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I Took A Whiff Of New York's Most Endangered Scent

Artist Miriam Simun has created an immersive olfactory experience surrounding New York State's only federally-protected flower.

by Katherine Tarpinian
03 October 2014, 5:30pm

Images by Miriam Simun

When I arrived at Stream Gallery, a beautiful young woman greeted me at the door. I gave her my name and a serene expression crossed her face. “I know that name,” she said, placing a glowing amulet around my neck. “This will let her know you are ready to receive her scent.” Her?

Artist Miriam Simun has employed living flower headspace technology to capture the scent of the Agalinis acuta, the only plant federally protected under the Endangered Species Act in New York State. The Agalinis acuta blooms for only twenty four hours each year, and is too tiny in its natural state for humans to perceive its fragrance. It's scent has never been perceivable for humans until now. The technology, created by IFF inc., captured the fragrances of the flowers by confining a blooming bud within a glass sphere, and placing a retractable needle as close as possible inside the flower’s headspace, without making physical contact.

Simun has created a “multi-sensory immersive experience” surrounding her unveiling of the rare Agalinis acuta scent. The experience is “a ritual of remembering” designed to “explore the interwoven relationships of species loss, cultural change, bio-political structures and notions of progress through the story of the attempted revival of the Agalinis acuta from the brink of extinction.” It is a tribute, an interactive performance, a short, non-linear ceremony that both celebrates and challenges the mysterious power of nature, while questioning and perhaps critiquing humanity’s habits and their effects upon the earth.

Inside the gallery, I stepped inside a small, bustling room. I was handed a cocktail, which tasted like a blend of aloe, juniper, honeysuckle and seltzer. On three screens played a multi-channel video installation: short videos of a flower, a chicken, a field, a child running. A woman to the right of the screens knelt before a sterile white table, counting a pile of tiny black seeds grain by grain. To my left, a man in a white coat stood before another white table, making preparations. A white dressing screen blocked the far corner of the room from view.

“She is ready for you.”

I stepped behind the screen. Simun and a male colleague stood before two white podiums. On each rested a dosdii, a spindly, delicate, wearable device designed by Simun to produce a “flavor illusion” which, combined with a ritual cocktail, would allow me to experience this endangered, impossible scent. Two at a time, we received. The dosdii was placed on my face, resting weightlessly over my nose and cheeks like a Venetian mask, and I was instructed that the best way to experience the scent was to inhale as I drank. The olfactory experience was of honeysuckle and fresh air, and a hint of something I can’t name… like a berry, maybe. It tasted like happiness.

The author with her amulet, awaiting the Agalinis acuta. Photo by Michelle Laird.

The Agalinis acuta can be experienced at the Museum of Arts and Design on Wednesday, October 8th as part of NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial. Click here for tickets, and here for more images and info. 


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endangered species
Miriam Simun
Agalinis Dreams
Agalinis acuta
Museum of Arts and Design
headspace technology