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Frederik Duerinck’sAlgorithmic Perfumery

by Jenna Mahale

The Algorithmic Perfumery highlights the inevitable convergence of cosmetics and personal data in an increasingly brand-conscious market.

Its creator, the artist, filmmaker, and designer Frederik Duerinck, believes that the project can challenge the status quo within the fragrance industry. Before I ask Frederik Duerinck anything about himself or his award-winning multisensory art installation, he has a question for me – have I been wearing the custom scent his Algorithmic Perfumery designed for me?

“That’s the ultimate thing. Because you can get something for free out of a gallery, you can do it with your friends, it’s nice, but if you really want to understand how your personal tastes, personality, and sociocultural background correlate to a scent preference, that’s the puzzle we need to solve. That’s the thing that tells us that we did something good.”

Duerinck’s installation, two rows of tall glass dispensers suspended over a miniature conveyor belt, appears freshly plucked from a factory floor. There are thirty-eight of these dispensers in total, each containing a different perfume group: patchouli sits next to woody amber, musk floats beside green fougere. The conveyor belt is only wide enough for a single bottle to pass through at a time.

Unfortunately for Duerinck, I have not touched my bottle since sampling it at the installation. The scent is more floral than I would have liked, too sweet and heady, though this may actually be my own fault, the result of dissonance in the way that I perceive myself.

The composition of your scent is determined by how you answer Duerinck’s questionnaire, the brainchild of psychologists, consumer scientists, and specialists in scent perception. Many of Algorithmic Perfumery’s questions are based on classical personality metrics, such as the five-factor model, which assesses an individual’s conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. When Duerinck tells me that he contributed some of the more quirky questions to the program, I ask him if he is referring to the one that presents the user with two images, a cloud-shaped blob and a spiky star burst, and asks respectively if you are more ‘bouba’ or ‘kiki’.

“That’s actually one of the hardcore scientific questions!” he says, laughing, “It’s an expression of what kind of person you are. A bouba is more of a round person, easygoing, and a kiki is higher energy, someone who has more feist.”

On top of all of this, Algorithmic Perfumery has an embedded artificial intelligence program to optimise its products. An essential step in the experience is a consumer feedback portion which allows the user to express, through both visual illustration and quantitative data, how their new scent makes them feel: “There are 128 questions in the questionnaire, so the program is constantly comparing 128 dimensions at the same time to scent preference, and what it has given out before. And what people give back, it tries to learn from. So there is a feedback loop every time, and it is better able to predict: ‘with this kind of consumer, we should create this kind of unique scent’.”

The seed of the idea for Algorithmic Perfumery was planted while Duerinck was working as a designer on a collaborative project with IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances), creating more scent-based, multisensory installations, but drawing upon his experiences working as a documentary filmmaker. “If you look at the human being as a bio-entity that perceives the world through all of its senses, I think that we have this strange, distorted view of reality from a storytelling perspective which is limited only to the audiovisual parts. Especially where I came from – film is very focused on the visual and sound. Senses that are not that easily applicable tend to be ignored and not developed.”

With Algorithmic Perfumery, Duerinck sought to expose and subvert what he saw as hypocrisy within the fragrance industry. “I don’t find the way [scent] is being used in the beauty industry right now to be very honest or sincere, specifically towards consumers. It’s a lot of marketing and product testing and consumer focus groups – it’s really the preference of a particular segment of the market. But if you look at what scent is, it’s a super intimate thing which connects you directly to yourself.”

“A lot of the things that we buy are based on the value of their marketing, and the image that they portray. People buy into that dream; they are sensitive to it, but it has nothing to do with who they are, or how their life is.”

While data-hungry, personalised cosmetics are increasingly becoming the norm in the beauty industry, Duerinck’s democratization of scent feels like a more noble pursuit than most. “I wanted to make a piece that could actually change the dynamic by giving the ultimate freedom to people. Really, the piece is interested in who you are, and having an honest dialogue about it.”


Algorithmic Perfumery is currently on exhibition as part of >HUM(AI)N at the Phi Centre, 407 Rue Saint-Pierre, Montréal, QC H2Y 2M3 

Sandra Larochelle
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