Being born colour-blind could be considered the starting point of Neil Harbisson’s way of living and creating today. An implanted antenna allows the British-born artist to sense colours, receiving them as vibrations on the back of his head and perceiving them as sound chords. This is possible because the antenna is another organ in his body that’s created a new sense and has expanded and modified his way of perceiving reality, turning him into the first-ever cyborg on Earth.
We first met him at this year’s Me Convention, where he talked about what being a cyborg is like as well as what it means for humankind’s future. After that, he was kind enough to invite us to his studio, so we visited where does he produce cyborg art. And now, after all, we’re starting to understand better how does having a new sense be like. Although, as he states during the interview, “the problem is that you can’t share it. […] The only way to share it is if you also have an antenna implanted in your brain. That is the main issue.” So, if you don’t have an antenna but still want to know how does being a cyborg feel like, this interview is dedicated to you.
Neil Harbisson Metalmagazine 2.jpg
You started wearing your antenna permanently in 2004. Were there any times when it annoyed you?
Well, I stopped wearing it. I’m not wearing an antenna; I have an antenna. That is the main difference. Explaining it is one of the main challenges I face. It is like with organs: I’m not wearing a nose, I have a nose. I think this may be a bit parallel with the first people who had breast implants. Maybe the doctors would tell them that they were wearing breasts when they actually had breasts. I have to express this.
But was there a moment or a time where it annoyed you? How was the process of getting used to it?
In my own personal life everything has been good. It is just the social aspect that has been the most challenging – going out in the street and being pointed at because I have a new organ. And also what I was telling you before about explaining the difference between wearing and having an antenna. I think that is the biggest challenge of all. On a personal level, it took me two months to get used to the new organ, and five to the new sense. Afterwards, it just became normal. But the new organ meant – and still means –, for example, the height or new designs: I have to create new designs for my hats so I can wear them.
Is there a colour combination that affected you the most emotionally?
Faces, because each one is a unique colour combination. They are unique musical chords that relate to a person so it is a profound experience. When I listen to the chords of my mother they have a deep meaning to me.
Doing your sound portraits where you create an mp3 for each person’s face is something you enjoy. Does it happen to you that you cannot stand a person because of the way they sound?
Well, some people might look very good but not sound so good, but it also happens the other way around. So that some people might not look very interesting but they sound very attractive. Sometimes it clashes and sometimes it combines in a way that it creates harmony. But if someone doesn’t sound really good I just move the antenna somewhere else.
Sound Portrait of Marina Abramovic.jpg
Marina Abramovic
Sound Portrait of Alfonso Cuaron.jpg
Alfonso Cuarón
Sound Portrait of James Cameron.jpg
James Cameron
You also let five friends all over the planet send colour to you and your system has even been hacked. Tell me more about what happened here.
Yes, I asked friends in five different continents because I wanted to have an eye in each. But once, when I was in an Al Jazeera, I had to use the Internet of their station because I had no Wi-Fi on my phone, and after some time, someone sent an image to my head – and I knew it wasn’t any of my friends because I announced them not to send me colours. We were doing a TV show and then I knew it was someone from the studio of Al Jazeera, but I never found out who it was.
In your panel you said it wasn’t disturbing you. How would have you reacted if it ended up feeling uncomfortable?
I can’t turn off the antenna, but I can turn off the Internet, so I’d have done that. I have four implants. One is chip that vibrates depending on the colours of the antenna, and another one is the Bluetooth connection that I only use to connect to the Internet. So if I had a hacker physically sending colours to my head, then I would stop the Internet.
What I think is really interesting, especially in nowadays context, is how you perceive skin colours. Can you explain a bit more about that?
Yeah, when I grew up I was told that people are black or white, and this is something many people still say and I guess it is wrong. There is no black skin or white skin. If you analyse it properly, it is just the same hue: orange. When you look at the rainbow there is no brown. Brown is a dark shade of orange, and dark brown is also just a very dark version of orange. That was a revelation to me; it is something so simple. To me it was just really beautiful.
Neil Harbisson Metalmagazine 4.jpg
Neil Harbisson Metalmagazine 3.jpg
In an interview you said you like to explore cities and listen to their melodies. Do you have a favourite place on Earth sound-wise?
There is an island called Burano in Venice (Italy) where each house has a different colour, which is very unusual, so I enjoyed walking around there. Also Iceland – specifically Reykjavik – has very different coloured houses so it’s really fun to walk around the streets because there are somehow very unexpected colours. These are two that I enjoy.
What I also wondered is if your home’s interior is customized to please your hearing?
Yes, it is. The floor is red, which is the lowest frequency, so it gives a profound sound to the house. The living room is pink, blue and yellow, which create C-major. The exit door is green because it tunes you before you go out – green is in the middle of the spectrum and it’s like a tuning fork. In my bedroom I have three colours: turquoise, which is B; pink, which is E; and purple, which would be D. That way it creates the word ‘bed’. The kitchen is violet because it’s a very high-pitched sound and it is a colour that I usually don’t eat, so it doesn’t interfere with the food I cook. The ceilings are black and white, which is silence, so when I lay down it is quiet.
Would it be possible to experience what you hear with some sort of a wearable antenna? Do you work on projects inviting other people to experience what you do?
I see this as cyborg art: the art of creating new senses and the art of creating your own body parts. The problem is that it is impossible to share it. It happens in the mind of the artist, so I am both the artist and the only one in the audience because it happens exclusively in my head. The only way to share it is if you also have an antenna implanted in your brain. That is the main issue.
I think this kind of expression will be identified as ‘post-art’ because it’s breaking the traditional forms where there is the artist, the audience and a space. In this case, all these elements are inside the artist’s head. But it could also be defined as ‘perceptionism’ because it is the art of creating a (new) perception. The only way of sharing it is by approximation or by using this sense in other traditional art forms. For example, when I listen to music, I create colour concerts, or I can also express myself through paintings of what I hear or through photography, video and film. But there is no way of sharing the first part of this experience, which is having something inside your head.
I’m not wearing an antenna; I have an antenna. That is the main difference.
Do you think once there are more cyborgs, which you believe will happen soon, will there be art specifically made for cyborgs?
Yes! (Laughter) It is already happening. For example, Moon Ribas is experiencing dance inside of her body. [Note from writer: she has implants in her hands that translate the Earth’s seismographic activity into vibrations, with which she later makes dance performances].
So her way of creating art has been through transforming the Earth’s movements into choreographs and movements. She studied choreography, but this goes beyond what she was taught to do. I studied music and my reality became music and sound. This is what might happen to the tradition art forms: some people will decide to create these new senses, and in the end, cyborg art might become a degree – I think you will be able to study Cyborg Art at some point. I think there will be exhibitions and museums focused on it. There might even be a degree/branch in Design to develop organs and also senses. I guess this will slowly happen.
You also have other projects like the transdental communication system or the most recent in the making: the solar crown, which should modify your perception of time. Are you ever afraid of losing control or somehow going crazy?
Yes, but that is why I go really slow. And each person should also be aware of not losing his or her mind when he or she does this. We have been really careful when developing the senses. I didn’t have all this – the colour/sound perception – back in 2004. And I will do the same with time. I will first have a very simple organ that will transmit the rotation of Earth to my head, and it will remain like this until my brain gets used to it. I will only have a point of hit for every twenty-four hours in a circle for, I guess, months or even years. I want my brain to really get used to this.
Whenever this happens I will start modifying time in a very small amount: stretch a minute to one minute and ten seconds, or something like that, to see if with little changes I can create time illusions. The same way we can create optical illusions, we should also be able to create time illusions. So if I know that I’m modifying my perception of time, it will change for real. But I will go slowly because I don’t want to end up lost in time.
Since you are convinced that everyone should be able to choose to become transspecies or not, don’t you think that this could trigger some sort of inequality between humans and people with extra senses?
It is not inequality, it is diversity. Many people try to say that; it’s not about equality but about diversity, and that is the main thing people need to get prepared for. What is considered or defined as ‘diversity’ today has nothing to do with the meaning it will have in the future. Right now it is actually very simple compared to the moment when we will be able to decide which senses or organs we want to have or what species we want to be. And we need to be socially ready. We must accept everyone with his or her own senses and organs, accept that we are all in the same space, including other species too.
We identify as transspecies and not transhuman because the term includes other species on the same level. We don’t see as inferior other species with less senses than us, as well as we don’t consider superior others that possess more senses than we do. We don’t like the word ‘transhuman’ because there’s an inherent hierarchy, a kind of superiority. But we see evolution as a horizontal line instead of a vertical one. If you define yourself as transspecies, everything is ‘normal’: seeing in black and white, being blind, or perceiving colours through an antenna. It all becomes part of normality.
Neil Harbisson Metalmagazine 5.jpg
Amy Winehouse   Rehab.jpg
Amy Winehouse, Rehab.
Bach   Toccatta.jpg
Bach, Toccatta.
01 Lisbon   Portugal.jpg
Lisbon, Portugal.
15 London   United Kingdom.jpg
London, United Kingdom.
Sound Palette Cards   C Augmented Triad.jpg
Sound Palette Cards, C Augmented Triad.
Sound Palette Cards   C Diminished Triad.jpg
Sound Palette Cards, C Diminished Triad.