The Belfast man produces ‘live sound portraits’ of superstar fans
A Northern Ireland artist who can literally ‘hear’ colours — and who has been officially recognised as the world’s first ‘cyborg’ because of that — has told how celebrities such as Al Pacino, Bono and Prince Charles have become devoted fans of his work.
Belfast-born Neil Harbisson suffers from achromatopsia, a rare condition of colour-blindness that only permits him to see in black and white.
Obsessed with the vivid colours that everyone else he grew up with had taken for granted, he invented a sensor which was implanted by a brain surgeon into his head, enabling him to hear visible and invisible wavelengths of light.
The strange antenna-like instrument — which stays in place all the time — translates different wavelengths into vibrations on his skull, which he then perceives as sound.
Neil has made a comfortable living from his “colour concerts” and portraits of people made by “listening to the colours of their faces”.
His ‘cyborg’ status, which has helped make him a cult celebrity in the arts world, came about after the Government permitted him to wear the permanent headgear in his UK passport photo.
And although bearing little resemblance to the famous Arnold Schwarzenegger half-man-half-machine in the Terminator movies, Neil’s story is science fact, not fiction.
Ironically, Terminator director James Cameron is one of the people Neil has done “live sound portraits” of.
Other well-known subjects include Hollywood stars Robert De Niro, Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio and Gabriel Byrne, singer Macy Gray, Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
“I do cyborg art — it’s the art of creating new senses by applying technology in the body,” explained the 39-year-old.
“It’s a new type of art that happens inside the body of the artist.
“The antenna is implanted in my head and it allows me to perceive colours, giving me an experience of reality beyond the human limitations.”
Although based in Barcelona, where his 70-year-old mother Pepe hails from, Neil has pleasant memories of Northern Ireland, a place he returns to as often as he can.
“I used to spend every summer, from June to September, in Glengormley, Carrickfergus and Cullybackey with family on my dad’s side,” said Neil, whose father Alan Harbisson (70) is a retired English teacher.
Older sister Julia (40) is a nutritionist, while younger sister Annie is a nurse.
“My grandparents, aunts and cousins were from different parts of Northern Ireland and I loved being there because the weather is so fresh. It’s always so hot in Barcelona.
“I love the pure air and smell of nature when I’m back there.
“The days were longer because the sun rises really early and sets really late. We loved visiting family and exploring the countryside.”
Surely he was worried about asking someone to insert something into his head several years ago?
“The surgeon was a professional — and of course I knew what he was implanting because I created it myself,” he said.
“But while he was drilling into my head I had some moments of doubt!”
Humans normally hear using air conduction with sound waves passing through the outer and middle ears and causing the inner eardrum to vibrate.
But with the bone conduction technique modified by Neil, the vibrations are transmitted through the skull or jawbone directly to the inner ear.
As for meeting and working with celebrities, he explained: “I’ve been giving talks about this type of art and creating ‘sound portraits’.
“I get close to someone’s face and I pick up the vibrations of the colours of someone’s face.”
“Sometimes I’d be in the same space of a well-known person and would ask if I could do a sound portrait, or sometimes they’d ask me.”
With Covid still rampant and the pandemic ongoing, Neil said he isn’t sure when he’ll next be able to return home.
But, as another cyborg famously promised in The Terminator: “I’ll be back...”