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Burchfield Penney’s ‘Labor’ uses artificial sweat to examine human agency

On the opening night of Paul Vanouse’s latest exhibit, "Labor," at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the smell of sweat wasn’t too strong ... yet.

In the gallery’s Project Space, three bubbling tanks containing fiery orange liquids continuously excreted three distinct scents, each resembling human sweat. The tanks are hooked up by tangles of clear tubing to a crisp white T-shirt in a glass case.

One of the vats emits a feet-like scent, one smells like a locker room and the other smells like a stress-induced sweat mixed with cheese.

Sounds appealing, right?

Until you experience it yourself, you don't know how much it will even affect you. Some people will hardly be able to smell it. For others, the scents could be engulfing. And the scents become stronger throughout the exhibit's run, through March 31.

Vanouse, a biological multi-media artist, art professor at University at Buffalo and director of the school’s Coalesce Center for Biological Arts, uses science to tackle abstract cultural issues in his work.Vanouse uses his art and experiments to string together science and culture, often considered by many to be two separate entities.

In "Labor," he’s igniting a conversation about human agency, shifts in the labor force and exploitation-- but not in the way you normally think of it. 

He’s both asking and answering: What makes a human a human?

And to answer that, he examined sweat.


To understand Vanouse’s work, you may need a biology refresher.

Microbes -- germs, bacteria, fungi, etc. -- are everywhere. They outnumber the cells within our bodies.

Scientists are increasingly using microbes to solve all kinds of problems. They utilize them in surgery. They believe bacteria could dramatically increase our food supply. And bacteria were even used to clean up oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico.

“There’s this whole new kind of workforce, this whole new kind of factory where humans are kinda doubly removed,” Vanouse said at the opening. “So if machines are kind of like a surrogate for the hand, then you know, in a way, now these microbes are.”

Vanouse honed in on one specific thing bacteria affects: personal scent. He said people assume their own scent is uniquely theirs, as if it’s biologically wired in them. But, he said, it doesn’t have much to do with you - and a lot to do with the bacteria within you.

Certain bacterias -- three of which Vanouse uses in his project -- affect the scent of human’s sweat ,therefore, Vanouse said, affecting human attraction through scent. Vanouse believes this is key to reproduction, and it’s not necessarily as human as we assume it is.

“Increasingly, it’s like, these are bacteria that are calling the shots, and directing us, and producing all these kind of feelings in us which we’re responding to,” Vanouse said. “These parts of us that we think of as being the essence of our humanity, might in fact not be human at all.”

Microbes exist to labor. For humans, labor is simply one facet of the experience, Vanouse said.

In his work, the artificial sweat filters through a white T-shirt, which serves as an icon of American labor. But human exploitation isn’t all that he’s commenting on. As scientific microbe exploration increases, we are at the fringe of working to understand human relationships with non-humans, from animals to bacteria, he said. “What is it to be when every aspect of your existence is engineered for another use?”

So, why sweat? Who thinks of this?

Vanouse came up with the idea while in a sauna in Finland. He was there for a residency and thought it would be fun to work on a sweat project next.

“Every artist wants to brag that they’re working really hard while sitting in a sauna,” Vanouse said.


"Labor," by Paul Vanouse, through March 31 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave.

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