Sunday, January 12, 2014

BPN 1676: Sound of Colors

This is not a blog posting about synaesthesia, a neurological phenomenon of a joining together of sensations that are normally experienced separately (hearing green grass), but the posting will deal with cyborg, the joining of organic and material parts. In fact it will concern the first cyborg ever.

The word cyborg was not in my encyclopaedia till I met Ann Westfelt, a Swedish jury member of the Europrix Awards. In a conversation about trade literature a Scandinavian book on cyborgs was mentioned. But it took till 2004 before I was confronted with a real example, not a concept, again during a Europrix jury.

Neil Harbisson at the Europrix party, talking to Chiara Boeri, an Italian artist.
The project from Britain was an entry by the out-of-the-box thinker Adam Montandon. He had met Neil Harbisson, who suffers from a rare disease, achromatopsia. This condition is caused by genes, so that the affected people get monochromatism or complete colour blindness. They really only see black and white and their colour blindness differs from the variety with which the red and green colours can be distinguished.

For a student arts complete colour blindness is an absolute disaster as the colour palette is not more than black and white, not even grey. This was not only annoying for his study, but also in everyday life. "I confused red jam with tomato and orange juice with apple juice" Neil said in an interview. He also used to wear clothes in one colour, black.

After a lecture on cybernetics at the Plymouth University, given by the 23 -year-old Englishman Adam Montandon, Neil got in touch with him and told him about his disability. Adam looked into the problem for his graduation assignment. It was clear that he needed a camera and computer to record colours. But Adam also realized that only then the problem starts. Because how do you convert colour? With words you cannot fully specify the colour shades. Eventually he chose for conversion of colours into sounds. Neil got a camera on his head, a PC in his backpack and an earpiece. The structure he called Eye-borg.

Adam Montandon developed colour-to- sound conversion software, that worked dynamically. Each level got a frequency; in this way, the pure intensity of the colour can be determined and displayed. With a noise value Neil had to learn the pitch of the sounds. Red is translated in low noise , while violet has a high sound. And he did learn fast. Soon he started to wear colourful clothes on his blue jeans.
Passport photograph of Neil Harbisson

Soon Adam and Neil saw that technology is one solution, but they also saw the social implication. The gear has become part of his body. It has become a medical prosthesis. So he received a certificate from the National Health regarding his camera. In the meantime he has received a passport with a portrait photograph showing the camera.

Now a group of creatives wants to produce a documentary movie with the title Sound of Colors. The title shows similarity to The Sound of Music, the movie which plays in Austria. That country supported the Europrix Awards and the selection of the sonochromatic cyborg. But then in 2011 Arnau Gifreu Castells of the Universitat Ramón Llull – Universitat de Vic in Spain reports in Graz (Austria) about an audiovisual and online interactive documentary about Neil Harbisson and the cyborg, produced as part of a degree project. And now this project gets a sequel in an official documentary.

The official documentary about the first cyborg Sound of Colors will be a crowdfunded project. And now the circle is round. The crowdfunding organiser is the Spanish organisation Verkami, which in 2013 in Sri Lanka received the World Summit Award, the successor to the Europrix Awards. The project group is requesting 3.200 euro to produce the documentary.

Update Febr. 1, 2014: The official documentary about the first cyborg Sound of Colors was a  crowdfunded project by the Spanish organiser Verkami. The requested 32.000 euro has been pledged for and even more, while there are still 18 days left. So the making of the movie can start.

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