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An artist whose work incorporates fashion, visual art and biomaterials, Alice Potts’ contribution to the NGV Triennial has been profoundly shaped by her experience of Covid-19 in Britain. By Amelia Winata.

Artist Alice Potts

Alice Potts with a biodegradable face shield.
Credit: Gareth Gardner

From the relative comfort of Melbourne, it’s difficult to grasp just how extreme the situation surrounding Covid-19 has become in Britain. But London artist Alice Potts puts things into perspective. “Nearly all of my friends have had it,” she tells me. “It’s really rare that I know of anyone who has not had it.”

For a moment I wonder if I have misheard her. But she insists it’s absolutely true – most people she knows have had the virus.

Potts and I first spoke at the end of October, as Britain edged closer to a second Covid-19 lockdown. Since late 2018, Potts had been living in Athens undertaking a residency with the prestigious Onassis Foundation established by the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. In early 2020 as the pandemic tightened its grip, Potts was forced to return home.

She says her experience of the pandemic was a major influence on the work she will exhibit in the NGV Triennial, a major survey of contemporary art, design and architecture that opens in Melbourne this month with works by more than 80 artists and designers from Australia and overseas. Potts, whose practice combines fashion design, biomaterial production and visual art, has created 20 face shields made out of a seaweed-based biomaterial and coloured with natural dyes derived from flowers and nuts for the exhibition.

“It’s a very different feeling [in London] at the moment,” she says, lamenting the London that she left behind in 2018. “It’s been a very bizarre time to come back. I think everything with the lockdown and the elections and Boris Johnson has really thrown off London quite a lot. It’s a very weird dynamic to be living in.”

Initially the 28-year-old stayed with her parents in Oxford to avoid the London crowds. Potts was very nervous about returning to London, where the government had no clear plan for containing the outbreak and mixed messages about social distancing and risk levels resulted in an unprecedented number of people being exposed to the virus.

“For me to come back to the UK at 5000 cases a day – I was in utter panic,” she says. It was a panic, she recalls, compounded by the British government’s lack of response. “There was this horrendous rule, that until you were tested you were not offered the proper PPE.”

This included her twin brother, a paramedic who was forced to attend Covid-19-related cases while wearing paper-like disposable masks. Potts learnt how certain groups – such as the elderly, children and the homeless – were not even offered face masks. Together with her mother, Potts sewed about 6000 masks for these “non-priority” groups so that, even if they didn’t have the best hospital-grade gear, they could at least have some protection.

When we speak over Zoom, it is 8am London time. Potts has risen early to accommodate the time difference with Melbourne but seems unfazed, sitting at her desk in the bedroom of her share house with a hot water bottle in her lap.

Over the course of our conversation, it becomes clear Potts is constantly analysing the world around her through a critical lens. Given how quickly she has carved out a unique professional niche, this isn’t surprising. In her short career, Potts has developed a reputation for work that looks at how pre-existing structures affect humans and the environment, and then designing possible solutions to improve them.

 

This year’s NGV Triennial is marked by a utopian–activist framework, with each artist categorised by one of four themes – illumination, reflection, conservation and speculation. Potts is filed under speculation, as part of an inquiry into the role of art during a time of global panic. Her bioplastic face shields contemplate a future in which PPE has become a norm, a future that will inevitably have to address the environmental impact of single-use plastic.

The volume of disposable plastic waste skyrocketed through 2020 as a result of the pandemic. This really struck Potts, who has dedicated considerable time to the question of resourcefulness and sustainability in everyday life.

“At the beginning of all of it [lockdown], it was like, ‘Oh, there are lower emissions, we’re finally going to get this whole new world. What could life be if we stopped using single-use plastic? If we stopped flying so much?’ ” she says. “It was for me the most beautiful I had ever seen England. Everything was blooming, everything was wild. There were no cars, there were no humans [on the streets]. And then, obviously, single-use plastic came into play. And any hope or any dream that had come, just spiralled out of control.”

Potts started devising her NGV Triennial works in her parents’ home during the first British lockdown. She posted requests on various community Facebook groups around the English coast to send her seaweed, and a surprising number of people responded. Myriad packages started turning up to her parents’ house. “They were fuming!” Potts says. But she also says that collecting materials this way helped her to work through isolation while connecting her with a broader community.

Potts came to biomaterials very recently. In 2017 – while completing an unfulfilling master of fashion at the Royal College of Art in London – she participated in the Biodesign Challenge, a nine-month program in which university students from around the world looked into the possibilities of biotechnology.

The brief was to develop a method of reducing food waste. Potts’ team created a machine that ground up, compressed and dehydrated food scraps to make sheets of fabric. “I was very, very lost, I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says of her first year studying fashion. “[The Biodesign Challenge] completely changed my life … it was the first time I’d looked at something and been like, ‘I understand my head, I understand my practice, I understand what I want to do.’ ”

Potts explains that if you know the make-up of a particular material, you can treat a plant with a similar structure the same way. Lettuce, for example, has a similar structure to animal skin and can be tanned and made into a kind of leather. She holds up a thick, meticulously organised book that she produced as part of her master’s coursework. Every page represents an experiment, most of which failed. But she remains optimistic about the potential of plants to transform industries. “Something has to change and that’s why I do what I do. We just have to stop over-consuming.”

Her fascination with biomaterials, in combination with a stubborn desire to succeed, led to her breakthrough project. This was the creation of crystals from human sweat, which involved embellishing garments such as ballet slippers and football boots with sweat crystals. This body of work – the basis of her master’s projects – garnered attention from Vogue Germany, Grazia and Marie Claire. Google “Alice Potts” and the first suggestion you will get is “Alice Potts sweat”.

“The university really didn’t want me doing what I was doing,” recalls Potts. “I was at the gym, clingfilm wrapped. Then I started asking random people ‘please donate your sweat’. Lucky I was friends with a lot of the PTs [personal trainers] there. So I gave them test tubes and stored them all in my fridge.”

With no concrete proof that she could actually create the crystals, Potts persevered through failure for 10 months – and on the final day of her academic year finally made one. While her peers presented handbag collections, Potts presented a single crystal. “I was so embarrassed because I had literally just made this [crystal].”

But by this point she had also decided she didn’t want to be a conventional designer. “I got to the point where I was like, ‘If I fail, I fail.’ I didn’t want a career in handbags.”

I remark that, given Potts’ success over the past couple of years, the Royal College of Art must have done a full 180. She looks uncomfortable. “The sad thing about fashion is that, it wasn’t until I got publicity that the teachers were like, ‘Oh yeah, this is amazing!’ ”

As part of her Onassis Foundation residency, she created a campaign for the AIDS awareness and support organisation I’m Positive. Potts collected sweat samples from about 200 people, including people who were HIV-positive, to create a work that debunked myths around HIV and humanised those who live with it. “You should have seen my fridge!” she exclaims.

She made sweat crystals and integrated them into a fibre-optic light. Because sweat conducts electricity, the crystals transported a charge throughout the entire system: if one crystal were to be taken out of the circuit, the work would not light up.

We inevitably come to the big-picture discussion around sustainability. Potts refuses to point the finger at the fashion industry, reminding me that the sector runs on the logic of supply and demand. “There is a lot of pressure for one group to solve it,” she says. “This is one of the things I found frustrating about design, which is that it was always about [asking] how can the fashion business make the industry more sustainable. But actually it’s also the consumer.”

She draws my attention to a modest rack of clothing behind her of all the garments she has purchased over the past 20 years to suggest a more sustainable way to engage with fashion. “Having worked in the fashion industry, [I know] we have to produce on demand. If people are only willing to pay X amount for a pair of jeans, then there is no other way you can make a profit and produce something people are willing to pay for … and so it ends up going in this massive circle.”

After our initial conversation, the situation in Britain steadily worsened. As the country was entering its second lockdown, I emailed Potts to see how she was feeling about the government’s decision to shut down again.

She tells me she has contracted Covid-19 and is in her 11th day of the illness, which she unsurprisingly describes as “horrible”. It’s a cruel irony for Potts, who was so cautious about the pandemic when many other Britons were not.

She seems, understandably, a little less confident than when we initially spoke. She tells me that, because she didn’t have the “prerequisite” symptoms of fever, cough or loss of taste, it is almost impossible to be tested.

“I’m so unsure what to expect,” she writes from her sickbed. “For me it’s a fine balance of being scared of a virus and being scared not to make money to live. A lot of people have been lucky with furlough and support schemes, but for some of us, we fall through the cracks.”

Despite this, Potts continues to hope. “I’m still optimistic because I think we have to be,” she says. “Maybe life won’t go back and maybe it will, but we have to be grateful for what we have learnt, too. Without this happening, we’d never have worked on collaborations between countries through technology. Expanded our creativity to working and sourcing locally, but also really asserting the priorities in our life.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2020 as "Bio terror".

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Amelia Winata is a Narrm Melbourne-based writer and the editor of Memo Review and Index Journal.