Neil Harbisson

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Neil Harbisson
Neil Harbisson cyborgist.jpg
Born (1982-07-27) 27 July 1982 (age 33)[1]
United Kingdom
  • United Kingdom[2]
  • Ireland[3]
Known for
Notable work
  • Sound Portraits, Colour Concerts, Colour Scores, Capital Colours.
Movement Cyborg art
  • 2015  Futurum Award[5]
    Futurum, Monaco
  • 2014  Bram Stoker Gold Medal[6]
    Trinity College, Dublin
  • 2013  Focus Forward Grand Jury Award[7]
    Sundance Film Festival, USA
  • 2010  Cre@tic Award 2010[8]
    Tecnocampus Mataro
  • 2009  Phonos Music Grant[9]
    IUA Phonos, Spain
  • 2005  Best Performing Story[10]
    ResearchTV, UK
  • 2004  Innovation Award 2004
    Submerge (Bristol, UK)
  • 2004  Europrix Multimedia Award[11]
    Vienna, Austria
  • 2001 & 2010  Stage Creation Award[12]
    IMAC Mataro, Spain

Neil Harbisson (born 27 July 1982) is a Catalan-raised, British-born[13] contemporary artist and cyborg activist based in New York.[14] He is best known for being the first person in the world with an antenna implanted in his skull[15] and for being officially recognized as a cyborg by a government.[16] His antenna uses audible vibrations in his skull to report information to him. This includes measurements of electromagnetic radiation, phone calls, music, as well as video or images which are translated into sound.[17] His wifi enabled antenna also allows him to receive signals and data from satellites.[18]

Since 2004, international media has described him as the world's first cyborg[19] or the world's first cyborg artist,[20] 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.[21]

Early life and career[edit]

Harbisson is the son of a Catalan mother and an Irish father. He was born with achromatopsia, an extreme form of colour blindness, which only allows him to see in grayscale. He grew up in Mataró in Catalonia, Spain, where he studied music and art[22] at various schools.[23] He began to compose piano pieces at the age of 11[24] 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[25] and these were the only colours he used to wear.[26]

At the age of 18, Harbisson climbed a tree in Mataró to save three trees from being felled.[27] He lived in the tree for several days,[28] supported by over 3,000 people who signed a petition to maintain the trees.[29] After days of protest, the city hall announced the trees would not be cut.[30]

In 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.[31]

Cyborg life[edit]

Cyborg Antenna[edit]

Harbisson's antenna, which has been permanently attached to his head since 2004, is osseointegrated inside his skull and sprouts from within his occipital bone. It allows him to hear the light frequencies of the spectrum including invisible colours such as infrareds and ultra violets. Internal internet connection also allows him to receive colours from satellites and other people's cameras, as well as receive phone calls directly into his skull. The antenna consists of 4 different implants: two antenna implants, one vibration/sound implant, and a Bluetooth implant that allows him to connect to the internet.[20] There are currently 5 people in the world, one in each continent, allowed to send him images, sounds or videos.[32] The first person to call his head was British American comedian Ruby Wax.[33] The first public demonstration of a skull transmitted image was broadcast live to thousands of viewers watching Al Jazeera's chat show The Stream. The image, a selfie sent from New York by US model Isaac Dean Weber, was received and identified by Harbisson as a face.[34]

The creation of the antenna began in October 2003 at Dartington College of Arts when Harbisson attended a talk related to cybernetics given by Adam Montandon, a Plymouth University student.[17][35] At the end of the talk, Neil suggested they start a project together.[36] This became a project to develop a sensor that transposed colour frequencies into sound frequencies. [37] Neil memorised the sound of each colour and decided to permanently attach the sensor to his head. In 2004, the project won a Europrix Award (Vienna) and an Innovation Award (Submerge, Bristol). Peter Kese, a software developer from Kranj, upgraded Harbisson’s sensor to 360 different microtones and added different volume levels depending on colour saturation levels[38] and Matias Lizana, from Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, developed the sensor's software into a smaller chip. [39] The antenna implant, which was rejected by a bioethical committee, was first implanted and then osseointegrated by anonymous doctors.[40]

In May 2011 the antenna was damaged by police who believed that Harbisson had been filming them during a demonstration in Plaça de Catalunya, Barcelona.[41][42] Harbisson filed a complaint as physical aggression, as he considers the antenna to be a body part.[43]

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 antenna 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.[44] Harbisson states that he became a cyborg when the union between his organism and his antenna created a new sense.[45]

Public awareness[edit]

Neil Harbisson giving a talk at the Science Museum, London (2015)

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.[46] He has taken part in science, music, fashion and art festivals such as the British Science Festival,[47] TEDGlobal,[48] London Fashion Week,[49] Sónar,[50] and NeoTokyo Festival[51] among others.[52] He became a trending topic on Twitter[53] on 21 July 2011,[54] 27 May 2014,[55] and on 21 March 2015.[56]

He has appeared on various television documentaries such as Daily Planet by Discovery Channel,[57] Explorations, Repor, Documentos TV,[58] Redes; and in specific documentaries about his life such as Sentir Colors, La importància dels colors, El Ciborg dels Colors as well as on a number of chat shows including NBC's Last Call with Carson Daly,[59] Richard & Judy, Buenafuente,[60] Els Matins, Fantástico[61] and on the Belgian comedy panel game quiz show Scheire en de Schepping. He has taken part in radio programmes on New York's Public Radio International,[62] BBC World Service,[63] Cadena SER,[64] Radio Netherlands Worldwide,[65] and has appeared in newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times,[66] The New Scientist,[67] Wired,[68] The Scientist,[69]The Red Bulletin,[70] Modern Painters,[38] ¡Hola!,[71] and Muy Interesante.[72]

In 2013, Cyborg Foundation, a short documentary film about Neil Harbisson and the Cyborg Foundation won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival's Focus Forward Filmmakers Competition.[73] Since 2014, The Sound of Colours, a short film about Harbisson's life is being filmed.[74] In 2015, Hearing Colors, a black and white documentary about Harbisson in New York was chosen as a Vimeo "Staff Pick".


Harbisson's art work has been ranked together with the works of Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic as one of the 10 most shocking art performances ever.[75] His work is focused on the creation of art through new senses created by the union between technology and the human body.[76] His main works have been exhibited during the 54th Venice Biennale[77] at Palazzo Foscari (Giudecca 795),[78] Savina Museum of Contemporary Art (Seoul, South Korea),[79] Museumsquartier (Vienna, Austria), CCCB (Barcelona, Spain),[80] Bankside Gallery (London, UK), Pioneer Works (New York, USA),[81] Royal College of Art Gallery (London, UK), Centre d'Art Santa Mònica (Barcelona),[82] Can Manyé (Alella, Spain),[83] Galeria Tramart (Barcelona, Spain),[84] Pollock Gallery (Dallas, Texas, USA),[85] and at the American Visionary Art Museum (Baltimore, USA),[86] among others.


Neil Harbisson conducting a colour concert at Palau de la Musica Catalana, Barcelona (2014).[87]

Colour Concerts: 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 antenna 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, an antenna being positioned above the keys. When a colour was shown to the antenna, 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'.[88]

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 stands in front of the person and points his antenna at different parts of the face, he then writes down the different notes he hears on a piece of paper from which he later creates a sound file. Since 2004, he has created live sound portraits of, among others, Prince Charles, Woody Allen,[89] Antoni Tàpies, Leonardo DiCaprio, Dame Judi Dench, Moby, James Cameron, Peter Brook, Al Gore, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Macy Gray, Gael García Bernal,[90] Alfonso Cuarón, Ryoji Ikeda, Gabriel Byrne,[91] Steve Reich,[92] Nicole Kidman, Dame Evelyn Glennie,[93] Steve Wozniak,[94] Tracey Emin and Giorgio Moroder.[95]


Sonochromatic Records exhibited at Pioneer Works, New York (2014).

The Human Colour Wheel: A color wheel based on the hue and light that Harbisson detected on human skins from 2004 to 2009.[45] Harbisson states that humans are not black or white, humans are orange. Human skins range from very light to very dark shades of orange-red to orange-yellow.[96]

City Colours: In 2007, Harbisson hitch-hiked around Europe to find the main colours of capital cities,[97] visiting more than 50 countries.[98] He scanned each capital until he was able represent each city with two dominant hues.[99] In Monaco, it was azure and salmon pink; in Bratislava it was yellow and turquoise; and in Andorra it was dark green and fuchsia.[100] Under the title Capital Colors of Europe Harbisson has exhibited the colours of each capital in several European galleries[101] including Spain, Andorra, UK, and Croatia.[102]

Colour Scores: Hearing colour also means that everyday sounds, such as voices or music, become associated with colours too.[103] Colour Scores are a series of paintings where Harbisson paints what he hears, from music to speeches.[104]


Harbisson is in the cast of Adam Green's Aladdin, an upcoming independent film directed by Adam Green and starred by Macaulay Culkin, Natasha Lyonne, Alia Shawkat and Francesco Clemente among others.

Harbisson has collaborated extensively with Catalan choreographer Moon Ribas in a series of devised theatre and dance performances such as Opus No.1, premiered at London's BAC Theatre, The Sound of the Orange Tree,[105] premiered at Barcelona's Antic Teatre[106] and Walking Colours.[107]

Harbisson's first colour-to-voice performances were in collaboration with Icelandic musician María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir. In their performances, María used a computer to hear and sing the colour frequencies that Harbisson used while creating live paintings on stage.[108]

Harbisson has collaborated and performed with Catalan musician Pau Riba with whom he shares the same interest in cyborgs.[109] They first performed at Sala Luz de Gas (Barcelona), followed by other performances.[110][111] One of their projects is "Avigram", 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.[112]

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. ^ "I listen to color", CNN, 10 September 2012
  5. ^ Éditorial "Un award pour l'artiste à l'antenne greffée sur la tête", Monaco-Matin, 4 November 2015
  6. ^ Fionn McGorry "Human cyborg visits TCD", Trinity News, 11 October 2014
  7. ^ Geli, Carles "Un documental catalán, premiado en Sundance", El País, 27 January 2013.
  8. ^ Martinez, Lluis "La Fundació Cyborg s'endú el primer premi dels Cre@tic", El Punt, 20 November 2010.
  9. ^ Becas Phonos IUA (Institut Universitari d'Audiovisuals), Universitat Pompeu Fabra [1]
  10. ^ "Cyborgs and Stem Cells triumph in research movie oscars", AIB News Archive, 26 April 2006
  11. ^ "Europrix Multimedia Awards 2004"
  12. ^ "Temporada del Monumental", Capgròs, 27 August 2010.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Rawle, Tom "EXCLUSIVE: Human cyborg who hears colour is using antenna to 'see' space", Daily Star, 24 April 2015
  15. ^ Wade, Greg. "Seeing things in a different light", BBC, 19 January 2005.
  16. ^ Brooks, Richard. "Colour-blind artist learns to paint by hearing", The Sunday Times, 24 February 2008.
  17. ^ a b Jeffries, Stuart "World's first cyborg artist", The Guardian, 6 May 2014
  18. ^ Rawle, Tom "EXCLUSIVE: Human cyborg who HEARS colour is using antenna to 'see' SPACE", Daily Star, 24 April 2015
  19. ^ Radnedge, Aidan. "World's first cyborg", Metro, 2 December 2004.
  20. ^ a b Jeffries, Stuart "Neil Harbisson, the world's first cyborg artist", The Guardian, 5 May 2014
  21. ^ García, F.C. "Nace una fundación dedicada a convertir humanos en ciborgs", La Vanguardia, 1 March 2011.
  22. ^ FC "Més de 4000 espectadors ja han vist els Pastorets que acaben diumenge" Capgros 12–19 February 1999
  23. ^ JV "Alumnes del Campeny representen Terra Baixa" Crònica de Mataró 16 May 1998
  24. ^ Mas, Pere. "Neil Harbisson, ciborg de colors", Catalunya Ràdio, 25 August 2009
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  97. ^ Marković, Stjepan. "Prvi sluzbeni covjek kiborg cuje trideset i sest boja" 24 sata pp.12–13, 17 December 2007
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  99. ^ Dee, Michael. "Neil Harbisson – en kunstnerisk kyborg", Kunst for alle, p.32-35 Issue 3, 2009.
  100. ^ Bojka "Katalonci "čudnim zvukovima" odredili boju Zagreba" Lupiga, 29 November 2007.
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  110. ^ Tramullas, Gemma. "Pau Riba invita a disfrutar de un orgasmo folclórico", El Periódico, 27 September 2009.
  111. ^ 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.
  112. ^ "Tres artistes locals i Pau Riba creen una instal·lació a les Cinc Sènies", Capgròs, 22 Abril 2010.

External links[edit]