What does labor smell like? Labor is a dynamic, self-regulating art installation that re-creates the scent of people exerting themselves under stressful conditions. There are, however, no people involved in making the smell – it is created by bacteria propagating in the three glass bioreactors. Each bioreactor incubates a unique species of human skin bacteria responsible for the primary scent of sweating bodies: Staphylococcus epidermidis, Corynebacterium xerosis and Propionibacterium avidum. As these bacteria metabolize simple sugars and fats, they create the distinct smells associated with human exertion, stress and anxiety. Their scents combine in the central chamber with which a sweatshop icon, the white t-shirt, is infused as the scents are disseminated. The scent intensifies throughout the exhibition.
The Labor project reflects upon industrial society’s shift from human and machine labor to increasingly pervasive forms of microbial manufacturing. Today, microbes produce a wide range of products, including enzymes, foods, beverages, feedstocks, fuels and pharmaceuticals. They literally live to work. These new industrial activities point to a deepening of the exploitation of life and living processes: the design, engineering, management and commodification of life itself. In Labor, the microorganisms ironically produce the scent of sweat, not as a vulgar bi-product of production, like in factories of the 19th and 20th centuries, but as a nostalgic end-product.
Labor also reflects upon our changing understanding of what we are. Microbes in and on the human body vastly outnumber human cells and they help regulate many of our bodily processes, from digestive and immune systems to emotional and physiological responses like sweating. Our microbiota is integral to who and what we are, and complicates any simplistic sense of self. Likewise, the smell of the perspiring body is not just a human scent, unless we are willing to redefine what we mean by human.
Paul Vanouse (Canada)
Paul Vanouse is an artist working in Emerging Media forms. Radical interdisciplinarity and impassioned amateurism guide his practice. Since the early 1990s his artwork has addressed complex issues raised by varied new techno-sciences using these very techno-sciences as a medium. His artworks have included data collection devices that examine the ramifications of polling and categorization, genetic experiments that undermine scientific constructions of race and identity, and temporary organizations that playfully critique institutionalization and corporatization. These “Operational Fictions” are hybrid entities–simultaneously real things and fanciful representations–intended to resonate in the equally hyper-real context of the contemporary electronic landscape.