October 18, 2013 | 16 Comments

Violence (Sissel Tolaas and Nick Knight)

From the curators: Scent designer Sissel Tolaas and photographer Nick Knight teamed up to explore a fragrance that charts the emotional landscape of violence. Collecting sweat samples at cage fighting matches and analyzing the chemicals by means of gas chromatography, Tolaas and Knight evoke a provocative portrayal of aggressive dominance and sexual behavior, captured in the throes of violent action itself.

After reading about the production of the smell inside the vial of Violence and looking at the accompanying photographs, I did not want to open it. It appears that I shy away from violence even as a smell: sweat, body odor, the dankness and rankness of gyms and locker rooms, the certainty that it will make me wrinkle my nose like a packed summer subway or a urine-soaked stairwell. The thought of a smell wrung from the sweat-soaked t-shirts of cage fighters creates a ripple of distaste and even fear at the imminent prospect of inhaling, a sensory reaction before the sense in question is even engaged.

The vial is incongruously clear and white and sterile-seeming; I imagined a blood-red glass rose, with twisted petals and a black heart. The smell seems to hit me even before I uncap it—old socks? No, it is far, far stronger—too strong to hold to my nose for more than a second or two. It is rank, but rank like musk, and held at a distance it summons images of stags or musk oxen or elk fighting—horns locking, hoofs pawing, the raw pushing of strength against strength. The violence of sex.

Would those images come to mind without the context of cage-fighting? I cannot know. But once the initial disgust at the smell inhaled deeply and close has worn off, and I smell it again and again, a transformation takes place. The smell itself separates from its context and becomes a spectrum of different scents, as if it is flattening and elongating under my nose. I think, for an instant, that I catch a whiff of rose, surely suggested by the pictures of torn petals but also reminding me that roses have many different scents blending into one. Again and again I smell it, until it begins to become denatured—an essence, yes, but of what?

Surely not of man. As I kiss my sons goodnight and press myself against my husband’s back in bed, I think about how we know each other by scent just as we recognize voices—instantly and individually. Lovers know each other years later by the deep smell of skin; parents inhale their children’s hair and neck and chubby folds. So perhaps the violence here is the transformation of the individuality of all men into the hormones that define them as male; the testosterone that creates the characteristics we identify with men rather than women. That is the transformation of design, the claimed search for an essence that is in fact a brute reduction and destruction of infinite variation: the distinctive features and feelings even of the two men fighting in a particular cage on a particular night with a particular set of instructions, much less of all the men who fight and love and work and care and create.

But by distilling something to an essence—not the essence but an essence—we also create building blocks for something new. We reduce complexity to simplicity to build a different complexity. If that is the violence of creative destruction, it feels far gentler than grappling for a death-grip in a cage. But I may never again look at a vial of perfume without thinking of torn petals and crushed calyces, a violence at the heart of beauty.


Is violence "male"?

  1. October 21, 2013, 3:29 pm

    Carolyn Keene


    I definitely think violence has a male aspect to it; but is that inherent in our culture or is it something we are born with?

  2. October 21, 2013, 9:56 pm



    In Italian, every noun has a gender. There is no neutral–the way it is in German language. There is no person/non-person distinction, as in English. Rather, like the French, we see the world in male and female. Frog is female. Wind is male. Vitamin is female. Stomach is male. Violence is female.
    Violenza, that is disturbing and does not make sense. Thankfully, it is a matter of etymology: in Italian, the -enza suffix is similar to the English -ness, it is frequent in nouns that come from adjectives. It is a cold and distant “nominalization” that does not take into account context, history, and biology. We speak female, but we mean male.

  3. October 22, 2013, 11:03 pm


    Smell and Evolution

    Carcharodon carcharias is shark from the Lamnidae family, and best known as the “Great White Shark”. The film JAWS by Spielberg created the image of a human hunter, where in reality this shark would avoid us and prefer its natural ecosystem food. The great white shark have a phenomenal smell sense. It can spot a drop of blood of one million drops of water that go through its nares and sniff out any evidence of prey. It is the most important sense so most of the shark brain is used to analyse smell and locate it in the water. The smell sense for the shark is a life and death issue. When I dive I smell nothing. The human Olfaction receptors dose not work in the water. The Flehmen response is where the face of the animal curls back into a strange facial posture to enable the system to absorb more pheromones. Smell and Violence has hundreds of millions of years relationship. For the first animals who has mutated to have this sense it was like the invention of the radar for the world war II battle ships. The ability to know where your enemy in a distance, with no need for direct line of sight. Dogs like Scenthound can smell millions times better then us, so are bears and even insects. Violence is sometime needed for the animal world to gain survival. We, human, designed with intelligence, could see the option for avoiding the survival need to act in violence. With our technology and wisdom, it is possible to stabilise the human race life on this planet without the need to kill. Many years ago, in our Bezalel academy R&D department we have designed a sniffer for chemical weapons of mass destruction. This tool used by spacial teams patrol in the cities to find out whether the bomb had a chemical weapon head or not. When I saw the movie of ShowStudio I had Syria in my mind, as the homeland of my grandfather and grandmother. In Syria the real violent smell cannot detect by the victims. It is invisible and lethal. The country became a huge cage watched by the mass media, where the world is unable to ring the gong and stop the mutual slaughter. No nation has the power to split the country as was done in former Yugoslavia. I dived with sharks lately on the Island of Providencia, a Colombian island in the middle of the Caribbean sea. I had no fear. One case of shark attack in one year will cause millions to fear to go to the sea. The possible cruelty of humans has much greater potent violent threat then sharks. Yet we don’t smell the danger.

  4. October 23, 2013, 11:38 am



    If violence is male, does that mean that non-violence is female?

  5. October 23, 2013, 11:49 am


    I am violence

    Almost a week ago I wandered into the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, and drifted into the all-red gift shop. Amongst the interesting and intriguing artifacts sold there was a wall of postcards, in chronological order, from the early 1900 until today; with a card for every Peace Prize laureate since. And then suddenly I see it.
    1994, Yasser Arafat.
    On the back it reads: “Palestine is the cement that holds the Arab world together, or it is the explosive that blows it apart.” Yasser Arafat 1929-2004.
    And this is when my mind drifted from the all-in-red gift shop; to explosives. One word on a postcard, that’s all it took.
    Palestine is my neighbor, and my explosive. Yet somehow, the explosive had made it to the Peace Center, almost 20 years ago.
    Yup, I was born in violence. The true kind, the ruthless, the evil and truly rotten; the violence of a civil war. But I still feel lucky, especially compared to the life my mom and dad had to lead. They met under the bombs, got married under siege and had three daughters in the midst of corruption. And yes, we all made it safe and sound, 15 years later.
    The bomb exploded in our faces; ripping all our senses apart. The smell of violence was not condensed in a jar, it was the air we breathed and the oxygen that made our bodies go. Sadly, it still is today as we reap the aftermath of a wicked bomb exploding inside our guts.
    I do not tell you this story to make you feel bad about my family or me. We are not the only country to have suffered from war. I tell you this story because you seem to be looking for violence and I thought this would be a good time to meet.
    I am violence. Or maybe I have become. Either way; nice to meet you.
    In French “Violence” is female and in Arabic “العنف ” is male. I say Violence has no gender. Violence is just human, and it is inside each and every one of us.
    Where I grew up violence was embraced and almost necessary, so I grew up feeling that it was normal to express loudly my rage. Violence is in our traits, it is benign among us. And it is only when I moved out of the violence (like physically moved continents) that I truly began to see it, distinguish it from the mass.
    But violence, in a weird and twisted way, is good. It is good for the soul. When one is not afraid to inhale it in every day, and smell the rank musk; they can begin to move past the violence and can begin to “reduce complexity to simplicity to build a different complexity.” So basically, reduce the complexity of violence to the simplicity that it is us, inside us. And then the different complexity becomes the intricate relationship between us humans and the violence inside us. We cannot live apart, and it is only by acknowledging that we are violence that we can begin to distill the world around us and maybe even see hope.
    And then, and only then, maybe the bomb that exploded in our faces can begin to melt and transform into cement that holds us together.

  6. October 23, 2013, 7:49 pm

    Grace Ali

    Yes! That’s my knee-jerk reaction. Violence is male. At least that’s what the data and the troubling statistics tell me about male on male (physical) violence, male on female violence, and male on children violence. I wish that wasn’t my gut reaction as I know violence, or the potential to be violent, lives in all of us.

    But I think of this question and I automatically think of its counterpoint: If violence is male then does that mean victimization is female? Does it serves us as a society to think of violence + victimization as gendered? And if it does serve us well, does it make it easier for us to wrestle with this complicated and difficult question of why + how we can be capable of acts of inhumanity against each other, in private spheres and public ones. I am not sure, but if I’m truly honest with myself, I do know that I am less comfortable with the alternative option–that violence is female.

  7. October 24, 2013, 5:34 pm


    More thoughts on Violence and Evolution (male - female)

    Only the female can create life and the male function is to give a protection. If an enemy comes toward the flock or tribe the female by its function will act to protect the young in a close proximity whilst the male will have to go forward to meet the enemy and show its aggressiveness. So violence is a mutation of male protection aggressiveness which comes from an evolutionary function of protection. The male body is made to be more aggressive in its nature by the fact that the female first instinct will be the protect and hug the young. Human violence is a perversion of the its first principle of such values of security, show the option of aggressiveness to confront an enemy. If someone comes to attack my children wouldn’t i go out of my peaceful nature and become aggressive at him to protect them? Warped power of male would be to think that the male way is to destroy life. Instead they should see the fact that they cannot create life, but their function is to use their skills, creativity and power to protect life, and make it secure.

  8. October 24, 2013, 8:09 pm


    Mean girls are mean

    We should clarify that the scent in question is of physical violence. Don’t forget its pernicious sibling – psychological violence. Let’s swab some mean girls’ underarms after they cyber-bully someone and compare, yes?

  9. October 25, 2013, 8:23 pm


    Violence born of cage fighting sounds male to me. Don’t get me wrong I’m a big martial arts fan it’s just that when I think of female violence Medea is more along the lines of what comes to mind. I bet that distills down differently.

  10. November 6, 2013, 7:52 pm


    First I just laughed at Paul’s comment about the mean girls and cyber bullying. But then I thought how lucky I am that my experiences of physical violence are all detached and scripted: domestic scenes buried within novels, blurred graphic violence on cable news, the flying fists of a rugby game, or the choreographed fighting of Hollywood. And yet I would not think to say I did not know violence or had not experienced the hostility of visible aggression. So I find myself grappling, like other posters, with what the companion pieces to a cage-fighting scent might be? The sheer physicality of cage-fighting seems so appropriate to reduce to a scent…because I can visualize the sweat. Yet if I think of the hostility that comes with a menacing glare, the hostility that is cast without touch or words I find myself reflecting not on the scent of the cool aggressor but on the scent of fear emanating from the receiver. Gender aside, for we unfortunately know there are mothers (grown up mean girls?) capable of psychological violence, it is interesting for me to reflect on how violence structured as sport, entertainment or even foreign affairs surely has a different scent than the aggressor and victim of a domestic or civilian situation. Or perhaps the scent of fear always goes hand in hand with violence?

  11. November 7, 2013, 5:34 pm


    This is the kind of question that can, so easily, expose you to looking stupid. But it would strike me that the way to begin an answer is to have some understanding of whether, in the natural world, violence occurs frequently among reptiles, mammals and insects of the female gender. If this is true, we might begin to consider the issue of violence is hard to remove from the larger question of species survival. What the benefits of violence are could be a significant part of the study.

  12. December 2, 2013, 4:18 pm



    In humans, the male is the dominant and violent of the two sexes, in most other mammals, including lions tigers and bears the females are the dominant sex and the primary hunters, which could be seen as a violent even if a responsibility. Then there is the violent behavior in animals for mating selection and display, especially among birds. So it really depends on the species. Humans having language and culture are a mix and not completely true to type one sex or the other, and obviously if either sex did not have all the qualities of the other also, eventually those genetic qualities would disappear, at first in certain individuals, perhaps increasing in numbers over time. Perhaps that is indeed what is happening.

  13. December 7, 2013, 7:18 pm

    Meghan Adamo

    Scent of a Woman?

    The question “Is violence ‘male’?” seems rather unfair. The fragrance designers took sweat from male cage fighters for their samples. But if they had taken their samples from female boxers, or perhaps even guests on the Jerry Springer show – post-chair throwing and hair pulling – they still could have designed the scent of violence. Would that scent be same as the one created from male sweat? Most likely not, due to the differences in hormones and pheromones. But it would still be the scent of violence. Perhaps violence in women is not as instinctual or connected to sex as it is in men, but the capability for violence is certainly there. Perhaps the addition of a fragrance designed from samples from women taken after they commit or participate in acts of violence (be it in sex or in sport) would add a greater depth to our understanding of violence and its effect on us. But design is about choices, and the designers of this scent chose to focus on the male aspect of violence. They also chose to call it “violence.” They could have just as fittingly called it “aggression,” “brutality,” or “assault” all of which carry their own connotations, which in some cases may be similar to, but are not the same as violence. The creators not only designed the fragrance, but through their choices also in a way designed the audience’s conclusions about the connection between violence and males. Even though the scent makes Slaughter consider the other side of masculinity, the lovers, the caring fathers, etc. it still leads her to think only about men, and not perhaps, her own behavior, scents, and capacity for violence.

  14. December 7, 2013, 11:11 pm


    Fragrance = Condition Intimidation?

    It is somewhat surprising that this provocative inquiry—is violence male?—has had so many responses that do associate violence with the male gender. Violence is an individual feeling that has to do with experiences. To think there is one fragrance that captures what violence is, and to think that that fragrance is male is to disregard the various forms of violence experienced by many. But most importantly, thinking of violence through the lens of gender is a violent remark. Scent and memory are linked, but this connection is mostly conditioned by direct moments and emotions. To label a certain smell as violent, and then to prompt to a question of gender, performs a manifestation of violence.
    Smell is not only is a sense that triggers memory, but also a sense that is used for protection and survival. However, the second characteristic of scent is that it can protect us from harm, but only if detected. As Ezri posted before, humans “don’t smell the danger.” Words have become more powerful than scents, especially in a web archive exhibition like this one. In this context, words and visuals are a crude translation of violence in our society. In this exhibition of violence, what is the role of the post in creating and designing more violence? What are the roles of the questions in instigating a type of violence?

  15. December 9, 2013, 1:13 am


    Potency of the medium

    Its not just the foulness of the scent made out of the blood and sweat of a cage fight, it’s the gory associations it brings to our minds that makes it truly terrifying. A scent leaves much to be imagined. It can unleash our personal fears. It is a very potent medium in that sense. And when it’s the scent of violence—such a powerful phenomenon—it elicits comparably intense emotions.

    I would think violence is human. It is both male and female. After reading this post and these comments, I would say violence and the scent of violence are very personal matters. Annie-Marie Slaughter’s response illustrates exactly that. She could not reduce its scent to any one gender. The imagery that a whiff of a cage-fight scent induces in a person has got so much to do with who that person is, where they come from, what their life is like. As Slaughter puts it, ‘it is an essence, not the essence.’ It has the capacity to embody a spectrum of different emotions in different people. What does violence smell like to you? The vengeance of a Greek goddess, the smell of charred bodies after an explosion, the smell of sweat and blood after a fight, a life-long domestic threat, a phobia of the dark maybe. Like Slaughter says, “the smell separates from its context and becomes a spectrum of different scents.” That to me is more remarkable about the scent of violence than its gender.

  16. April 21, 2016, 12:44 am

    […] Slaughter, A., Antonelli, P., Jackson, R., Antonelli, P., & Saiz, A. (2013). Violence (Sissel Tolaas and Nick Knight). Design and Violence. Retrieved 20 April 2016, from […]