Most of us probably associate cyborgs with science fiction, but what does it look like when cyborgs make art?
It’s been happening for a while, and today’s fun stuff post is about the weird and wonderful possibilities that real-live cyborgs have opened up in art and design to create cyborg artworks.
What defines a Cyborg?
“[an organism] to which exogenous components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments”
– Manfred Clynes, Cyborgs in Space, 1965
Many artists have tried to create public awareness of cybernetic organisms in the form of paintings and art installations. But let me introduce you to the world’s first legal cyborg: Neil Harbisson, a cyborg artist and trans-species activist.
He was born without the ability to perceive colour (achromatopsia, or complete colour-blindness).
In 2004, while studying experimental music composition at Dartington College of Arts, he and computer scientist Adam Montandon developed the “Eyeborg” using cybernetic implants.
Now referred to as the “Cyborg Antenna”, it was once connected to a one-kilo computer strapped inside his clothes, later the computer’s software was downsized into a chip and installed under his skin, Neil has now had the antenna surgically attached directly to his skull.
It works by translating different colour wavelengths into vibrations on his skull, which he then perceives as sound, allowing him to “hear” colour (or “see” colours as sounds).
“It took about five weeks to get over the headaches from the sounds of each new colour and about five months to be able to decipher each frequency as a particular colour.”
Living in a world without colour, Neil feels, does not put him at a disadvantage.
“The problem is not that I see in black and white, the problem is you see colour. Now I dress in a way that ‘sounds good’. Seeing in grayscale has many advantages. I have better night vision. I memorise shapes more readily, and I’m not easily fooled by camouflages. And black-and-white photocopies are cheaper.”
After adjusting to the Cyborg Antenna, Neil extended the spectrum to include infrared and ultraviolet which gave a broader range than the human eye can naturally see.
“One thing is being able to tell if it’s a good or bad day to sunbathe. If I sense there’s a high level of ultraviolet light, it’s not a very good day, so I know to wait a bit or put on some extra sun cream.”
Neil knew he was a cyborg when ‘seeing’ colours as sound (sonochromatism – a neurological phenomenon in which colours are perceived as sounds) became natural, and when he started to dream in sound.
Neil was inspired to use his sonochromatism to create art.
Skull transmitted painting
In 2014, Neil made the world’s first skull-transmitted painting. Participants in Times Square painted simple coloured stripes onto a canvas, which were then sent via the internet directly into Neil’s brain (sounds wild, I know).
He correctly identified and painted the same colour stripes onto a canvas in front of an audience at The Red Door, 10 blocks away. The first telepathic art? Kind of.
Neil also uses his Cyborg Antenna to create sound portraits. 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 and later creates a sound file. Neil has created sound portraits of Prince Charles, Tim Berners-Lee and Steve Wozniak among others.
Neil and Moon
Neil has a special relationship with another cyborg and childhood friend Moon Ribas – they both share a Transdental Communication System: Bluetooth Tooth. This is composed of two teeth, each containing a Bluetooth enabled button and a mini vibrator. Whenever the button is pressed it sends a vibration to the other person’s tooth. They use Morse code to communicate tooth to tooth.
Moon is a self-described cyborg, with online seismic sensors implanted in her feet that allow her to perceive earthquakes taking place anywhere on the planet through vibrations in real time, known as ‘seismic sense’.
She explores and expresses the vibrations through sound movement and dance.
“Ribas transposes the earthquakes into either sound, in her piece Seismic Percussion; or dance, in Waiting For Earthquakes. In these performances the Earth is the composer and the choreographer; and Ribas, the interpreter.”
Since 2007, international media has described her as “the world’s first cyborg woman” and “the world’s first female cyborg artist”.
Waiting for earthquakes
Moon stands perfectly still until seismic activity occurs, the resulting interpretation can take many shapes.
Seismic percussion is a drum solo performance where the rhythm of the piece is dictated by the rhythm of the tectonic plates. It’s a piece that transposes the seismic activity that occurs in our planet into sound, into a musical composition that allows the audience to connect with the heartbeat of the planet, earthquakes.