“When I talk about color I try to make it clear that it doesn’t need to be perceived through something exclusively visual but with other senses. If you can hear colors you can amplify the perceptions of the color and you can hear infrared and ultraviolet, so you can perceive more colors than through the human eyes. Through the eyes you perceive color as three things at once- hue, saturation, and light whereas with sound you can separate these properties of color and it makes it easier to define colors. So I perceive the light or color through my eyes, I perceive the hue through notes and I perceive the saturation through volume levels.”
Many of us take for granted that we see the world through eyes that recognize color. Artist, performer and musician Neil Harbisson lives in a world of distinctive shades of grey. Where we have learned to identify with our environment through the messages encoded in color, Harbisson relates to form and texture. Born with a rare congenital form of color blindness called Achromatopsia, Harbisson has never seen color in the traditional way but trusts in its power and energy with a keen conviction. In 2004, Harbisson collaborated with British based HMC Interactive and began wearing the Eyeborg, intelligent software paired with equipment that allows the user to hear color. The Eyeborg began as a cumbersome piece of equipment complete with a web camera- like sensor to be worn on the head, connected to headphones and powered by a laptop computer carried everywhere in a backpack. Even in its early iterations, Harbisson adopted the Eyeborg as part of his own flesh, wearing it all day and night, and bore the weight of the laptop on his back so that he could experience the world through the Eyeborg. Harbisson stated the importance in adopting the technology as part of his own body, “If you want it to become a new sense, it needs to be integrated, otherwise it’s just a tool and I don’t want to use the electronic eye as a tool, but as a part of my body.” The world of grey tones may be more colorful after all.
As the first Cyborg, Neil Harbisson can hear color through 360 microtones, which combines the color spectrum and the musical scale, as if the two were running parallel to each other. Where a musical octave has 12 notes, there are 36 tones between each note processed through the Eyeborg technology. As light frequencies generate millions of waves of sound per second, the Eyeborg slows down light until it is audible. Harbisson has memorized each subtlety in tonality and from those notes he can color in the world around him. For example, when Harbisson hears the color red it is indicated by a low note, as it is the darkest color on the spectrum and the opposite is true for violet. To someone with normal vision, colors combine commands and emotions, but with the Eyeborg colors are energy. Harbisson explains that “red is not the color I had expected. Red is the one with less energy, the most innocent and relaxed color. Physically, violet is the most dangerous color and it’s the highest pitched, so it has the fastest moving energy. But culturally I see that this doesn’t correspond. Stoplights should be violet.” The shades of color, therefore, depend on the pitch that the Eyeborg receives. What Harbisson didn’t expect to discover in hearing color was that all skin color, whether light or dark, generates the sound of orange or the note of F#. While we are separated by the color of our hair and eyes, the color of human skin remains consistent, which inspired the “Sonochromatic Portraits.”
In the eight years since Harbisson has worn the Eyeborg the technology has advanced from MP3 players to chips containing the specialized software that now powers the device. He is no longer wearing headphones that block his connection the outside world. Harbisson uses his bone to hear colors and has been in conversation with doctors in Barcelona about installing a microphone against his bone so that ambient noises transmit through his ears and visual sounds vibrate against the bone. While it’s experimental, the surgery is evidence of the artist’s commitment to integrate the sense as part of his body and not merely as an appendage.
If offered the ability to see color, Harbisson hesitated and expressed that he only wish to see it from “one eye because I wouldn’t like to lose my normal vision.” He admitted, “I’m not sure I could adapt to the visual chaos of color because color is, in fact, an interference between the object and the mind. I think that, maybe, I would get distracted if I were surrounded by colors.”
While he waits to undergo surgery, Harbisson continues to explore faces and cities around the world through a series of distinctive tones that he trusts as color.
Featured image: Harbisson, photo by Dan Wilton / Red Bulletin