Electronic eyes, hologram-producing implants, haptic tattoos—these are all examples of body modification that you’ll find throughout cyberpunk fiction. When you learn about artists Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas and the modifications that they have developed and incorporated into their own bodies, you might be tempted to think of them as science fiction characters, but they’re quite real, down-to-earth, and dedicated to the use of cybernetic implants as a means of expanding the senses and the human experience of the world, a unique intersection of art and technology. They are the co-founders of the Cyborg Foundation, and in May they brought their art to Moogfest, where I had a chance to talk to them about aesthetics and cyborgism.
Harbisson was born with a rare form of color blindness called achromatopsia, which means that he sees the world entirely in greyscale. As a trained visual artist, he sought a way to experience color, and over the years he has developed and refined a tool that he calls the “eyeborg”, which in its current form is an antenna implanted into his skull that translates the frequencies of color into microtonal pitches that Harbisson hears through bone conduction. Red, for example, is perceived as an F note; over time, his brain has adapted to this sense of color to reverse the process, so that he also experiences sound in terms of color. The eyeborg is able to perceive infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths not visible to the human eye, and the chip has Bluetooth, which enables connections to Bluetooth-enabled devices and thence to the internet. Curious readers with Android devices can get an idea of what this experience is like via Harbisson’s Eyeborg App (an iOS version is coming soon), and you can also watch Harbisson’s 2012 TED talk about the eyeborg and his perceptions of sound and color.
Ribas, a dancer and movement artist, began her foray into cyborgism with earrings that vibrated in relation to the position and speed of passersby in her vicinity. She was interested in the spatial relationships between people, and also in the relationship between humans and the planet Earth. To this end, she has an implant in her elbow that vibrates in response to seismic readings across the planet—the information is gathered through her phone, and transferred wirelessly to the implant. “I have two heartbeats,” she says, “my own and the earth beat in my arm.”
At Moogfest, Ribas’s “Seismic Performance” did not directly incorporate her implant, although she has conducted dance performances in which her movements are dictated by the implant’s vibrations, as in the piece “Waiting for Earthquakes”. For the festival, she performed a drum sonification of seismic activity in the United States from 1916 to 2016. As a voice read off each year, she increased or decreased the intensity of the drumming—an experience that became increasingly dense with rising and falling tension, creating an unconventional narrative of the last century in America.
Harbisson’s Moogfest performance was a collaboration with musician/artist Pau Riba on a performance called “A Cyborg’s Synaesthetic Pedicure”, in which he painted Riba’s toenails with different colors of nail varnish specifically chosen for their musical qualities. (In the subsequent Q&A, he noted that it had been challenging to find colors that were genuinely musical tones, as opposed to microtonal variants.) The colors were translated by Harbisson’s eyeborg into tones that played on his laptop, and Riba improvised an accompanying song on the guitar. The choice of a pedicure—an activity that might be seen as traditionally feminine—as the center of a performance by two men is an interesting subversion of gender norms, although Harbisson says that he wasn’t consciously thinking of the performance that way. “I just thought I could put some music on Pau’s nails, and then he would become the music,” he said. “When people put color on the body, usually it’s for visual aspects, not for sound. So for example—makeup. If women or men wore green lipstick, it would sound much better with skin. Most everyone has F-sharp skin, shades of orange, which sounds better with green, which is A.”
This approach to color, unconventional by unmodified standards, is just one example of how cybernetic senses have influenced the aesthetics of Harbisson and Ribas. Harbisson is easy to spot at gatherings like Moogfest—not simply on account of the eyeborg antenna, but also because his clothing is distinctively bright, even gaudy in color, having been chosen as much for its sonic properties as visual. Ribas’s seismic sense and artistic responses to it have changed her perception of earthquakes; she sees them now as something more profound than simply natural disasters, and has found herself questioning the place of humans and human-built structures in relation to the earth.
Harbisson and Ribas believe that people are more accepting of cyborg technology ideas than they used to be. “In 2004, many people didn’t believe us,” Harbisson says. “When I said I hear color, they would laugh, or if I would say that I considered myself a cyborg, they would also laugh, but it doesn’t happen anymore… People don’t see it as science fiction anymore; they see it as something real and then they ask questions.” The rise of wearable technology over the last decade—FitBits, smart watches with haptic feedback—may have something to do with that. Ribas also suggests that technology like hers and Harbisson’s simply mirrors senses that already exist in other species. “Animals can perceive ultraviolet like Neil can perceive,” she notes. “It’s not an imaginary power.”
Some of the questions that Harbisson and Ribas get are from those who find the prospect of cyborg sense enhancement appealing. Part of the Cyborg Foundation’s mission is to align would-be cyborgs with like-minded developers. “When people email us, some people know what sense they want; others don’t. If they know what sense they want and we know other people that want the same sense, we connect them, and we also team them with software developers or chip developers and people that will be interested in developing this new sense. If it’s a sense that is already being developed or has already been developed then we connect them to these.”
The Foundation has now launched Cyborg Nest, a marketplace for implants and modifications to enable new senses. The first sense, with pre-orders launched in May, is the North Sense, a small device “implanted” via barbell piercings. “We didn’t go fully implantable for the first sense so that more people can actually explore having a sense,” Harbisson says. “It can be implanted anywhere. It will vibrate whenever you face north. It should become subliminal; you’ll stop feeling the vibration and you’ll start feeling orientation. It will be more of a social experiment, because every person that has that sense will probably react a little bit differently.”
For Harbisson, tools such as the North Sense or the eyeborg aren’t simply body modifications; they are tools to transcend the limitations of the human species. “If species is defined by the type of organs, the type of senses that one has, once you add new senses and new organs you become a unique or new species,” he says. “When you add a new sense, it changes the way you sense everything.” Indicating the press room where we’re meeting, he goes on: “This room is in a particular way, and if you come tomorrow you’ll see it more or less the same. If you come here every day until the day you die you’ll see the same room. But if you add a new sense, this room will become different, it will become a new space. If you suddenly sense ultraviolet, you’ll see something that you didn’t see; if you hear infrasounds and ultrasounds the space becomes new, so your life—it’s like being reborn when you add a new sense. Reality becomes new. That’s a huge thing. Instead of extending life to three hundred years, you can be born several times just in a hundred years. You can add a sense, and it’s like being in a new world.”