A specially-commissioned interactive project which celebrated one hundred years of research and development at Unilever’s Port Sunlight facility.
The work is presented in three parts: a display of photographic images, an installation using printed t-shirts and a short film. The exhibition opened at Port Sunlight in December, 2011 and went on to be shown at the Bluecoat, Liverpool in spring 2012.
If research and development can be regarded as the quest for proof, is photography the natural means to record this pursuit?
As an artist using photography, my work is shaped by three principles: interpreting what I discover, making a permanent record of the discovery and telling a story using the photographic image. Photography is both science and art: its principles are rooted in scientific discoveries that allow us to affix an image to a surface to create a photograph. These documents are evidence and are used to present the case for what is true; what is provable; what is truth. Therefore what we see in a photograph is proof. Or is it?
In 2011, I was commissioned by Unilever to commemorate the centenary of the research and development facility at Port Sunlight. This would involve making an intervention into a world that was wholly new to me. As a non-scientist, it would be the people working there who would help shape the project and contribute to my understanding of how the facility works.
My initial approach was based on information: asking individual members of staff about the work they carried out, their approach to it and how that work fitted in with the overall aims and objectives of the facility.
Through my conversations, I discovered that the scientists, mathematicians, psychologists, researchers and technicians at Port Sunlight used illuminating words to describe to me what they were doing and how. By focusing on these key words, I came to discover that they had double or multiple meanings that allowed some degree of ambiguity and interpretation.
But one word stood out for me as non-negotiable: Proof. This is this word that informs, stimulates and defines the work at Port Sunlight. It is the determining motive behind the research and development: the search for proof that a product can perform as predicted and promised.
By attributing individual words to the images I made at Unilever, I am placing my own interpretation on what I observed and captured. This has been a subjective exercise, one based on my opinion of what I experienced. It is not definitive and certainly not scientific. Where science discovers and attempts to find proof, art interprets.
The use of these words combined with the images asks the viewer to consider what proof is. Is it negotiable? Is it real or imagined? Can we trust it? If the words and images are interchanged, is the principle of proof altered?
These are questions that artist, scientist and viewer can ask themselves and find their own collective and individual answers to.