Moon Ribas and Neil Harbisson
When I enter the miniscule midtown studio apartment of artists Moon Ribas and Neil Harbisson, I am stuck by its simplicity. And yet, the walls are carefully decorated in technicolor vinyl and colorblocked rainbow canvasses (Neil’s paintings). Examining the décor and Neil’s brightly color coordinated outfit, you’d have no idea he is colorblind. Not only colorblind, but he has achromatism: a relatively rare visual condition that means he can only see in grayscale. One would think the antenna protruding from behind his head were a light for reading or a piece of costume, but in fact, it allows him to perceive color through sound. His partner, Moon, a choreographer, wears a bright yellow jacket. You might not know it by looking at her, but Moon has a deep and unique connection to the earth. A magnetic implant in her left upper arm allows her to feel the earth quake, no matter where in the world tectonic plates are shifting.
Neil, who dresses “in chords,” says that since getting his implant he no longer listens to music, but that he enjoys living in midtown because Times Square is the most musical place on earth. I tell him that he is the only person on earth to have ever uttered those words. They are both a bit shy, perhaps due to a bit of a language barrier. Ribas and Harbisson are childhood friends from Barcelona, Spain. Since they were eight years old, they have dreamed of ways to perceive the imperceptible.
Do you consider yourselves body hackers, or cyborgs?
Moon: Cyborgs. Because it’s not about the body. It’s more about the mind ... If you wear [the technology] all the time, it’s part of you. When your mind modifies –when you integrate this new input and it becomes a part of you –it’s more like modifying your mind rather than your body.
Neil: Cybernetics is more about the mind. Body hackers, some of them are based only in modifying their bodies, but we are only based in modifying our minds. I had to modify my body to modify my mind, but our aims are different.
Would you consider wearing a fitbit a form of cyborgism?
Neil: There’s no communication between you and the machine. It’s only the machine receiving information from your body, but you’re not receiving anything from it, so there’s a lack of communication ... If it were perceiving something external and giving you feedback, then it would be different. From the outside everything looks the same, but there are many differences.
Neil, can you describe your visual impairment?
Neil: Well I don’t call it a visual impairment; I think that seeing in black and white is a quality, so I call it a visual condition.
I see things in grayscale. It’s called achromatism. There are many advantages to seeing in black and white, like you can see much better at night. People with black and white vision have a good memory with shapes. Also, we don’t get fooled by camouflages. Camouflages are mostly based in color, so many people who see in black and white are used in the military to detect boats or people.