Listening to Picasso: Neil Harbisson at TEDGlobal2012

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Neil Harbisson

“I’ve never seen color and I don’t know what color looks like. I come from a grayscale world,” says artist Neil Harbisson, to gasps from the audience. Yet this is not an “oh me miserum” story. Instead, Harbisson is here to tell us that in 2003, he started a collaborative project to create an electronic eye to help him detect the color frequency in front of him. In other words, he now “hears” color via a camera attached to the back of his neck and extending over his forehead. More gasps.

He demonstrates, projecting the sound of purple, the sound of grass, and then, well, then the sound of a dirty sock. And then he explains how he went about learning about color. First, he says, he had to memorize colors’ conventional names. After a while, he didn’t have to think about it any more, and before too long he realized that colors had become feelings. “When I started to dream in color, I felt the software and my brain had united,” he says happily. “And that’s when I started to feel like a cyborg. It had become a part of my body, an extension of my senses.” So much so that despite the fact that the British government doesn’t allow passport photos to feature technology, it made an exception in the case of Harbisson’s electronic eye.

The impact has been dramatic. He now “listens to a Picasso” — while supermarkets are shocking. “It’s like going to a nightclub,” he says. “Especially the aisle with cleaning products. It’s fabulous.” His sartorial choices have changed, too. “I used to dress to look good; now I dress to sound good.” Today he’s in his C major outfit, a salmon-pink jacket, blue shirt and yellow pants. A funeral outfit would apparently involve turquoise, purple and orange.

Even his relationship with food has changed. “Now I can eat my favorite song; I can compose music with food,” he says, joking about a meal consisting of pieces by Lady Gaga, Rachmaninoff, Björk and Madonna. “And the way I perceive beauty has changed. When I look at someone, I hear their face. So someone might look beautiful but sound terrible.”

Neil Harbisson

Now he plays us his sound portraits of faces of the great and the good he’s scanned, including Al Gore, Woody Allen, Tom Cruise, Leonardo di Caprio, Prince Charles and Nicole Kidman, the last two apparently being more similar than you might anticipate. He stages concerts by playing the colors of the audience’s faces. “The good thing about this is that if the concert doesn’t sound good it’s their fault, not my fault,” he jokes, before showing us some of the artworks he’s created from music and speeches.

Harbisson is continuing to push the boundaries with his work. After all, why should he settle for the 360 colors of regular human vision? Now he’s added both infrared and ultraviolet, the latter of which helps him to hear if it’s a good day or bad day to sunbathe. “We should all have this wish to perceive what we can’t perceve,” he says, before explaining that he started a foundation to help other people become cyborgs. “Life will be much more exciting when we stop creating applications for mobile phones and start creating them for our body,” he says. It’s not clear that many in the audience are going to opt into the cyborg lifestyle anytime soon, but this was a highly entertaining presentation and a salutary reminder that superficial defects might in fact be nothing but disguised opportunities.

Photos: James Duncan Davidson