Science + Art : Guest Speakers

slide showing neil harbisson's colour research

Words and images : Kellie Craig

Dr Emma Tole and Neil Harbisson

Students from courses across the School of Art today attended lectures by Dr Emma Tole, a biomedical researcher based at MMU, and Neil Harbisson, certified ‘cyborg’; both have used collaboration with science and technology to create works of art.

Emma is a researcher from the cognitive motor function research group based in John Dalton, here at MMU. Her presentation was a mainly visual record of the research she undertakes, and how it is being used for purposes outside the confines of the laboratory. She is interested in physiology, the study of human movement. Using a plethora of specialist medical research equipment, Emma uses scanners to create images of body composition, bone properties and general anatomy. Using ultrasound, she is able to construct images of the inside of the body, specialising in the movement of the lower leg.

In these specialist scans, we were able to see how the information and data collected by small receivers placed on the body were translated into computer graphics, sound and video. In looking at images of muscle fibres, students were able to see the relationship between what we think our bodies are doing and what they are actually doing on the inside.

slide showing emma's research

One collaborative pursuit Emma had participated in included a performance piece, choreographed by students of Performing Arts based at MMU’s Crewe campus. Using stop motion data gathered from a dancer in the laboratory, a group of students performed a dance piece that was accompanied by a projection of the data as an extra member of the group. The research Emma has been undertaking shows that data does not have to be confined to graphs and lab reports, but can be translated into something new and exciting, that can be interpreted in different and innovative ways.

Secondly, we heard from ‘certified cyborg’ Neil Harbisson; a contemporary artist, musician, and cyborg activist best known for his self-extended ability to hear and perceive colours like no other human being, Harbisson wanted to change his life through technology. Born with achromatopsia, the ability to see only in greyscale, his artistic pursuits stem from his ability to perceive colour through a piece of technology he not only wears, but also feels has become a part of his own body. He argues that it is impossible to ignore colour, therefore his decision to create an antenna that translates light frequency into sound frequencies has undoubtedly changed his life; he has an extra sense that no other human being can perceive.

slide showing neil harbisson's colour research

Starting with a piece of wearable technology called the ‘Eyeborg’ developed in 2004, Harbisson used to wear a computer on his back, a set of headphones and a small webcam device on his head in order to translate light frequencies into sound frequencies through custom-made software. Now implanted as a chip into the back of his skull, he can hear colour. This incredible and innovative way of making sense of our surroundings has been hailed as revolutionary, subsequently creating the Cyborg Foundation in order to help other human beings extend their senses through cybernetics.

What particularly blew my mind was his inability to differentiate between the sounds captured by his antenna, and his functioning brain whilst dreaming. This uncontrollability must certainly be a source of inspiration in his artwork, with the technology working in two different ways; not only can he ‘listen’ to the colour of a painting, he also creates pieces of art through translating the ‘look’ of a particular sound. His works of art include transposition of “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky, sound portraits of celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio, Dame Judi Dench and Prince Charles, and cybernetic-influenced devised theatre.

neil harbisson

These brand new ways of thinking about art and science will inevitably provide a source of inspiration for many of the students, who wouldn’t necessarily think art and science were related. I bet they change their minds now!

“I don’t feel that I’m using technology, I don’t feel that I’m wearing technology, I feel that I am technology”- Neil Harbisson


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