Neil Harbisson

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Neil Harbisson
Neil Harbisson cyborgist.jpg
Born (1982-07-27) 27 July 1982 (age 31)
United Kingdom
  • United Kingdom[1]
  • Ireland[2]
  • Sound Portraits
  • Cybernetic Paitings
  • Colour Scores
  • Capital Colours of Europe
  • 2010  Cre@tic Award 2010[3]
    Tecnocampus Mataro
  • 2010  Stage Creation Award[4]
    IMAC Mataro, Spain
  • 2009  Phonos Music Grant[5]
    IUA Phonos, Spain
  • 2005  Best Performing Story[6]
    ResearchTV, UK
  • 2004  Innovation Award 2004
    Submerge (Bristol, UK)
  • 2004  Europrix Multimedia Award[7]
    Vienna, Austria
  • 2001  Stage Creation Award
    IMAC Mataro, Spain

Neil Harbisson (born 27 July 1982)[8] is a Catalan-raised, British-born[9] contemporary artist, musician, and cyborg activist best known for his self-extended ability to hear colours and to perceive colours outside the ability of human vision.[10] He is the first person in the world to have an antenna osseointegrated in his skull.[11] The inclusion of the cyborg antenna on his passport photo has been claimed by some to be official recognition of Harbisson as a cyborg.[12] In 2010, he founded the Cyborg Foundation, an international organisation to help humans become cyborgs.[13]

Early life and career[edit]

Harbisson is the son of a Catalan mother and an Irish father. He was born with achromatopsia, a condition that only allowed him to see in grayscale. He grew up in Mataró in Catalonia, Spain, where he studied music and art[14] at various schools.[15] He began to compose piano pieces at the age of 11[16] and, at 16, began studying fine art at the Institut Alexandre Satorras, where he was given special permission to use no colour in his work. His early works are all in black and white[17] and these were the only colours he used to wear.[18]

At the age of 18, Harbisson gained international attention when he climbed a tree in Mataró to save three trees from being felled.[19] He lived in the tree for several days,[20] supported by over 3,000 people who signed a petition to maintain the trees.[21] After days of protest, the city hall announced the trees would not be cut.[22]

In September 2001, Harbisson moved to Ireland to finish his piano studies at Dublin's Waltons New School of Music. In 2002, he moved to England to study music composition at Dartington College of Arts.[23]

Cyborg life[edit]


In October 2003, during his second year at Dartington College of Arts, Harbisson attended a talk on cybernetics given by Adam Montandon, a Plymouth University student.[24] At the end of the talk, Neil went up to Adam and suggested they start a project together. This became the "Eyeborg" project,[25] a project to develop a head-mounted sensor that translates colour frequencies into sound frequencies.[26] Neil memorised the frequencies related to each colour and decided to permanently attach the eyeborg to his head. In 2004, the Eyeborg project won the Europrix Award in Content Tools and Interface Design (Vienna), as well as the Innovation Award (Submerge, Bristol). In 2007, while hitch-hiking around Europe, Harbisson met Peter Kese in Ljubljana, a software developer from Kranj, Slovenia. Kese offered to develop the eyeborg even further so that Harbisson could perceive colour saturation and not only colour hues. After a few weeks he had developed a new software that allowed Harbisson to perceive up to 360 different hues through microtones and saturation through different volume levels.[27] In 2009, Matias Lizana, a student from Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya developed the eyeborg into a chip.[28] The chip allows users to have the device implanted and to hear colours that overstep the bounds of human perception such as infrared and ultraviolet.[29] In May 2011 the device was broken by police who believed that Harbisson was filming them during a demonstration in Plaça de Catalunya, Barcelona.[30][31][32]

Cyborg passport[edit]

In 2004, Harbisson was not allowed to renew his UK passport because his passport photo was rejected. The passport office would not allow Harbisson to appear with electronic equipment on his head. Harbisson wrote back insisting that the eyeborg should be considered part of his body as he had become a cyborg. Letters from his doctor, friends and his college were sent to the passport office to give him support. After weeks of correspondence Harbisson's antenna was included.[33] Harbisson states that he became a cyborg when the union between his organism and cybernetics created a new sense: "It's not the union between the eyeborg and my head what converts me into a cyborg but the union between the software and my brain".[34]

Cyborg Foundation[edit]

Public awareness[edit]

Harbisson has contributed significantly to the public awareness of colour and cyborgs by giving regular public lectures at schools, universities, conferences and LAN Parties sometimes to an audience of thousands.[35] He has taken part in science, music and art festivals such as the British Science Festival,[36] TEDGlobal,[37] Festival ALT celebrated at MARCO, Museum of Contemporary Art of Vigo,[38] and at the NeoTokyo Festival.[39]

On 21 July 2011, he became a trending topic on Twitter[40] after giving a lecture to an estimated audience of 7,000 people at Campus Party Mexico.[41]

He has appeared in various television documentary programmes on posthumanism, cyborgs and colour, such as Daily Planet by Discovery Channel,[42] Explorations, Repor, Documentos TV,[43] Redes; in specific documentaries about his life such as Sentir Colors, Cyborg Foundation, La importància dels colors, El Ciborg dels Colors and has guested on a number of chat shows including Richard & Judy, Buenafuente,[44] Els Matins and Fantástico.[45]

Harbisson has also taken part in radio programmes such as New York's Public Radio International's Studio 360,[46] Outlook by the BBC World Service,[47] La Ventana by Cadena SER,[48] Earth Beat by Radio Netherlands Worldwide,[49] and has appeared in newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times,[50] The New Scientist,[51] Wired,[52] The Scientist,[53]The Red Bulletin,[54] Modern Painters,[55] ¡Hola!,[56] and Muy Interesante.[57]

In 2012, Spanish film director Rafel Duran Torrent, created a short film about Neil Harbisson and the Cyborg Foundation. In 2013, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival's Focus Forward Filmmakers Competition and was awarded with US$100,000.[58]

Since 2014, The Sound of Colours, a short film about Harbisson's life, directed by Albert Capo with Marius Praniauskas in the lead role, is being planned.[59]



Color performances[edit]

Neil Harbisson's transposition of "The Rite of Spring" by Igor Stravinsky.

In 2013, Harbisson's performance artwork was ranked together with the works of Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic as one of the 10 most shocking performances ever.[60] 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 cybernetic eye to play the frequencies of the colours. With his next 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'.[61]

Harbisson's first colour-to-voice performances were in collaboration with Icelandic singer and Amiina violinist María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (wife of Sigur Rós keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson). 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.[62] 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.[63] They first performed in 2008 at Sala Luz de Gas (Barcelona), followed by other performances in Barcelona,[64] Girona and Mataró.[65] 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.[66]


Neil Harbisson creating a sound portrait of James Cameron while Alfonso Cuaron lights up his face with an Iphone (Hollywood 2013).

Harbisson's work is focused on the relationship between colour and sound, and on the relationship between humans and colour.[67] Harbisson's main works have been exhibited during the 54th Venice Biennale[68] at Venice's Giudecca 795 Contemporary Art Gallery,[69] at the Museumsquartier (Vienna), at the Bankside Gallery (London), at the Royal College of Art Gallery (London), at Centre d'Art Santa Mònica (Barcelona),[70] at Can Manyé (Alella),[71] and at Galeria Tramart (Barcelona).[72]

Sound Portraits 
Portraits of people that Harbisson creates by listening to the colours of faces. Each face creates a different micro tone chord depending on its colours. To create a sound portrait he needs to stand in front of the person and point his antenna at the different parts of the face, he then writes down the different notes on a special 360 lined manuscript paper. He explains that photographs can not be used to create these portraits as colours are not the same on pictures than live. Since 2005, he has created sound portraits of, among others, Prince Charles, Antoni Tàpies, Tracey Emin, Leonardo DiCaprio, Peter Brook, Al Gore, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Macy Gray, Gael García Bernal,[73] Marina Abramović, Dame Evelyn Glennie,[74] Steve Wozniak [75] and Woody Allen.[76]
The Human Colour Wheel 
A color wheel based on the hue and light that Harbisson detected on human skins from 2004 to 2009.[77] Harbisson states that humans are not black or white; human skins range from very light to very dark shades of orange-red to orange-yellow.[78]
City Colours 
In 2007, Harbisson started hitch-hiking around Europe to find the main colours of capital cities,[79] visiting more than 50 countries as well as travelling around Britain.[80] He scanned each capital until he was able represent each city with two main hues.[81] In Monaco, it was azure and salmon pink; in Bratislava it was yellow and turquoise; and in Andorra it was dark green and fuchsia.[82] Under the title Capital Colors of Europe Harbisson has exhibited the colours of each capital in several European galleries[83] including Spain, Andorra, UK, and Croatia.[84]
Colour Scores 
The eyeborg not only allows Harbisson to hear colour but it also means that everyday sounds, such as ring tones or music, become associated with colours.[85] Colour Scores are a series of paintings where Harbisson transforms into colour the first 100 notes of well-known musical pieces.[86]

Devised theatre[edit]

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 cybernetics, colour and movement on stage and explore the relationship between colour and humans.[87] In 2010, Moon Ribas and Neil Harbisson's The Sound of the Orange Tree won the Stage Creation Award, awarded annually by IMAC Mataró[88] In 2011 they created a sonochromatic video-dance called Walking Colours which was first shown on TV in April 2012.[89]


  • "I don't feel that I'm using technology, I don't feel that I'm wearing technology, I feel that I am technology"[90]
  • "Life will be much more exciting when we stop creating applications for mobile phones and we start creating applications for our own body." (TEDGlobal, 2012)[91]
  • "Technology is made by humans so if we modify our body with human creations we become more human."[92]
  • "There are no white skins, and there are no black skins. Humans skins are of different shades of orange."[93]
  • "It's not the union between my head and the electronic eye what makes me feel 'cyborg', it's the union between the software and my brain."[94]
  • "If salads sounded like Justin Bieber, children would eat more vegetables."[95]
  • "When you're a little weird, you aspire to be normal; when you're very weird, you aspire to be recognised for it."[96]
  • "It's easier to get into the shower than into church." (after being asked if he could shower with his cybernetic eye)[97]
  • "The next step is to stop using technology as a tool and to start using it as part of our body."[98]
  • "Now if I have problems perceiving a color I don't know who to go to – an opthamologist, a neurologist, or a computer programmer."[99]


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External links[edit]