Iman Jesmi

Sensing the World

Sensory Souvenir

Iranian composer and sound artist Iman Jesmi delves into the correlation between sounds and smells in European cities, and how they have shifted through immigration. With Hamburg as a case study, he looks at new forms of cultural synthesis through smells and sounds in the cityscape.

Portrait of Iman Jesmi

Iman Jesmi

The artistic, diachronic research will be collected in a sound-and-smell map of the Hanseatic metropole, tracing their transformations throughout the previous century. At the digital Forecast Forum in September 2021, Jesmi premiered an audiovisual documentary work telling stories of people who had been uprooted from their native surroundings to start new lives in unfamiliar environments. The subsequent research also explores historical representations and descriptions of the chosen city in the media and art.

With Luca Turin’s theory in mind—that receptors in the nose respond to the vibrations of a molecule—Jesmi plays with the notion that both auditory and olfactory systems are based on vibrations. He plans to produce a multisensory installation melding original and archival field recordings, interviews, and electronic music to narrate and question the city’s sound- and smellscape. Artist and musician Emeka Ogboh is his mentor on the project; the two traveled to Rome’s MAXXI museum for a work-stay in March 2022, for concrete mentoring on the project’s production.

Iman Jesmi’s statement on his installation at the Forecast Festival:

Everything is noise, every sound or smell that can’t be interpreted by your brain. As an unavoidable consequence of immigration, the silence of loneliness makes the city soundscape louder and more perceivable to your ear. You don’t understand it, you can’t communicate with it. Your ear craves a familiar sound; your mother tongue, traditional music, or religious tones—even if you’re an atheist.

What was the last sound you heard in your hometown? What was the last meal you ate before fleeing or leaving your country? What was the smell of your mother’s kitchen when you were home? What was your first sonic experience in your new city?

I posed these questions to many migrants around Europe and found out that even after years of living abroad, many still remember the sensory experience of home in detail. The smell of their bed, the song of their street hawker, and the odor of groceries stores. Although they cannot find exactly the same ingredients, they try to make everything as close to their mom’s kitchen.

Many immigrants try to recreate their memories. They try to make everything close to their old home experience, and this leads to sensory changes in their new hometowns. A young Pakistani boy who wears his traditional clothes in the city of Rome; a young mother from Sierra Leone that sings traditional lullabies to her children to teach them about their own culture; and an Albanian man who makes spaghetti carbonara with chicken for Muslims.

Even though I started the project by researching other migrants’ life experiences, it became more personal and more autobiographical after I moved to Germany earlier this year. My fears of and wonder at the new sounds and smells. My way of adapting to new meanings.

This project concerns the sensory aspect of immigration. As a sonic observer, I listen to anthropophony of cities and explore immigration’s impact on sonic and olfactory cityscapes. Sensory Souvenir takes the form of a multimedia installation with a durational live performance. In a room furnished with neutral, standard objects that symbolize the global flow of goods, performers who have migrated to Germany navigate the familiar and the foreign.