Neil Harbisson is a Catalan-raised, British-born contemporary artist and cyborg activist best known for having an antenna implanted in his skull and for being officially recognised as a cyborg by a government.
Neil joined us at MuseumNext New York in November 2016 to share how people can take an active part in their own biological evolution. Becoming technology, instead of using or wearing technology.
Neil Harbisson: Well I was born with an unusual visual condition called Achromatism which is that I see things in grey-scale. So I’ve never seen colour, I don’t know what blue looks like or what yellow looks like. I’ve always seen in grey-scale. When I was a child I couldn’t ignore that colour existed because people kept mentioning it every single day so I really wondered what colour was. Because even if you try to define what blue is it is difficult to understand what a colour is if you have never seen it. As I child I tried to ignore colour but, as I say, it kept popping up every single day of my life in daily elements like Yellow Pages, Bluetooth, Orange, Red Cross, Green Peace, Red Bull, Pink Panther, James Brown – in his last name, Greenland – a huge country. So I kept hearing the names of colours and I couldn’t stop thinking what it was. Also when you use colour as a code it can be a bit confusing, hot water, cold water, or in maps. This is fine but if I go to Tokyo I can get easily lost because some maps only use colour codes. Then when I was learning the colours of flags I had this situation.
So basically the reason why I wanted to sense colour was not because I wanted to sense the beauty of colour but because of this social element of colour. Also when I spoke to people if someone would ask me have you seen a man with ginger hair, blue eyes and dressed in pink I would have absolutely no idea because the only information I get here is that the man has hair, that he has eyes and that he is not naked. So I didn’t want to change my sight. Seeing grey-scale has many advantages, I see better at night so I have better night vision. I can see longer distances because colour doesn’t distract me. I memorise shapes more easily because colour also doesn’t distract me, and also photocopies are cheaper in black and white. So this was always a huge advantage. I wanted to have a sense of colour without changing my sight and that is when I started studying music. I realised that actually there has been many theories relating colour and sound. Newton came up with his theory and after him there has been many. Before him there were many as well. So colour and sound have something in common, they are both frequencies. Colour is a light frequency, sound is an audio frequency.
In 2003 I started a project in order to create a third eye that would allow me to hear colour, so the aim was to add a new sensory organ to my body that would allow me to perceive colour through a completely new sense. At the beginning I thought of having a third eye but in the end I thought maybe an antenna would be better. The first part of that was basically a camera placed on my head that had a connection to a computer, and then the computer would transpose light frequencies to sound frequencies. So I would hear the sound of the frequency of light. If we could hear the frequency of red, which is around 400 million of millions of waves per second, we would hear a specific note and that is the note that I hear but 39 octaves lower. It is basically a physical transposition of light to sound so I can now hear the light frequencies of colour through a new sensor. First I memorised the basic colours so I had to memorise that red is the lowest frequency so the lowest note, and so on. Each colour has its own musical note. It took me three years to memorise all the colours in a colour wheel, so it is like 360 micro tones in an octave and then I had to memorise these slight changes of tone, so it is extremely microtonal. I chose a sign wave because it is a pure wave so it is as pure as it could be. At the beginning I had strong headaches because there is colour everywhere so I had to get used to all this new input. But after some months these headaches went away and then it became like a new sense, it became normal to hear colour. I had favourite colours. So the information became a perception and the perception became a feeling and I started having favourite colours.
Then I added different levels of volume depending on saturation because colour has three properties. So I needed some information. So if a colour is loud it is saturated, if it is low volume then it is less saturated. When I was able to sense all visual colours I didn’t see why I should stop there because there are many more colours that surround us that our eyes cannot sense like infrareds and ultraviolet. So in 2008 I added infrared and ultraviolet perceptions, so since then I can sense more colours than the visual spectrum. It allows me to sense if there is movement detectors in a room I can go to a shop and tell if the alarms are on or off. In many cases they are off so it is interesting to detect infrared because it gives you this interesting information. Also many banks have the alarms off!
Ultraviolet allows me to tell if it is a good day or a bad day to sunbathe. So if I sense a high level of ultraviolet I just skip the sun or I can put on some extra cream because ultraviolet is a colour that can kill us, so it is a colour that is good to detect. My aim is to continually extend my perceptions about colour to X-rays and to radio waves so I am continually extending my sense of colour beyond the visual spectrum. I didn’t want to wear technology and I didn’t want to use technology I wanted to become technology. So I wanted to create a new organ, a sensory organ. At first I thought of a third eye but this would limit my perception of colour only to what I have in front so I looked at nature and I saw there are many animals that have antennas so I thought that having a human antenna would allow me to sense colour 360 degrees, separate it from my eyes and then I designed this antenna that allows me to sense colour 360 degrees and then I went to the doctor and I said I wanted an antenna implant. He said sorry we won’t do that, so I had to find a doctor willing to do the surgery anonymously because bio-ethical committees do not accept this type of surgery. I call this type of surgery a transspecies surgery. In the 20th century you saw many transgender surgeries but now in the 21st century we will see many transspecies surgeries. People will start adding new sensors and new organs to the body and slowly bio-ethical committees will start accepting this. In my case I wanted an antenna to extend my perception of colour beyond the visual spectrum. In the end I found a doctor willing to do it anonymously and then the head was … basically this is my head facing now. So some hair was removed, the skin was reduced and then my head was drilled four times so I would have four different implants. Two for the antenna and one for the chip that vibrates depending on the light frequency. And then a fourth implant which is an internet connection so I can also receive colour from external devices. I don’t only need to receive colour from the antenna, people can also send colours from their mobile phones or I can connect external devices so my colour sense can go beyond my body. The antenna and my head took two months to merge so now the antenna is actually part of my skeletons. I am officially taller, seven centimetres, and then I had to get used to the new height and also the new sense. Slowly it became just as normal as any other body part.
The internet connection for me is the most exciting part of it because I can now extend my colour perception beyond my body. There is five people that have permission to send colours to my head, so one in each continent. So in Australia my friend from Melbourne can stream live images from his mobile phone to my head, so I could be here but be sensing the colours of a sunset. If they send colours at night my friends can colour my dreams. If someone starts sending blue colours while I am sleeping my dream becomes blue or the dream might just take me to the sea or to the sky. It is a way of sharing a sense using the internet as a sensory extension and it is a way of sharing dreams with my friends.
So my brain has changed. This is an MRI of my brain, so colour and sound are kind of united now because not only colours have sound but sound also has a colour connotation when I hear music or frequencies of sound. I had an issue in 2004 with the UK government, they didn’t allow me to renew my passport because they said there was something strange on the picture. They said that there is a law that says electronic equipment is not allowed on passport photos. But I replied saying that this is not an electronic equipment this is a body part, an extension of my senses, and I told them that I felt cyborg. Cyborg is the unit between cyberese and organism so I said that I felt that I was a cyborg and that they should allow me to appear in the passport with the antenna and then they allowed me in 2004 with the first prototype. This allows me to travel freely around the world because airports don’t usually like technology so if you are technology then they don’t like you very much.
I am actually in conversations with the Swedish government because the material I used to create the antenna is Swedish so I am telling them that I am Swedish so I should be allowed to apply for Swedish citizenship. Nowadays there are only five reasons why you could apply for Swedish citizenship, I think there should be a sixth point where it says if you have a Swedish body part you are entitled to apply for Swedish citizenship. So they still haven’t replied but hopefully they will.
My life has changed in many ways. Before I would dress in a way that it would look good, and now I can dress in a way that it sounds good because depending on what colour I put on I can wear chords. This would be a C Major chord so I would wear this in a happy occasion. I would wear this in a sad occasion because this is a minor chord so I would dress like this at a funeral, for example. Or you can dress as a song so you can design clothes that have different patterns of colours and then if I scan it with my antenna I can hear music. This is a tie that I created that sounds like electronic music so the longer the tie the longer the melody.
Also the way I see of designing a space has changed because if I wanted to design a house that sounds good I would paint it blue, pink and yellow so it has a C major living room. The floor would all be red because red is the lowest frequency so it gives a profound sound to the whole house. The ceilings would be black and white because it is silence so if I lie down I would have silence. Exit doors would be green because green is in the middle of the spectrum so it is like a tuning fork, before you go out in the street it tunes yourself. Bedrooms would have three colours, turquoise, pink and violet because the notes are B, E and D, so bed – it makes sense to have these three colours in a bedroom. Then the kitchen would be violet because violet is the highest frequency so it gives you a sense of alert in the kitchen. Also it is a colour that you don’t eat so it is a colour that doesn’t interfere with food.
Food has changed a lot as well because when I eat I eat different notes because each thing in the salad leaves has a different note, so I enjoy composing music with food as well. Depending on how I put the food on the plate I can eat a song and that is what I am doing with a restaurant in Barcelona, creating an experience where you can go to a restaurant and order some songs, like some Mozart or some Lady Gaga desserts. They are placed on this food player and then it rotates and you can hear the food so you can eat a specific song.
So now my life has changed also artistically. Before I would play the piano, I would compose music by playing an instrument. I no longer need to play an instrument I can create music by looking at things. I can look at different vegetables and compose music so then I can go to a supermarket, choose which notes I want to perform and then I can put them on stage and I amplify the sounds from my head to the audience. Depending on the colours that I see I can create specific electronic music. So going to a supermarket is like going to nightclub now because that is where I find most different notes and music, especially the aisles with cleaning products. That is the most exciting area of any supermarket because it is very saturated and very unexpected. This is an example of a type of composition created by different food. So it is not only supermarkets it is art museums. If I go to a gallery now I can listen to a Picasso, I can listen to an Andy Warhol because all painters have become composers so my experience of art has changed completely. Painters are now composers and, for example, this is the sound of The Scream so I can actually hear The Scream because it creates different sounds when I look at it. It is very micro-tonal. You can easily distinguish a painter from another because they use very different types of colours like this Andy Warhol usually sounds very loud because he has a lot of saturated paintings so they sound loud. You can hear an Andy Warhol from the other end of the museum usually. Whereas all the paintings like a Goya or Velasquez are less saturated so you need to get closer to the painting in order to hear it. This one is much less saturated so it sounds less. It looks like you are smelling the painting if you want to hear it.
Also when I look at people I hear colour so my experience of meeting someone has changed because someone might look very beautiful but sound not so beautiful. Or the other way round. Someone that you don’t expect might sound very good. I like doing sound portraits where instead of drawing someone’s face I get close to someone’s face and I write down the sound of the eyes, the skin, the lips and the hair and I send them an MP3 of their face so they can listen to themselves. That is a way of experiencing your own face in a different way. The first face that I listened to was of Prince Charles. I asked him if I could listen to his face and this was his reaction when I asked him. So, for example, Judy Dench has silent hair like a glass of milk. James Cameron has a very high pitched frequency of skin. Al Gore has different notes in his eyes because of the different shades of turquoise. [Unintelligible 00:13:25] has a very high pitch sound of eye lids. Martina Brown is very silent but her lips are very loud and low. Steve Rice has a melody in his eyes because he has a pattern so he has music in his eyes. Steve Wozniack, his eyes sounded like green apples because they are a shade of green. Moby sounds a bit less than other people, he is one note less, no hair so he sounds a bit less. Robin Williams had a very high pitched sound of lips and Woody Allen is very soft like an unsaturated painting. And McCauley Culkin sounded C-Major, unusual to sound like a major chord. And Philip Glass was very micro-tonal and Bono had very loud glasses here. Each person has its own sound score. What really shocked me through the years are the people who say they are black, they are not actually black, and people who say they are white they are not actually white. People who say they are black are actually very dark orange and people who say they are white are very light orange. We are all different shades of orange but just different types of light, but not black and white. So that really shocked me.
Also you can create sound concerts with faces so you can make a face concert where the audience queues and the music is created by the audience’s colours so you start creating rhythms with people’s eyes, lips, skin, and it creates an electronic concert based on the colours of the audience. So if the concert sounds really bad it is always their fault because that is where their colours are coming from. The last face concert was of Prince Albert the Second of Monaco, he liked the sound of his face so much that he is using it now as his ring tone so when someone calls him he hears his face.
So when we did this project we didn’t know if this would have any secondary effect and it has had a secondary effect that sounds also are colours. To me it is not only colours. So if I hear a telephone line I feel green because telephone lines are usually green. And also music. If I listen to specific music I can actually now paint the music that I hear. This is Mozart’s Queen of the Night transposed into a painting. This is Baby Baby by Justin Bieber transposed into a painting. Note by note from the middle to the end. Also speeches can be transposed to colour. This is Martin Luther King’s I have a dream. The other one is a speech by Hitler. So when we speak we use different frequencies that relate to different colours so you can transpose a whole speech into colour and then you can see what dominant colour someone has. Also you can transpose it into make-up. These are our three national anthems transposed into the main colours and then into make-up. And also you can do colour concerts where musicians learn the colour codes and then they don’t use any scores they use colours so the colours on stage are the actual score of the music.
This is also a public sculpture I did in Barcelona so you can walk underneath and then you download an app and then you can hear the sound of the sculpture by downloading the app so you hear the sound of colour and at night I also designed a type of projection that changes colours but through the mobile phone you can hear music through colour. So it gives a new dimension to a sculpture or to a specific public space. So my life has changed because it is also a way of social interaction with people. Since 2004 people have stopped me in the street because they have seen that I have an antenna sticking out of my head so they ask what it is or they just laugh or try to understand what is happening. In 2004 many people thought it was a reading light so many people thought it would go on so they would ask me if I could turn on the light. In 2005, 2006 they thought it was a microphone for internet chats. In 2007, 2008 they thought it was a hands-free telephone like taxi drivers started having these. In 2008, 2009 they thought it was a go-pro camera that I was filming my life. In 2011, 2012 they thought it was something to do with Google Glass. In 2014, 2015, children would ask me if it was some kind of extendable selfie stick. And lately this year many people just shout at me Pokémon and try to catch me basically.
Hopefully in the 2020s people will just think it is an antenna, a new sensor organ and that is allows me to extend my senses and they will ask me what sense it allows me to extend.
In 2010 I created a cyborg foundation with [unintelligible 00:17:33] in order to help people extend their senses. We created different project. We see all this as an art, the art of reading your own senses, the art of designing your perception of reality, the art of creating your own body parts. So this is my main work of art. The issue with cyborg art is that I am the only one experiencing my artwork so in a way it needs to have two parts, cyber art is the creation of your own senses but then also it has a second part where you express yourself through these new senses and create external artworks. One of the senses we created is the internal radar, earrings that vibrate depending on the presence in front of you. The earrings vibrate and it allows you to sense movement without moving your eyes. If you turn them around you can also sense if there is someone behind you so it gives you a rear perception so you can feel if there is presence behind you. We also created a seismic sense which is implanted in Moon’s body. She has a chip in her body that vibrates whenever there is an earthquake in the world. Now she is here but if there is an earthquake in Japan she will feel a vibration in her body and it is constantly happening so she keeps feeling the vibrations of the earth inside her body. She also does long lasting performances waiting for earthquakes where she stands still in a museum and then people will actually see if there is an earthquake or not because she will move. If there is an earthquake she moves, if there is no earthquake she doesn’t move. So it is like a living sculpture but it is connected to the earth. So if the earth vibrates the dancer vibrates, if there is no earthquakes then there is no dance. Also she uses this sense to create music performances, so if she feels an earthquake she plays the drum, if not she doesn’t. So the score of the piece is created by earth, or in the case of dance the choreography is created by earth as well.
She also now has a new implant that will allow her to feel the moon quakes so her sense of seismic activity will be also outside this plant and this will allow her to feel movements that are beyond our planet. I am also using the internet to sense colours that are outside this planet because the internet allows you to connect to satellites as well. Since 2013 I connect to NASA’s international space station so I can sense extra-terrestrial colours, and I also do space concerts where I transmit the colours from space to the audience. We call this becoming [unintelligible 00:19:53] because instead of going physically to space you can send your senses to space and then feel that you are there. So in a way we could all start exploring space by sending our senses there. We don’t necessarily need to physically go to Mars. If we have a 3-d printer in Mars that allows us to 3-d print ourselves we can then just use the internet to feel that we are there by using the internet as a sensory extension that allows us to feel that we are somewhere else using our second body. So I think we will start seeing more projects where we will start using the internet exclusively to explore space.
We also started this Cyborg Nest which is offering senses to other people. This is the north sense and it can be implanted in your body. It allows you to feel the north so whenever you turn around you feel a vibration so it gives you a sense of orientation. There are now a few hundred people that have pre-ordered this so they will have this sense very soon. It will allow them to feel a new sense of connection with earth and orientation.
Just to send, I think that becoming a Cyborg is not related to becoming closer to machines, it is actually related to getting closer to nature and to other animal species. I now feel much closer to insects because I share a body part with them. I also feel closer to my cat. If I see my cat staring at the wall but I sense there is infrared in the wall then I know that my cat is staring at the infrared and not at the wall. Or if I see it go to a specific flower where there is a high level of ultra violet I know that they are going there because of the ultraviolet. So it connects me with other species that it didn’t before. And Moon as well feels much more connected to earth in a way that she didn’t before.
One of the last projects we did in Brazil was creating teeth that create something else other than just normal teeth. I have a tooth missing and I didn’t want to have it replaced with a normal tooth so we created the tooth with a small light so in case of total darkness or emergency you can just click and you have an emergency light in your mouth. This is called [unintelligible 00:21:47]. There is many species that can create light and total darkness so if you have a tooth missing, instead of having it replaced with a normal tooth you could have it replaced with a tooth with a small light so you could have some internal light. But then Moon also lost some teeth during that period and we decided to create teeth that will allow us to communicate from tooth to tooth. So we created two teeth, one was placed in my mouth and the other one was placed in Moon’s mouth and then when I click my mouth Moon received a vibration in her mouth. Then if she clicks I receive a vibration in my mouth. This allows us to have transdental communication system basically, that is what we call it. We both know Morse Code so if I click in a specific order she will understand what I am saying. So we did the first transdental communication system in Sao Paolo just two months ago where I was standing on one end and one of us standing at the other end and people from the audience were giving us words and we were transmitting the words to the other person. So this is a type of communication that could work in space because there is no air conduction in space. It could also work under the water, and it is a way of communicating that can actually go beyond our traditional ways of communicating. It is actually using Bluetooth to communicate, so it is actually a Bluetooth tooth that allows you to communicate.
Just to end, just after this I am going to Maddison Avenue where a new sense is being created for my head. I have decided to add a new sense to my body this year and it will be the sense of time. It will be basically a crown around my head, between the skin and the bone, and it will give me heat. It will take 24 hour for the heat to go around my head. So automatically I will know what time it is by feeling the heat in my head. So my aim was to create an organ for the sense of time. Because we all have a sense of time but we don’t have an organ for the sense of time. So the question is whether or not having this organ for several months or years will allow me to actually control my perception of time. If I want time to do slower I will programme it so that the heat goes slower. If I want time to go faster I will programme it so the time goes faster. So in theory it should work because if it slowly becomes subliminal sense I should be able to control my perception of time. So that is an experiment I am starting this year. Also, if I am on a plane I could put it on flight mode so that it travels at the same speed as the plane so then I might have less jetlag, or if I want to travel in time I can just turn it around twice or several times and feel that I am going backwards or forwards in time. It is basically taking Einstein’s theory of time relativity into a sense and into an organ and see whether or not if someone, or a species, has an organ for the sense of time, time can be actually controlled in a way that we can’t right now. This is an introduction to Cyborg art, I think we will be seeing many more artists in the 2020s adding new sense and new organs and we will see more people expressing themselves through new senses and this will have an impact in the way we express ourselves artistically and also how museums project these new artworks. Thank you.
I don’t know if we have time for questions.
Male Speaker: So you talk a lot about improving your senses and adding new senses through technology. Have you considered trying to influence your own intelligence or your memory or things of that nature through technology? Is there anything about that avenue that you find concerning and how do you approach that?
Neil Harbisson: Yes, I’m so interested in AI, which would be artificial intelligence. I am more interested in AS, artificial senses. This is giving me a sense, not intelligence. The intelligence depends on my brain so in this case I could have chosen the antenna to give me the names of colours, then that would be artificial intelligence. I would automatically know what colour I have in front of me if the antenna was telling me red or green. But I have no interest in having this because otherwise the machine is giving you the intelligence. I am more interested in the intelligence being created by the brain. By having an artificial sense your brain needs to figure out what is going on. That is why it took me three years to perceive the colours. I think we will be seeing also many more technologies focused on senses. I think it is much more profound if you add a new sense the knowledge is much more unique to each person. This antenna in your head would have a completely different outcome, and that is the beauty of it. I think the collaboration between technology and the brain is much more magic than technology that already gives you the intelligence. Instead of knowing where to go, feeling the north might actually help you find out how to get somewhere. I find this much more interesting than AI.
Female Speaker: Has your antenna effected your moods or if you see certain colours … like when I see certain colours I get happier. You said that red is the lower tone, does that effect your emotions or moods or sense of euphoria?
Neil Harbisson: Yes.
Female Speaker: How?
Neil Harbisson: I guess a bit differently. I guess culturally red would alter people or I guess red, for example, is associated as something that gives passion or even aggressive colour in some cases. It can give a lot of energy. In my case red is the most peaceful colour of all, so the colour of peace is red for me. Actually it is infrared but visually it is red because the lowest frequency is very calm, it is very innocent. But the most passionate or violent colour would be violet because it is the highest in the spectrum so it is a very high pitched frequency. So in my world stop signs would be violet and not red and stop for traffic lights would be violet at the top. I do have a feeling for each colour. I do feel emotions for each colour but they don’t usually coincide with the relationships that people see usually.
Female Speaker: So how about your interactions with other people? Has that really changed?
Neil Harbisson: It has changed because if you talk about red I have a sense of red. It might not be the same but I have a sense of red which I didn’t before. Before having the antenna and you talked about red, I would have no relationship with that colour. I would only know it by what I have read in text. It has changed because now you can talk about any colour and I know what you are talking about because I have felt these colours.
Male Speaker: For us though colour is spatially distributed. For you, you have this one sensor and it is not giving you any positional information so what is the field of view? You are mapping it down to one dimension.
Neil Harbisson: I had the choice of deciding how I wanted to sense colour. I could have chosen an eye-tracker that would connect to what I am saying. So whatever I would look at I would hear it. I wanted a disconnection from all my senses. I wanted colour to be a unique sense that has no connection with my sensors, so I can be sensing the colours from the ceiling but looking at you. So that is what I wanted to have, an independent sense of colour. It gives me the dominant colour in front of me. If I go into a room I can tell what the dominant colour is. Or if I look at you I can tell what your dominant colour is. Then if I get closer I get more details of the rest of the colours. It is not the average colour it is the dominant.
Thank you very much.