Published January 9, 2019
What does labor smell like?
UB faculty member Paul Vanouse will tackle that sweaty, steamy question by scientifically creating it in a new exhibition opening Jan. 11 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State.
“Labor” by Vanouse, professor of art and director of Coalesce: Center for Biological Art, will create the scent of human exertion under stressful conditions on site at the gallery at 1300 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo.
The exhibition is also supported by the Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM) Community of Excellence at UB. Solon Morse, Coalesce lab manager, is scientific collaborator on the project. Gerald Koudelka, professor of biological sciences, serves as a scientific adviser.
Vanouse will create the smell by procreating bacteria in three industrial fermenters in the middle of the project space in the gallery. These 80-gallon vessels, standing at human height, will be cradled by temperature-regulating units and motorized mixers connected by hoses to gas, nutrient and waste canisters.
“Each fermenter incubates a unique species of human skin bacteria responsible for the primary scent of sweat: Staphylococcus epidermis, Coryne and Propionibacterium,” Vanouse explains. “As these bacteria digest simple sugars and fats, they create the distinct smells associated with human exertion, stress and anxiety. Their scents will combine in the central chamber in which a sweatshop icon, the white T-shirt, is infused as scents disseminate. This odor is expected to grow stronger throughout the exhibition.”
The exhibition reflects 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,” Vanouse says. “These new industrial processes point to a deepening 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” is also a representation of our changing understanding of what we are, Vanouse says. Microbes in and on the human body vastly outnumber human cells, and they help regulate many 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,” he adds. “Likewise, the smell of the perspiring body is not just a human scent, unless we are willing to redefine what we mean by human?”
“Labor” is on view through March 31 at the Burchfield Penney.
Vanouse, who is also head of the Emerging Practices program in the Department of Art, has been working in emerging media forms since 1990. His electronic cinema, biological experiments and interactive installations have been exhibited in more than 20 countries and across the U.S. in venues that range from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to the Louvre.
He is the recipient of the Award of Distinction in the Hybrid Art category at the prestigious 2017 Prix Ars Electronica, the world’s premiere cyberarts festival and competition.