Neil Harbisson is a British-born artist who was born with one major creative disadvantage: he’s colour blind. Luckily, Harbisson was able to rectify this unfortunate artistic drawback with the help of technology. Harbisson is the first person to have had an antenna surgically implanted into the top of his skull. Though he may be colour blind, his sympathies are now extended to the rest of the world, or, as he knows us: the colour deaf.
Harbisson’s antenna has a sort of book-light aesthetic, hanging down in front of his forehead just out of his vision. The way that this device works, in short, is by turning colour into audible frequencies, giving him the unique ability to perceive the colour-scale of his environment in auditory tones. In order to make this device possible, Harbisson first needed to memorize the frequency associated with each colour. Soon enough, these sounds and corresponding colours became second nature to Harbisson. In the same way that we immediately recognize visual colours, hearing them has become a direct facet of his perception. He now even dreams in auditory colour.
Harbisson’s artistry is an unusual sight. Say he decides to paint a portrait of you: he’ll simply dangle his antenna in front of your nose, listening to the colourful sound of your face. According to Harbisson, the true colour of human skin is nowhere near black or white. Instead, human skin ranges in shades from very dark orange-red to orange-yellow. Harbisson is able to make these accretions because his antenna gives him access to a much more elaborate colour spectrum than the human eye experiences. This includes invisible colours such as ultra violets and infrareds.
If this wasn’t cool enough, take a moment to embrace the fact that Harbisson can receive phone calls, picture messages, videos or music directly into his head. In 2010, Harbisson founded a non-profit organization, known as the Cyborg Foundation, in order to help other people become cyborgs as well, and to promote a new cyborg art movement.
In 2012, Harbisson did a fascinating TED talk. He dangles a number of colourful felt squares in front of his antenna, and through the auditorium speakers allows the audience to hear the various sound frequencies that correspond to each colour. I can’t decide which is more strange and mesmerizing: the sound of colour, his antenna, or the bowl cut underneath it.
Trying to imagine Harbisson’s perception of colour is almost impossible without having had the experience. But this is the beauty of Harbisson’s device. Just as he will never know the sight of colour, we will never be able to fully understand its sound.
Cyborg Foundation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyborg_Foundation