Paul Vanouse, Labor
On View Friday, January 11–Sunday, March 31, 2019
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.
Vanouse’s 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.
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.