The international media has described Neil Harbisson as the world’s first cyborg artist. Harbisson was born completely color blind, but a device attached to his head turns color into audible frequencies.
Since 2004, the international media has described Neil Harbisson as the world’s first cyborg or the world’s first cyborg artist, because of the permanent union between cybernetics and his brain. Cybernetic art as a contemporary art builds upon the legacy of Cybernetics, where feedback involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns. Harbisson, however is not the first person to claim artistic status by using cybernetics.
In a recent article, entitled “Neil Harbisson:the world’s first cyborg artist” the Guardian newspaper interviewed the cyborg activist best known for creating the first cyborg antenna implanted in his skull. With Eyeborg sonochromatic perception, Neil Habisson can hear colours and see musical notes. This has been an important source of inspiration for him in different kinds of artistic creativity. These range from performances and stage work to paintings and musical compositions based on the connection between colour and sound.
Harbisson’s antenna, which has been permanently attached to his head since 2004, is osseointegrated inside his skull and sprouts from within his occipital bone. It allows him to hear the light frequencies of the spectrum including invisible colours such as infrareds and ultra violets. Internal internet connection also allows him to receive colours from satellites and other people’s cameras, as well as receive phone calls directly into his skull.
The antenna consists of 4 different implants: two antenna implants, one vibration/sound implant, and a Bluetooth implant that allows him to connect to the internet. There are currently 5 people in the world, one in each continent, allowed to send him images, sounds or videos.
The first person to call Habisson head was British American comedian Ruby Wax. The first public demonstration of a skull transmitted image was broadcast live to thousands of viewers watching Al Jazeera’s chat show The Stream. The image, a selfie sent from New York by US model Isaac Dean Weber, was received and identified by Harbisson as a face.
Harbisson’s original “eyeborg” – devised a decade ago by Plymouth University cybernetics expert Adam Montandon – required him to wear headphones connected to a laptop. Subsequent operations allowed him to ditch all this, as a vibrating chip was placed first against, then inside his skull. In the process, he became according to the mainstream press”the world’s first cyborg artist”.
The creation of the antenna began in October 2003 at Dartington College of Arts when Harbisson attended a talk related to cybernetics given by Adam Montandon, a Plymouth University student. At the end of the talk, Neil suggested they start a project together. This became a project to develop a sensor that tranposed colour frequencies into sound frequencies. Neil memorised the sound of each colour and decided to permanently attach the sensor to his head.
In 2004, the project won a Europrix Award (Vienna) and an Innovation Award (Submerge, Bristol). Peter Kese, a software developer from Kranj, upgraded Harbisson’s sensor to 360 different microtones and added different volume levels depending on colour saturation levels and Matias Lizana, from Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, developed the sensor’s software into a smaller chip. The antenna implant, which was rejected by a bioethical committee, was first implanted and then osseointegrated by anonymous doctors.
Cybernetic techniques became widespread in the 1960s in the music industry. The visual effects of electronic feedback became a focus of artistic research in the late 1960s, when video equipment first reached the consumer market. Audio feedback and the use of tape loops, sound synthesis and computer generated compositions reflected a cybernetic awareness of information, systems and cycles. Steina and Woody Vasulka, for example, used “all manner and combination of audio and video signals to generate electronic feedback in their respective of corresponding media.”
CYSP 1. at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) in London in 1960. The name ‘CYSP1 is composed of the first letters of ‘cybernetics’ and ‘spatiodynamic’ and is the first “spatiodynamic sculpture” having total autonomy of movement (travel en all directions at two speeds) as well as axial and eccentric rotation (setting in motion of its 16 pivoting polychromes plates).
Continual developments since WWII within the field of post-industrial or post-human technology such as simulation technology, computer mediated communications technology, biomedical (genetic engineering, scanning devices, cloning) and prosthetic (bioelectric implantation or extension) technologies are making it all the more realizable for the human subject to modify its corporeality.
Nicolas Schöffer‘s CYSP I (1956) was perhaps the first artwork to explicitly employ cybernetic principles (CYSP is an acronym that joins the first two letters of the words “CYbernetic” and “SPatiodynamic”). His CYSP 1 (1956) is considered the first cybernetic sculpture in art history in that it made use of electronic computations as developed by the Philips Company. The sculpture is set on a base mounted on four rollers, which contains the mechanism and the electronic brain. The plates are operated by small motors located under their axis. Photo-electric cells and a microphone built into the sculpture catch all the variations in the fields of color, light intensity and sound intensity. All these changes occasion reactions on the part of the sculpture.
With related work by Edward Ihnatowicz, Wen-Ying Tsai and cybernetician Gordon Pask and the animist kinetics of Robert Breer and Jean Tinguely, the 1960s produced a strain of cyborg art that was very much concerned with the shared circuits within and between the living and the technological. A line of cyborg art theory also emerged during the late 1960s. Writers like Jonathan Benthall and Gene Youngblood drew on cybernetics and cybernetic. The most substantial contributors here were the British artist and theorist Roy Ascott with his essay “Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision” in the journal Cybernetica (1976), and the American critic and theorist Jack Burnham. In “Beyond Modern Sculpture” from 1968 he builds cybernetic art into an extensive theory that centers on art’s drive to imitate and ultimately reproduce life.
If you’ve come here after asking yourself (or Google) what cybernetics is, recommended reading includes Bernard Geoghegan and Benjamin Peters’ encyclopedia article “Cybernetics” and Geoffrey Bowker’s “How to Be Universal: Some Cybernetic Strategies, 1943–70.” William Aspray’s “The Scientific Conceptualization of Information: A Survey” places cybernetics in the context of developments in computing and information theory, while Peter Galison’s “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision” is a classic account of the field’s military origins. The texts listed below survey the many forms cybernetics took in the decades that followed.
The artist Roy Ascott elaborated an extensive theory of cybernetic art in “Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision” (Cybernetica, Journal of the International Association for Cybernetics (Namur), Volume IX, No.4, 1966; Volume X No.1, 1967) and in “The Cybernetic Stance: My Process and Purpose” (Leonardo Vol 1, No 2, 1968). Art historian Edward A. Shanken has written about the history of art and cybernetics in essays including “Cybernetics and Art: Cultural Convergence in the 1960s“ and “From Cybernetics to Telematics: The Art, Pedagogy, and Theory of Roy Ascott“(2003), which traces the trajectory of Ascott’s work from cybernetic art to telematic art (art using computer networking as its medium, a precursor to net.art.)
Stelarc’s works focuses heavily on extending the capabilities of the human body. His idiosyncratic performances often involve robotics or other relatively modern technology integrated with his body. In 2005, MIT Press published Stelarc: The Monograph which is the first extensive study of Stelarc’s prolific work. It includes images of performances and interviews with several writers including William Gibson, who recount their meetings with Stelarc.
Early cybernetic and cosmetic body performance artists such as Stelarc and Orlan have acted as hyperbolic social extensions or screens of humanities growing discontent with the natural or standard body-identity. By subjecting their bodies to biocompatible amplification technologies, deconstructive and reconstructive technologies, bionic restoration technologies and the like, the perimeter of normative body-identity is transgressed. Human morphology becomes simultaneously present and absent, real and artificial, biological and synthetic, tangible and intangible (simulated or representational). So the important point is that Harbisson isn’t just altering his body: he’s altering his means of perception. His antenna is connected to a chip that translates colour into sound. “It detects the light’s hue and converts it into a frequency I can hear as a note.” The sensor was originally devised to help him counter a rare form of colour blindness called achromatopsia, which affects one in 33,000 people and means he sees the world in greys.
Orlan is an icon of French Contemporary Art who declares her body an artistic medium, . The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan, a project that started in 1990, involves a series of plastic surgeries through which the artist transformed herself into elements from famous paintings and sculptures of women. Instead of condemning cosmetic surgery, Orlan embraces it; instead of rejecting the masculine, she incorporates it; and instead of limiting her identity, she defines it as “nomadic, mutant, shifting, differing
The antenna allows Neil Habisson to perceive visible and invisible colours such as infrareds and ultraviolets via sound waves as well as receive images, videos, music or phone calls directly into his head via external devices such as mobile phones or satellites. So perhaps most importantly in 2004, Habisson was officially recognized as a cyborg by a government.
Harbisson, 31, is very serious about being regarded as a cyborg. He had to battle with the UK Passport Authority, which at first opposed his aim of having a passport picture showing him with the antenna. He argued that it was not a piece of technology but part of his body, and they eventually yielded – a first for cyborg rights.
How far he still has to go was shown in 2012 when police in Barcelona demanded he stopped filming a demonstration. Harbisson replied that he was just walking around with his normal antenna. The police still pulled off the camera on his eyeborg, leaving him to return home with dangling wires. “That was one of the worst days of my life.”
Why did he decide to have the antenna implanted into his skull? “I wanted to be a different kind of human being.” Neil 2.0? He laughs. “I’ve been a cyborg for 10 years now. I don’t feel like I’m using technology, or wearing technology. I feel like I am technology. I don’t think of my antenna as a device – it’s a body part.” He wears it to bed and in the shower.
On the superhighway to transhumanism we will then be able to explore new languages and ways of communicating that go beyond our traditional senses, As much as 90% of human communication is done without words. Gestures, facial expressions, and posture provide information about a person’s emotions and relationships with others. Live Art Performance EMOTICON by Tom Estes for Communication Futures at The Old Royal Naval College during DRHA 2014.
The antenna also allows him to perceive colours beyond the normal human spectrum: he can hear infrared and ultraviolet. “For me, red isn’t the colour of passion as it is for many humans,” he says. “It’s a serene colour. Violet, though, is savage to my ears.”
In 2010, he co-founded the Cyborg Foundation, an international organisation that helps humans become cyborgs and promotes cyborgism as an art movement. Harbisson studied music at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, and thinks he would have been a concert pianist if he hadn’t had the eyeborg. “It has freed me to become something else,” he says. Harbisson’s first performance as a cyborg was Piano Concerto No. 1, in which he painted a Steinway & Sons grand piano with different color paints and used his artificial eye to play the frequencies of the colours.
With his composition, the Pianoborg Concerto, the piano was ‘prepared’, by attaching a computer to the underside, the sensor of the eyeborg being positioned above the keys. When a colour was shown to the sensor, the computer picked up the frequency and relayed this to the piano, which then played the corresponding note. Neil said ‘The piano is playing the pianist, which is what I wanted to achieve’. His art often involves transposing colours into sound: the results are facial portraits you can hear. Harbisson also does the reverse, creating pictures from, say, the sound of the human voice. “I painted a speech by Hitler and one by Martin Luther King, translating their sound into colour. Then I asked people to guess which was which. They often got it wrong.”
What next for cyborgism? “We’ll start with really simple things, like having a third ear on the back of our heads. Or we could have a small vibrator with an infrared detector built into our heads to detect if there’s a presence behind us.” Like a car’s reversing sensor? “Yes. Isn’t it strange we have given this sense to a car, but not to ourselves?”
But the big change will come when someone else decides to have an eyeborg implanted. Then Harbisson will no longer be alone on the superhighway to transhumanism. “We will then be able to explore new languages and ways of communicating that go beyond our traditional senses,” he says. “We will have skull-to-skull communication.”
Although the artist, who was born in Belfast but raised in Catalonia, still sees things in greyscale, he hears them in vivid colour, transforming his experience of the world – and of art. “I like listening to Warhol and Rothko because their paintings produce clear notes. I can’t listen to Da Vinci or Velázquez because they use closely related tones – they sound like the soundtrack for a horror film.” He also links what he hears through his ears to colours: a telephone ring sounds green, while Amy Winehouse is red and pink.
Harbisson has collaborated extensively with Catalan choreographer Moon Ribas in a series of devised theatre and dance performances. Works such as Opus No.1, premiered at London’s BAC Theatre in 2007, and The Sound of the Orange Tree, premiered at Barcelona’s Antic Teatre in 2011, combine the use of body electronics, colour and movement on stage and explore the relationship between colour and humans. In 2010, Moon Ribas and Neil Harbisson’s The Sound of the Orange Tree won the Stage Creation Award, awarded annually by IMAC Mataró. In 2011 they created a sonochromatic video-dance called Walking Colours which was first shown on TV in April 2012.
Harbisson’s first colour-to-voice performances were in collaboration with Icelandic singer and Amiina violinist María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir. In their performances, María used a computer and a microphone to sing the microtonal colour frequencies that Harbisson used while creating live paintings on stage. Their first performances took place in 2004 at the Ariel Centre (Totnes, UK) and Plymouth Guildhall (Plymouth, UK) in 2005.
Since 2008, Harbisson has been collaborating and performing with Catalan artist and musician Pau Riba with whom he shares the same interest in cyborgs. They first performed in 2008 at Sala Luz de Gas (Barcelona), followed by other performances in Barcelona, Girona and Mataró. One of their recent projects is Avigram (Latin: Avi- (bird); Greek: -gram (written, drawn, recorded)), a structure of 12 strings, one string for each semitone in an octave, installed on a roof of a farm. The installation is being recorded 24 hours a day and a melody is being created depending on which strings birds decide to rest on. Neil Harbisson’s work can be seen and heard at eyeborg.wix.com/neil-harbisson