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A sensotial journey through Somalgors74.

  • Essay
  • Oct 30 2023
  • Agnieszka Gratza
    is an editor and art critic based in Rome. Her writings about art, performance, and film can be found on her blog: Conversation Pieces.

The artist Curdin Tones and I met in the Dolomites at the opening of the 8th Biennale Gherdëina in May 2022. On that occasion, after offering me his hand-made incense sticks, he invited me to visit the “scent laboratory” where they were produced at Somalgors74, the cultural initiative-cum-artist residency he set up in Tschlin in the Graubünden and started running around 2017. “I think you might enjoy making your own scent,” he said. “And maybe staying in a log cabin at over 2000 metres of altitude.” He didn’t have to twist my arm.


The village

Situated in the southern and easternmost part of Switzerland’s Graubünden canton, on the confines with Italy and Austria, Tschlin lies in the lower Engadin valley, so named because of the Inn river, which is called En in Romansh, the language spoken by most of the village’s 180 inhabitants. Dominated by the tower of St John the Baptist Church, which was partly destroyed in a fire that burned much of the village in the mid-nineteenth century, Tschlin is a dense cluster of sturdy-looking barn-houses (which people used to share with livestock); their windows, door frames, wall edges and sometimes entire walls, are decorated with monochrome sgrafitto patterns, with the occasional framed moral saying in Romansh painted on the facades. The barn-houses lining Tschlin’s cobbled-stone streets converge on the odd fountain that would once have been nodal points of village life. 

Curdin’s parents and grandparents come from Tschlin, and the place has shaped his identity from childhood onwards. Somalgors74 — the address of a modest barn-house tucked away behind the main street — was a sort of almshouse before Curdin took over the place and opened it up to a growing community of resident artists willing to get to know the local context and engage in collaborations on specific projects and activities. Of late, these projects have been exploring the so-called “lesser senses” of smell and taste — lesser according to the Aristotelian hierarchy of senses, which deemed sight to be the most noble and rational, followed by hearing, smell, taste, and touch, each being increasingly more sensual and beastly — as a means of getting to know a landscape and its inhabitants more intimately. 

The drafty barn on the side of the house is thus home to the Archive of Alpine Olfactory Memories, a collection of stories stemming from recollections of certain smells, which have been recreated in the scent laboratory at Somalgors74. Rather than being presented in a disembodied way, these smells have been attached to specific objects drawn from the stories and presented in ten wooden boxes designed especially by Philipp Kolmann in a collaboration with Tones. Tools and materials used in the incense-making workshops, including sizable flat grinding stones, pots full of ground powders, wild herbs and flowers drying in baskets were displayed on the neighboring table and around the barn. Herbs, fruits and vegetables growing in a lovingly-maintained patch next to the barn feed the residents and guests visiting Somalgors74.


fig. 1


The forest

On my first visit to Tschlin at the end of July 2023, Tones drove me in a 4x4 to the family cabin standing on the edge of pasture land at an altitude of over 2000 metres, roughly 500 metres above the village proper. [1] It was the end of June and the surrounding meadows were still full of flowers, including several varieties of wild orchids and bright yellow arnica flowers that Curdin taught me to identify. He wouldn’t let me leave Somalgors74 without a bottle of homemade arnica extract and a bunch of fresh herbs from the vegetable garden. 

A couple of weeks after my first visit, I was back for the Follow Your Nose workshop and to meet the Oaxaca and Mexico City-based members of the colectivo amasijo, who arrived in Tschlin at the start of July for a three-week residency co-organized with Proyecto AMIL. Since their arrival, colectivo amasijo’s Carmen Serra and her daughter, Martina Manterola, had been acquainting themselves with Tschlin’s varied ecosystems, getting the lay of the land layer by layer, starting with the higher mountain pastures near the cabin and moving downwards in a sequence of outdoor public culinary events. On the day of my return, they had just prepared a communal meal out in the forest above the village, using such ingredients as trees’ bark, bee larvae, and wild herbs to spice up the lamb sausages. We had some of the leftovers for dinner, and Curdin had us taste a black relish made with palo de chile, a bark found on the coast of Oaxaca that children like to chew on. It tasted a bit like Sichuan pepper and numbed the palate a little. Bee larvae, served as an amuse-bouche that evening, was a first for me too. 

It was raining lightly the next morning and the Follow Your Nose workshop started indoors at the associative Café Spontan, one of the village hubs. Curdin got the participants to take turns telling a story in which scent played a vital part and then to share with others how they related to smells. By the time we were done, the rain had subsided, and we set out towards the forest where the bulk of the workshop would unfold. Along the way, we noted the distinctive smells of the village and drank in the scents that the sun brought following the rain. As it turned out, these were optimal conditions for conducting olfactory exercises, and for discovering a landscape by means of smell. 

As I recall, the exercises included turning 360 degrees to become attuned to the diverse scents carried by the wind, all the while trying to determine their source; sniffing the moist grassy earth on all fours from up close; inviting someone to smell something with us; letting them blindfold us and keep us out of harm’s way as we followed our noses; rubbing an aromatic substance between our fingers in order to release its smell; smelling our own skin as a sort of palate cleanser, since that’s undoubtedly the scent we are most familiar with; finding the olfactory equivalent of a panoramic viewpoint and introducing others to it. Talking about smells can be challenging given how ill-equipped Indo-European languages are for this task. The activity cards developed by Jeroen van Westen, Theo van der Geest, Franziska Grossenbacher, and Curdin Tones as prompts for these exercises contrast this limitation with the richness of Quechua and other Indigenous tongues in this respect —⸚Indigenous peoples possibly relied on this sense for survival to a greater extent than Europeans did. Certain odors can alert one to potential dangers. In a dense forest or a jungle, where one can’t see into the distance, the sense of smell effectively complements limited vision.


fig. 2


The terraces

For their outdoor cooking sessions, colectivo amasijo availed themselves of a green single-axle tractor that doubled as a field kitchen. Carmen invited me to tag along for the ride the following morning and, at the appointed hour, we got up on a bench fitted with sheep skins behind Curdin, who was driving the beast; Martina hopped on at the back, and off we went down the single road running from the village all the way to the Strada hamlet on the banks of the Inn. We stopped halfway and Curdin pulled into a pine-fringed country lane that opened out onto a terraced field overlooking the river and which faced the familiar rugged peaks from a new vantage: a drop of maybe 300 metres from the height of the village. In the context of Tschlin, Carmen was amazed by “how many things can change within short distances in terms of what the land can offer. I guess that was one of the main things we understood.” [2]

In what was their third outing with the kitchen-tractor, colectivo amasijo set out to explore the agricultural landscape, which reminded them of the terrace systems found in Latin America, and especially those of the mountainous Milpa Alta area to the south of Mexico City, where the women-led collective had been working at the invitation of the Carrillo Gil Art Museum. Unlike in the Milpa Alta area, where land is held in common (one of the main forms of land tenure that predated the Conquest of Mexico), this plot of land belongs to Curdin’s relatives, who maintain it and let it lie fallow better to preserve and foster its biodiversity. This approach is bearing fruit, as we discovered on a brief reconnaissance of our immediate surroundings. We found an abundance of wild sage flowers, clover, aromatic dill, and the tips of chestnut leaves to cook with, as well medicinal herbs such as St. John’s wort (a treatment for depression), which grew in the hedge lining the field, as well as two varieties of artemisia (used to cleanse the liver). Most exciting, from a Mexican perspective, was the presence of what Martina identified as qualitas and quintoniles, edible herbs that colectivo amasijo cooked with in Milpa Alta on the other side of the planet, an example of how plants move with humans as a companion species. 

The concept of territory is central to colectivo amasijo’s food-based artistic practice. As Martina Manterola explains, in an online lecture hosted by the Cisneros Foundation that took place in February 2022, “everything begins with territory, and we define territory as a living entity that is dynamic, creative, and with a great capacity for self-organization. We define ourselves with it and with a myriad non-human agents, where we end up interconnected via this nutrient cycle. Finally, we listen to this territory through the voices of women who live close to the land.” [3] Amasijo, which comes from Latin and French, refers to a shapeless mass that one kneads (amasar) into shape. This understanding of the collective’s name felt especially fitting given the menu for our lunch, where the main course consisted of knödeln, a local staple made the way Curdin’s grandmother taught him to do it but with the addition of freshly ground wild dill, and, for those willing to brave it, a protein supplement in the shape of bee larvae. 

As we tucked into our knödeln, presented on broad, green leaves alongside a salad of qualitas and quintoniles garnished with sage flowers, the artist Hannes Sturzenegger read out a few lines to introduce his own offering to the valley, an invitation to expand its palette of foods and tastes. The food of the future, looking back to ancestral techniques of cheese-making, was, in this instance, a collaboration with the resilient Bacillus subtilis, a gram-positive bacterium who did its bit to ferment the soybeans wrapped in local hay, yielding an experimental variety of pungent Japanese natto, which one mixes up to a hundred times with chopsticks to release the gluey filaments that bind the beans together. 

Built especially to house the Bacillus, a box made of larch placed nearby on a pedestal of stone slabs was unveiled after lunch to the sounds of guitar played by Donat Kaumann, an habitué of Somalgors74 who translated into Romansh (with the help of local people), and set to music, lyrics loosely inspired by a song composed for the presentation of new church bells for the tower of St John the Baptist:


Qua, tanter god e champagna

La port’ invers la vita zoppada

I’l vent sporas solitaras

E s’radunan qua als aromas


Qua, sül fain be tschunc e sechantà

Crescha tuot savoir attempà

Il bounder inscuntra la recetta

Savurs da bun gust t’aspetta





    [1] A Wikipedia page informs me that, while about 28.7 percent of Tschlin’s total area of 75 km2 is agricultural land and 1.3 percent consists of dwelling places and roads, the remaining 70 percent is pretty much evenly divided between forested and “non-productive” areas, such as mountains, rivers and glaciers. (Accessed 22 August 2023).

    [2] Carmen Serra, in an email exchange with the author, August 6, 2023.

    [3] Catarina Dunkin, “Territorial Re-Connections: Which worlds do we want to celebrate and build together?,” Youtube, Aprill 11, 2022, 



    Cover: Mobile food laboratory (the Forest chapter). Copyright Somalgors74 and Curdin Tones.

    fig. 1: "Follow Your Nose" olfactory exercises. Copyright Somalgors74 and Curdin Tones.

    fig. 2: The Archive of Alpine Olfactory Memories. Copyright Somalgors74 and Curdin Tones.



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