Claire Duncan chats with experimental sound artist Betty Apple about her upcoming New Zealand tour, and where her work fits within the international noise music scene.
My video chat with Betty Apple is postponed multiple times. In lieu of conversation, she sends me a barrage of material: pdfs, video documentation of her shows. It feels like a kind of evasive seduction, edging both towards and away from the main event. When we finally chance a meeting, we talk for more than two hours. I drink a beer; Betty, some white wine. We’re at opposite ends of the country, her straight off a plane from her home in Taipei. She speaks with great energy about her work, occasionally pausing to search for the English word that captures her intent. She periodically speaks into her phone in Mandarin, then reciting the translation back to me. The words that she seeks Anglo-expression for are: blasphemy, misappropriation and relativity.
Over video chat the connection periodically freezing our faces mid-speech. She jokes that the glitch happens whenever she is about to say something significant. I agree and suggest (a little nervously) that some kind of surveillance could be taking place. She shrugs. “They can watch. I am not scared.” I discover later that my recording software has bugged out early on in the process, and the .mp3 of Betty’s dialogue is lost.
Betty Apple is well versed in the dynamics of power, seduction and control. This sounds nefarious; it’s not. Since 2012 Apple has been playfully exploring frameworks of body politics, postcolonial subjectivities and sonic hegemony through her performances. She often utilises kitsch, outdated or unpopular technologies and modes of sound-making. Elements of popular consumer culture often feature: balloons, wigs, bathrobes, fluorescent paint, cans, shopping trolleys and (most famously) 200 cheap vibrator eggs mic’d up and swept across various surfaces.
While the works themselves are hard to categorise, the description she seems most comfortable with is ‘live art’. Immersive, confronting experiences incorporating sculptural installation, live sound art and self-abasing performance characterise Betty Apple shows. I laugh at myself when I call it a ‘show’ – her work is a far cry from the ordinary, polite exchange between performer and audience. “I like rock’n’roll,” Apple says. “But I am not interested in making it. We have enough of it.”
The arrival of democracy in Taiwan in the late 1980s following a 40-year period of martial governance saw an eruption of experimental noise music, an artform that has now established its own hierarchical and often elitist strata of power dynamics. “It’s very patriarchal”, Apple says of the Taiwanese noise music scene which draws a lot of inspiration from harsh noise acts like Japan’s Merzbow. “Everyone wants to make harsh noise. We don’t need more Merzbow-sounding artists because Merzbow is still active.”
A Betty Apple show is always distinctive and unrepeatable. “There are ‘bad’ Betty Apple shows”, she says, smirking. “They are all different, one-off. But we are in that experience together.” She performs re-iterations of the same performances in new spaces, and distinguishes them from their predecessors numerically. She dislikes recorded footage of her performances as it dilutes the power imbued by people in space. It feels fitting to me now that my recording of our conversation failed, like I’ve become a part of her performance.
Apple enters gleefully into this realm of ‘bad’ noise making. Making noise to annoy, to unsettle, to question, to poke fun at the patriarchal power structures in experimental music communities. To destabilise the sense of ego and power that comes with ‘good’ noise music. “We don’t need more guitars,” she says, laughing. “We don’t need more heroes, more gods on stage.”
But it’s not a simple subversion. Betty gesticulates in front of the camera, showing me first her flat palm, then the top of her hand. It is not one or the other, she says. She makes a spiral motion. It is fluid. This is queer, Apple reckons. Not binary, not one or the other. It is a stirring; the element of bad taste always at the boundary of knowing/not-knowing. The limits of control are mutable. Apple works with a structure, a framework, and allows chance happenings to unfold as the mood, the space, the energy, the audience dictates. “Sound is very queer to me,” she says.
The Vibrator love of sound series (聲的跳愛; 2012 – present) sees Apple performing with a clutch of up to 100 light-up vibrator eggs, the combined sound of which is amplified and sonically effected. The swarm of eggs suggests a clot of mechanised erotic excess, a kind of post-human hyper-pleasure that is alien and arousing. “Extreme seductiveness is at the boundary of horror,” said George Bataille. This boundary is never crossed, and the erotic never reaches climax; the sound of mass glandular stimulation results in nothing.
“People always ask me why I don’t put the vibrators in my vagina,” she says. “They are missing the point. I want them to hang outside of my body like an alien kind of thing.” The mechanisation of sex and superficial arousal Apple is literally dancing around is both impotent and inexhaustible. This hints at the massive amount of internet traffic dominated by porn viewings, and more broadly the endless cycle of production and consumption that drives financial capitalism and sees our world lurch ever-deeper into climate crisis.
“My work is full of symbolism,” Apple says. “But it is not simple. I see the world in hypertext. I have since I was a kid.”
This analogy of hypertext speaks volumes – one thing stands in not as a direct symbol for another, but as a link: an access point to another site, which offers multiple other hyperlinks, and so on the fractal unfolds into a limitless series of portals. But her post-internet philosophy is far from futile. The mythic divine, memory and feminine intuition underpins every piece with striking intimacy. The Rubber Mermaid series sees her don a featureless black mermaid suit – like a gimp suit with a tail – made from cheap rubber. The character is a hybrid of a mythical figure, an oil-slicked seal, a faceless erotic experience. Mirage City Under the Lake (迷幻水鄉) invited participants into bathtubs in random Airbnbs around Taipei to hear nostalgic reflections on the city played on floating waterproof speakers while they were submerged. Speaking to the loneliness and dislocation of contemporary life, this work is a moving counterpoint to her more confrontational pieces.
“I see so many people who on the outside look fine, but inside they are broken,” she says, tapping at her temple. “We need more community. We need more friendship.” She asks her phone to translate one more word when describing the work – basin. “Taiwan is a basin; it was a lake before it was a city”, she explains. “Someday it will be a lake again.”
Apple is a polymath and a hustler, who slips between spaces with both fluid ease and dogged resolve. She has won audiences through contemporary sound art platforms Liquid Architecture and White Fungus, and performed at art festivals worldwide. “My family did not have money,” she says. “I make music on shitty laptops to show people that you do not need money to make art.”
An ongoing feature of Betty Apple performances is the deconstruction of the Taiwan/Republic of China national anthem through various manipulations, distortions and mutations. When I propose the irony of her performance in Ōtepoti taking place at the Captain Cook Hotel, named for Aotearoa’s Pākehā coloniser, Apple nods and breaks into a cheeky smile.
‘Captain Cock?’ she says, eyes shining.
Betty Apple plays a New Zealand tour starting tonight at the Wine Cellar. You can find more information here.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.