They Dance the Body Electric: Cyborg Artists Land in Central Israel

Being part human and part machine is no longer just a sci-fi concept. Two New York-based cyborg activists are appearing at a digital culture event.

Neta Alexander
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'Cyborgs' Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas. She has a miniature chip in her elbow; he has an antenna implanted in his skull.
'Cyborgs' Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas. She has a miniature chip in her elbow; he has an antenna implanted in his skull.Credit: Eilon Paz
Neta Alexander

NEW YORK – On April 25, artist and choreographer Moon Ribas, 29, woke up in a panic. The sensor permanently attached to her elbow sent strong vibrations through her body. Even though Ribas lives in New York, the sensor was responding to the earthquake that rocked Nepal.

As part of her work exploring and empowering human senses, Ribas has developed this seismic sensor that allows her literally to feel every earthquake that occurs on Earth. In the case of one that’s 7.9 on the Richter scale – as in Nepal – the device immediately sends out strong vibrations.

Ribas will demonstrate this phenomenon at a dance performance called “Waiting for Earthquakes,” which she will put on in Israel for the first time during Print Screen 2015. The theme of this four-day event – which begins Wednesday at the Cinematheque in Holon, and is also called Israel’s International Digital Culture Festival – is “Hypersensitive.”

Ribas will appear with multidisciplinary artist Neil Harbisson, 32, who five years ago established the international Cyborg Foundation. The two grew up together in Spain, and they identify as "cyborgs" – beings that are part human and part machine, with organic and biomechatronic parts. As such, they decided to promote cyborgism as an art form, a means for sensory extension and a way of living.

Ribas had a miniature chip implanted in her elbow, but Harbisson, born with a rare form of color blindness, had an antenna implanted in his skull at age 21, which translates colors into sound and sends messages directly to his brain 24/7. “Even when I shower or go to sleep,” he explains with a smile, in a recent Haaretz interview with him and Ribas.

“For both choreographers and musicians, the body is an artistic device and it is very natural to use it in different aesthetic ways,” he adds.

Still, not many dancers or musicians permanently implant electronic devices in their bodies.

Harbisson: “Today, many people use technology as a tool rather than as an organic part of their body. When I transformed myself into a cyborg, I had no precedents to draw on. While there were numerous artists who’ve been using technology as a form of sensory extension, I was one of the first to incorporate it into my body as a physical and psychological symbiosis: The antenna and my body are one and the same. I am not using technology; I am technology.”

‘Pulse of the universe’       

“I wanted a biosensor that would become a part of me,” says Ribas, “like one of my limbs or organs ... The vibrations enable me to feel the tectonic movements of the planet. I study movement. The sensor connects me to the most universal and ancient movement exists: the pulse of our universe.”    

Harbisson and Ribas, who have been interviewed widely in the mainstream media, think their choices are actually quite natural: As far as they are concerned, the symbiotic and biological connection between human tissues and electronic chips is the future of humanity. They just happened to enjoy that future before the rest of us.

Harbisson: “The word ‘cyborg’ comes from the union between ‘cybernetics’ and ‘organism’ ... In general, there are three common ways to theorize the union between organic and electronic elements: ‘Biological cyborg’ would be someone who has a physical union between cybernetics and the human body; ‘neurological cyborgs’ are humans whose brain has been modified due to the union between cybernetics and organism; and a ‘psychological cyborg’ is someone who feels a symbiotic connection between the technology and the self.”   

Many people are unable to disconnect themselves from technology. If I use Google Glass and am addicted to my smartphone – am I a cyborg?

Harbisson: “No, because the mobile phone is not part of your organism. Think about transsexuals: A person might be born in the body of a man, but feel she is a woman. In a similar manner, one can have a 100-percent organic body, but feel like a cyborg. These people wish to undergo a surgery in order to become biological cyborgs.”

“There are also cultural, legal and medical parallelisms between these two groups since both transsexual and cyborgs are often conceived as social deviants,” he continues. “When I first approached bioethical committees in Europe with a request to implant an antenna in my skull, I encountered a similar discourse to that which trans people had to face in the ‘50s.”

Indeed, Harbisson has run into problems because of the silver antenna sticking out of his head: “I had to renew my British passport in 2006, and was told I will have to remove the antenna for my official photo. I told them this was a part of my body ... Eventually they accept[ed] my self-definition as a cyborg.”  

While Harbisson was far from being the first to implant artificial electronic devices in his body, he was the first to force legal and government bodies to recognize him as a cyborg. He’s also known in the media as “the world’s first cyborg artist.”

He is frequently busy giving TED talks, attending festivals and starring in documentaries, but often faces aggressive – even threatening – reactions. He has almost given up going to movie theaters since the guards think the antenna can be used as a camera in order to copy the movie illegally.

"Six sense" and 360-degree vision

Harbisson, a talented musician from a young age, began working with computer programmers in 2004 on building a mechanism to translate colors into sounds. The first versions of the device – which he calls an “eyeborg” – were cumbersome.

While Harbisson was in England and working on his antenna, Ribas remained in Spain and with own cyborgian ideas. For example, she developed earrings that measure surrounding movements and transmit gentle vibrations in response. They allowed her to have “eyes in the back of her head”: 360-degree vision. Later she developed the Speedborg, which measures the speed at which pedestrians walk.

Dancer Ribas uses the chip in her elbow to share the movements of the Earth with her audiences. If there is a strong earthquake her gestures will be complex and wild. If the Earth is peaceful, she will stand still. Thus every er shows is different; the audience can never know what they will see.

Both Harbisson and Ribas say their implants have given them a “sixth sense,” and another way to become closer to nature.

Harbisson: “The antenna enables me to ‘hear’ wavelengths not visible to the human eye, such as those in the infrared and the ultraviolet [spectra]. I feel closer to animals who can sense these colors, like cats and bees. ... The antenna enables me to identify with insects and other creatures using antennas for navigation.”   

The chip transmits the sound vibrations directly to your skull. Can you explain this process?

Harbisson: “I receive color through the bone, and I’m listening to you through the ears. This enables me to differentiate between a visual sound and an audio sound. I don’t hear colors; I feel colors. The antenna translate colors into vibrations. Since it is simultaneously connected to the Internet and satellites, the colors comes from multiple sources ... For me, going to the supermarket is like visiting a nightclub. It’s a world of constant sensations.”

You recently defined yourself as a “colorologist,” who pairs colors with music, using your antenna to create “face-based concerts.” What have you learned by “composing” the faces of famous people?

“I create music from the colors of the faces: the eyes, the lips, the skin. I can create layers of sound just by looking at facial compositions. Each human face is peculiar in one way or another. Judy Dench’s hair is silent; Woody Allen sounds very soft and unsaturated; Nicole Kidman had very loud lips.”    

As to whether faces considered beautiful or symmetric create more pleasant melodies, Harbisson says no: “Beauty is usually defined by shape, not by color ... The human skin is always orange; it always produces different sounds of F sharp. So in terms of their sound, there is no difference between white or black.”

‘Two kinds of people’

“Disability is a relative concept,” Ribas stresses. “There are many blind people who do not wish to see, as well as deaf people who do not wish to hear. To us these distinctions are always social and cultural. For us there are only two kinds of people: those who want to expand their senses, and those who do not. ”  

The two originally founded their Cyborg Institute in Barcelona, but recently moved it to New York.

Harbisson: “While there are many cyborg-friendly doctors and scientists, there are no cyborg-friendly countries. We still have to struggle for recognition. We founded the institute to promote awareness and legislation to the different medical, social and legal issues.”

Ribas: “It seems to us that people in New York are much more open-minded and eager to explore these issues. It is important to start thinking about their rights and unique needs. As always, the social change is the slowest ... We are not bionic men. Cyborg stands for the extension of the human mind through technology. It can be used in a liberating or a destructive way.”     

Do you think we need to limit the way we use technology?

Harbisson: “Technology can be used to explore and extend senses and perception. Cyborg is just a step between biological modification and the use of technology. The next stage is genetic and hereditary. If you genetically modify your body so you could see at night or perceive ultraviolet – your children will enjoy that as way ... This is how the 22nd century might look.”    

Why does humanity need more cyborgs?

“Expanding our senses is the only way to survive in space, which is the ultimate aim of humans ... We need to know what is out there, and how life on a different planet will look like.”  

In the meantime, until humans start living on the moon, Ribas and Harbisson are facing a more earthly challenge: Making their way through the security arrangements at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

“We hope the Israelis won’t give us a hard time. All we want to do is to try and locate as many potential Israeli cyborgs as possible, to convince them to explore their senses. After all, life is all about playfulness and exploration.“