Neil Harbisson sees the world only in black and white. But he has the ability to hear colour. Telephone lines have now become green, and Amy Winehouse’s Rehab is pink.
he funeral home is a sea of black, the colour of mourning. The man in the casket had many friends, who quietly queue up to pay respects. Then, artist Neil Harbisson enters the room and all eyes are immediately on him. It’s difficult to steal a dead man’s thunder, but when Harbisson walks in, it is impossible to look away. It could have been the 33-year-old’s ensemble; he had chosen an orange, purple, and turquoise suit for the occasion. Or it could’ve been the antenna protruding from his skull, partially concealed by his bowl cut.
Harbisson had chosen the unconventional outfit to express his sadness. Born colour-blind in Belfast, Ireland, the artist has spent 11 years with an antenna that transforms colour into sound, embedded into his skull.
“I dress in a way that sounds good. If I’m happy, I dress in C major. If I’m sad, I dress in a minor chord. So, for the funeral, I chose a B minor, which incidentally is this bright trio,” he says, pointing at his suit.
The funeral registers as a low hum to Harbisson – no high-pitched aubergines or clashing notes of red here. Instead, the many shades of black create an ominous buzz with clashing chords. Later, to cure the blues, he goes to the supermarket. Not too many people go for walks in the supermarket for fun, but Harbisson does. His favourite section is the cleaning product aisle. “The rows of rainbow-coloured bottles sound like a symphony,” he says.
Harbisson, who is officially the world’s first cyborg, spent the first two decades of his life in greyscale. Back then, he had no words to describe his condition, but artists like Stelarc were taking the world by storm through experiments with the human body and synaesthesia, a condition where two or more of the five senses work together, enabling people to hear colour, or taste sound.
Harbisson, who is officially the world’s first cyborg, spent the first two decades of his life in greyscale. Courtesy: Neil Harbisson
Harbisson, who is officially the world’s first cyborg, spent the first two decades of his life in greyscale.
Courtesy: Neil Harbisson
Today, the Barcelona-based artist understands that synaesthesia does not define his condition accurately because the “eyeborg” (as he fondly calls the antenna sticking out of his head) acts as an extra sense that only relates colour to sound, objectively and equally to everyone.
As a result of this “eyeborg”, he is obsessed with colour. “When I was a child, I tried lots of ways to understand colours; I related them to people. When someone talked about blue, I thought about a friend of mine who was brainy. Pink was a feminine, hippie kind of girl; yellow was a boy from London, very childlike and eccentric,” he says.
“I wore only black and white clothes,” he adds. “My classmates would often laugh at my mismatched socks.”
So, sartorial displays were out of the question, and a rainbow flag meant nothing to him, neither did a red rose. It was an encounter with Adam Montandon, a cybernetics expert at his alma mater, Dartington College of Arts in Devon, that gave him a shot at a colourful life.
Montandon decided to use his subject’s existing senses as a host for new artificial ones. He used sound to give him an approximation of colour, as Harbisson was also a keen musician with good pitch perception.
He devised the “eyeborg”, which captures colour and turns it into sounds, by pressing against his head. “I hear the colours through bone conduction. This way, it doesn’t interfere with my regular hearing because it comes through different channels.”
The first “eyeborg” was clumsy. Harbisson had cables coming out of his head, snaking down into a big backpack with a laptop. “It made people a bit uncomfortable,” he says, with a laugh.
Over the past decade, the attachment has been re-imagined as a sleek, flexible, metallic tube, which translates colour into sound using a chip drilled into the back of his skull.
The eyeborg has evolved from a clumsy contraption to a sleek addition to Harbisson’s physiognomy. Courtesy: Neil Harbisson
The eyeborg has evolved from a clumsy contraption to a sleek addition to Harbisson’s physiognomy.
Courtesy: Neil Harbisson
The protruding antenna has created problems for him. In 2004, Harbisson was not allowed to renew his United Kingdom passport because his photo was rejected. The office wouldn’t allow him to appear with electronic equipment on his head. Harbisson wrote back, insisting that the “eyeborg” was a part of his body, and letters from his doctor, friends, and his college were sent in support. After weeks of correspondence, the government gave in, marking Harbisson as the world’s first official cyborg.
But the discrimination doesn’t stop there. Harbisson has been thrown out of Harrods for being a “security threat,” and is often not allowed entry into theatres because of “piracy concerns”.
These days, he’s busy with a series of concerts, where he plugs himself into a set of speakers and makes music out of the colours of the audience.
He also does live portraits by creating chords out of the the hues on the people’s faces. “Prince Charles sounds surprisingly similar to Nicole Kidman,” he notes. “I create colour portraits from voices. I’ve created Martin Luther King and Hitler in colour from their speeches, and asked people to guess which one’s which.”
“People usually get them wrong,” he continues. “Hitler’s appears very colourful because he used a wide range of frequencies in his speeches, whereas Martin Luther King’s speeches have dominant colours such as blue and purple. People never guess that the bright one is Hitler’s.”
He has spent his life chasing colour, but Harbisson still does not understand the codes the world has woven around them. The result of this trans-imposition of senses can, at times, have startling results.
“I’ve begun to perceive sound as colour, too. Telephone lines became green; Amy Winehouse’s Rehab seemed red and pink,” he says. “I understand colour as energy. Because I spent my early years in a grey world, I did not understand the symbolism.”
“I read all skin tones as orange; in my world race is not real. Is that not beautiful,” he says, with a smile.