Paul Vanouse
in progress, 2014-present

What does exploitation smell like? "Labor" is an art installation that fills a gallery with the scent of people exerting themselves in stressful conditions. But there are no people involved in making the smell – it is created by bacteria breeding in two industrial fermenters at the center of the space. Each incubates a unique species of human skin bacteria responsible for the primary scent of sweat: Staphylococus epidermis and Propioni bacteria. As these bacteria digest simple sugars and yeasts, the former creates the smell associated with human exertion and the latter with stress/anxiety. The project poetically reflects and interrogates industrial society’s shift from human and machine labor to increasingly pervasive forms of microbial manufacturing, and in this process contemplates the changing borders defining what is human.

The smell of sweat is literally the smell of two species of bacteria that feed upon the excretions of the human body to produce the familiar acrid and sour scents. In this sense, the smell of labor is not actually a human scent, unless we are willing to redefine what constitutes a human.

This may come as a shock, since most people think that the way they smell is part of their own natural condition – put simply, your smell is your smell. But in fact it is far more complex: a cocktail of microorganisms that live on and in us are the culprits who determine that rather distinctive “human” feature. But it is arguably more than just whether we stink that is at stake: one recent study posits that “on average people have 182 species of bacteria living at any one time on their forearms, and about 8 per cent of these have never been formally described by scientists.” (The Independent, 2007). Such findings about the vast numbers of creatures that live upon and in our bodies complicate any reductive sense of human-ness, since these cells vastly outnumber human cells and differ between persons far more than human cells do.
In this context, the idea what exactly makes up a person is again under the microscope, not just for scientists, but for culture at large. For centuries we have been debating who gets to be considered a person and when: it is a question that dominates political discourse of the last few centuries because of the connection to labor and liberation in the post-renaissance world.

My project is a continuation of a process that interrogates those issues and in particular looks at how they are tied to labor. Since industrialization, the factory model has shifted from human labor, to machine labor, and increasingly in the Twenty-first century to microbial manufacturing.

opposite: Petri dishes containnig first experiments: microbial samples from armpit, Biofilia, Aalto Univesity Helsinki, 2014.

Today, non-human life produces of a wide range of products, including enzymes, foods, beverages, feedstocks, fuels and pharmaceuticals. In many cases, genetically modified new species have been invented for the specific product they produce. In some cases the microorganisms themselves are the end products, in other cases their respiration produces products, and sometimes they are harvested for components, such as genetic sequences, antibodies, or proteins. They literally live to work. These new industrial processes point to a deepening of the exploitation of life and living processes: the design, engineering, management and commodification of life itself.

I associate “factories” with both Dickensian, nineteenth-century workhouses, and neo-colonial sweatshops in which humans toil to the limits of their physical and emotional strength to produce material goods. The intent of my project is to paradoxically produce the scent of such human labor as an end-product, rather than as bi-product or superfluous waste. The premise is that, ironically, we mourn the loss of factory jobs due to outsourcing and modernization and the scent of this labor is both ominous and sentimental.

opposite: Seed bioreactor hall for mammalian cell cultures photo by Bernd Mechsner.
Viewers will enter a space dominated by two large fermenting tanks. These 80-gallon vessels, standing human height, will be cradled by temperature regulating units and motorized mixers and connected to gas, nutrient and waste canisters by hoses. Scents will escape through hoses capped with 0.2 micron sterile filters to ensure no microorganisms can enter or exit. While viewers search for visual clues the scents should create a highly-charged ambivalence in audiences as these semi-human odors might trigger oppressive or comforting, nostalgic or ominous emotional responses. “Labor” should be apprehended differently than other artworks as the primary register for its perception is olfactory and the scents produced do not correspond to their expected milieu. Furthermore, the intellectual content of the piece will complicate this feeling as audiences contemplate clues within the installation to hopefully ponder perverse contemporary ontologies of production with attributes like: life inseparable from labor, product and produce conflated, biology a subfield of technology, and “man” omitted from manufacturing.

opposite: Labor, concept collage showing twin fermenting bioreactors with t-shirt in aeration chamber, Vanouse, 2015.

Labor Preproduction steps pdf file
This file details the steps undertaken in the project preproduction phase.

Thanks to:
Pia Lindman, Ulla Taipale, Marika Hellman at Aalto University.
This project was initiated during a visiting professorship at Biofilia, Base for Biological Art, Aalto University, Helsinki, in cooperation with HIAP artist residency program, Helsinki, Finland, 2014.

Additional Thanks:
The Humanities Institute, University at Buffalo.

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