The Cyborg Foundation are Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas; they are a non-profit group, established in 2010, advocating for cyborg rights. Born with total colour blindness, Harbisson collaborated with Adam Montandon to develop the ‘eyeborg’: an implant that turns colour data into sound so Harbisson can experience colour. On Sunday 12 October 2014 Harbisson and Ribas performed at The Giant Screen Millennium Point, Birmingham, as part of Fierce Festival. Cyborg Foundation’s work is definitely not site-specific—Ribas and Harbisson are enabled by, and articulating, a networked, distributed body—but Millennium Point (in the HS2-anticipation area of Birmingham city centre) provided some unique resonances for these performances.
A selection of short films, curated by Sam Groves (Flatpack/KINO 10), opened the programme. The selection was well made, comprising nuanced stories of “cyborgian” lives: the funny and creepy pixellation film Stanley Pickle (2010), directed by Victoria Mather; a marketing video for the exoskeleton prostheses of Ekso Bionics; a brief look at Jost Haas, master glass-eye maker; Bjork’s ‘All is Full of Love’. The films were shown in the foyer of the building on a large suspended screen—you have to lie on your back, or sit on the stairs and lean against a bannister to watch them. The space unwittingly has you thinking about your body and uncomfortable alliances (your ass, these stairs, that screen) from the outset.
The Cyborg Foundation began with Moon Ribas’ dance work ‘Waiting for Earthquakes’. Ribas wears a sensor that vibrates whenever there is earthquake activity anywhere in the world; Harbisson tells us that soon this will be an implant. Throughout the dance Ribas’ body vibrates; sometimes these vibrations escalate into articulated dance movements, sometimes not. The dance is all about anticipation: we wait to see if Ribas moves; we listen to and watch the music and lighting (mixed by Harbisson). The performance was energised by activity elsewhere, but framed by Millennium Point: Ribas’ reflection in the polished, dark tiled floor of the space was a kind of ghostly apparition akin to the ghostly vibrations of seismic activity.
Neil Harbisson’s performance took place in the Giant Screen theatre. Harbisson began with a talk describing his work at the Cyborg Foundation, his artistic practice, his experiences as a cyborg, and the research and partnerships that have enabled him to experience colour. The performance was a composition based on the sounds Harbisson hears as he sees the colours of space. Unique to this particular performance, Harbisson was for the first time using colour data from NASA’s live stream of satellite images of space. Harbisson was in front of us, but his brain was networked to the galaxy (or, to the reproduction of galactic
imagery). Here site specificity could matter. Soon Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar will open on the Giant Screen and the posters that line the walls also recall Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 Gravity, another space extravaganza. But Neil Harbisson offers a different kind of space spectatorship; this is space as matter we might sense and percept from our radically altered bodies, rather than space as a new territory to occupy. Through Harbisson we hear ultra-violet light, but this is only as drone; the audience has to think their way to the spectacle of what Harbisson is actually managing in front of them. What especially works here is the time we are given to reflect on Harbisson’s talk, to consider his cyborg-proposition. Given that so much recent fiction of space-colonialism is really about climate change and the Anthropocene, the Cyborg Foundation’s work—to realise cybernetic networks of human and non-human matter—is vitally of now (it is supernow, to use Fierce’s tagline). The Cyborg Foundation may call to mind images of the technological future we continue to wait for, but its practice is focused on the everyday (eyeborgs and earborgs for those with vision and hearing impairments (1) and the presently possible.
‘Cyber’ is from the Greek ‘kybernetes’: to ‘steer’, ‘govern’, ‘navigate’; cybernetics is about control and communication. The cyborg—like an art festival—is an aesthetic proposition insofar as it is about ways of seeing and behaving, but this is also always a social proposition. Cyborg Day at Fierce Festival provokes an audience into uncertainty about art, about why it is that Harbisson’s practice is an art practice and an activist one; about how and in what ways these are distinct categories. This provocation is one that has been made throughout the programming at this year’s festival. Performances, installations, and talks have made visible art as activism, community work and play, research, and testimony. These are the hyperlocal radical encounters Fierce enables, the governance it permits; and even when an encounter is as epic and absent as earthquakes and space, the experience of being there is intimate, situated, and attentive.