Meet the designer finding beauty in bodily fluids
“People have a really bad stigma about sweat and naturally find it disgusting,” says British designer Alice Potts. To Alice, however, sweat can be nothing short of beautiful. So much so that the RCA graduate has spent the last two years turning other people’s bodily fluids and even her own into intricate crystal embellishments and fashioning it into wearable art, something she debuted earlier this year as part of her MA collection.
Using the process of chromatography, and in collaboration with Imperial College London, Alice took sweat samples from worn-out football jerseys, ballerina flats and sneakers, extracting organic compounds from the traces of bodily fluid to allow each crystal to grow.
The human body contains two main sweat glands – the eccrine and apocrine glands. The former is odourless and it’s the gland Alice personally works with for her research, while the latter secretes fatty materials and oils that naturally come from greasy hair, armpits and the groin area. “That’s the stuff people associate with smelling bad, but sweating is actually a really beautiful process,” says Alice. “Sweating is a scent and it’s full of good bacteria. If you wash it off straight away, it doesn’t have a chance to kill the bad bacteria on your skin and means it never gets a chance to actually clean itself – that’s why ever since I started doing my project I’ve started washing less.”
When it came to harvesting her own sweat, Alice would participate in hardcore training programmes with a personal gym coach, wearing the same clothes for over a week to understand how sweat production changes with different sports, diets and health routines. “My interest in sweat comes from fusing my identity into my own work. I didn’t want to design something that I wasn’t part of as well. I didn’t want to make something and get feedback from people, I actually wanted to understand what I was doing, why I was doing it and what effects it would have on me.”
Over the course of her experiment, Alice removed all alcohol, prescription drugs, carbohydrates, fats and proteins from her life. She was fascinated by how the little things in a diet could manipulate the body; how small doses of sugar can increase muscle mass, or how drinking lots of wine can help develop a more muscular look.
Learning the science behind it all has helped Alice overcome personal struggles with eating disorders which she’s battled for over eight years. “I always had a really negative relationship with food. So for me, this journey was not only just about my work and what I was doing. I spent years being embarrassed, but unless people know my story, they are not going to know my work. It was a big part of my life, but it’s not in control of my life now,” she says.
By collecting sweat and turning it into crystals, Alice is stirring a conversation on taboo misconceptions associated with bodily fluids – considered repulsive by many. “Sweat is something that everyone understands. It’s not decided by a gender, race, or someone’s wealth. It’s something that everyone experiences,” she says. Reflecting on her own work Alice says, “Aesthetically it’s beautiful, but what’s more beautiful is the science behind it. Without working with the people at Imperial, I would have never achieved that.”
Alice’s first solo exhibition Sweat debuted at Athens’s 2018 Biennale, where she has been invited by the Onassis Cultural Center to undertake a one-year fellowship programme. In the future Alice hopes to continue working on her research without the commercial pressures of working in the industry: “It’s my interest. It’s not just crystals, but also what else bodily fluids can become. Perhaps that’s in fragrance and how it reacts in people. All sort of weird things like that. It’s not about making something new, but it’s about changing the minds of everyone.”