Neil Harbisson

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Neil Harbisson
Neil Harbisson cyborgist.jpg
Born (1982-07-27) 27 July 1982 (age 32)[1]
United Kingdom
  • United Kingdom[2]
  • Ireland[3]
Known for
Notable work(s)
  • Sound Portraits
  • Cybernetic Paintings
  • Colour Scores
  • Capital Colours of Europe
  • 2014  Bram Stoker Gold Medal[4]
    Trinity College, Dublin
  • 2010  Cre@tic Award 2010[5]
    Tecnocampus Mataro
  • 2010  Stage Creation Award[6]
    IMAC Mataro, Spain
  • 2009  Phonos Music Grant[7]
    IUA Phonos, Spain
  • 2005  Best Performing Story[8]
    ResearchTV, UK
  • 2004  Innovation Award 2004
    Submerge (Bristol, UK)
  • 2004  Europrix Multimedia Award[9]
    Vienna, Austria
  • 2001  Stage Creation Award
    IMAC Mataro, Spain

Neil Harbisson is a Catalan-raised, British-born[10] contemporary artist and cyborg activist best known for creating the first cyborg antenna and for being the first person in the world to have an antenna implanted in his skull.[11] The antenna allows him to perceive visible and invisible colours such as infrareds and ultraviolets via sound waves as well as receive images, videos, music or phone calls directly into his head via external devices such as mobile phones or satellites.[12] In 2004, he was officially recognized as a cyborg by a government.[13]

Since 2004, international media has described him as the world's first cyborg[14] or the world's first cyborg artist,[15] for expressing himself artistically through a new sense created by the permanent union between cybernetics and his brain. In 2010, he co-founded the Cyborg Foundation, an international organisation that helps humans become cyborgs and promotes cyborgism as an art movement.[16]

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[17] at various schools.[18] He began to compose piano pieces at the age of 11[19] 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[20] and these were the only colours he used to wear.[21]

At the age of 18, Harbisson climbed a tree in Mataró to save three trees from being felled.[22] He lived in the tree for several days,[23] supported by over 3,000 people who signed a petition to maintain the trees.[24] After days of protest, the city hall announced the trees would not be cut.[25]

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.[26]

Cyborg life[edit]

Cyborg Antenna[edit]

In October 2003, during his second year at Dartington College of Arts, Harbisson attended a talk related to cybernetics given by Adam Montandon, a Plymouth University student.[12][27] At the end of the talk, Neil went up to Adam and suggested they start a project together. This became the "Eyeborg" project,[28] a project to develop a head-mounted sensor that translates colour frequencies into sound frequencies.[29] 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.[30] In 2009, Matias Lizana, a student from Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya developed the eyeborg into a chip.[31] The chip was permanently attached to his occipital bone and allowed him to hear colours that overstep the bounds of human perception such as infrared and ultraviolet.[32] In May 2011 the device was broken by police who believed that Harbisson was filming them during a demonstration in Plaça de Catalunya, Barcelona.[33][34][35] In 2013, the antenna was osseointegrated inside his skull in order to remove constant pressure created by the chip between his bone and skin. The new antenna implant which now sprouts from within his occipital bone, includes bluetooth connection which allows him to receive colours from other people's cameras, as well as receive phone calls directly into his head.[15]

Cyborg passport[edit]

In 2004, Harbisson was not allowed to renew his UK passport because his passport photo was rejected. The UK 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.[36] Harbisson states that he became a cyborg when the union between his organism and its electronic extension 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".[37]

Public awareness[edit]

Neil Harbisson on Last Call with Carson Daly TV Show. (USA 2014)

Harbisson has contributed significantly to the public awareness of colour and cyborgs by giving regular public lectures at universities, conferences and LAN parties sometimes to an audience of thousands.[38] He has taken part in science, music, fashion and art festivals such as the British Science Festival,[39] TEDGlobal,[40] London Fashion Week,[41] Sónar,[42] and NeoTokyo Festival[43] among others[44]

On 21 July 2011, he became a trending topic on Twitter[45] after giving a lecture to an estimated audience of 7,000 people at Campus Party Mexico.[46]

He has appeared in various television documentary programmes on posthumanism, cyborgs and colour, such as Daily Planet by Discovery Channel,[47] Explorations, Repor, Documentos TV,[48] 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 NBC's Last Call with Carson Daly,[49] Richard & Judy, Buenafuente,[50] Els Matins and Fantástico.[51]

Harbisson has also taken part in radio programmes such as New York's Public Radio International's Studio 360,[52] Outlook by the BBC World Service,[53] La Ventana by Cadena SER,[54] Earth Beat by Radio Netherlands Worldwide,[55] and has appeared in newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times,[56] The New Scientist,[57] Wired,[58] The Scientist,[59]The Red Bulletin,[60] Modern Painters,[30] ¡Hola!,[61] and Muy Interesante.[62]

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.[63]

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.[64]


Color performances[edit]

Neil Harbisson conducting a colour concert at Palau de la Musica Catalana, Barcelona (2014).[65]
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.[66] 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 artificial 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'.[67]

Harbisson's first colour-to-voice performances were in collaboration with Icelandic singer and Amiina violinist María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir. 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.[68] 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.[69] They first performed in 2008 at Sala Luz de Gas (Barcelona), followed by other performances in Barcelona,[70] Girona and Mataró.[71] 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.[72]


Neil Harbisson creating a sound portrait of Philip Glass (New York, 2014).

Harbisson's work is focused on the relationship between colour and sound, and on the relationship between humans and colour.[73] Harbisson's main works have been exhibited during the 54th Venice Biennale[74] at Venice's Giudecca 795 Contemporary Art Gallery,[75] at the Museumsquartier (Vienna), at the Bankside Gallery (London), at the Royal College of Art Gallery (London), at Centre d'Art Santa Mònica (Barcelona),[76] at Can Manyé (Alella),[77] and at Galeria Tramart (Barcelona).[78]

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 in pictures as live. Since 2005, he has created sound portraits of, among others, Prince Charles, Woody Allen,[79] Antoni Tàpies, Leonardo DiCaprio, Dame Judy Dench, Moby, James Cameron, Peter Brook, Al Gore, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Macy Gray, Gael García Bernal,[80] Alfonso Cuarón, Ryoji Ikeda, Gabriel Byrne,[81] Steve Reich,[82] Nicole Kidman, Dame Evelyn Glennie,[83] Steve Wozniak,[84] Tracey Emin and Giorgio Moroder.[85]
The Human Colour Wheel 
A color wheel based on the hue and light that Harbisson detected on human skins from 2004 to 2009.[37] 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.[86]
City Colours 
In 2007, Harbisson started hitch-hiking around Europe to find the main colours of capital cities,[87] visiting more than 50 countries as well as travelling around Britain.[88] He scanned each capital until he was able represent each city with two main hues.[89] In Monaco, it was azure and salmon pink; in Bratislava it was yellow and turquoise; and in Andorra it was dark green and fuchsia.[90] Under the title Capital Colors of Europe Harbisson has exhibited the colours of each capital in several European galleries[91] including Spain, Andorra, UK, and Croatia.[92]
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.[93] Colour Scores are a series of paintings where Harbisson transforms into colour the first 100 notes of well-known musical pieces.[94]

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 body electronics, colour and movement on stage and explore the relationship between colour and humans.[95] In 2010, Moon Ribas and Neil Harbisson's The Sound of the Orange Tree won the Stage Creation Award, awarded annually by IMAC Mataró[96] In 2011 they created a sonochromatic video-dance called Walking Colours which was first shown on TV in April 2012.[97]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Registre El Maresme Issue 224, Summer 1982.
  2. ^ Neil's the first UK cyborg – official. It says so on his passport, Totnes Times, 1 December 2004.
  3. ^ Colourblind artist wants cyborg eye in his Irish passport, Belfast Telegraph, 15 May 2012.
  4. ^ Fionn McGorry "Human cyborg visits TCD", Trinity News, 11 October 2014
  5. ^ Martinez, Lluis "La Fundació Cyborg s'endú el primer premi dels Cre@tic", El Punt, 20 November 2010.
  6. ^ "Temporada del Monumental", Capgròs, 27 August 2010.
  7. ^ Becas Phonos IUA (Institut Universitari d'Audiovisuals), Universitat Pompeu Fabra [1]
  8. ^ "Cyborgs and Stem Cells triumph in research movie oscars", AIB News Archive, 26 April 2006
  9. ^ "Europrix Multimedia Awards 2004"
  10. ^ As told to Sally Davies, FT Magazine I'm a human cyborg – I can hear colour, First Person: Neil Harbisson I was born in Belfast but grew up in Catalonia., 17 August 2012.
  11. ^ Wade, Greg. "Seeing things in a different light", BBC, 19 January 2005.
  12. ^ a b Jeffries, Stuart "World's first cyborg artist", The Guardian, 6 May 2014
  13. ^ Brooks, Richard. "Colour-blind artist learns to paint by hearing", The Sunday Times, 24 February 2008.
  14. ^ Radnedge, Aidan. "World's first cyborg", Metro[disambiguation needed], 2 December 2004.
  15. ^ a b Jeffries, Stuart "Neil Harbisson, the world's first cyborg artist", The Guardian, 5 May 2014
  16. ^ García, F.C. "Nace una fundación dedicada a convertir humanos en ciborgs", La Vanguardia, 1 March 2011.
  17. ^ FC "Més de 4000 espectadors ja han vist els Pastorets que acaben diumenge" Capgros 12–19 February 1999
  18. ^ JV "Alumnes del Campeny representen Terra Baixa" Crònica de Mataró 16 May 1998
  19. ^ Mas, Pere. "Neil Harbisson, ciborg de colors", Catalunya Ràdio, 25 August 2009
  20. ^ Brennan, Ciarán. "When what you see is not in colour", The Irish Times, 5 May 2008.
  21. ^ Bryony Gordon. "From black and white to colour . . . eyes opened to sound of socks", The Independent, 13 January 2005.
  22. ^ Ferran, Helena. "Un «cyborg» català al Regne Unit", El Punt, 5 December 2004.
  23. ^ de la Fuente, Antonia. "Barones rampantes de Mataró se instalan en árboles para impedir que los corten", La Vanguardia, 27 May 2001.
  24. ^ "Penjats pels arbres" Front page of El Punt 26 May 2001
  25. ^ Ferran, Helena. "Famós a Mataró per <<salvar>> arbres", El Punt, 5 December 2004.
  26. ^ Martinez Arias, Alberto. "Primer ciborg del mundo reconocido por un gobierno", Puntos de Vista,Radio Exterior de España, 23 January 2012.
  27. ^ Bannister, Matthew (2012-01-23). "Outlook". BBC World Service. p. 16m41s. 
  28. ^ Nadotti, Cristina. "Daltonici, mondo a colori con l'aiuto di "Eye-borg"", La Repubblica, 31 May 2005.
  29. ^ Alfredo M. Ronchi: Eculture: Cultural Content in the Digital Age. Springer (New York, 2009). p.319 ISBN 978-3-540-75273-8
  30. ^ a b Harbisson, Neil. "Painting by ear" Modern Painters, The International Contemporary Art Magazine pp.70–73. New York, June 2008.
  31. ^ Sanchis, Ima. "La veo en blanco y negro pero la oigo en colores", La Contra de La Vanguardia, 10 July 2010.
  32. ^ Millás, Juan José. "El Cyborg del Tercer Ojo", El País, 15 January 2012.
  33. ^ BBC News – The man who hears colour
  34. ^ Twitter / @NeilHarbisson: Eyeborg broken by police a ...
  35. ^ Twitter / @NeilHarbisson: Secret police have just br ...
  36. ^ Miah, Andy / Rich, Emma. The medicalization of cyberspace, Routledge (New York, 2008). p.130 ISBN 978-0-415-37622-8
  37. ^ a b Serra, Laura "No som blancs ni negres, tots som taronges" Ara, 19 January 2011.
  38. ^ Redaccion "7,000 geeks se despiden y superan un reto tecnologico", El Economista, 24 July 2011.
  39. ^ Pearce, Marcus "The vision thing: Art and illusion", The Guardian, 22 September 2008.
  40. ^ "I listen to color", TED Global, 27 June 2012.
  41. ^ "London Fashion Week Talks", The Galleon, October 2014
  42. ^ "Apps que marcan tendencia mañana en el Sónar", Euroxpress, 12 June 2012
  43. ^ Europa Press "La música electrónica se cuela entre el arte moderno", El Mundo, 11 September 2011.
  44. ^ Redaccion "A historia do mozo que escoita as cores, no ALT", Galicia Hoxe, 12 March 2011.
  45. ^ Trending Topic Twitter
  46. ^ Redacción "Harbisson: el joven que escucha colores", El Economista, 21 July 2011.
  47. ^ "Art and Science", Daily Planet, Discovery Channel, 2 April 2009
  48. ^ "Ciborgs buy humanos", Documentos TV, Televisión Española, 12 June 2012
  49. ^ NBC, "Last Call with Carson Daly", 29 September 2014
  50. ^ Buenafuente, Andreu "La vida en blanco y negro", Buenafuente, La Sexta, 27 May 2010
  51. ^ "Homem identifica cores através dos sons", Fantástico, Rede Globo, 5 February 2012
  52. ^ Molinsky, Eric "Neil Harbisson, cyborg", Studio 360, WNYC, 4 November 2011
  53. ^ Bannister, Matthew "The Man who hears color, Outlook, BBC World Service, 23 January 2012
  54. ^ Beltran, P."Mamá quiero ser artista y ciborg", Cadena Ser, 16 January 2012.
  55. ^ Earth Beat "Colours", Radio Netherlands Worldwide, 26 August 2011.
  56. ^ Lee, Jennifer "A Surgical Implant for Seeing Colors Through Sound", The New York Times, 2 July 2012
  57. ^ Else, Liz "Cyborg makes art using seventh sense", The New Scientist, 29 June 2012
  58. ^ Finn, Christine "Cyborg enables color blind artist to hear his palette", Wired, 24 February 2008
  59. ^ Akst, Jef "The Sound of Color", The Scientist, May 2012
  60. ^ Rottenschlager, Andreas "The Sound of the Cyborg", The Red Bulletin, 22 February 2011.
  61. ^ Redaccion "El primer cyborg del mundo", ¡Hola!, 17 February 2012
  62. ^ Redaccion "Los colores tambien se escuchan", Muy Interesante, 31 January 2012
  63. ^ Pond, Steve "Cyborg Foundation" wins $100K Focus Forward prize, Chicago Tribune, 22 January 2013
  64. ^ Sastre, Cristina "El Sonido de los Colores", El Mundo, 17 January 2014
  65. ^ Vodafone "First color conducted concert", Firsts, January 2014
  66. ^ Jones, Jonathan. [ "The 10 most shocking performance artworks ever", "The Guardian", 11 November 2013
  67. ^ Woodcock, Jo. "Cyborg student, the first at Dartington", Life After Dartington, page 10, Issue 26, Summer 2005.
  68. ^ "Carne Cruda","Radio Nacional de España", 2 June 2010.
  69. ^ Putx, Donat. "Mi madre es un cyborg", La Vanguardia, 28 January 2009.
  70. ^ Tramullas, Gemma. "Pau Riba invita a disfrutar de un orgasmo folclórico", El Periódico, 27 September 2009.
  71. ^ Bueno, Vern "Una performance porta 99 nous el dia 9 del 9, de 9 del matí a 9 de la nit", Capgròs, 8 September 2009.
  72. ^ "Tres artistes locals i Pau Riba creen una instal·lació a les Cinc Sènies", Capgròs, 22 Abril 2010.
  73. ^ Editorial Board. "El Artista que escucha los Colores" BBC Mundo 27 May 2010
  74. ^ Editorial Board "Eyeborg" Venice Connected June 2011
  75. ^ Giorcelli, Rosalba. [2] (Italy), 16 June 2011.
  76. ^ Frisach, Montse "La Música del Món" Avui 30 April 2012
  77. ^ Pedrico, Marta "Poner color al sonido..." La Vanguardia 7 October 2011.
  78. ^ Bosco, Roberta. "El Pintor que oye colores" El País 18 May 2005.
  79. ^ Bergós, Mónica "El primer 'cyborg'", El Correo, 15 May 2010.
  80. ^ Pesantes, Karla "Todos deberiamos queres ser cyborgs" Vistazo 19 October 2011
  81. ^ Davies, Sally "Encounters with the Posthuman",Nautilus, 29 April 2013
  82. ^ "Neil Harbisson creating a sound portrait of Steve Reich in New York
  83. ^ "Neil Harbisson creating a sound portrait of Evelyn Glennie"
  84. ^ Bryant, Ross "People will start becoming technology says human cyborg" "Dezeen Magazine" 20 November 2013
  85. ^ "Neil Harbisson creating a sound portrait of Giorgio Moroder
  86. ^ Hadden, Gerry "Color-Blind Artist Neil Harbisson Uses Webcam-Like Eyeborg to ‘Hear’ Color", The World, Public Radio International, 28 February 2012.
  87. ^ Marković, Stjepan. "Prvi sluzbeni covjek kiborg cuje trideset i sest boja" 24 sata pp.12–13, 17 December 2007
  88. ^ Brooks, Richard. "Colour-blind artist learns to paint by hearing", The Sunday Times, 24 February 2008.
  89. ^ Dee, Michael. "Neil Harbisson – en kunstnerisk kyborg", Kunst for alle, p.32-35 Issue 3, 2009.
  90. ^ Bojka "Katalonci "čudnim zvukovima" odredili boju Zagreba" Lupiga, 29 November 2007.
  91. ^ Marković, Stjepan. "Kiborg iz Engleske u Zagrebu 'slusao' boje" 24 sata Promotivni Primjerak Front Page, 17 December 2007
  92. ^ "Zivi sa zicama na vrhu glave" 24 sata Front Page, 17 December 2007
  93. ^ Pearce, Marcus. "The vision thing: Art and illusion", The Guardian, 22 September 2008.
  94. ^ Jarque, Miquel "L'art de pintar els sons", Catalunya Ràdio, 8 May 2010.
  95. ^ Serra, Laura "No hi ha blancs ni negres, tots som taronges", Diari Ara, 19 January 2011
  96. ^ Blanch, Anna "El món sonocromàtic d'‘El so del taronger' arriba a Mataró" , El Punt, 17 December 2010.
  97. ^ "Laboratori de creació: una cançó, un intèrpret, una dansa", Televisió de Catalunya, 29 April 2012.

External links[edit]