Paul Vanouse is the winner of the Golden Nica in the category Artificial Intelligence & Life Art of Prix Ars Electronica 2019 for his installation “Labor”. Interview.
Paul Vanouse is a biomedia artist based in Buffalo, New York, where he also runs the Coalesce center for biological art at Buffalo University. Labor, his artwork that received the 2019 Artificial Intelligence & Life Art Golden Nica at Ars Electronica festival, re-creates the scent of human sweating. Makery met him the day before the Awards ceremony and asked him about the links between sweat, labor and human being.
Can you tell us more about the scientific process we can observe in Labor installation, which recreates different smells of human sweating?
Paul Vanouse: We have two different types of sweat glands. One are called the eccrine glands, the sweat they put out is very thin because it is mostly water and a bit of urea. The other sweat glands are called apocrine glands, these are the ones that put out a sweat that is more milky, with more fats in it. These ones are responsible from most of the kind of anxious sweat. I like to think of the eccrine gland is being like blue collar labor and the apocrine gland is being white collar labour.
You can observe three bioreactors in Labor installation, and each one contains a different one of the primary bacteria that metabolize our sweat : Staphylococcus epidermidis, Corynebacterium xerosis and Propionibacterium avidum. They each live around different areas of our sweat glands and they each metabolize nutrients in different ways, this is why they produce distinct smells.
On the walls, we also have these prints which are made just by taking sweaty t-shirts, dusting them and then putting them between sheets of paper that are impressing the sweat like imprints. And in the central space, there is a t-shirt which is infused with the scent of humanness but no one human present. So it is like a strange kind of sweatshop. And the t-shirt here is the icon of this sweatshop: not only what you wear but also what you produce in a sweatshop.
Smell is a very powerful sense regarding the creation of mental images, we even speak of olfactory memory. At the same time, sweating is a very intimate phenomenon… Through this installation, what reactions or emotions do you intend to provoke with Labor?
I think I expect everybody to have different reactions in here. Maybe I hope that on the one hand you are seduced enough to come in and look at the objects but then when you seat for a while you also have your own experience of the scent. Some would be transported to maybe a locker room, or a place where they worked or spent time…
Hopefully the experience will be quite individual. For instance, one of the reactor with Staphylococcus produces isovaleric acid and this is something that genetically some people are about a hundred time more pre-disposed to smell than others. When I smell it, I almost blush because it has such kind of intimate smell, but some people won’t smell anything!
Visually, we start from a laboratory image with the reactors, to arrive at an almost political symbol, the worker’s sweat-stained white t-shirt. Is bioart for you a way to bring science and its evolution on a political or philosophical level?
I hope what happens in this work is that we no longer say “This is a scientific question, versus a historical question, versus a philosophical question”. I hope that epistemologically these kind of simplistic ways that have kept outsiders out of the conversation starts to go away.
What I have tried to do is produce these instances where things are so completely interlinked. If you pull a thread and you ask a question you can come out with just a scientific answer : “This man is using the three different components of sweat to make the scent of sweat!”. But that would be a rather thin interpretation.
These scientific experiments are also a critique of the idea that DNA defines us, that we are our DNA, by showing that microbes co-define us. What is intriguing is that even if sweat is one of the most rich human component, it is produced not so much by humans but by the microbes. So it’s also about realizing there is always a kind of ungraspable, there is always something that escapes even in science.
Your installation questions different concepts, with several levels of interpretation: from the evolution of work in our societies to what biologically defines our humanity (i. e. bacteria), and the relationship between human and on-human. How do you relate these different things?
I’m interested in when there’s no single message that a work can convey. For instance if I am looking at this installation from the perspective of labour, this shows the perverse evolution of labour from manual labour of the hand (men are defined by the hand of labour) to this industrialized time when machine began to replace the manual of labour.
Then in the 21st century we increasingly see that it is microbial labour which now defines the modern capitalism. It is microbial labour in which we produce our enzymes, our food stuff, increasing our building materials, etc. Sometimes, which is I think even more ironic and maybe even more problematic, in many cases these bacteria are not only the labourers producing products but they also produce the product of themselves. Because actually microbes do not only metabolize the sweat but they also metabolize one and others, and one and others biproducts. So biolabor is basically a process where the labour force is managing the very kind of ways of its reproduction.
You are the director of a bioart laboratory, and you are both an artist and a scientist, two fields that can be seen as opposite. According to your experience, how can these two visions of the world cohabit, dialogue and answer each other? What is the place of artists in a scientific laboratory?
In this case, the obvious connection is the body. The first thing we do in art school is to seat and look at the body of models, trying to understand it. This is the big question that most of artists have: how to understand ourselves? I think a lot of biologists are interested in the same kind of question. The guiding influence is pretty similar, then it is just a different way of seeing and of asking questions. The reason I like the framework of arts is that art fundamentally tries to continually redefine its own definition and its own models. And the interesting thing about the arts is feeling like a project doesn’t have to obey the same kind of methodological constraints as in other fields.
I am also interested in this idea that aesthetics, this very faculty which allow us to make sense of this things, break them up, evaluate them, has traditionally been tied up with this idea of what is good taste. And of course bodies secretions are never polite, they are never appropriate and certainly they are not good taste. I am interested also in this way in which good taste and disgust are somehow inexorably linked in this kind of work.
A few years ago, you already received a award of distinction for your installation “The America Project” around the process called “DNA Fingerprinting”. What has changed since then in biotechnology main issues, what new challenges do we need to address?
My DNA work was trying to undermine that reductive idea that we are our DNA, that it is the gold standard, or the purest form of truth, which can also mean that you are trapped in a way behind your genetic destiny.
I’ve been criticizing that in my work for fifteen years, and about five years ago I started the Labor project with this idea in mind: showing something much more complicated about human identity than genetics would allow. Our bacteria define us in a way that unlike DNA is changing every day. There is much about where we live, who are our lovers are, what we are eating, our emotional state… This is completely moving environment! This representation can help us to get away from the prison of our heredity and this kind of eugenic vision that comes with it. So I hope that when people enter the room, they tend to have this strangely intimate revelations.
More about Paul Vanouse.
Read our article on “Soybean Futures” at Ars Electonica 2019.