Moon Ribas and Neil Harbisson
When I enter the miniscule midtown studio apartment of artists Moon Ribas and Neil Harbisson, I am stuck by its simplicity. And yet, the walls are carefully decorated in technicolor vinyl and colorblocked rainbow canvasses (Neil’s paintings). Examining the décor and Neil’s brightly color coordinated outfit, you’d have no idea he is colorblind. Not only colorblind, but he has achromatism: a relatively rare visual condition that means he can only see in grayscale. One would think the antenna protruding from behind his head were a light for reading or a piece of costume, but in fact, it allows him to perceive color through sound. His partner, Moon, a choreographer, wears a bright yellow jacket. You might not know it by looking at her, but Moon has a deep and unique connection to the earth. A magnetic implant in her left upper arm allows her to feel the earth quake, no matter where in the world tectonic plates are shifting.
Neil, who dresses “in chords,” says that since getting his implant he no longer listens to music, but that he enjoys living in midtown because Times Square is the most musical place on earth. I tell him that he is the only person on earth to have ever uttered those words. They are both a bit shy, perhaps due to a bit of a language barrier. Ribas and Harbisson are childhood friends from Barcelona, Spain. Since they were eight years old, they have dreamed of ways to perceive the imperceptible.
Do you consider yourselves body hackers, or cyborgs?
Moon: Cyborgs. Because it’s not about the body. It’s more about the mind ... If you wear [the technology] all the time, it’s part of you. When your mind modifies – when you integrate this new input and it becomes a part of you – it’s more like modifying your mind rather than your body.
Neil: Cybernetics is more about the mind. Body hackers, some of them are based only in modifying their bodies, but we are only based in modifying our minds. I had to modify my body to modify my mind, but our aims are different.
Would you consider wearing a fitbit a form of cyborgism?
Neil: There’s no communication between you and the machine. It’s only the machine receiving information from your body, but you’re not receiving anything from it, so there’s a lack of communication ... If it were perceiving something external and giving you feedback, then it would be different. From the outside everything looks the same, but there are many differences.
Neil, can you describe your visual impairment?
Neil: Well I don’t call it a visual impairment; I think that seeing in black and white is a quality, so I call it a visual condition.
I see things in grayscale. It’s called achromatism. There are many advantages to seeing in black and white, like you can see much better at night. People with black and white vision have a good memory with shapes. Also, we don’t get fooled by camouflages. Camouflages are mostly based in color, so many people who see in black and white are used in the military to detect boats or people.
You’d make a really good spy.
Neil: Yes. Also photocopies are cheaper in black and white.
The reason I wanted to sense color was not because I felt that seeing in black and white was negative, but because of the social element. I couldn’t avoid hearing the name of color everyday. I could hear people mentioning color and I wanted to also have this sense. I tried different methods and then when I was twenty I started this antenna project with a friend.
When was that?
Neil: March 2004. It’s always evolving. Moon’s as well continuously evolves. All of our senses and body parts keep evolving, which is, I guess, the good thing about having cybernetic senses or body parts; the older you get the better they get. Your senses can get better when you’re older, so you look at getting old as a positive thing.
Moon, how long have you had your earthquake implant?
Moon: Almost three years. After a few months I got used to it and it’s a part of me. I feel like I have two heartbeats: my own and then the pulse of the earth in my arm.
How often do you feel the earthquakes?
Moon: Very, very often. Every eight minutes, sometimes twenty, sometimes half an hour.
For me, the next step is to [connect to] space. In one arm I feel earthquakes, and the next step would be, the other arm, to feel the moonquakes. I have to find the technical stuff to be able to connect. I have the implant inside now. It’s a magnet that allows me to feel vibrations inside the body. The nice thing is that our senses don’t have to perceive things that are close to use anymore. We can feel things that are happening on the other side of the planet and even outer space.
We 3D printed my arm. Now it’s exhibited in Barcelona and every time there’s an earthquake in real time, the arm vibrates. So, people can touch the sculpture. There’s also a 3D print of Neil’s head. People can send him colors in real time, so he can perceive colors in Barcelona. So we call them cyborg sculptures because both of the sculptures are connected to a living organism. The arm is connected to the earth, and Neil’s head is going to real Neil’s head.
Neil, are you receiving those colors at all times?
Neil: Well, it stopped about an hour ago because the museum closed. During opening hours, yes, I receive colors.
And you’re receiving sound?
Neil: It’s color for me. It’s a vibration in my head that becomes a sound. So to me these are colors. It’s a new sense. The closest thing to it is sound.
Is that disorienting?
Neil: At the beginning, yes. We started this Internet connection at the beginning of October and it was distracting. I’m used to it now. It’s been a training process. For me it’s training to perceive space. The aim is to have a permanent connection to space. I’ll have colors from the earth coming through the antenna, and colors from space coming through the Internet. I’m already connected to the satellite since 2014. I’m using NASA’s international space station. They have a livestream, and the maximum I can connect is two hours, ’cause otherwise I get overwhelmed. I guess in 2017 I will be able to have a permanent connection to space.
So you’re both connected to natural organisms through technology. Moon, what inspires you about earthquakes?
Moon: Before realizing that I could perceive earthquakes, I wanted to experience movement in a deeper way. I then realized that cybernetics could allow me to perceive movement in a deeper way and I wanted to extend my senses related to that. The first thing I did was detecting the speed of people walking in front of me. It was a kind of earring that [could detect] speed. And then I turned the earrings around and that allowed me to receive presence behind me. After presence and speed, I wanted to perceive movement that didn’t depend on people. If I were to be alone on the planet, how would I perceive movement? Then I had this image; I realized that earth is constantly moving. It not only rotates, but also it shakes, everyday, constantly, and most of the time we don’t feel it. I thought it would be really fascinating to turn this massive movement – and maybe the most natural and primitive movement on the planet – into one body. That idea just really fulfilled me.
Earthquakes can sometimes be devastating catastrophes, do you feel sadness when you sense a particularly strong earthquake? Do you feel joy when you feel a small one? What is the emotional journey of your experience?
Moon: I got used to feeling vibrations every day. They are part of my being. When there’s a really big earthquake that causes big damage and people die, it really affects me. When there was the big one in Nepal, I felt weird and sad all day long, I felt the pain, like I was there. I felt very close but I was far at the same time.
My perception of places has changed. Now, if we are invited to a specific place sometimes I think, oh maybe there will be an earthquake while I’m there, because there’s more probabilities that it can happen there. I think the cities are not yet prepared for this natural phenomenon. Earthquakes are not bad by themselves, the bad thing is that humans haven’t been able to adapt to them. That’s why it can be dangerous to live close to edge of tectonic plates, even though I would like to experience a “real” earthquake sometime.
You’re both cyborgs and artists, do you consider one of those identities before the other?
Moon: I guess we were artists first, and then we found that cybernetics was a way of also making art. But now, both of these come together. Cyborg is part of our identity.
Neil: We also see becoming a cyborg as an art itself. Creating your own body part, creating your own senses, should also be seen as an art. It’s treating your body as a sculpture, or treating your mind as a sculpture.
Where in the world can one find the cyborg community? Does one exist?
Neil: There are individual people all over the world that are disconnected. Since 2004, I started appearing on national television talking about cyborgs and saying that I felt like a cyborg. That started making people feel that they want to be a cyborg and they started emailing me. That went on and on for six years and in 2010 we decided to create the Cyborg Foundation. The Cyborg Foundation tried to unite all these people online and also help them find each other. There were people wanting to develop the technology, and then there were people who wanted to find people to develop the technology.
Now we are in the next stage. After five years of the Cyborg Foundation we feel there haven’t been many people creating new senses. So we think the next stage is to create a company. The Cyborg Foundation and another company from London Younivis are uniting to create the Cyborg Nest, which will actually create senses for people who would prefer to buy the sense rather than create it.
What is the most in-demand sense?
Neil: When we ask what sense would you like? 99 percent don’t know. Then we try to explain to them what senses exist in nature, ’cause we try to create senses that already exist in other animal species. One of them is feeling the North. Many animals like pigeons or sharks can feel the electromagnetic field of the earth. This can be easily done to humans if we have an implant that vibrates or creates some kind of magnetism whenever you face north. We are developing this. We think this one could be easily popular.
Other ones are using the earlobes, so it’s not a full implant, but a piercing. Having pressure in your earlobes, you can have several other inputs, like sensing what is behind you. That would be “retrovision.” Or you could have different pressure depending on the pollution levels. You could also detect dangerous smells. Also, using tooth implants. We are thinking of senses that can go through the teeth. People might not accept an antenna implant, but a tooth implant, yes. Bone conduction allows you to hear more sounds than air conduction, so we are thinking of teeth that can allow you to hear beneath 20 hertz. Humans can hear from 20 to 20,000 hertz. There are animals like elephants that can hear below 20 hertz. This can be done through the teeth.
What are the ethical complications for providing this kind technology on a commercial scale? Do you see opportunity for unethical behavior?
Neil: Not really, no. We think that technology can be used negatively if it’s not part of your body. The military, they are all working in the direction of separating the soldier’s body from the technology. They are using drones. If you want to use technology in a negative way, it’s much more clever not to unite with it.
The ethical issues with these types of implants are something that will change over time. It’s the same issues that transgender people had in the 50s and 60s. They say that [the surgery] is not necessary. That’s the first reason and the strongest. The second one is the possible dangers of the surgery. The third one is the image the hospital will have if somebody comes out with an antenna. That’s the reason they gave to me. Now, you can have a sex change in the US in many hospitals. It will happen with cyborg surgeries. I did [the surgery] with a doctor that did it anonymously.
Given that you are so intimately connected to the Internet, do you fear losing that connection?
Moon: Yeah ... It would be like going deaf.