Sound, sight converge for Vassar cyborg-in-residence

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Neil Harbisson is not a human – he is a cyborg. Born colorblind, he had an antenna installed in his skull that allows him to experience color through other senses. His talk explores cyborgism and art. Photo courtesy of CAAD

A cyborg is a person whose physical abilities extend beyond the conventions of human limitations via mechanical elements built into and made functionable in the human body. But on a more fundamental level, what is a cyborg? What does it embody? Can technology make humans that much more observant, that much more sentient, that much more synesthetic, that much more expressive?

Artists Marco Donnarumma and Neil Har­bisson have perused, experienced and artified cyborgism. They will try and answer these questions during their brief campus residency. Cyborgism is a budding art movement rooted in the creation and attachment of new senses to the body through cyberkinetic implants. The events are part of a larger residency entitled “Future Sounds: The Emergence of Cyborgs.” With each academic year, the CAAD Initiative has thematically honed in on one of the five senses; this academic year’s theme is hearing.

Arts Coordinator for the CAAD Initiative Thomas Pacio wrote, “This second residency is a continuation of the conversation about cy­borgism begun in February by visiting artists Michael Chorost and Trevor Pinch.” The latter half began this Monday, April 11, and concludes on Friday, April 15. Taylor Nunley ’16 comment­ed, “I believe professors Perillan and Patch have designed this second set of visits very mindful­ly to continue what was begun by these earlier visitors.

According to Assistant Professor of Physics and Science, Technology and Society Jose Perillan, these two artists are particularly interesting because they use technology in such different ways. He explained, “One aspect of Marco and Neil’s art that seems different is how they em­body technology. Marco seems to wear tech­nology and use it to experiment with self-ex­pression, while Neil has said that in embodying his technology he does not ‘wear’ it or ‘use’ it. Instead he talks about it as if he has implanted a new sense organ and therefore has morphed himself and become one with the technology.”

These differences will guide many of the planned events. Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music Justin Patch wrote, “As both men are per­formers and artists, Jose and I want to put them into dialogue about the expanding expressive potential of using technology. Both of them deal with expanded senses, so the dialogue…will be about their different approaches to technology.”

Donnarumma is an artist and researcher who syncretizes sound art and performance art via science and technology. Through human bodies, sound, infrasound, light, algorithms, body sensors and loudspeakers, Donnarumma constructs performances, concerts and installa­tions. His creative process can be described as a never-ending feedback among scientific exper­iments, development of custom technologies and artistic intuition.

Fellow artist and activist Neil Harbisson himself is a self-acclaimed cyborg; the govern­ment also recognizes him as a cyborg. Harbis­son was born with an inability to see color. In 2004, he had an antenna implanted in his skull that has allowed him to perceive both visible and invisible colors, including infrareds and ul­traviolets through sound waves and vibrations. The antenna’s internet connection enables him to also perceive colors from space. Additional­ly, Harbisson is able to detect images, videos, music or phone calls directly into his head via external devices such as satellites or mobile phones. Harbisson’s lecture, “Life in the Age of Cyborgs,” focused on his life as a cyborg and the proximity to nature and animals it brings. This event took place on Monday, April 11. Accord­ing to Perillan, “One idea that Neil Harbisson brought to the table in his wonderful lecture was that the very concept of ‘cyborg’ is chal­lenging, evolving and diffuse. It’s true that there are self-proclaimed cyborgs…whose (sic) intent is to be more human via their embodiment of technology. However, other cyborgs like Har­bisson expressly see themselves as transspe­cies. In other words, they purposefully identify as non-human. Neil invoked the struggle of the transgender community as a way of blazing the trail for individuals who want to transition to a new organism or species.”

Neil Harbisson was British-born and Cat­alan-raised . He is a contemporary artist and cyborg activist. His artworks explore the re­lationship between color and sound, test the boundaries of human perception and investi­gate artistic expression via the senses. In 2010, he co-founded the Cyborg Foundation, an in­ternational organization helping humans be­come cyborgs, defending cyborg rights and pro­moting cyborgism as both a social and artistic movement.

If there should be a takeaway, Pacio articu­lated, “I hope that audience members get a bet­ter understanding of what a cyborg is and how specifically these two individuals explore that identity through their art, which happens to be based in sound.”

According to Patch, many of these lessons have already resonated on campus. He ex­plained, “I think that the forming significance of the residency, which Jose and I did not an­ticipate, is how much the idea of cyborgism is a deeply human idea. Our cyborgs want to be more human, more sensitive and expressive of essentially human and social desires–not the cold, robotic automatons of science fiction. While we did not set out to combat technopho­bia, I feel like this series is having a bit of that effect. All three residencies have tackled tech­nology as a positive and in some cases neces­sary part of being human.”

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