top of page
  • Writer's pictureAudrey Robinovitz

Mushrooms, Macbooks, and other Perfumed Premonitions of the Apocalypse(s)

Agar Olfactory's eschatological fragrances, reviewed.


There are at least two base impulses that set humanity apart from other living beings. The first might be called an aspiration to create: the urge to make art, construct temples, and build relationships, all in service of something greater than oneself. The second is undoubtedly the urge to burn it all down. The prevalence of humanity’s masochistic fascination with its own demise is as central to the human condition as an innate lust for life. Whether through the cosmic dance of Shiva; the Alpha and the Omega’s last judgment, or the outbreak of another global pandemic, people cannot stop themselves from foreseeing an eventual end to life as they know it. 

Enter the work of Chicago-based perfumer agustine zegers*. The stated nature of their project Agar Olfactory is “speculative olfaction that imagines climate disaster, apocalyptic scenarios, and the smellscapes that would exist within them.” Placed firmly at the intersection of individual creativity and collective political action, Agar Olfactory’s fragrances are unsettling, distinctive, and still somehow serene. I am reminded primarily of references to new generations of science fiction: where terms like “solarpunk” and Emily St. John Mandel’s brutal and quietly hopeful novel Station Eleven gesture towards a form of cosmic hope contained in humanity’s capability to either adapt to immediate environmental imperatives towards degrowth, or else destroy itself and rid Earth of its most damaging parasite. In many ways, the lens of climate apocalypse shifts the imperative away from humanity at large, proving our fascination with our end-all-be-all extinction reifies the very same human-centered priority system that enables corporate greed at the cost of damaging the homes and environments of many other different kinds of life. Perhaps humanity will not outlast the next few millennia, but subtly joyful work like that of Agar Olfactory reminds me that with or without us around, life – uh – finds a way.

The first time the world ends is in 1999. The Y2K bug looms inside all the world’s computer systems, and as the ball drops and the year changes over, it all comes grinding to a halt. Cero, perhaps the most abstract of zegers’ creations, envisions the smell of ‘90s technological collapse. The most immediate impression when first sprayed is chemical heat, like burning yourself with hot printer ink. Perhaps you wince, but as Cero settles onto skin, it turns into a more mellow, rounded plastic accord, described in copy as “Mac carcass.” I see references here to Comme des Garçon’s 2011, but where 2011 smells like a wilting flower with a Macbook self-immolating in the next room over, Cero is the open casket funeral for the iMac G3.

The elephant in the room here is that this perfume is perhaps the first-ever olfactory reference point for the vaporwave aesthetic. If I had to pick one fragrance to wear to a rep theater showing of Daniel Lopatin’s early YouTube-core video art, this would surely be it. Into the drydown, Cero quickly turns from shiny plastic to tart, almost herbal sort of mustiness. Zegers writes of a mousepad note, and this is where I smell it most prominently. Like many Agar Olfactory releases, Cero evolves at an almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speed, with top notes likely far outnumbering any added fixatives. That said, Cero lingers neatly on your wrist for an hour or two. That’s just enough time to make it out of a cozy movie date with a self-described xenofeminist you met on Twitter who wanted to watch Assayas’ Demonlover — and make it back home in enough time to stare slack-jawed at your computer screen, long enough that your lain-core internet femcel besties won’t grow suspicious you broke hikikomori honor code.

The next time the world ends is in 2021. A little virus by the name of COVID-19 has stopped the world in its tracks, and you, dear reader, a high-rise dwelling urbanite, are forced to subscribe to a delivery service wherein semi-fresh vegetables are delivered by an underpaid contract worker to your empty lobby. You take the bag up to your criminally small kitchen, and you eat the complete antithesis of the Smiling Woman Tampon Commercial Salad, all while longing for the verdant comforts of kimchi from your currently closed local Asian Fusion open-concept restaurant-slash-microbrewery. Bitbit, perhaps tied with Cero for my favorite perfume from Agar Olfactory, is first and foremost the pungent smell of spoiled chard. Bitter, green, and somewhat powdery, this overabundance of vegetal notes is supplemented by herbal mugwort, wormwood, and astringent valerian. Often showing this perfume to my friends causes them to recoil in disbelief, and yet I truly do find this smell strangely comforting. Something about how it tickles the back of my nose, the sharpness almost replicating the camphoric nature of tiger balm, makes it feel like a harsh, ancient medicinal treatment for spiritual maladies. This is something the village elder in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind rubs onto your broken leg to give you quickness in battling airships. Wear this to fight for the ancient nobility of the Ohmu, or just to binge-watch ecopunk anime alone in your room during the next inevitable quarantine.

The next time the world ends is in 2050. Large groups of insect species are at risk of extinction due to harmful policymaking and irresponsible farming practices. Enter Bicho, a tool designed to court what few pollinating bugs remain. Wearing this feels like slipping into bee lingerie. The predominant notes are those of crushed leaves and a scratchy, pollen-laden fig. Indeed the process of creating a fig, which is not a fruit but the stem of an inflorescence, necessitates the coevolutionary relationship of a wasp fertilizing the fig, sometimes at the cost of its life: clipping its wings and becoming crucial nourishment for the tree as it grows to maturity. It is a masochistic but beautiful dynamic — that most figs contain the traces of a wasp who gave its life to fulfill its evolutionary destiny. Bicho smells like what you would wear to the wasp’s wake if you were planning on liaising with a recently-widowed male wasp and wanted to appear tantalizing-yet-respectful. There is such an effect of powdery pollen into the drydown that one almost feels seasonal allergies manifest. There are undertones of jasmine and lavender here, but ultimately neither stands out above the other. This is almost exactly what I would imagine Erika Thompson, the hot girl Texan beekeeper who handles entire hives with her bare hands, would smell like after a hard day’s work. With perhaps the largest sillage of Agar Olfactory’s offerings, wear this to smell like the hottest snapdragon in the meadow.

The last time the world ends is in 3030. Now, it is quiet. Humankind is long since gone, and what remains has flourished in our absence. They use our abandoned structures – houses, office complexes, theaters – as new homes. Damp, a delicate and simple soli-molecule a la molecule 01, captures the smell of soil bacteria feasting upon our ruins. This is among the quietest perfumes I have ever smelled — you will not be able to smell it at all on paper. But tested on skin, you catch traces of the reassurance that the world will end not with a bang, but with a whisper. I pick up on strong connections to Demeter’s Dirt — but where Dirt leans shovel full of potting soil, Damp feels more like an overgrown forest floor after rain. There is a unique, watery character here that might almost be described as petrichor, the distinct smell of rain falling on dry soil. Composed of the Ancient Greek πέτρα (pétra) rock, or πέτρος (pétros) stone, and ἰχώρ (ikhṓr), the ethereal fluid that flows through the veins of the Gods in Greek mythology, this smell is often sought after in perfumery. I do truly feel, however, that the blast of geosmin in Damp, unfettered by an excess of additives, hits this smell on the head. There is a quiet sort of poetry to Damp — a meditative minimalism that draws the attention inward. There is also the insistence, in all of Agar Olfactory’s work, really, that the Anthropocene is both arbiter and record of our destruction. No matter how badly we mess things up here on Earth, the marks we make on the enduring surface of the world will persist, in some way, shape, or form, long after we turn out the lights. 🌀

The perfumes of Agar Olfactory can be purchased in both full bottles and sample-sized quantities, on zegers’ website

*zegers’ name is intentionally left in lowercase.


Audrey Robinovitz is a multidisciplinary artist, scholar, and self-professed perfume critic. Her work intersects with the continued traditions of fiber and olfactory arts, post-structural feminism, and media studies. At this very moment, she is most likely either smelling perfume or taking pictures of flowers. 


bottom of page