„I come from a place where the sky is always grey; where flowers are always grey; and where television is still in black and white. I actually come from a world where color doesn't exist; I was born with achromatopsia, I was born completely colorblind. So I've never seen color, and don't know what it looks like. But since the age of 21, I can hear color."
As a child, I tried lots of ways to understand colors. 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 child-like and eccentric," said the 32-year old Neil Harbisson - a Catalan-raised, British-born contemporary artist based in New York. And the first known cyborg to be officially recognized by the government.
He was born with achromatopsia, a condition meaning that the person is inable to perceive color, seeing the world in greyscale. He was diagnosed when he was 11, before then, his parents thought he was just confusing colors, or couldn't really comprehend the difference. „At first, doctors told me I was color-blind, then, they thought it was a very severe case of color-blindness
and finally, they realized that I could only see in black and white," recalls Neil. „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 color. 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," continues the artist, who moved to Devon to study music composition at Dartington College of Arts.
He heard a lecture by Adam Montandon, who helped create his first "eyeborg", which enables him to 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 favorite color for years. Now it's infrared, I just love infrared! It's a bit different from the rest. It behaves a bit differently. It has the lowest frequencies so it sounds quite profound. It's lower than red... Really low and very intermittent, so it comes and goes. It's not a permanent colour like the others. Infrared can disappear which I find quite exciting. The vibrations are just very moving. I feel very lucky because I wouldn't be able to experience infrared without the antenna.
„Since I started to hear colour, my life has changed dramatically. Art galleries have become concert halls; I can hear a Picasso or a Rothko. And supermarkets have become like night clubs. I love how they sound, especially the aisles with cleaning products."
Did Neil become a man with an antenna surgically implanted into his skull? „In the beginning, I had cables coming out of my head, snaking down into a big backpack with a laptop. It made people a bit uncomfortable. But now the eyeborg translates color into sound using a chip at the back of my skull. It makes noise by pressing against my head and I hear color through bone conduction. This way, it doesn't interfere with regular hearing because it comes through different channels," explains us Harbisson. He needed about five weeks to learn how to use it, but it was five weeks of learning around the clock. „After five weeks my headaches went away and it became automatic. That was in 2004. Now it feels normal, it's just like an extra sense."
And how does the antenna work? Color is basically hue, saturation, and light. Right now, he can see light in shades of grey, but he can't see its saturation or hue. Theantenna detects the light's hue, and converts it into a sound frequency that I can hear as a note (wavelength is inversely proportional to frequency so it can easily convert the wavelength of the light into a sound frequency). It also translates the saturation of the color into volume. So if it's a vivid red, I will hear it more loudly. „I do portraits live by pointing at the different hues on the different parts of the face, so I can create the chord of a face. Prince Charles sounds surprisingly similar to Nicole Kidman. This is how I found out that there are no black or white skins. We all are different shades of orange," said the cyborg who likes listening to paintings by Andy Warhol, Joan Miró and Mark Rothko, because they all produce very clear notes. But Da Vinci, Velázquez and Munch can sound disturbing. „Their paintings contain many shades of the same color, so they produce clashing chords due to having notes that are very close to eachother. They sound like the music from a scene in a horror movie when something bad is about to happen."
Thanks to the antenna, he has made a career by combining music and art. „I do concerts where I plug myself into a set of speakers and play the colors of the audience back to them. The good thing is that if it sounds bad, it's their fault!"