Labor reflects upon our changing understanding of what we are. Microbes in and on the human body outnumber human cells and complicate any simplistic sense of (an indivisible) self. The smell of the perspiring body is not just a human scent, unless we are willing to redefine what we mean by human. In Labor, microorganisms ironically produce the scent of sweat, not as a vulgar bi-product of production, like in factories of prior centuries, but, purposefully, as an evocative end-product.
Labor is a multi-sensory art installation that endeavours to re-create the scent of human exertion. 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 species of human skin bacteria responsible for the primary scent of sweating bodies: Staphylococcus epidermidis, Corynebacterium xerosis and Propionibacterium avidum. Human sweat in itself is odourless: it is these bacteria feeding upon the components of our sweat that creates volatile, odiferous chemical compounds that we associate with sweat and physical effort. Their scents intermingle in the central glass bell jar in which a sweatshop icon, a wearer-less white t-shirt, is infused as the scents disseminate out. Like Robert Boyle’s bell-jar, the icon of an emerging scientific episteme in the 17th Century, this bell jar rests at the centre of a new, tentative worldview, in which humans have vacated the centre.