Neil Harbisson is a Catalan-raised, British-born artist who suffers from a rare form of colour blindness called achromatopsia, which means he sees the world in grayscale. Thanks to a vibrating chip implanted inside his skull – the “Eyeborg” (developed by cybernetics researchers from Plymouth University), he is now able to perceive colours in sound frequencies. The antenna is so sophisticated that he is able to perceive colours beyond the normal human spectrum, hearing infrared and ultraviolet. And he can also connect to devices that are near him or to the internet, through Bluetooth.
He is also the first citizen on the planet to have been legally recognized as a cyborg, since he’s wearing the prosthetic device in his UK passport. This means that the eyeborg was legally recognized as a body part. Neil Harbinsson identifies as a cyborg, as he explains in an interview to Dezeen Magazine (2013):
“Feeling like a cyborg was a gradual process. First, I felt that the eyeborg was giving me information, afterwards I felt it was giving me perception, and after a while it gave me feelings. It was when I started to feel colour and started to dream in colour that I felt the extension was part of my organism.” (Harbisson/Bryant 2013)
So when Harbisson goes to an art gallery, he hears Picasso (instead of seeing it). When he chooses his clothes, he does it not because they look good, but because they sound good. When he listens to music, he hears colours instead (see his Sonochromatic series, 2009).
By using technology as an extension of his senses, Harbisson blurs the boundaries between sound and image, brain and body, natural and artificial, changing the perception of the world and of art. Or, as he states in an interview to The Guardian, becoming a cyborg artist is “an artistic statement – I’m treating my own body and brain as a sculpture” (apud Jeffreys 2014).
Neil Harbisson’s experiments with “body and brain sculpture” may be a contemporary example of what Jack Burnham saw as a future “refocusing of aesthetic awareness”, based on “scientific-technological evolution” (Burhman 1967: 369). But it may also lead to a refocusing of human boundaries, in the sense that Harbisson’s non-normative subjectivity makes us question the boundaries between human and posthuman. Is the cyborg artist more or less human? Or more or less posthuman? And do humans and posthumans have different colours? The cyborg artist may feel the answer.
Jack Burnham, “The Future of Responsive Systems in Art”, from Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of this Century, New York: George Braziller, 1987 , pp. 359-76.
Neil Harbisson/Ross Bryant, “People will start becoming technology”, Dazeen Magazine, 20 November 2013.
Stuart Jeffreys, “Neil Harbisson: the world’s first cyborg artist”, The Guardian Online, 6 May 2014.