Close this search box.
Close this search box.

NEIL HARBISSON, on viewing colour through a spectrum of sound waves

Interview by Lula Criado

Photo credit: Laars Norgaard

What happens if we alter the traditional methods of sensing by adding an extra sense? What changes if we extend our perception and abilities by enhancing our senses? In her, A Cyborg Manifesto, written in the early eighties, Donna Haraway defined a cyborg as A cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.1

Neil Harbisson, cyborg artist and co-founder of The Cyborg Foundation and Cyborg Nest, ‘became technology’ and, therefore, cyborg more than a decade ago when he implanted an antenna in his skull that allows him to hear colours.

Born with achromatopsia, a rare condition of colour blindness that makes him see the world on a greyscale, the antenna, which Harbisson calls ‘eyeborg’, represents the perfect cybernetic union between human and technology. He even wears it while showering.  For Harbisson, the son of a Catalan mother and an Irish father, his identity as a  cyborg is official —  the antenna is included in his British passport. 

Harbisson’s cyborg art is mainly focused on creating music and portraits through the new sense. In Piano Concerto No. 1, he painted a piano with different colour paint and then the antenna played the frequencies of the colours while he created portraits in Sound Portraits by listening to the colour of their faces. Another appealing artwork is The Human Colour Wheel, a colour wheel based on the light of the human skin. 

Apart from his artistic work Neil Harbisson co-founded together with Cyborg choreographer Moon Ribas The Cyborg Foundation in 2010. Its aims are to help people to become cyborg by giving them the tools and the information to achieve their goals. More recently, in 2016, Harbisson and Ribas launched Cyborg Nest. As Neil says, Cyborg Nest is a company that [offers] senses for people. (…) so people can extend their senses by applying or incorporating new sensory organs in their body.

His last is something different. It is an exploration of the fashion industry with the launch of a brand-new line of fashion for cyborgs. Under the name of H+C, and in collaboration with fashion designer Francesc Cardona, the line is a series of post-wearable garments adapted for cyborgs.

Humans sense the world in different ways through their ‘conventional’ methods of perception: hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste. When Harbisson added his new sense, he taught us that the senses are not five anymore. He showed us new perceptions of reality in which colours are defined by a correlation of frequencies of the wavelengths. In New Theory of Vision, published in 1709, Irish philosopher George Berkeley explores the manner wherein we perceive by sight the distance, magnitude, and situation of objects. This goes to show that our understanding of the world depends on the way we sense it. 

How would the world appear to us when we sense it in a broad and different new way? Exploring new ways of communicating beyond our senses and languages of sounds and signs will allow us to comprehend the world in broader dimensions. The world would not be perceived in three dimensions.

1 Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181

For those that are not familiar with your work as a cyborg artist, could you tell us a little bit about the intellectual process behind Cyborg Nest?

Cyborg Nest is one thing, and being a cyborg artist is a different thing. Being a cyborg artist is the creation of your senses, the creation of your body parts and the design of your perception of reality. So in my case, my biggest artwork is the creation of a new sense of colour and the creation of the antenna. It’s a new body part as well, and it designs how you want to perceive reality in spite of this process.

So cyborg art has two parts: one that happens inside the artist creating external artworks with the new senses, and the external artwork that, in my case, it’s painting what I hear or composing music with colours, a colour concert. So it’s externalising or revealing the experiences of the new sense to an audience with the external artworks.

Then Cyborg Nest is a company that it’s offering senses for people. If someone wants to have a new sense they can contact Cyborg Nest, and we will either create the sense and offer it to other people as well, so people can extend their senses by applying or incorporating new sensory organs in their body.

Cyborg Nest is now offering, for example, North Sense. It can be implanted in the middle of your body, and whenever your face north, you feel the vibrations, so if you have this for several months or years, it should become a new sense that there be like any other sense, it would give you a sense of orientation for example.

ASVOFF9 will launch the world’s first Wearable Technology in Fashion Film Competition. The competition will be a game-changer in the world of humanistic intelligence-inspired / art-based wearable technology by communicating the real potential of wearable technology to the world through film. What impact do you think the festival is going to have on the future of wearable technologies?

I’m always based on post-wearable, so I’m more interested in technology in the body, not in the clothes that is what I was always saying. Like in 2003, my aim was not the creation of wearable technology my aim was the creation of a new body part, was being technology. So I see wearable technology as a necessary transition for our species to become technology.

Because we are in a moment in history where we will slowly merge biologically with technology, so by wearing technology, our species will start getting used to the connection between us and technology more biologically because wearing technology can be seen as skin.

 Skin is a body part, so if we start seeing technology as a new layer of our bodies, that would be good because it will be a transition to merging biologically, which might be more profound and more wearable permanently, so I think it will profound changes to the way we perceive reality. 

Wearable technologies have the ability to communicate with their owners, and by doing so, the boundaries between physical and digital are blurring. How people respond to multiple stimuli in a digital environment beyond the touch of a screen or button is one of the questions to answer in this 21st century in which people live in a hyper-connected society. In which ways do you think are interactive and digital technologies changing or affecting human behaviour?

I think there are different branches of technology: one is technology as an output and technology as an input; it’s different. We can apply technology, the senses, and information from the body or the person to a computer. And there is another technology that gives information to the body in my case, the antenna is an input because it is giving me colours into sound. Then there’s another type of technology that may be telling the machine what your heartbreak is; that’s output because is from the body to the machine. 

So that’s two different branches. I think of technology that has very different consequences. If you use technology as an output, your body doesn’t get any feedback, so it doesn’t affect the brain. But if you use technology as an input, then it can have strong consequences on the way your brain perceives reality. And then there’s a third one that would be technology for medical reasons which is a completely different area, but there are also a lot of people who actually are using or wearing or are technology because of medical reasons, so they’re not voluntarily doing it.

How do you imagine the future of the human species?

I think in the twenties and thirties we’ll start seeing people with new senses and new body parts; we’ll start losing the fear of merging biologically with cybernetics. Now humans are psychologically united to cybernetics, so we are all psychologically cyborgs, so in the twenties and thirties, many, many people will become biologically cyborgs. 

Then after that, in late of this century, we’ll stop using cybernetics, and we’ll start using DNA and 3D printers that we’ll allow us to 3D print new body parts, and we’ll be able to have new sensory organs. Also, we’ll be able to modify ourselves genetically so we can have new senses, so instead of using chips, cybernetics, metal and wires, we’ll start using our DNA. It will be 100% organic. That’s a post-cyborg reason: there will be 3D-printed new body parts and also will be genetically modifying our senses. 

What are the physical and psychological challenges when you add a new sense to your body (or when you become a cyborg)?

When you become a cyborg, there are two types of possible rejections. One might be the brain doesn’t accept the new sense, so you need some kind of adaptation for the brain to accept the new sense. The second type of rejection might be body rejection of the body part, so your body might reject the material there is on your body. 

But with the adaptation to the new sense, each person will need their own time of adaptation. There’s no standard because each brain is unique. Each brain will react differently. In my case, it took five weeks for the headaches to go away and five months to really feel that my brain had accepted the new sense. So, in total was five months. 

Did you feel like your personality was affected?

It was a change of identity, how I identify myself and a change of reality because everything was new. When you act in a new sense, the reality is suddenly new. It’s a new alley of exploring. Instead of going to a country or planet, if you add a new sense, the reality already new becomes new. So, it’s very exciting actually. 

You couldn’t live without…


(Images courtesy of the artist)
On Key

Related Posts