Smellscaping Guiyu

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Tinghao Zhou


Once the largest e-waste recycling and processing town in the world, Guiyu, China, was characterized by a pungent, penetrating smell of burning chemicals and plastics, commonly referred to as Guiyu Wei by both locals and officials. Shrouded in the environmental terror of unidentified toxins and chemicals, breathing had become a precarious bodily (re)action that constantly put people’s lives at risk. Taking Guiyu as its center case, this essay documents two “smell walks” in Guiyu conducted by the local community and me, respectively. It presents a prolonged material afterlife of data that is intimately intertwined with the life and livelihood of the local workforce and community and tracks the production of desensitized subjects. How do we represent a particular kind of smell or a specific form of olfactory experience? How can we communicate this message with a larger public that has little knowledge of what life is like within a chemically polluted environment?  This project seeks to think about these questions in artistic terms, conceiving research-creation as an integral methodology. Through the Guiyu-inspired art series, “Synesthesia (unfinished),” I explore various possibilities of olfactory representation and the emergent relationships among smell, the environment, and our sensorium. As the centerpiece of this project, I envision “Smellscaping Guiyu” as an immersive installation that takes visitors beyond their intimate sensory knowledge and immerses them in the unfamiliar olfactory milieu fabricated by chemicals and elements from Guiyu, one of the “shadow places” at the corner of the world.

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