• Billy Apple®

"As Billy Apple I have continued to use my identity as art object and my life processes as art work." –March 1974

The exhibition Billy Apple® is N=One, which runs from 15 April – 5 May 2019, has its origins in a ground-breaking body of work produced and exhibited in 1970 in New York; and his controversial 1974 survey exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London, From Barrie Bates to Billy Apple 1960-1974. The exhibition and accompanying publication included Apple’s Body Activities and Excretery Wipings, process works made up of tissues and cotton buds stained with his bodily fluids. Following public complaints to the Obscenity Wing of the Metropolitan Police, the exhibition was closed down for three days. After difficult discussions, this group of work was censored by the British Arts Council, the very first time that they had done so. Apple insisted on being photographed as he removed the rows of tissues taped to the gallery walls.

Apple was 36 years old when he collected and collated Excretory Wipings May 18-October 21, 1970 from his first defecation of the day. It was exhibited in New York’s burgeoning conceptual art scene in the not-for-profit space, APPLE, 161 West 23rd Street. Generations later, Christina Barton curated it into Billy Apple: New York 1969­–1973 at Adam Art Gallery, Victoria University of Wellington in 2009.

The work that was so controversial in the 1970s has now been incorporated into a scientific project at the University of Auckland’s Liggins Institute. The artist is collaborating with the scientists working on Microbiome research, the collective of microbes (microbial genomes) inhabiting the human digestive tract. Apple’s toilet tissues are of use because, as was his conceptual practice, he recorded the time and date on each; and they have been left largely undisturbed.

When Apple mentioned his collection of toilet tissues to Dr Justin O’Sullivan, Associate Professor at the Liggins Institute, the molecular biologist knew it presented a very unusual opportunity. “To put it quite bluntly, no one keeps poo, right. [But] for us, samples that are 46 years old are amazing. It’s almost a time capsule from way back.” By taking fecal samples from the toilet tissues, they have been able to compare Apple’s contemporary microbiome with the bacteria inhabiting his gut forty-six years earlier. Before the collaboration the longest study of gut microbiota had spanned six years by researchers from the University of Washington.

The findings of the research carried out by O’Sullivan and his colleague Thilini Jayasinghe substantiate growing evidence that a core part of our bacteria population remains stable as we age and that some of the bacteria are actively selected by our genes. This means that advances in personalized medicine may have to consider not only our individual genes, but also our unique microbiome – the population of microbes that live in and on us – and how the two interact. As O’Sullivan says: “We used to think of our resident bacteria as hitchhikers, foreign bodies along for the ride. Scientists now realize that these microscopic creatures interact in many intricate and mysterious ways with our body systems and play a crucial role in our health, well-being and development.”

Apple has used the research outcomes to produce the centre piece of the exhibition at Starkwhite – a new diptych titled Billy Apple® is N=1 where N is the research sample size. The study has been formally written up as Long-term Stability in the Gut Microbiome over 46 years in the Life of Billy Apple® and published in a refereed medical journal, Human Microbiome Journal as well as being presented at the international Queenstown Molecular Biology Research Week. Apple has also gifted a version of his art works to the Liggins Institute.

Billy Apple® is N=1 is the centerpiece of the Starkwhite exhibition and is the latest in a series of recent art/science projects. In 2009 Dr Craig Hilton spearheaded The Immortalisation of Billy Apple®, a project which saw Apple’s cells virally transformed to enable them to live outside the body as a cell line. Apple has granted researchers unrestricted use of the Billy Apple® Cell Line which were deposited as a living artwork with the American Type Culture Collection in Virginia and the School of Biological Sciences University of Auckland.

The pair have also collaborated on The Analysis of Billy Apple’s Genome, 2014 where Apple's DNA was sequenced and digitalized by New Zealand Genomics Ltd at the University of Otago. This data was analysed then represented as a Circos diagram, which details some of the subject’s hereditary characteristics, vulnerabilities, diseases and other traits or potential phenotypes. Dr Justin O’Sullivan has since used SNPs (variations in a single nucleotide) from Apple’s genome in their microbiome research. The Liggins Institute is currently preparing a computer-generated work for Apple so he can present his entire genome as a typographic stream of digitized data using their super computers. The data represents the three billion nucleotides (chemical building blocks) that encode Apple’s genetic information. This will demonstrate the staggering quantity of data that makes up a genome, the complete set of DNA contained in an individual’s cell nucleus.

It is important to emphasise that Billy Apple’s art/science collaborations are open ended and ongoing. And there are other works such as his Wellness series and his Art Transactions with surgeons, dentist, optometrist and so forth that document the nature of the human condition. These late works are the products of an octogenarian who uses his life-processes as subject and object of his art practice unveiling both the aging process for us as well as new fields of genomic study. We can’t underestimate the generosity with which Apple makes his private details public for us and his tissue available to the research community.

In a new essay published on the occasion of this exhibition, Anthony Byrt will discuss Apple's bodily works in relation to the artist's origins as a "living, breathing brand" in November 1962. Byrt will argue that, from the very start, Apple's work has been deeply concerned with the connections between our identities and our physicality in a technological age, and the ways in which "self" is constructed not out of a Freudian, interior subconscious, but in relation to external objects and the forces of mass communication. Drawing on the research he has done for his forthcoming book on the creation of Billy Apple in London in 1962, Byrt will explore some of the deep thinking that led up to Apple's arrival, and to so much of the work he's made since: particularly the influences of the existentialist psychoanalyst RD Laing, media theorist Marshall McLuhan, novelist Norman Mailer, and the dual revolutions Apple witnessed firsthand in New York in the early sixties - in jazz music, and Madison Avenue advertising.

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  • Auckland 1010