Artist’s blood now art
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 cityharbournews.co.nz and click on Latest Edition to see a snippet from the Being Billy Apple DVD.