginning in 2006, I decided to start training myself in scent creation and fragrance composition. While making video work, it became really clear that there was a presence and immediacy that video couldn’t achieve; a felt experience of a narrative. I wanted to explode the senses and what we were experiencing in space, sensorially… The first work that included scent was Like, Like, which I made when I was in Cologne, during a fellowship. I emitted the scent from behind video monitors, so the heat of the monitor acted as a diffuser for the smell. I thought “Okay, this is very much like a body, or another presence.” With each exhibition, I’d make another batch. It was very homegrown. Every batch was a little bit different, which conceptually worked for the installation but the process started irritating me. I wasn’t enjoying remaking the scent each time, and I wanted to develop a formula that I could repeat. I also wanted to understand more about what was happening chemically. I took a few very introductory chemistry courses. When I moved to Los Angeles there were some nice opportunities to take courses at the Institute of Art and Olfaction. That was amazing. I slowly had more opportunities to show work that scent was a part of, so I got to experiment a lot in the studio. I set up a lab and continue to experiment. Recently I’ve had opportunities to create scent for events as well which has been great. Creating one-offs and working in spaces with lots of people in them has been super fun and interesting. I enjoy the challenges of the practice. I love the struggle with language around scent, which I find important and continually interesting. With scent you are in your own world, you have your own resonances, you have your own memories. I know what I want something to smell like but it might mean nothing to anyone else, or it will mean nothing familiar to someone else. To let go of that control has always been the exciting part. But the other piece of it is that there’s no control, so if I really needed to replicate something for a sculpture, because it’s been sold, and there is an expectation of the person who has purchased it, I need to be able to do that. Or if I wanted to sell a fragrance, which I’ve been interested in doing as a conceptual but still wearable fragrance, it needs to be replicable. Scent sort of took my practice outside of abstraction, working with formulas and source materials.
About two years ago, I started a multidisciplinary creative studio. Most of our jobs are identity branding for different kinds of organizations, and businesses. We do smaller projects for artists, architects or scholars, and then larger branding or rebranding projects for businesses, corporations, foundations, etc. We offer scent branding as well, mainly because it’s important to us to continue doing what we love doing, but also just because we don’t want to lop off important parts of our artistic and design practices when we work. This all really came together when Shannon Cochrane (FADO’s director), being the amazing brain that she is, said something funny. We were talking about costs for rebranding, and she said “Well, for that price this website had better smell.” (laughs) I thought, “Okay, then it will.” People typically have budgets for marketing, in business worlds. But for nonprofits and for artists organizations there’s a tension there, they might only have a certain amount earmarked for it. The next prompt that came from FADO was during our strategy phase, we asked: How does this website perform? We knew right away that one of the ways the site was going to perform was by smelling. That led to using smell as a guide for the navigational system, which was then paired with colour. Each colour then had a smell, and then each smell and colour was a section of the website. As you navigate through the site, each category of work has a smell with a corresponding color. It’s technical and tactical, really, it’s both those things, but so experimental and fun. We are now composing the individual scents in the FADO collection. PERFORMANCE YELLOW is the first scent that we formulated, and ENGAGEMENT PINK came next. I’m sure you’ve heard some of the future crazy ideas.
JK: I’m privy to some of them. There may be a way that I’ll help animate those in some capacity.
AC: Working with FADO has been a dream job. We’ve loved getting into Shannon’s brain and figuring out how to represent that organization in a way that also was strategic. The history of FADO was just so important, and the website is an archive site, essentially. The experience of liveness, of aliveness of performance all at once.
JK: Prior to starting my graduate program placement at FADO, I had been working on pitch for a performance piece. I kept trying to think about, I have so many friends in other parts of the world, and how I could potentially make the digital viewing experience be somewhat distinctive for them. I started trying to consider these ways of creating a scent component that they could receive in the mail that included a description of how to engage with that particular scent experience during their viewing of the performance online. I told somebody at one point when I went to buy a very specific kind of incense and they replied, “Oh, haha, like smell-o-vision back in the day!” I thought, “Oh, I shouldn’t have even tried to explain what I was going to do. Because it’s not that.” (laughs) When I then learned about FADO’s PERFORMANCE YELLOW and ENGAGEMENT PINK scents, I thought “Wow, you’re both already so ahead of the curve and really have dove into it in such an incredible way and created something spectacular.”
AC: Many people in North America reference smell-o-vision and scholars reference it too when they talk about scent and affect. Culturally there are so many ways in which different people, ourselves included, interact with smell in different capacities that we don’t actually acknowledge. It’s a very underrepresented misunderstood sense, for interesting reasons. That’s why I love the idea of it as navigation because imagine if you’re lost in a physical space, and the only way through is the smell. It’s incredibly interesting. You can’t rely on it. Even when you describe a smell, we often rely on how things look visually to describe it.
JK: There’s a book that I’m rereading right now that came out in 2006. It’s about Marie Antoinette’s personal perfumer. It’s incredibly detailed. They really went deep into his archives and records which are still kept in Paris, he kept quite detailed records. The book itself is a bit gossipy almost, or sort of salacious, it’s not necessarily a complex read. There are really spectacular details about how he created his scents. Marie Antoinette is perhaps not the first, but is an accessible example of a cultural icon that people wanted to emulate, for which we have documentation. So because this perfumer that was working with her, which became known, people wanted to buy his fragrances because they wanted to smell like her. That period in France was when images were first able to be quickly reproduced in print, which influenced people wanting what they saw French royalty to have. Anyway the descriptions of the scents and the processes that went into making them is fascinating, especially the actual composition of some of the fragrances and then how they were used.
AC: I’ve heard of it but I’ve not not read it. Anything that gets really descriptive of scent gets quite fascinating. It takes you down this narrative path, but one that’s not linear, you know?
JK: I would love to know about your creative practice in LA. What excites you in LA? What, what about living in LA is fulfilling creatively?
AC: I spend a lot of time working with clients now, and with client projects, my research practice has elaborated and shifted. This shift has been a driving force of building up my business while keeping a balance with studio time. What I love about being in LA is that I can be in my studio all the time. One door is open to the outside so I’m somewhat outside all the time. The flowers, the trees are just incredible all year round, and super fascinating. Asking, “What the fuck is that smell?” is constantly in my world. It had happened already before moving here, but I’m just a little bit less interested in being in a dark room editing. So when I do have to do that, I’m quite focused and concentrated on it and block off a three week edit and just go for it and actually work elsewhere, because otherwise I’m too distracted. You know, the cliché about the light in California is real. It’s a white light and it’s just so bright. Something I don’t like is that it can be hard to have that gloomy, pensive, introverted time.
JK: I’ve never heard that about LA before, but that’s so fascinating to think about, because you’re right, it would just be this constant sense of bright sunny weather. You just need to be out enjoying it or something, huh?
AC: Yeah. It’s so easy to go meet people for coffee or dinner, or just be outside or go to a park. There’s this feeling that I personally can never shake. I’ve been here almost eight years now. The feeling of summer, which is an amazing feeling. But without winter, it can be…I experience it as excess. It’s not in balance. I really have had to create these moments, artificial moments of darkness. To follow the tracks within myself and to be more internal. Over the past few years I was working on and off on this video piece called Kathy, which is the first piece I made following a single actor’s career. It’s all clips of Kathy Bates, all of her performances from the early ‘80s to 2020. That was a challenge. The secondary role that she’s constantly playing, even when she’s a main character, because she’s there to make us feel better about our lives, essentially. She rarely plays a “nice character.”With this kind of studio setup, I am so grateful for the ventilation and access to nature for scent work. But I need the opposite sometimes. I need to actually have all my senses shut down, except for my eyes, and my inner world for cutting and for watching film.
JK: Do you still consider film an active part of your practice?
AC: Film is definitely the core. It’s almost always my frame of reference. In terms of what I spend my time doing, I balance between reading and watching films. I’ll go see shows and I know film history much better than sculpture history, for example. Film is still what I care about most. I dip in and out of the parts of filmmaking that I care about, and for my own practice, I’m always down to see what’s happening for other people. I’m sort of in the center of it here in LA, a bit too much in the center of it sometimes. It’s such an industry focused city. There’s not necessarily a lot of criticality around that.