We meet Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas, the cyborg artists who hear colour and feel earthquakes.
Humankind has always fixated on pushing the boundaries of technology: going beyond the realms of possibility and visibility. Glued to the first TV screens, we dreamt of holograms, flying cars and time travel. Immersed into fake-believe video game realms, we want to BE the protagonist. Passive spectating won’t satisfy our growing hunger for novelty and that thrill of transcending physical limitations. We don’t want to just watch but get sucked into the sci-fi universe of robots and roaring machines to embody the newest subversions. Anyway, we’d always do everything to transgress the flawed human condition and become an upgraded version of ourselves. It’s an obsession reflected best in the future-forward classics like Ghost In The Shell, Star Wars or Neon Genesis Evangelion and blown out by a new wave of artists operating on the verge of digital and material, blasting through any rusty barriers and into the world of transspecies, hybrids and cyborgs. Welcome to the new age.
Fifteen years ago, a colour-blind Spanish-born British-Irish artist Neil Harbisson became the world’s first cyborg recognized by the government. He has an antenna implanted in his skull that allows him to hear colours. Think synaesthesia in a whole new way. Ever wondered what Marina Abramović, Pamela Anderson or Robert De Niro sound like? Neil knows and shares it in a series of sonochromatic portraits. Since the surgery Neil’s perception changed completely and with constant updates like recognising audible vibrations and an internet connection, his search for the perfect sense is never-ending.
On top of the newfound skill, the artist has become an activist on the account of cyborg rights and set up the Cyborg Arts agency, a platform for him and his fellow superspecies to freely express a creative vision. A vision shared with his close collaborator, Moon Ribas, a Catalan choreographer, avant-garde artist and senstronaut. She had the Seismic Sense in her foot which allowed her to perceive earthquakes on Earth and Moon in real-time through vibrations that she would translate into performances.
Even though every passing second we’re nearer to the futuristic dystopia straight from our favourite films, we’re really nowhere near Neil and Moon. It’s hard to catch up if someone is moving at the speed of light, there’s really no stopping them. Why would you want to though? In their realm, there’s no distinction between art and reality. Always on the chase for new sensations and aiming for the impossible. Step by step. Sense by sense. Today, Neil and Moon, in the midst of preparing for a show, slow down for a second to show us what does it really means to be a cyborg. It feels surprisingly humane.
Back to the origins, can you tell me how the concept for Cyborg Arts was born?
Moon: We are childhood friends. We met when we were 18 years old. We always talked about perception of art. Then everything has started in Darlington. It’s a college that we both went to. Neil was the first to experience dealing with technology.
Neil: We were both encouraged to use technology in art so we decided to do it but we tried to do it in a more experimental way. Instead of adding technology to the art, we added the technology to the artist. Merging with technology allowed us to express ourselves through new senses. We saw this as art itself, the creation of new sensors, new organs and designing perception of reality as an art.
Moon: Yes, it would be like the design of your own perception by creating new organs and new senses.
What organs have you got implanted at the moment?
Moon: My latest was the Seismic Sense so I had some implants in my feet that were connected to online seismographs. Whenever there were some earthquakes, somewhere on the planet, I would feel the vibration inside the body. I had this for seven years and I took the implant out last year. Now, I’m looking for a new sense.
Have you got any concept for that?
Moon: No but probably related to the ocean and water. Also, for the first time, I would like to share the sense. Me and my colleague, we want to have it. Because, my last stage piece was related to ice and water and actually our next step is to share the same sense and to make some artwork later about the experience of sharing a sense.
What about you Neil, have you got any new senses added recently?
Neil: Solar crown. It goes around the neck. It was meant to be on the head. It’s the point of heat that goes 24 hours around the body. It’s an organ for the sense of time, to feel the rotation of the planet but here [on the head] it burned so I had to move it down. Now, here [on the neck] it’s difficult to eat because when I do, it moves so I might have to change it and put it even lower. It’s an organ for sensing time and eventually creating time illusions to change the perception of time.
What’s the sensation of wearing it?
Neil: I can’t compare it with anything else.
Moon: The sensation, it must be weird to feel something outside and inside.
Neil: What is uncomfortable is the organ. I feel like time is strangling me so I want to move it further down. I’m still in testing mode of the organ. Since 2016, I’ve been testing it.
Can you recall a moment of realization that you are actually a cyborg and accepted the organ as your own?
Neil: I think dreaming. It was when I dreamt with a new sense was the moment when I felt I was psychologically united to the technology and I felt cyborg.
Moon: It took me time to get used to feeling all these vibrations. I think for me, it was adding like a new bit, when it was normal to have these vibrations. It was when I wasn’t thinking about it. When you’re very stressed, sometimes you don’t hear too well. When I was too busy, I didn’t even notice [the vibration]. When I was calm, I could notice it even more. Actually, it wasn’t a strategic point. I think it was a natural integration.
Over the passage of time, how has the public reception of your implants and the concept of being a cyborg has changed?
Neil: Before there were no conversations with people. It was strange that no one had an opinion but now people have an opinion about technology or merging with technology so you can have conversations. You can see extremes. People who are really against this type of future and people who are really fascinated and optimistic about this type of merging with technology. I guess the difference is that in 2004 people would think it’s fake. Many people stated that it was impossible for technology to allow you to hear colours. Many people would laugh. They would think it was a joke. They would have no conversation and now people understand that you can do so many things with technology and they have an opinion.
Do you feel more at home within your community then?
Neil: We are a minority and also, it’s very in the experimental art scene, underground art scene or counterculture. It’s not mainstream.
How do you find being a part of an artistic scene in Barcelona?
Moon: In Barcelona, we find there’s more community but it is still a small number, the people that we have around. We created a little community but when we give talks about our artwork, it’s usually in other countries. Spain is not the centre of it. It’s still very experimental. I remember like 15 years ago when Neil started, it was so weird. We thought that in five years, it would be so normal, everyone would have something. Then 15 years had passed and still people find it weird. Now, the new generations are more open because they grew up with technology around them. I think it’s normal that they are more open to finding more experimental ways of using technology in a more artistic way. Usually, people would use technology in very practical ways or as a solution.
It’s a bit of a cliché but we do live in a post-modern society where many things regarding arts have been done but you’re pioneers. Have you ever been scared of going too far?
Moon: Not too far but I think it was more lonely. We said sometimes that…
Neil: … but the intention is to go a bit further than we would. When you have an idea, you think what the next step would be but we usually skip the next step. We imagine what the next step would be and then we don’t do it. We think about what the next step would be and we do the other one. In many of these projects we worked like this because if you can think of the next stage or the next step then you’re not thinking enough. You need to think of the next step that might be almost impossible to do. So, then we focus on doing that. Sometimes that’s why it takes longer to create some of these projects because we are not doing the possible ones, the ones that we know that we can do. We do the ones that we think that maybe we can’t. That’s what we focus on. Our intention is to go further than our own limitations.
What’s your vision of the future regarding cyborg arts and expanding the bond between humans and technology?
Neil: The one that we won’t even notice. It will be so organic, not so much cyborg but more org in the cyborg. These [pointing at the organ] will be 3D printed with our own DNA. We will be able to add new sense by genetically modifying ourselves instead of merging with something with wires and metal. Instead of merging with this, we will be able to grow it with our own DNA. That’s the future. But, also the diversity. What we will see is that there will be many futures, many different types of diversity: species diversity, morphology diversity, neurodiversity, and many different ways of sensing and perceiving the world. There will be many futures, not one.
You’re about to perform tonight. What is it going to be?
Moon: I’ll do the piece called ‘Waiting For Earthquakes’. Whenever there’s an earthquake, I move to the intensity with the seismic garment that we created. I collaborated with two people who can create the tech-fashion so it reacts every time there’s an earthquake.
Neil: I’ll be performing with Pol Lombarte. We’re both presenting cardio-sonochromatic portraits. Pol is externalising heartbeats and sending them to the blockchain. I’ll be creating soundportraits from people and Pol will be extracting those heartbeats from the people. We will create some music from heart and colour.
Have you got your favourite sonochromatic portrait?
Neil: Yeah, this woman Mònica del Raval is quite interesting because she usually has lots of makeup. She sounds very colourful. Everyone sounds interesting. It depends.
Besides this one, have you got any other performances planned?
Moon: Actually, I will also perform next week. The one where we dance with ice, water and gas. We premiered it this summer. We wanted to be on the stage with a natural phenomenon or something that wasn’t human but also to look at something else moving and existing apart from humans. We wanted to bring some natural elements to the stage and we started with ice. The ice that melts and becomes water. We wanted to do water in several states: in gas, water, solid.
Neil: Me and Pol, we’re going to an event in Maldives in two weeks and we will be presenting a performance. Then also working on sending our body, signs of life, to the blockchain so creating NFTs and creating cryptoart connected to the body. Crypto-cyborg art. That’s what we’re focusing on now.
I’ve also seen that you’re selling your perception of colour in the form of NFT.
Neil: I’ve sold connection to my head with an NFT and Pol sold access to his heart with an NFT. Then, we will create more NFTs where we connect bodies. Organisms connected to the NFT.
Have you got any muses?
Neil: Animals. Inspiration, most of it, comes from watching how other animals sense reality, what organs they have, what senses they have. By observing them we learn how to adapt these organs in our body and where as well. Nature is definitely our main inspiration. Then any artist that doesn’t separate art from life, I feel a connection with them because our life and our art are not separable.
Life as an art process.
Moon: Art is about expressing your experience of reality and the way you understand the world so if you’re doing this all the time then it blurs. The way of living and your artistic practice.
Neil: There’s no separation between the artwork, the artist, the space where the art is happening and the audience. It’s all happening in our bodies so we’re in constant… We can’t separate art from our life. Any artist that does this, we would feel a connection.
Neil: Genesis P-orridge was an artist in New York. He operated himself a lot to look like his wife and his wife also operated to look like him. They could become the same person. They created their life as it was an art performance. Gilbert & George as well. They performed as living statues. They would go to a museum and they would be the artwork. Any performance artist that uses the body as an art or a dancer.