Last night, artist Neil Harbisson visited Brown as the latest featured speaker in the Student Creative Arts Council’s lecture series. Sharing his unique perspectives on sensation, perception, art, and cyborgism, the artist delivered an inspiring and thought-provoking speech.
Harbisson began with an autography of his life and transformation into a cyborg artist. He was born with achromatopsia, a form of colorblindness, meaning he could only see in grayscale. After years of being barred from, but constantly reminded of, the world of color, he began to explore possible solutions. Finally, after deeply researching the relationships between sound and color, he developed his first prototype: an antenna with a sensor that would transduce light wavelengths into sonic frequencies that would be played into headphones. The model and hardware were cumbersome, and the adjustment was difficult for Harbisson; however, after some revision and expansion of the sensor’s library of color-pitch relationships, he began to hear more and more of the distinct colors that others see every day.
In 2004, the artist decided it was time to make his development permanent; after numerous design refinements and a controversial surgery, an antenna was implanted into his skull. Equipped with his new appendage (which came complete with WiFi connection), the artist began life as a cyborg. From there, Harbisson began creating art centered on his deep, personal, and sensory understanding of the relationships between sound and color. His work took the form of “sound portraits,” “color scores” (pictured below), “color concerts,” an exploration of the dominant colors of various capital cities in Europe, and even a “human color wheel,” in which he compiled his list of all of the possible human skin colors.
Additionally, Harbisson has spent much time making cyborgism accessible to the public. Recently, he developed the Eyeborg app, available for Android devices, which allows its users to hear what he hears when looking at colors. He is famous for being a government-recognized cyborg, as evidenced in his passport photo, which features his antenna. Harbisson has also partnered up with choreographer Moon Ribas in founding the Cyborg Foundation, which seeks to provide for candidates with similar sensory extensions.
Harbisson’s unique comprehension of sound and color was incredibly exciting to witness first-hand; viewers were able to experience color as he does through several multimedia simulations. All of a sudden, every color he presented was given meaning; even his bow-tie became a C-major chord. Extrapolating, Harbisson explained how he would wear specific colors to funerals to represent minor chords or even funeral marches; further, he even designed a wedding dress so that its colors displayed the wedding march! This unique perspective on sound and color was mind-blowing, providing a plethora of new insight into how the two mediums interact.
In the end, Harbisson presented his argument in favor of “cyborg rights,” suggesting that such sensory enhancements are not only ethical but integral to our abilities as humans to become better connected to the world that surrounds us. He cited Moon Ribas, a fellow cyborg who feels a soft vibration every time there’s an earthquake, as an example of a human more in touch with Earth; as for himself, with his antenna, he feels a deeper connection to insects. He argued that cybernetics is an excellent field to explore because of its ability to greatly enhance the way that humans perceive the world.
All in all, Harbisson’s lecture provided unique insights into both the intersections between the senses and the world of cybernetics. His understanding of color is incredibly comprehensive and multidimensional, and his sharing of such a perspective was extremely thought-provoking for the listener.