2019 Prix Ars Electronica Winner

Labor by Paul Vanouse.

Congratulations to Department of Art Professor Paul Vanouse for winning a Golden Nica from Ars Electronica. This year's Prix Ars Electronica received a total of 3,256 entries from 82 countries.

Paul Vanouse (US): LABOR

What does exploitation smell like? Labor is a dynamic, self-regulating art installation that re-creates the scent of people exerting themselves under stressful conditions. There are, however, no people involved in making the smell—it is created by bacteria propagating in the three bioreactors in the artwork. Each bioreactor incubates a unique species of human skin bacteria responsible for the primary scent of sweating bodies: Staphylococcus epidermidis, Corynebacterium xerosis, and Propionibacterium avidum. As these bacteria metabolize sugars and fats, they create the distinct smells of human exertion, stress, and anxiety. Their scents combine in the central chamber in which a sweatshop icon, a wearer-less white T-shirt, is infused as the scents disseminate out, intensifying throughout the exhibition.

The Labor project also reflects upon an industrial shift from human and machine labor to increasingly pervasive forms of microbial manufacturing. Today, microbes produce a wide range of products, including enzymes, foods, feedstocks, fuels, and pharmaceuticals. They literally live to work. These new industrial activities point to a deepening of the exploitation of life and living processes: the design, engineering, management, and commodification of life itself. 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’.