By treating their bodies as art, self-designed cyborgs reimagine human potential but also raise ethical questions.
At the frontiers of technology and art, more and more individuals are modifying their bodies with cybernetics. Some of these people have cybernetic augmentations as replacements for limbs, organs or senses, while others modify their bodies to explore how cybernetic technology alters human perception. For two artists, Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas, both groups of people can be classified as cyborgs.
Self-identified cyborgs, Harbisson and Ribas created the Cyborg Foundation in 2010. Their goals were to promote awareness of cyborgs, help people gain cybernetic modifications and support those who already have modifications. Their catchphrase is “design yourself.” Cyborgs, they feel, are those who have self-designed, meaning they’ve conceived of their bodies as art.
According to Harbisson, there are at least three, often-intersecting types of cyborgs, and he laid them out in the TED Talk “Sending Our Senses to Space.” First are biological cyborgs, who have cybernetic technology in their bodies. Second are neurological cyborgs, whose brains have been changed by software or technology. Third are psychological cyborgs, who simply identify themselves as closely linked to technology. Harbisson notes the third type includes a growing number of people, based on how humans have relied heavily on technology, such as smartphones, since the turn of the century.
Harbisson and Ribas explore and promote the possibilities of cybernetics through their cyborg art, which the Cyborg Foundation says is “the art of creating your own senses.”
Ribas is a choreographer who had a chip grafted inside her elbow to feel vibrations based on seismic activity. Through Wi-Fi signals, she receives readings of seismographs as vibrations, which vary by the intensity of the earthquakes, and then she uses these vibrations to guide dance movements, as in her well-known performance art piece, Waiting for Earthquakes. If there are no earthquakes on Earth during one of her performances, she doesn’t move at all.
Harbisson, who sees only in gray scale, is a musician and visual artist who has an antenna implanted in his head that allows him to “hear” color. The antenna picks up and transposes microtonal light frequencies of colors into audible tones (even for infrared and ultraviolet color). Harbisson feels these tones through vibrations against his skull. He composes music based on the colors he hears around him.
In their highly informative presentation at Google (at 37:49 here), Ribas and Harbisson gave a concert where Harbisson used his antenna to play colors seen from the International Space Station — received through his antenna’s internet connection — while Ribas played drums based on the seismic vibrations she felt.
Because these cybernetic possibilities of technology might still seem closer to science fiction than reality, in 2017 Harbisson and Ribas (along with another cyborg artist, Manel Muñoz) began the Transpecies Society. According to their website, this “social project by the Cyborg Foundation…gives voice to non-human identities; raises awareness of the challenges transpecies face; advocates for the freedom of self-design and offers the development of new senses and organs.” Essentially, the Cyborg Foundation sees cyborgs as transpecies because, through technology, humans are extending their perceptions of reality beyond what most human senses can know — sometimes even into the realms of other species. Harbisson, for example, has claimed in many interviews that he feels closer to nature since becoming a cyborg. In an article for HuffPost, Harbisson wrote, “Having an antenna makes me feel closer to insects and other creatures that have antennae” and that through cybernetics and cyborgism “Technology can bring us back to nature.”
In the face of this information about the Cyborg Foundation, it’s hard not to wonder about certain troubling details, especially ones related to ethics. In several video interviews available online, such as this one with the St. Gallen Symposium, Harbisson explains that a bioethical committee refused his surgery proposal. Instead of going to a hospital, he had go underground in Barcelona (he and Ribas are from Catalonia), where he found an anonymous doctor to drill open his skull to implant the antenna — along with the chip that serves as its rechargeable battery source. Whether this was an abuse of the doctor’s power or not is an ethical dilemma that even the best philosophers might have trouble with. And as for whether humans are or can be transpecies, that would probably take a whole team of scientists and philosophers to answer.
Still, cyborgism is such an experimental approach to life that most anyone would wonder about its unintended consequences. How soon should children be given the option of designing their own senses? What if a doctor grafts an implant that someone’s body rejects, and they’re harmed? There are also ethical questions about the accessibility of cybernetic modifications. How can we develop funding for those who want cybernetics, even in developed countries, especially when there is resistance from medical, not to mention governmental, religious and social, institutions?
Despite these concerns there is a visionary, even utopian, idealism to these artists’ ideas. The Cyborg Foundation even has a bill of rights crafted for cyborgs, and most of the proclamations are clear and reasonable. Personally, I can’t help but smile — and sometimes nervously chuckle — when I hear Harbisson and Ribas discuss their experiences and perform their art. The intense, childlike curiosity of their cyborg art is refreshingly do-it-yourself when compared to other, more formalized types of art that might be at an opera house or in a gallery.
The Cyborg Foundation’s website states that in cyborg art, “the artwork, the audience, and the museum is all in the same body.” This is an exciting view of the human body’s potential: to be what you create, to be what you perceive as art, and to also embody the art that others can see. Designing yourself — how you want to exist in the world — is an idea of radically profound freedom. In that vein, the work of Harbisson and Ribas draws parallels between transpecies people who now aren’t given surgeries to be cyborgs, and transgender people who not long ago would have little chance for hormonal replacement therapy or reassignment surgery. The Cyborg Foundation and the Transpecies Society also hope this freedom to design our bodies means we won’t have to design the planet so much. They feel that instead of shaping the Earth to suit human needs — which has caused climate change and the extinction of other species — we can change our bodies to better harmonize with the world around us.
Sometimes, though, when I hear Harbisson speak and tell jokes (as he often does), he sounds to my ear so much like Andy Kaufman’s “Foreign Man” character that I can’t help but wonder if these cyborg artists are carrying out a grand, multilayered experiment of performance art. But even if they are, their art and social ideals are still worth exploring, as they might lead to more ethical ways of living. If more people truly can be the artists of their own bodies and minds — rather than the artists of others’ bodies and minds — there might be less suffering for both the planet and its inhabitants.