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UB bio-artist Paul Vanouse wins Golden Nica at Prix Ars Electronica

A large test tube-like device that holds bacteria.

“Labor,” by Paul Vanouse, UB art professor and director of the Coalesce Center for Biological Art, uses bacteria to manufacture the smell of human exertion. Photo: Douglas Levere

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published June 5, 2019

headshot of Paul Vanouse.
“… The smell of the perspiring body is not just a human scent, unless we are willing to redefine what we mean by human.”
Paul Vanouse, professor of art and director
Coalesce: Center for Biological Art

Paul Vanouse, professor of art and director of the Coalesce: Center for Biological Art, received the Golden Nica award in the Artificial Intelligence and Life Art category of the 2019 Prix Ars Electronica, the premiere cyberarts festival and competition in the world.

His work, “Labor,” was one of four entries to receive a Golden Nica, the top prize awarded to each category in the competition, which received more than 3,200 entries from 82 countries.

In addition to the coveted golden trophy and up to 10,000 euros in prize money, winners receive the opportunity to showcase their work at the 2019 Ars Electronica Festival, being held Sept. 5-9 in Linz, Austria.

The award-winning project is a dynamic art installation that recreates the distinctive odor of sweat, exertion and stress. There are, however, no people involved in making the smell — the scent is created by bacteria propagating in three bioreactors in the artwork.

“I’m thrilled to be awarded the top prize at Prix Ars Electronica,” says Vanouse, who previously received the Award of Distinction in the Hybrid Art category of the 2017 Prix Ars Electronica.

“I invested five years of sweat, hope, capital, and physical and intellectual labor in this project, and am very pleased to have it recognized in the premiere festival of new media art in the world. I’m also grateful to have had so much help from colleagues here at UB, and happy to have premiered it right here in Buffalo.”

Two women look at a T-shirt encased in glass.

As the bacteria found on human skin metabolize sugars and fats, they create the distinct smells of human exertion, stress and anxiety. Photo: Douglas Levere

“Labor,” which premiered in January at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, is an exploration of what makes a person human. Microbes in and on the human body vastly outnumber human cells and help regulate many bodily processes, from digestion to sweating.

“Our microbiota is integral to who and what we are, and complicates any simplistic sense of self. Likewise, the smell of the perspiring body is not just a human scent, unless we are willing to redefine what we mean by human,” Vanouse says.

The project also explores the shift from human and machine labor to increasingly pervasive forms of microbial manufacturing. Microbes, says Vanouse, produce a wide range of products, including enzymes, foods, feedstocks, fuels and pharmaceuticals.

The smells are created by procreating bacteria in three industrial fermenters in the middle of the project space. Each 40-liter bioreactor contains a unique species of human skin bacteria responsible for the primary scent of sweating bodies.

As the bacteria metabolize sugars and fats, they create the distinct smells of human exertion, stress and anxiety. Their scents combine in a central chamber containing a sweatshop icon — the white T-shirt — which is infused with the smells as they disseminate out.

The installation also includes several sweat-stain-transfer prints — visual evidence of exertion captured by a novel production method. Moist, freshly soiled shirts are dusted with charcoal, sandwiched between paper and run over with an SUV, the pressure of which infuses the print with an embossed pattern of intimate sweat.

“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,” Vanouse says. “They literally live to work.”

A framed t-shirt featuring sweat-stain-transfer prints.

“Labor,” also features T-shirts with sweat-stain-transfer prints — visual evidence of exertion captured by a novel production method. Photo: Douglas Levere

Vanouse, who leads the Emerging Practices program in the Department of Art, has worked in emerging media forms since 1990. His electronic cinema, biological experiments and interactive installations have been exhibited in more than 25 countries and across the U.S. in venues that range from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to the Louvre.

His award-winning work has been discussed in journals and media outlets that include Art Journal, Art News, New Scientist and The New York Times. His art has been funded by numerous organizations, among them the National Science Foundation, Creative Capital Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Renew Media Fellowship, New York Foundation for the Arts and New York State Council on the Arts.

As director of the Coalesce Center for Biological Art, housed within the UB Community of Excellence in Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM), Vanouse helps attract artists from around the globe to participate in biological art residences through which they can form mentorships with UB faculty in the life sciences, gain access to laboratory equipment, and receive the creative space and technical support to study genomic and microbiomic concepts.

“Biological artworks such as ‘Labor’ provide a unique lens for examining what it means to be human and our connection with the world and organisms around us. It also brings these ideas to a whole new audience outside of the sciences,” says Jennifer Surtees, GEM co-director and associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

“I am so excited that this artistic work by Coalesce, which has been a key part of GEM from the start, has received this type of international recognition.”

Vanouse holds a master of fine arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University and a bachelor of fine arts degree from UB.