August 17, 2012 9:28 pm

First Person: Neil Harbisson

‘I’m a human cyborg – I can hear colour’
Neil Harbisson©Anna Huix

Neil Harbisson cannot see colours and wears an “eyeborg” that translates them into sounds

Not many people go for a walk in the supermarket for fun, but I do. I have an electronic eye that converts light into sound to enable me to “hear” colour – so the cleaning product aisle is very exciting. The rows of rainbow-coloured bottles sound like a symphony to me.

I’m totally colour blind. I was born with achromatopsia, a condition that means I see the world in greyscale. I was diagnosed when I was 11; before then, my parents thought I was just confusing colours, or couldn’t learn the difference.

I was born in Belfast but grew up in Catalonia. As a child, I tried lots of ways to understand colours. At first, I related them to people: when someone talked about blue, I thought about a friend of mine who was very brainy. Pink was a feminine, hippie kind of girl; yellow was a boy from London, very childlike and eccentric.

Kids at school teased me – once, someone gave me a red pen and told me it was blue, and I wrote a whole essay in the wrong colour. People found it funny when I wore mismatched socks, and as a teenager I wore only black and white clothes. In secondary school, my art teacher gave me permission to paint in greyscale.

When I moved to Devon to study music composition at Dartington College, I heard a lecture by Adam Montandon, a cybernetics expert. He helped to create my first “eyeborg” device, which lets me hear light waves. The very first thing I looked at with it, outside the classroom, was a red noticeboard. It made the note F, the lowest sound on the spectrum. Red was my favourite colour for years.

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I had cables coming out of my head at first, snaking down into a big backpack with a laptop. It made people a bit uncomfortable. But now the eyeborg translates colour into sound using a chip at the back of my skull. It makes noise by pressing against my head, but from September it will be inserted into the bone. I have to recharge myself at a power socket, but I’m working on ways to use my blood circulation instead.

Thanks to the eyeborg, I’ve made a career by combining music and art. I do concerts where I plug myself into a set of speakers and play the colours of the audience back to them. The good thing is, if it sounds bad, it’s their fault! I also make sound portraits of individuals. Prince Charles sounds surprisingly similar to Nicole Kidman.

I began to perceive sound as colour, too. Telephone rings became green; Amy Winehouse seemed red and pink. So I started to paint using the sounds around me. I’ve made pictures of pieces by Vivaldi, Beethoven and Mozart.

The eyeborg has changed the canons of beauty for me. I like listening to paintings by Andy Warhol, Joan Miró and Mark Rothko, because they all produce very clear notes. But Da Vinci, Velázquez and Munch sound disturbing. They paint with many shades of the same colour, so they produce notes that are too close together. They sound like the music from a scene in a horror movie when something bad is about to happen.

My bedroom is black and white, which are silent and allow me to sleep. The floor of my house is painted red, which makes the lowest note and so gives a nice depth to the sound of the house. The back of my front door is green, which is a middle-sounding note – it’s like a tuning fork that resets me before I go out.

There’s no legal protection for cyborgs. In 2010, I started a foundation to protect our rights. I’ve been kicked out of Harrods because I was perceived as a possible security threat, and many cinemas don’t let me in because they think I’m going to record the film. I did get permission to appear with the eyeborg in my passport photograph, which has made things a lot easier with airport security.

I never take the eyeborg off: I wear it to sleep, and in the shower. It feels like a part of me. When I started to hear the sound of colour in my dreams, that’s when I began to think of myself as a cyborg.

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