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The Cyborg Artist Who Hears Colours

by Cass Art
The Cyborg Artist Who Hears Colours

Art critics can talk all they want about futurists. But a man who has one foot planted well and truly in tomorrow's world is Neil Harbisson, a legally recognised cyborg.

Harbisson, age 31, can hear the sounds of colours and paint due to him being one of the forerunners of transhumanism. A cultural movement with the goal of transforming the human condition, transhumanism uses technology to greatly enhance the physical and intellectual capacities of a human being. 

Hearing Colour

Harbisson has exhibited at the 54th Venice Biennale, as well as at the Bankside Gallery and The Royal College of Art Gallery in London. His art focuses on the relationship between colour and sound, and on the relationship between humans and colour - hardly surprising, as he can hear the entities that most of us can only see. 

Harbisson was born with a condition that enables him only to see the world in greyscale, presenting something of a drawback to someone whose vocation as an artist centred around colour. 

His formative pieces were exclusively confined to black or white, so he set about doing something to remedy this situation in collaboration with computer scientists.

Starting off with just one chip, Harbisson now has a War of the Worlds style curved blue-toothed antenna as well as audio implants implanted within his skull. He can now link to devices which are close by and even take phone calls in his head.

His antenna is linked to a microchip which converts different hues into sounds via a frequency he hears through his skull bone as notes. This means he can actually hear the paintings of luminaries such as Rothko and Warhol.

Today he still sees objects in greyscales, but his prosthetic eyepiece - or “eyeborg” on the end of his antennae - allows him to hear these in bright colours.

For example, to him, Amy Winehouse's voice is a reedy pink while a ringing phone sounds green.

The device also enables him to see colours, such as infrared, above and beyond the usual spectrum experienced by man. 

"Now if I have problems perceiving a colour I don't know who to go to – an opthamologist, a neurologist, or a computer programmer."

And the result from all this? He paints portraits that viewers can hear. He has also painted speeches by Martin Luther King and Adolf Hitler as well as Winehouse's rehab and Fur Elise by Beethoven.

He does this by 'listening to people's faces', and each face creates a different micro tone chord. He stands in front of the face wearing his antenna and then writes down his notes on special 360 lined manuscript paper. 

The future of cyborgism

This staunch cyborgist believes that man owes it to himself to enhance his senses through technology. He even took on passport officials who originally objected to his wearing the antenna in his passport photograph, winning the case. 

Surprisingly, Harbisson claims his implant makes him feel closer to nature rather than robots.

Harbisson looks forward to skull-to-skull communication with the advent of eyeborg implants. He also envisages a third ear or a sensing mechanism similar to a vehicle's reversing sensor.

This fascinating artist only goes to show that the possibilities of combining art and technology are endless. The world is an unknowable place of colour, sound, humans and computers, and people like Harbisson are at the forefront of discovering how we can use it in more creative, innovative ways.  

Feeling inspired?

Shop online to stock up on art materials that embrace today's technology. The Sensu Digital Brush and Stylus and Artograph Tracer Projector use technology to help you make work, but if you'd rather get back to basics and learn to draw portraits (without Harbisson's sounds) then get your copy of Draw Faces by Jake Spicer

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter and tell us how technology is aiding you in your own artwork, or let us know what you think about Neil Harbisson's sound portraits.