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Why this artist got an antenna implanted in his skull

Neil Harbisson, who can now ‘hear colour’, is the world’s first cyborg artist

You may already be familiar with Neil Harbisson. Commonly referred to as the world’s first ‘cyborg’ artist, the Catalan creative has been breaking barriers in the tech world since 2004. The same year that, incidentally, he installed a fully-functioning antenna in his skull.

Harbisson, who was born completely colour blind, apparently implanted the device to help him “hear” colour. It’s a skill he has been successfully honing for nearly 13 years; crafting pieces of art, symphonies, and building his very own ‘Cyborg’ foundation in its honour. Thanks to his implant’s cybernetic abilities, he is able to see his greyscale world in a whole new way. “Each colour has its own vibration,” he says practically. “This vibration can be felt inside the bones, and then it becomes sound to your inner ears, allowing you to hear the sound of colours.”

As the artist’s ambitions get bigger – he is currently working on the first cyborg-focused fashion line, as well as his own special ‘space concerts’ – I caught up with him to find out more.

Firstly, for those that don’t know, what made you decide to get this implant? 

Neil Harbisson: I was studying music composition in England and I got interested in how cybernetics could actually get used to extend our senses. I collaborated with Adam Montandon to create something that would allow me to perceive colour; we thought at first of a third eye that would allow me to hear the sound of colour, but then afterwards we thought it'd be to create an entirely new organ instead. Then I thought of an antenna, because there's many other animals and insects that have antennas. 

“Sometimes I have antenna aches, which is just like a headache or a toothache, but I take headache tablets and it goes away” – Neil Harbisson

Did you have any reservations about getting it done?

Neil Harbisson: Well I had been willing to extend my senses since I was a child, so I didn't have any doubts about having it implanted. The doctors said no because they didn’t see the surgery as ethical, so I had to talk to a bioethical committee first to explain the surgery. They said no because it was not regenerating any pre-existing sense, and because it went beyond the pre-existing human spectrum. These were issues that were not ethical for them, so it was hard to then find someone willing to do it. When I found the doctor, I was so willing – I didn't have any issues doing it.

How does it feel? Does it hurt?

Neil Harbisson: Yeah, it hurt for two months a bit. When the implant and the bone merge, you feel it. It's like a bee sting, or like someone hit me with a hammer at the back of my head. It’s four implants so it's four drillings to the skull. After two months, the antenna and the bone merged completely and now it never hurts – well, sometimes I have antenna aches, which is just like a headache or a toothache, but I take headache tablets and it goes away. 

So now, you hear colour constantly. How have you adjusted to that?

Neil Harbisson: Yeah, I hear colour constantly, since March 22 2004. It's so normal to hear. I don't remember how it was before; it's been 12 years. It's subliminal, like any other sense, we are constantly smelling, constantly feeling touch, constantly hearing, and our brain is completely used to it. I hear sounds through my ears but I'm hearing colour through my bones, so it's a different sense. It's a vibration.  

Are there any places that you go to that are too overpowering? Or any colours that you find unbearable?

Neil Harbisson: There are zones that are very stimulating, like the cleaning aisles of supermarkets. They have very saturated colours, very unusual, very loud, because the light in supermarkets is usually white so it gives very pure colours, so it's a very stimulating zone. Unpleasant, I don't know. Maybe a violet room wouldn't be very pleasant. Violet is the highest visual colour so it gives me a high pitch, which can be very distracting.

Do you feel the implant has given you a different outlook on the world?

Neil Harbisson: To me, being colourblind was always an advantage in many ways. The only issue I felt with colour was that I felt socially excluded because colour is used socially. I felt that I was missing out on something social, but I never felt like I was missing out something physical. To me, black and white vision has advantages. We see better at night. We see distances better than people that see colour, and we also identify shapes more easily. So, to me, greyscale vision was an advantage, so that's why I went for the creation of a new sense.  

You’ve been using your abilities to do a lot of musical projects, as well as artistic ones. Is this an area you’re hoping to explore more?

Neil Harbisson: I'm working on space concerts. The Internet connection in my head allows me to receive colours from space, so when I connect to satellites, I sense a new spectrum of colours, which are very different from the ones I receive here. I can amplify the sounds I hear to the audience, making them able to hear the sounds of the colours from space. I'm trying to get used to it because it's very overwhelming to get the colours from space.

“I think we're at the beginning of the Renaissance of our own species, because we can design how we want to sense reality” – Neil Harbisson

There’s a growing interest in the cybernetic devices. What other kinds of implants have you heard of?

Neil Harbisson: There's a woman who can feel earthquakes, so she has the seismic sense. She's had it for three years, so she is constantly feeling the movements of earth. Also, there's an implant that allows you to feel the north – we don't feel the north, but by having a small chip implanted, you can feel it.  Also, you can extend your hearing to infrasounds and ultrasounds, and sense what's behind you simply by adding infrared that vibrates at the back of your head.

It sounds like superhero stuff.

Neil Harbisson: No, because it's not super. Super would be superior, it's different. Having more senses makes you a different species, having new organs makes you a different species – it doesn't make you better or worse species. You can now design your own perception, you can design your own body, you can design your senses, but that doesn't mean you'll be better or worse than any other species. I don't feel like I'm superior to an ant and I'll never feel like I'm superior to another human because of my senses or organs.

You created your own foundation (Cyborg Foundation) to help other people who want similar implants. What’s the ultimate goal for you?

Neil Harbisson: People focus on technology that will help the blind or help the deaf, but there are so many blind people that have no interest in seeing, deaf people who have no interest in hearing. We are all blind and deaf if you compare us with other animal species. There are so many things you can't see or hear, but technology can help us all extend our senses. I'm trying to encourage people to go beyond their senses and their perception of reality. I'm not interested in the regeneration of existing senses or the regeneration of pre-existing body parts – I'm interested in the creation of senses that can allow us to go beyond what's traditional to our species. I think we're at the beginning of the Renaissance of our own species, because we can design how we want to sense reality. It's a very unique moment I think. 

The interview has been condensed and edited. Neil’s haute couture cyborg designs (made in collaboration with Francesc Cardona) will be presented later this year.