Your Colleagues

UB bio-art project that recreates smell of human sweat named Falling Walls 2021 winner

Vat of bacteria.

"Labor," by UB artist Paul Vanouse, uses bacteria to manufacture the smell of human exertion. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published August 25, 2021

headshot of Paul Vanouse.
“Today, microbes produce a wide range of products, including enzymes, foods, beverages, feedstocks, fuels and pharmaceuticals. They literally live to work. ”
Paul Vanouse, professor
Department of Art

“Labor,” a biological art project by UB faculty member Paul Vanouse that uses bacteria to recreate the smell of human sweat, was named one of 10 winners in the art and science category at the international science competition Falling Walls 2021.

The annual event, which coincides with the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, showcases the work of scientists from around the world. Scholars are recognized across 10 categories that range from the life sciences to science engagement for entries that explore the theme of breaking walls in science and society. 

Judges will whittle down the 10 art and science entries to one Science Breakthrough of the Year in Art and Science award. If selected, Vanouse will present his work to a global audience at the Falling Walls Conference on Nov. 9 in Berlin, Germany. 

“This was a major project for me and I’m glad that it continues to foster discussion,” says Vanouse, professor of art, College of Arts and Sciences, and director of the UB Coalesce: Center for Biological Art.

Collaborators on the project include Solon Morse, Coalesce lab manager, and Gerald Koudelka, scientific adviser and professor of biological sciences, College of Arts and Sciences. The work is supported by the Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM) Community of Excellence at UB.

Breaking the wall to microbial manufacturing

To recreate the smell of human exertion, Vanouse procreates bacteria inside three, 25-gallon industrial fermenters. Each fermenter incubates a unique species of human skin bacteria responsible for the primary scent of sweat: Staphylococcus epidermis, Coryne and Propionibacterium.

The vessels are cradled by temperature-regulating units and motorized mixers connected by hoses to gas, nutrient and waste canisters. As the bacteria digest simple sugars and fats, they create the distinct smells associated with human exertion, stress and anxiety. Their scents combine in the central chamber in which a sweatshop icon, the white T-shirt, is infused as scents disseminate. The odor grows stronger over time.

Images from the January 2019 opening of the "Labor" exhibit opened. Photos: Douglas Levere

“Labor” is a reflection of industrial society’s shift from human and machine labor to increasingly pervasive forms of microbial manufacturing, says Vanouse.

“Today, microbes produce a wide range of products, including enzymes, foods, beverages, feedstocks, fuels and pharmaceuticals. They literally live to work,” he says. “These new industrial processes point to a deepening exploitation of life and living processes: the design, engineering, management and commodification of life itself.”

The project is also a representation of our changing understanding of what we are, he says. Microbes in and on the human body vastly outnumber human cells, and they help regulate many bodily processes, from digestive and immune systems to emotional and physiological responses like sweating.

“Our microbiota is integral to who and what we are, and complicates any simplistic sense of self,” Vanouse says. “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, who is also head of the Emerging Practices program in the Department of Art, has been working in emerging media forms since 1990. His electronic cinema, biological experiments and interactive installations have been exhibited in more than 20 countries and across the U.S. in venues that range from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to the Louvre.

“Labor” also earned the Golden Nica award in the Artificial Intelligence and Life Art category at the 2019 Prix Ars Electronica, the world’s premiere cyberarts festival and competition.