NEIL HARBISSON: CROSSING HUMAN BOUNDARIES

© Lars Norgaard

You suffer from achromatopias, a special kind of color blindness that let you see the world only in black and white, by birth. Had you ever wondered as a child what the world would look like if you could see all colors?

Of course. Even though I was not sad I had been curious about what the world might look like if I saw all the colors other children told me about.

You have studied piano and arts. Due to your color blindness you were allowed to do your artwork in black and white as well. Do you think your experience with arts somehow triggered you to change something – namely to find a way to perceive color in a new/ different way – or how did you get into contact with the cyborg field?

The roots for my interest in cyborgism definitely lie in arts. First, I had studied visual arts, afterwards music and then also a bit of technology. Technology finally allowed me to combine both worlds, namely the world of color and the world of music. Within this artistic context, I had also created my antenna. It actually started as an art project.

You have developed your “eyeborg“ together with Adam Montandon. It sounds a bit like science fiction to implement a technical device into your brain without knowing if it will work out in the long run. Had you ever been afraid of the whole process?

In 2007, Adam and me wanted to create a system helping me to hear colors – this was our so called “eyeborg”. Since after a while I did not want to use a specific kind of technology as a tool anymore but dreamt of a real body modification, we created the antenna, a real implant to go on my head. My underlying wish was to become one with technology.

Were you supported by a medical team and was it difficult to find someone being willing to do the surgery?

I actually contacted many doctors but most of them told me that the modification was either not possible or not ethical. I was even asked to present the surgery in front of a bioethical committee that evaluated the surgery as not-ethical since my antenna was not a pre-existing organ or a pre-existing sense. However, I finally found a doctor who agreed on doing he surgery as long as he stayed anonymous.

© Lars Norgaard

Did you have any problems right after the implantation? How did your friends and family react on your plans?

Fortunately, my family and friends were all very supportive even though my plans were kind of strange for them. I remember ‘red’ being the first color which I perceived with my antenna. Since this color occurs very often in everyday life, everything was very chaotic in the beginning. Everywhere I looked I perceived a vibration within my skull. All of a sudden, I was constantly hearing colors and suffered from bad headaches and weariness. However, after a while my brain got used to the inputs from my new organ.

Is there any situation in which you do not hear anything at all?

Of course. As soon as I am surrounded by darkness or by no color, everything is silent. A good example is a city covered in snow: Since everything appears in white and white does not have a correspondent sound in my head, the city suddenly becomes silent.

In how far have your life changed ever since your body modification? Is there even something that remains the same at all?

My antenna deeply changed my sense of identity. Ever since the implantation I see technology as part of my body and my identity. As a cyborg my life is turned upside down: It changes the way I sense and perceive, and therefore every aspect of my reality.

Technology changed your reality and rapidly changes our world today. Do you think Cyborgs are a kind of evolution from human beings towards post-human beings – and within this context, do you think we have to revise our concepts about what a human being actually is?

Yes, in my opinion we are trans-species in a constant evolution process. Since the beginning we have been evolving in different ways. Today we have the chance to control evolution because we can choose which sense or organ we would like to develop and implant into our bodies. As a result, it is our decision which species we want to be during our lifetime.

Whereas this is an optimistic view concerning the combination of biology and technology, there are also many people criticizing the potential danger of cyborgism probably leading into “human war machines”, uncontrollable scenarios etc. Do you think we should be more optimistic about cyborgism and its chances?

Yes, I think the origin of this fear is nothing else but a good Hollywood story. There are all kinds of science fiction movies supporting the negative consequences of technology but none of its potential. But if we take a look on what is really happening around us, we see that this has almost nothing to do with science fiction. Of course, there can be negative ways merging with technologies as it comes with all things that present to sides of the same coin: You can use a knife for cutting bread or for killing people; or you can use a mobile phone to communicate with people or to activate a bomb. In the same way, we might be able to create organs that will not be good for us at all. Therefore, we need to define certain standards.

© Lars Norgaard

Since we are talking about changes in our magazine, yours is probably the most drastic one. Have you ever regretted your decision or do you embrace your change and feel happier than you did before?

I do not regret it but rather dream of changing continually because I actually want to live in permanent change. I guess this is my personal essence of happiness and what my life makes more interesting. As I am continuously changing my body, my life changes as well. Therefore, life is less repetitive and less boring.

Do you already have any plans for further modifications?

Yes. At the moment I am in Japan perceiving time with a new organ, namely a kind of ‘crown’ that gives me a point of heat which takes all in all 24 hours to go all around my head. Accordingly, I can feel the rotation of the earth within my head and can explore the sense of time. To get used to this new system, I am isolated for a few months right now.

Do you think countries such as Japan are more innovative and open-minded towards technology than Western countries are?

Definitely, they see technology in a more friendly way. In Europe, there is a lot of skepticism and a lot of worry towards technology, whereas people in Japan fear technology less but see it as a useful tool.

In addition to your own cyborg adventures you have also started the Cyborg Foundation. What are the aims and challenges?

The Cyborg Foundation functions like an online platform where people being interested in creating new organs can meet and exchange ideas. Additionally, there is the Cyborg Foundation Lab in Barcelona implementing a lot of projects. As a third “institution” there is the Transspecies Society where people can meet who do not feel a 100% human and talk about their fears, ideas and feelings. By the way: all ideas and plans are open-source which means everyone who is interested in taking part in this process is welcome to do so.

Thank you very much for this inspiring interview.


NEIL HARBISSON

is a Catalan-raised, British-born contemporary artist and cyborg activist best known for having an antenna implanted in his skull and for being officially recognised as a cyborg by a government. The antenna allows him to perceive visible and invisible colours via audible vibrations in his skull including infrareds and ultraviolets as well as receive colours from space, images, videos, music or phone calls directly into his head viainternet connection. Harbisson identifies himselfboth as a cyborg; he feels he is technology, and as a transpecies; he no longer feels 100%human. His artwork explores identity, human perception, the connection between sight and sound and the use of artistic expression via newsensory inputs. In 2010 he co-founded the Cyborg Foundation with Moon Ribas, an international organisation that aims to help humans become cyborgs, defend cyborg rights and promote cyborg art. In 2017 he co-founded the Transpecies Society, an association that gives voice to people with non-human identities, defends the freedom of self-design and offers the creation of new senses and new organs in community.

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