Cyborg As Art And Activism: Neil Harbisson

As he addresses the crowd gathered at A/D/O during their monthly design seminar, Homo Sapiens, I Hear You, an antenna gently bobs above Neil Harbisson's head. Implanted into the back of his skull and sprouting out above the crown of his head, the device is an “organ” he designed himself that picks up the frequencies of colors and transmits them as vibrations that he hears as sound. The technology was inspired by dolphins who hear via bone conduction.

A self described cyborg and transpecies activist with an iconic presence, Neil Harbisson is used to being questioned about his work, but is patient with people trying to grasp the nuances of his reality. He is relaxed, funny, and makes an implanted augmented organ sound surprisingly appealing.

As a child growing up color-blind and then eventually as an artist, he longed for color. “Even if you don’t see color, you can’t ignore that it exists, because people keep mentioning it every single day.” He became interested in not only understanding the visual spectrum that other humans see, but about senses that other species have like ultraviolets and infrareds. Now having experienced these senses for over 15 years, Neil is both emphatic and jovial as he repeats a statement he often uses to explain his experience publicly, “I am not using or wearing technology, I feel that I am technology,"

Understanding what it means to “hear color” or implant an augmented organ requires a perspective shift that Neil knows can be off-putting and foreign. At one point he describes how if his antenna senses yellow when he is sleeping, he might begin to dream about bananas. It is through these lighthearted examples, delivered with lucid stand-up style energy, that he familiarizes a complex concept. In a way, his description and translation of his experience into terms that can captivate a non-cyborg, is the true art.

Neil is the most famous in a growing group of self proclaimed cyborgs: he founded both the Cyborg Foundation and the Transpecies Society with Moon Ribas, an artist with two implants in her feet which allow her to feel the seismic activity of the earth. Since becoming cyborgs, technology has become smaller, faster and more efficient. Neil has improved his antenna to evolve to connect to the internet, allowing him to hear colors sent to him from other continents and even colors beaming in from satellites in space. He conjectures how this allows him to explore places as distant as the cosmos without physical travel, describing how implanting technology in our bodies reveals unseen realities: “I see this as the use of the internet as a sense. Now, we are using the internet as a tool or a communication system, but I think we will start seeing the internet used as a sensory extension or as a sense itself.” It is a whimsical concept with uncharted potential.

Along with increased possibilities of what an augmented organ can do, there is also a cultural shift around our relationship to technology. Neil notes that since he started his work, there is a growing desire to fuse the human body with the technological. “In my case, I never felt or identified as a cyborg until I stopped feeling the difference between the software and my brain...I don’t feel 100% human because the definition of human doesn’t include an antenna as an organ.” However, some young people view being transpecies as an identity, and feel that they were born without critical elements of their body. “Many children and teenagers email me saying they feel they are cyborgs, and they want to have surgery when they are 18.”

To coach hopeful cyborgs as they embark on a journey of self expression, creativity and ideation, Neil Harbisson developed a mentorship program and residency which is now central to his work. Residents create timescales of their lives, charting important events and overarching emotions of each year, registering patterns, and become more intune with themselves. “Sometimes, people don’t realize that there is a strong interest or passion inside them,” he adds.

Manel Munoz Montesinos came to the Transpecies Society as a resident and through this process, identified rain as a meaningful part of his past. He developed and installed a device that allows him to perceive barometric pressure changes and sees this implant as a mind tattoo, expressive and personal. A new feature that binds him to the cyborg community.

This work happens underground in an undisclosed studio Neil describes as clandestine, with no windows and no clocks. It is part artist residency, part hospital, part science lab. “We have a grand piano and that’s where we do the surgeries - on top of the piano.” At the lab he creates new augmentations that can be implanted into humans, such as a band around the skull that allows one to feel the passage of time, bio-luminescent teeth and a knee implant that gives a sense of the Earth’s true North. Describing the creativity inherent in the process of humans designing their own bodies, he says, “We like to put this in the box of art, because art has no rules, no limits.”

In his closing statement at A/D/O, he described how transitioning into a cyborg could help the climate. He uses the example of humans around the world that are unable to control their own body temperature and rely on air conditioners and heaters. “If we could control our own temperature, we wouldn’t change the temperature of the planet,” he delivers the insight as a joke, but it resonates through the audience.

His work is a harbinger of a movement that would ultimately allow us to design our bodies, add to our senses, and expand our capabilities. Despite resistance from governments and a skeptical public, he continues to persuade and educate about the merits of cyborg identity. As he puts it,“We want to defend the right to decide who we want to be as a species.”

Text By Allegra Chen-Carrel

Images Courtesy of Neil Harbisson and Justin Ryan Kim