Experience

Neil Harbisson: People Aren’t Black and White, We’re All Different Shades of Orange

Human cyborg Neil Harbisson, with a chip attached to his head, can pick up the sound of clothes, distinguishes twins by their skin color and can determine whether a bank’s alarm system is turned on by detecting the infrared radiation sensor.

British musician and artist Neil Harbisson was born color blind, and for many years he could differentiate colors by shades of gray. In the early 2000s, he elected for osseointegration: an antenna that converts light into sound frequencies that was built in his skull, which gave Harbisson the chance to hear the colors’ sound emissions and transform them into modern art objects. Bird in Flight recorded the artist’s performance at the design and modern technology festival Trailerpark I/O in Copenhagen and found out how the government officially recognized Neil Harbisson as a cyborg.

Neil Harbisson Age 33

Artist, musician, graduate of the Dartington Alejandro Sattoresa College Institute of Fine Arts. The first person in the world to implant an antenna into the fabric of his skull. Transcribed famous music compositions – from Mozart’s symphonies to songs by Justin Bieber – into color schemes, created a project with sound portraits of famous people and released a collection of dresses based on his layout of the song “Moon River.” Founded the Cyborg Foundation in 2010, an international organization with the stated purpose of helping those who wish to become a cyborg.

Life in a black and white world

I don’t know what green, blue or any other color looks like. I’m better at seeing usual people in the darkness and differentiating their figures. At age 11, I was told that I can’t see colors, and since then I started thinking more often about what color means. Of course, even if you can’t differentiate colors, it’s impossible to ignore that they exist. Colors have a strong social aspect to them; they surround us in everyday life in names and titles (Bluetooth, Greenpeace, Red Cross, Red Bull, James Brown), in songs (Yellow Submarine), and even in countries (Greenland). Colors are also used as codes: red for hot water, blue for cold. I can’t use maps; for example, if I ended up in Tokyo, it’d be easy to get lost. An interesting thing happened with the flags of different countries: the French, Irish and Italian flags looked exactly the same to me. And, when I was approached by a passer-by and asked something like, “Didn’t you see the red-haired man with blue eyes and a pink jacket,” I had no idea what he was talking about.

The merging of color and sound

As a student of music, I found out that Isaac Newton broke apart the color spectrum into notes. Then I thought to myself whether there really is a connection between color and sound. Several years later I met Professor Adam Montandon, and together we began working on creating a sensor that would help me hear the sound frequency of colors. Our first prototype helped me hear red and green. Later, in 2003, we created headphones with a camera connected to a five-kilogram computer. This way I could hear colors not only directly in front of me but also all around me.

After I got used to the first six colors we added another six, then 24, then 84, while I still hadn’t learned to differentiate 360 sounds from 360 colors. It was tough at first because I was constantly hearing some different sounds.

My head was constantly hurting – everything in the world was some kind of sound!

But later on I got used to it and I even acquired favorite colors, depending of course on how they sound.

Several years later, when I was already used to hearing colors, I decided that I shouldn’t stop at this achievement. In 2008, we added the ability to hear infrared and ultraviolet light; since then, I am able to tell whether the alarm system in a bank is turned on or not, and sense whether or not it’s worth it to go tanning on a sunny day. If the radiation is too strong, I smear a double layer of sunblock on myself.


{“img”:”/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Neil-Harbisson_02.jpg”, “text”:”Baby Baby by Justin Bieber”}

The operation

At some point I understood that I didn’t want to carry technology around with me, but rather wanted to become a part of it. I was dreaming about creating a new part for my body. At first I thought about making a third-eye implant on my forehead, but this would have only allowed me to hear colors directly in front of me. That’s why I came up with the idea of an antenna. Many insects in nature have antennae, so why don’t people have them? I came up with the antenna’s design with a chip that I needed to implant in my head. This way I would hear colors with a new body organ thanks to a new sense – vibrations in my head.

I went to the doctor and said that I wanted an antenna. He said that he doesn’t do these kinds of operations. All the doctors I went to refused me. This is why I had to search for someone who would agree to do it anonymously.

Before the operation, I was asked, ‘Seeing that we’re going to open up your skull, why not just stick a wireless internet chip in there as well? That way you can hear colors remotely.

Now, I hear colors from other parts of the planet when, for example, I’m talking on Skype with a friend.

Life with a new body

All in all, my brain adapted: it accepted a new technology and created a new ability. For me, colors are sounds and sounds are colors. It gives me the chance to feel like a real cyborg. My life has changed in completely different ways, for example, the way I dress. Before, I got dressed depending on how the clothes fit and complemented each other; now, however, I get dressed depending on how they sound together. Now I can wear an entire song! I released a collection of dressed based on a composition of the song “Moon River.”


{“img”:”/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Neil-Harbisson_06.jpg”, “text”:”The Moon River dress”}

My house also looks different now: I painted it so that it would sound good. My living room sounds like C major, and the kitchen is violet because the sound of violet is high-pitched and keeps me in a ready state. The ceilings are white – silence. When I lay down and look at the ceiling I don’t hear anything and I can relax. The entry doors are green because this color has a neutral sound. For me, it’s an opportunity to tune in before going out.

I began to look at food differently. I hear what I eat and can connect music with food or eat my favorite song. A trip to the supermarket has turned into a trip to a night club. The departments with cleaning agents are especially fun – they’re the loudest and most interesting. I also look at art completely differently. When I go to a museum I can listen to Picasso or Andy Warhol. Artists have turned into composers for me. Warhol’s work, by the way, sounds louder from the other end of a room.


{“img”:”/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Neil-Harbisson_03.jpg”, “text”:”Toccata and fugue in D minor by Bach”}

Music of the face

I look at people differently. I see someone’s face and hear it, as well. I started an art project in 2005 with sound portraits. My first work was a portrait of Prince Charles. I listen to eyes, lips, noses, skin and then create an MP3 file. The actress Judi Dench has quiet hair because it’s nearly all gray. Director James Cameron’s skin is high-pitched. The eyes of Al Gore, the former Vice President of the US, sound very different because they have different shades of turquoise. The face of artist Marina Abramovich is quiet except for her lips, which are loud and have a high frequency. Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, has eyes which coincide with the sound of a green apple. The musician Moby doesn’t sound like anything because he’s bald. Every face has a unique collection of sounds. I have never met two people with faces that sound exactly the same, and even twins sound differently.

After some time I understood one thing: when one group of people decide that they are black and another group decide they are white, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Those who think they are black are actually dark-orange, and those who believe they are white are light-orange. People aren’t black and white, we’re all just different shades of orange.

I’ve had many different art projects about colors. Among other things, I have transcribed music and speech into color: “Queen of the Night” by Mozart, “Baby Baby” by Justin Bieber, and speeches by Martin Luther King and Adolf Hitler.


{“img”:”/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Neil-Harbisson_04.jpg”, “text”:”A speech by Martin Luther King and a speech by Hitler”}


{“img”:”/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Neil-Harbisson_05.jpg”, “text”:”«Queen of the Night by Mozart”}

I created a cyborg foundation in 2010, because I realized that many people want to expand their opportunities. I also understood that it’s important to struggle for cyborg rights: the right to request an operation and to be photographed for a passport picture. I myself had this problem in 2004 – they weren’t letting me have my passport photo be taken because of the antenna. There was a lot of red tape, papers and documents. In the end, of course, they allowed me and I became the first cyborg recognized by a state. Now, I can travel safely.


{“img”:”/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Neil-Harbisson_01.jpg”, “text”:”Neil’s passport”}

The third task of my foundation is to advance the idea of cyborg artists, where people with new abilities create art of another kind. It seems that the future depends on this: how new technology and the internet will change our perceptions and expand the boundaries of the possible.

(Cover photo: Neil Harbisson/Flickr.)

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