Recently, I was captivated by an intriguing interview with a colour blind artist named Neil Harbisson. He was born with a condition that means he can only see in black and white. As a result, he has had himself permanently equipped with technology so that he can listen to colour. Yes that’s correct – he can hear colour! Neil’s whole life has been seen in scales of grey and he is the first person to have an antennae permanently bolted to his skull. Neil’s colour sensor device has been described as making him look like a cross between an insect and a call centre worker.
He is claimed to be the first cyborg artist. A cyborg is a being with both organic and biomechatronic (biological, mechanical and electronic) parts. Colour emits frequencies and the antennae allows for vibrations to be picked up. This long bendy piece of technology arcs over the top of his head and holds an electronic eye, that lingers just above his own eyes. As it detects colour it sends frequencies to a chip installed into the back of his head and literally vibrates the bone in his skull. As each colour emits a different sound he has had to teach himself which colour is which by holding pieces of coloured card in front of his electronic eye. He learnt his colours just as a young child would. He memorised the names and the notes attached to each of these colours. After some time, Neil didn’t have to think about the notes, and the colours simply became perceptions, which in turn, grew into feelings. He began to have favourite colours.
When Neil began to dream in colour, hearing the electronic sounds in his brain while he slept, he knew that the software and his brain had united and he had truly become a cyborg. He is often seen wearing very bright clothing. For example, yellow trousers, a blue t-shirt and pink jacket. How does he decide on what to wear? He looks into his wardrobe and listens to the chords until he finds the tune he likes for that day. If he goes to an art gallery he can listen to a Picasso or a Van Gogh. For Neil, a trip to the supermarket is like going to a nightclub. Each product vies for his attention, especially the cleaning aisle, creating voracious pieces of music.
So as spring takes its hold and pushes aside the greys of winter, I wonder what Neil would think about the colours of Jervis Bay and its surrounds.
The widest blue sky, reflected in the aqua water, flanked by the whitest of sand.
To walk through the bushland around Callala Beach, brushing past blades of green.
To come upon a wall of wattle that whispers the hopes of Summer.
To look up at the eucalypts and hear the vibrancy of lorikeets, king parrots and rosellas. Their feathered sounds competing with their boisterous calls.
To rise early and wander along the length of the beach, watching the sun rise.
The colours of nature bring such a wonderful feeling of gratification and pleasure. Neil can now enjoy this in his own unique way. I admire how he is so content with having the gift of being able to sense colour through sound. I can only wonder how the melodies of a Jervis Bay spring would play in his head.
Check out Neil’s TED talk:https://www.ted.com/talks/neil_harbisson_i_listen_to_color?language=en