For artist Neil Harbisson, a trip to the supermarket sparks off a sonic symphony. An antenna implanted in his skull allows him to "hear" the racks upon racks of brightly colored packaging in the aisles as a sensor converts color frequencies into sound frequencies. The experience, however, can sometimes be interrupted: Harbisson has been asked to leave the premises of many supermarkets and other locations because his antenna has been misconstrued as a video recording device.
During a protest in Barcelona, police thought Harbisson was filming them and damaged the antenna. In 2010, in order to fight against these acts of discrimination and raise awareness of cyborgism, Harbisson, along with choreographer and fellow cyborg, Moon Ribas, created the Cyborg Foundation. Their mission is three-fold: help people become cyborgs, defend cyborg rights, and promote cyborgism as an artistic and social movement.
First, a crash course in cyborgism: the term cybernetics is difficult to define, to the point that its use today broadly refers to any controlled system that is using technology. Generally speaking, cybernetics involves the study of processes that are structured as a causal chain, with an input and output (for example, a color is sensed, then converted into a sound). In the case of cyborgs, existing senses are extended—or new ones created—by applying cybernetic technology to the organism.
"There's different types of cyborgs," Harbisson explains to The Creators Project. Some people go through surgery; others use cybernetics permanently without a surgical intervention. Others still use cybernetics so often that "they just feel cyborg," he says.
During her talk at TEDxMünchen, Moon Ribas charts her search for a new sense all her own, the seismic sense. An online sensor stitched to her skin sends a vibration through her arm any time an earthquake is detected, anywhere on the planet. "After perceiving this universal movement, and after this motion became an emotion, this is when I felt cyborg. It's when I felt that my body and cybernetics had united," Ribas tells the TEDx audience.
It's this feeling, this recognition of a new identity, that connects the community. The work of the Foundation in addition to it being part of their artistic practice is to spread awareness and understanding of cyborgism. Most people end up going through with their cybernetic projects on their own at home. Their main role as founders seems to be to provide information and inspiration for others. You can track the hashtag #humanswithantennas on Twitter and Instagram to witness the growing interest in this community.
Ribas adds: "It's also when I started to encourage other people to look for their own sense, to search and experiment with the extension of their senses and their perception of reality." This fall, she and Harbisson are moving the Cyborg Foundation from Catalunya to New York to further this mission and expand their reach. Harbisson hints at some new ideas in development: "We want to start several projects where the internet is used to extend senses, for example having a satellite that humans can connect to in a sensory way."
In October, Harbisson will be giving a "color concert" at La MaMa in Manhattan's East Village, and Ribas is planning a series of impromptu street performances of her piece Waiting for Earthquakes, in which she launches into a dance any time she feels a vibration.
To watch a collaborative talk given by both artists, go here.