Billy Apple: Goodwill Is Important

A republished interview between Billy Apple and Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Hans Ulrich Obrist is a Swiss art curator and writer, and Artistic Director of London’s Serpentine Galleries. He is famous for his ‘endless conversation’—his ongoing project of interviewing artists and curators, architects and filmmakers, scientists and philosophers, and other cultural figures. Obrist was introduced to Apple’s work by Nicolaus Schafhausen, and saw the Apple show Schafhausen curated at Rotterdam’s Witte de With in 2009. Obrist interviewed Apple at the Mayor Gallery, London, on 5 October 2018, during his exhibition The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else 1961–2018. At several points, Apple’s partner Mary Morrison contributes to the conversation.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: We’re going to talk about beginnings, about how Barrie Bates became Billy Apple. We’re going to talk about Billy Apple’s many inventions. And we’re going to talk about the current work. But I want to begin at the very beginning and ask how you came to art or how art came to you. 

Billy Apple: I arrived in Britain in September 1959 with a totally open mind—no historical baggage. My colleagues at the Royal College had to work their way through everything. That was the difference, for example, between Ron Kitaj and myself. His paintings addressed the classics. I didn’t have to do that. I could just jump in. I was thinking more about marketing and branding, and the language that goes along with them. That was my subject matter from the get go, and still is. You have to invent your own currency.

In 1960, I began my ‘hands off, head on’ approach, where the idea became paramount. I had just been in Spain, where I had photographed a barber shaving a customer. When I came back to London, I decided I’d never take another picture myself, and sold my camera to a fellow student at the College. I started to get others to make my work. All my friends were in Painting. They loved to paint and I could convince them to paint works for me under my instructions. Also, Richard Guyatt, in the graphic-design department, made it possible for me to go to every other department in the College and access technicians. All I had to do was supply the ideas and they made everything.

You’ve talked about this idea of the artist as a creative director, inspired by advertising agencies. You were casting.

In a way, yes, indeed. I was casting for people. I didn’t have the time to become the best in all those disciplines. The trick was to find who was the best and that’s what I became good at. And I’d have a conversation with them, so it’s going to be the way I want it. It was amazing who I could convince to work for me, like photographers Bert Stern and Richard Avedon.

Benoît Mandelbrot told me that, suddenly, on a blackboard that hadn’t been properly cleaned, he started to see fractals. It’s curious to me that you remember the precise day when this transition occurred. When did you become Billy Apple? 

In 1962, I returned from New York penniless. Richard Smith suggested I stay with him. We were sitting there on Thursday 22 November 1962 and I said, ‘I’m going to proceed with the notion of branding. I could be the subject matter of the future. It has nothing to do with the landscape or anything else. I could be self contained in a windowless room and carry on.’ And that’s what happened. I became Billy Apple. And I made a series of works as visual aids to support the name change, for instance casting an apple and painting it in automotive paint, red or green. They became the paramount colours for the brand.

Billy Apple, 1963, courtesy Billy Apple® Archive. Photo: Robert Freeman
Billy Apple, Christchurch Art Gallery, March 2020. Photo: John Collie

I have the card here from the archives for your 1974 Serpentine Gallery show, From Barrie Bates to Billy Apple.

After that show, I went to bed for months, exhausted mentally. I remember Dan Flavin saying the worst thing to do is a survey show. It takes you months to get over it. It was so fraught, with the police closing the show down and being made to remove works. 

Why did the police want to close the show?

There was a big French door. And, from outside, you could see my work with soiled toilet tissues, although, from outside, they just looked like paper. Someone came in, read the label, and complained to the police, and they closed the place down. The curator had conveniently taken her annual holiday to Spain on the opening night. So Norbert Lynton from the arts council called the police and turned up to negotiate. The place was shut for three days. In the end, I said, ‘I’m happy to remove the work, provided we have someone photograph me removing it.’ The tissues were all taped to the wall. Each had a little piece of paper with the date and time stapled to it. So I peeled back the tape and took off the tissues. In the end, it was only the bits of tape left on the wall. I also ripped a page out of the book with photos of the work, and took a red marker and wrote ‘Requested Subtraction’ and the date on it, and taped it to the wall. With the ripped page and the tape remnants, it was all there. In fact, your imagination was running wild trying to figure out what had gone on. 

Billy Apple with Excretory Wipings November 1971, at Apple, New York, 1971, courtesy Billy Apple® Archive. Photo: Barry Schein

In the 1970s, you did performative works in New York. It was a different kind of New York.

I had a loft on 23rd Street. I started an alternative space there, where I showed and where I invited other people to show. I did works about the maintenance of that space. I didn’t want to call it Apple. I didn’t want to personalise it. I wanted it to be ‘161 West 23rd’. But when I went to the Village Voice, the New York Times, and New York Magazine asking to be included in their listings, they said, ‘What’s the name of the gallery?’ I said, ‘It’s 161 23rd.’ They said, ‘That’s not a name.’ I said, ‘I can spell it out if you want me to.’ In the end, I said, ‘My name is Billy Apple, so make it Apple.’ From then on, those publications ran listings every week.

Tell us about some of the shows.

Robert Watts did a show where he tried to copyright the words ‘pop art’. He presented his findings about others who had trademarked ‘Pop-Tarts’, ‘pop this’, ‘pop that’. It was a beautiful little show. These little envelopes with letterhead-size pieces of paper with a logo or a name on it. Then Lawrence Alloway, who was writing for The Nation, wrote an article, where even he, who had coined the phrase, did not think it had become a generic term. You can’t own generic terms.

Billy Apple, Promissory Notes: IOU 1984/2018 and Bartered 1984/2018. Installation view, Billy Apple®: The Artist Has to Live like Everybody Else 1961–2018, Mayor Gallery, London, 2018

I’ve interviewed several artists of the pop-art generation and they all said how much they were reacting to the mass production that surrounded them. Here, in the Mayor Gallery, you’re showing IOU and Bartered paintings, which others produced to your instructions.

It would be easy to make a hundred of these works, as we did with a previous series of IOUs. They were all based on the A-page system. The earlier work I did was three A3s, four A4s, five A5s. Their value was determined by the sale of the first one. They were like a chequebook. They were on paper, while these are on canvas, but I could do hundreds of each just the way they are. 

I once tried to do an IOU with Leo Castelli. I’d shown with him in 1977 and 1978. In 1984, I went to see him with an idea for a show called Billy Apple Wants to Borrow. He put his arm around me and said, ‘Billy, we don’t borrow money.’ I wanted to say: If I fill it out, it’s my marker, not yours; we’ll add the commission on top and you’re safe; if they want their money back, I’ll have to give it to them. Writing ‘on demand’ with a signature makes it a legal contract. Without that, it’s just a pop-art joke. So, if someone with it needed cash quickly, they could tap me on the shoulder and say: Where’s my money? I’d be obliged to pay or take the consequences. But, in all these years of doing them, no one’s ever turned up demanding the money back. I think that’s because the commission is on top, and I don’t pay that back. Anywhere in the world, IOUs are tax exempt, because you’re borrowing, and you don’t pay tax on borrowing. They are the first works I didn’t have to pay tax on. 

Promissory notes are currency. Your IOUs are like a private currency, bypassing the control of governments and banks. A lot of artists are inspired by new currencies, particularly Blockchain. Maybe you invented Blockchain.

I’d like that. But, no. There’s quite a history to promissory notes. They go back to the days of the Wild West. Before banks were around, that was how people did business. A guy gets drunk in a bar and the next thing is the barman owns his ranch. For me, my IOUs have been a way of keeping alive and paying bills. My Paids also go on and on and on. The invoices attached to them tell the story of my life. I read an interesting article on Art.Net a couple of years ago, surveying what artists in London and New York earned from their work. Not many artists live off what they do, though you hear these wonderful results through the auction houses. I’m sure some artists would like to think they’ll get rights of resale at five per cent, if nothing else. That’s the law in many places now.

Billy Apple, Basic Needs 2014–8, UV-impregnated ink on canvas, 100 x 161.8 cm. Courtesy Mayor Gallery, London

That leads us to another aspect of this exhibition, in terms of everyday economy and artists living like everybody else. Besides the IOUs, there are the Barter works, another series where you develop a parallel economy. Can you tell us about the role of barter in your work?

With the Barters, there was quite a range of subject matter. But, in recent times, I’ve dropped that whole notion of identifying in the work who, where, and when, and go straight to the subject itself. So a canvas will just have a product or service name, like Gall Bladder. So a surgeon would get a work for doing my gall bladder, my hernia, or my knee. I’ve got to get a knee done, and I’ve got a good surgeon lined up who’s waiting anxiously for a work for it.

Well being is basic needs. You have to have food, water, shelter, clothing. You also negotiate barters with people who become invested in the basic maintenance of your life. Can you tell us about that?

I realised early on that not only did I need my own payment system, like a cheque account, which the IOUs were, but a Well Being series. So, I made works—contracts for 10,000 days, with fixed start and end dates. I made sure they included a doctor, a dentist, an eye doctor, a psychologist. I knew, if I gave them everything at once, they could say: Time to retire. Each work was a conglomeration of squares getting larger according to a ratio, with the smallest one for fifty-five days and the largest for 6,180. I give providers one, then, when I get to the next point in the 10,000 days, I give them the next one. So they’re getting paid as they go along. It’s worked well. Goodwill is important in these. And the people have become great supporters and a new type of clientele, a new type of collector. Dealers don’t create opportunities for these sorts of things to happen. 

You work a lot outside the dealer system. 

My first show with Leo Castelli was in 1977, and the last one was 1984. Four shows. I’ve had three shows with James Mayor—2010, 2013, and now—and hopefully there will be more. But I do things all over the place, so it’s not like I’m working for one show a year. I mean, I could do one of these every month, almost. 

Mary Morrison: Billy operates in a wide variety of other spaces outside of dealer galleries, like the race track with his racing cars

Billy, tell us about the racing motorbikes and cars.

I don’t know how to ride a motorbike and I certainly don’t drive racing cars, but I have this collection of British Grand Prix motorbikes and racing cars. They are beautiful. My bikes have been around the Isle of Man. My cars have been on tracks around Europe and America. As a kid, I liked the idea of going to motorbike races on country roads. And then I had the opportunity to buy one, and then another one. The trouble is that I like them to be very original and go to great pains to get them back to that state. We do race them. The late John Surtees rode my Norton a couple of times. It’s fun to be able to enter another world that is not art and be accepted, not as a rider, but just because of the passion I have for these vehicles and letting people use them. But there comes a point in life, circumstances change, and now I’d like the Billy Apple bike and car collection to move on. I’d like to find good homes for them. Each of them has a provenance canvas, so you’d be buying a diptych.

How many are there?

I would give up three bikes and three cars. 

Many artists today work with science. But, in the 1960s, you were already working with scientists.

I gravitate towards interesting people. My first science collaboration was with a physicist in 1969, Dr Stanley Shapiro, at General Telephone and Electronics Laboratories, a superstar in laser development. There were two columns at Apple, and I wanted to use little mirrors to bounce a laser beam back and forth between them to create a light wall you couldn’t walk through. The beam was so strong, it was like having a red pencil line making a red wall. It was on for one day only. I put a little ad in the New York Times and we had queues of people outside who wanted to see our laser beams. My lawyer said, ‘Make sure people sign a waiver, because if someone looks into this beam and it damages their eye, it’s serious.’ Litigation in New York! Luckily we locked up the equipment that night, because someone broke in through the fire escape thinking to steal the gear. I did another work before I had to return it. I said, ‘Could we shine the laser onto the moon?’ The guy said, ‘Yeah, fire it up.’ And they moved the beam until it hit the moon. That was an incredible moment. You could see the beam going out into nowhere. He did some calculations of how wide the beam would be on the surface of the moon.

Billy Apple, Laser Beams 1970, helium-neon laser light, Apple, New York, 1970. Courtesy Billy Apple® Archive

So the next collaboration was with the neuroscientist. I saw the photos of the recording of your brainwaves as quite futuristic. 

This wonderful guy took me to Montefiore Hospital in New York, where they were doing early work on sleep apnoea. They put me in a lab in a quiet room with a bed and a pillow, and they wired up my head to see when I was producing alpha and beta waves. I didn’t produce a lot of alpha waves. It’s something you can’t will, you’ve just got to let yourself go and it happens. The scientists usually go to another room and watch a lightbulb flash when the subject produces alpha waves. But, in this case, we had a buzzer, which I heard. And it was all printed out in dots and dashes. Dit, dit, dah, dah, dit, dit. Like Morse code. We did about three sessions like that. Later, I found myself in Vermont. I knew there was an Air Force base there. So I had my host drive me out to speak to a person there who knew Morse code. People don’t use it now. Anyhow, this guy gets out a pencil and starts writing it out, page after page, translating the dots and dashes into letters. I thought, Christ, this is the subconscious speaking …

Billy Apple, Billy Apple® Is N=1 2019, UV-impregnated ink on two canvases, 100 x 100 cm each, collection Liggins Institute, University of Auckland. Photo: Samuel Hartnett

Recently, you’ve also been working with genetics. Gene sequencing is at the forefront of many discussions and you’ve done this amazing piece, The Immortalisation of Billy Apple® .

I’m working with Dr Craig Hilton. There is a procedure.

They introduce a virus, Epstein-Barr virus, into the cell nucleus, which changes the nucleus so the cells are able to live outside your body at the correct temperature. That moment, when they will stay alive, is called ‘immortalisation’.

The cells can grow. Probably sixty million were sent overnight, door to door, from the University of Auckland to Virginia. There might be 600 million cells or more now. Works came from that. We’d attach special cameras onto a microscope and look at the cells in a Petri dish. I had a projection of the cells growing, splitting.

In themselves, scientifically, Billy’s cells are not that interesting. But they do provide a vehicle for research. Billy has made his cells available so the scientists have a medium to practice on.

There is a text here where you say: I consent to the wide distribution of cell lines derived from my blood, including deposit with the American Type Culture Collection cell bank.

My cells are in a collection and they can be used by scientists around the world for their research. My line is known as ‘the Billy Apple cell line from the American Type Culture Collection’. Out of that grew works like The Artist Will Live Forever. It’s true—part of me will go on forever, so long as they look after the cells. It’s nice to know that part of me is being used for research. 

There’s an interesting connection to the idea that, from the very beginning, your work could be disseminated beyond the gallery.

That’s right. We did my full DNA analysis at the University of Otago. It was extensive. If I printed it out, it would require sixty reams of A4 paper, printed on both sides! Who would want to do it? But if some collection said they must have it, I would produce it, once only. My next work—with Dr Craig Hilton and the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland—was to do with microbiome in my gut. I still had my excretory wipings from the Serpentine show. From them, we could build a picture of my gut microbiome from forty-six years ago. The findings were presented at an international conference on microbiotics. The scientists were wonderful. They came up and kept saying, ‘We want to shake your hand.’ 

They usually took samples using this fully sterile technique. But with Billy they used toilet paper from the Serpentine show that had just been sitting in a box for decades, undisturbed. They were saying this had huge ramifications for them, because they realised they might not need to be so sterile or to process samples so fast.

Billy Apple, The Immortalisation of Billy Apple®, 2013, UV-impregnated ink on canvas, 161.8 × 100 cm, Art Basel Hong Kong, 2013. Courtesy of Starkwhite, Auckland

I had a sample for 8 July 1970. So, on 8 July 2016, I took a fresh sample. They were able to do a complete analysis on both. The resulting work, Billy Apple® Is N=1, is a diptych printed on canvas. One panel is a photo of the two samples, the other has two coloured stripes contrasting their chemical makeup. I gave a set to the Liggins Institute. It’s in their reception area. As Mary says, there’s nothing scientifically significant in my immortalised cells. What was significant was presenting the process in a public arena, demystifying it. However, I think the microbiome project is important scientifically. There’s been a scientific paper published. It’s online. So, here I am, here’s my name, as one of the contributors in a scientific paper, along with various PhDs. It’s fun. I’m pleased to be associated with these scientists. The project continues. In 2017, my septic gall bladder put me in hospital. It was so messy, they couldn’t operate. It was a life-and-death thing. They had to get it under control, then, when things stabilised, they had it removed. I was concerned: Would this change my microbiome? So we did tests. I’m waiting for the results.

Now we move to an interview within the interview. Simon Denny, in Berlin, knows you well and has been inspired by you. He texted me some questions for you this morning. Simon wants to know: What is the thing you like most about being Billy Apple?

I feel very relaxed about being Billy Apple. I’ve built up a good brand image and it works. It gives me entry into the projects I do scientifically. I also like to do works to raise money for charities I believe in, like Women’s Refuge, the AIDS Foundation and youth programmes.

He also wants to know: What is the biggest thing that you thought or think you could or can do with art at any point in your career?


It’s a question I usually ask, because I am interested in artists’ unrealised projects. Simon’s question brings us to this. Is there a project you might not yet have been able to do, something which has been too big to be realised?

It’s hard to answer that, because I’ve always had a good team around me that I can call upon individually or collectively. I’m quite content with where we’re at at the moment, and things seem to keep developing. Like any good research, one thing leads to the next thing. If there was a dream project, it would be not yet written down or available because we haven’t reached that point yet.

And Simon’s last question: If you had to design an education curriculum, what would be at its core? 

I would encourage people to think harder and develop their imaginations. The sky is the limit at that point.

The sky is the limit. There could not be a better conclusion. A big applause for Billy Apple.

Billy Apple and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Mayor Gallery, London, 5 October 2018

More from this issue

Ioana Gordon-Smith reports on the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Robyn Maree Pickens on a master of conceptual meandering.
Fantasy and reality collide in an epic photobook project. Robert Leonard reports.
Clare Corbould and Hilary Emmett on an artist addressing the Pacific slave trade.
Gavin Hipkins celebrates a new storyteller.

Read more

This April marked 150 years since the birth of Frances Hodgkins. Ahead of this auspicious anniversary, Mary Kisler traced the artist’s journeys around Europe, mapping paintings to places and ‘acts of looking’. Finn McCahon-Jones explains.
You can take Daniel Unverricht out of Hastings but you can’t take Hastings out of his art. Megan Dunn meets the painter known for stark, intimate street scenes in oils.
Séraphine Pick's paintings are extended narratives based on myth, archetype and personality.