Artist’s blood now art

Auckland City Harbour News - - NEWS - By DANIELLE STREET

CON­CEP­TUAL artist Billy Ap­ple has achieved some­thing ev­ery artist wants – im­mor­tal­ity.

This year the 77-year-old marks the 50th an­niver­sary of when he trans­formed from Bar­rie Bates to be­come Billy Ap­ple, the brand.

And while five decades is noth­ing to turn your nose up at, it’s a mere drop in the bucket com­pared to the end­less­ness the Mt Eden res­i­dent has achieved with the aid of bio­chemist Craig Hil­ton.

The Im­mor­tal­i­sa­tion of Billy Ap­ple art project was dreamed up in 2009 by Dr Hil­ton, who holds the pe­cu­liar com­bi­na­tion of a PhD in bio­chem­istry along­side a masters in fine art from Elam.

‘‘I wanted to make an art project that was gen­uinely about sci­ence, be­cause a lot of peo­ple try and make art about sci­ence but I look at it and think, ‘sci­en­tists would not re­ally take that se­ri­ously’,’’ the Unitec lec­turer says.

The process of im­mor­tal­is­ing his friend Billy Ap­ple in­volved draw­ing b-lym­pho­cyte cells from his blood and then grow­ing them in a tis­sue cul­ture.

They were then vi­rally trans­formed to grow in­def­i­nitely, a process that is ‘‘rea­son­ably rou­tine’’ in the mod­ern world of sci­ence.

The re­sults were dis­played in an in­cu­ba­tor at K Rd’s Stark­white Gallery in 2010.

‘‘Ev­ery­body called it ‘the fridge’ be­cause it was just the cells in quite an ex­pen­sive in­cu­ba­tor but it looked like a beer fridge,’’ he re­calls.

How­ever, as an artis­tic en­deav­our The Im­mor­tal­i­sa­tion of Billy Ap­ple was sig­nif­i­cant enough to win the bio­chemist a pres­ti­gious Prix Ars Elec­tron­ica award for hy­brid art.

Not con­tent to stop there, Dr Hil­ton grew the project fur­ther and has re­cently man­aged to place Billy Ap­ple’s cell-line into the Amer­i­can Type Cul­ture Col­lec­tion (ATCC). The USbased ‘‘tis­sue bank’’ pre- serves a wide range of cel­llines, but is not typ­i­cally in the busi­ness of art col­lect­ing.

‘‘The ATCC has taken it as an art­work. I just im­mor­talised b-lym­pho­cytes, which is not a big deal, they’ve got hun­dreds of them but they’ve never col­lected an art­work be­fore,’’ Dr Hil­ton says. ‘‘I was quite pleased that hap­pened.’’

Part of ATCC’s role in the in­ter­na­tional sci­en­tific community is dis­tribut­ing cell lines, bac­te­ria and fungi for re­search to the pri­vate and pub­lic sec­tor. There­fore, Billy Ap­ple’s cell-line now has to po­ten­tial to be spread all over the globe.

The com­ple­tion of this phase of his art ex­per­i­ment has Dr Hil­ton hint­ing at adding an­other di­men­sion to Mr Ap­ple’s im­mor­tal­i­sa­tion.

‘‘Biotech­nol­ogy al­lows you to do all sorts of stuff so I can se­quence his DNA and then he’s im­mor­talised in an­other way be­cause he’s on a com­puter.’’

He says this would al­low Billy Ap­ple to be resyn­the­sised, a process where you take the DNA and make it again.

‘‘It’s never been done in a hu­man be­fore, it hasn’t re­ally even been done in a yeast yet but it’s been done in a bac­te­ria. So it would be a bit of a fu­tile ex­er­cise and re­ally ex­pen­sive, but I want to try and do it any­way.’’

Billy bytes: Billy Ap­ple, left, with col­lab­o­ra­tive part­ner Dr Craig Hil­ton dis­cussing plans for im­mor­tal­ity. Go to auck­land city­har­ and click on Lat­est Edition to see a snip­pet from the Be­ing Billy Ap­ple DVD.

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