Issue One


Food Dye Chromatography

Matthew Herbert made a record about food; really, about the food industry.  His themes ranged from a meal that was cooked for George W. Bush when he came to the UK to thank Tony Blair for his support during the invasion of Iraq to the fact that Ricetec, a Texan agribusiness firm has attempted to patent basmati rice.  Matthew made the music with food; shaking it, melting it, scorching it, toasting it, driving over it in a tank.

He asked if I’d like to do the artwork for the record, which he had called Plat du Jour, and I said I would, but it might take a little time.  I had to read a number of books on the subject first *.  The only clear idea I had for the record was this: I wanted to make artwork that was like walking into a supermarket, our modern cathedrals of light, cleanliness and purity.  I wanted to make something beautiful, seductive and entrancing, but which becme slightly repellant when examined closely.  Like a supermarket; where the alluring first impressions are slowly dispelled as you start to read the ingredients lists,countries of origin, the names of the transnational conglomerates who own the brands.

I obtained a quantity of chromatography paper from various sources, and small bottles of food colourings from catering suppliers and supermarkets, where I found myself gazing blankly down the aisles, muttering to myself, toying with bottles of scarlet, raspberry red and cochineal.  As far as I could tell, modern food colouring is predominantly petrochemical in origin; there are two main groups of dyes, coal tar dyes and azo dyes.

At home I rigged up a ramshackle laboratory in my kitchen.  I used a teat pipette to drip food colouring onto the chromatography paper, which I suspended from a wire strung above the washing-up bowl which I filled with clean water.  The results were spectacular.  The food dyes separated and bled across the paper, merging with or repelling each other, drifting against gravity towards the wire.  The experiment required careful monitoring; one evening I forgot about my laboratory and the next morning I had no colours, just a weird dark line right across the very top of the paper.

After scanning the results at high resolution I researched the chemical details of the dyes, the contraindications and possible side-effects of ingestion.  This information I edited and presented it in small type adjacent to and over the smeared and blurred dye chromatography.

As in a supermarket, the viewer was forced to look closely in order to see the truth about what they are buying.  The small print is where the sense of beauty falters, the sense of purity stumbles into the disconcerting idea that this bright, colourful world is made possible by the manifold use of oil; that black ooze composed of millions upon millions of long-dead organisms.  There is death in our food.  None of the dyes I researched were considered suitable for children.  Most were banned in many countries, whilst being commonly used in the UK.

* The books I read as research for this project included Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Fat Land by Greg Critser, Shopped by Joanna Blythman, Not On The Label by Felicity Lawrence and Soil and Soul by Alastair Mcintosh, as well as some strange tomes from the business shelves detailing the rise to market dominance of the likes of Tesco and Walmart.
Words and Artwork: Stanley Donwood