Sound and vision: art beyond boundaries

Two unique artists are pioneering new genres that express human senses they were born without, questioning ideas about perception

In March of this year, Dubai Canvas Festival and Art Dubai hosted two extraordinary artists who spoke to a wider theme of art that doesn’t just blur boundaries – it ignores them.

Deaf and colour-blind, respectively, artists Christine Sun Kim and Neil Harbisson challenge the conventional notion of perception, inviting viewers to experience the world more fully through others’ senses by learning a new language and technology. Rising from the ashes of sensory loss, their artwork celebrates the brain’s ability to not just compensate for such sensory limitations, but to surpass them.

Our five senses seem to operate independently but they collaborate closely to enable the mind to perceive its surroundings. We become more fully aware of this when, say, someone experiences the loss of any one sense.

“Like animals, humans make extraordinary adaptations to both their environment and their unique conditions,” says Dr Christopher Platt, a programme director at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Washington DC. He adds: “It’s also remarkable that the sensory cortex in animals can even reorganise itself when sensory input is lost.” 

In the case of Christine Sun Kim and Neil Harbisson, such reorganisation, along with the assistance of modern technology, is changing the face of art and amplifying the voices of those previously thought disabled.

Born in California to Korean parents in 1980, Christine Sun Kim learned her social cues by watching how others experienced sound.

Kim believes that sound isn’t something that you only experience through your ears. “If I’m at a restaurant, I can see people looking around normally and I survey the scene; but if everyone darts in the same direction, I know something has happened,” she says. “A loud noise, a fight, somebody’s been shot. I can tell what’s going on using people as speakers, so I mirror what is going on.”

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Christine Sum Kim describes being deaf as like living in a foreign country

Kim has described deafness as being akin to living in a foreign country, blindly following its rules, customs and behaviours. She now explores social cues from an artistic perspective.

In 2008, Kim was specialising in painting, and she travelled to Berlin to be an artist-in-residence. The use of sound was a trend, and she believed that sound could also be felt and seen and experienced as an idea.

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Kim conducts a performance in which people pretend to be metronomes

“I find there are a lot of parallels of ASL (American Sign Language) to music,” says Kim. Once Kim began viewing her ASL gestures through a musical lens, her style was born. She repeated signs over and over and noticed how they took on a form of “visual music”.

Kim’s art explores a range of musical metaphors to describe how she experiences sound. “I actually have one drawing that shows a lot of musical notes going around in a circle, but it is indicating different voices. A purple voice is my voice for therapy, red is for socialising. There are different ways to represent it visually, but it’s hard to find an interpreter who has the full rainbow or components of all my voices.”

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Kim's work often involves a playful dialogue with people who create music

Spoken language defines our culture and because Kim doesn’t use her literal voice to communicate, she needs someone to become her voice. So how does an artist trust another to effectively convey her thoughts?

“I’ve developed a sense of what I’m looking for in an interpreter,” she explains. “The hard part is trying to figure out how I’m being voiced. I ask other interpreters to comment on my interpreter’s ability to voice me. It also helps a lot if we share similar personalities. It makes sense because then we socialise better and conversation is easier.”

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Neil Harbisson likes to wear vibrant, colourful clothes that 'sound good'

Neil Harbisson, meanwhile, who was born in London and grew up in Spain, has developed a technology that has transformed him into a self-described “cyborg”. “Cats have tails that extend their sense of balance,” he explains. “Seals have whiskers to extend their sense of touch and some fish have lateral lines that extend their sense movement. I have an antenna that extends my perception of light and sound beyond traditional senses and beyond Earth.”

Like Kim, Harbisson finds inspiration in sharing his Technicolor way of seeing his previously colourless world with others. He was born with a rare form of colour blindness called achromatopsia, where a person can only perceive the world in greyscale.

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His antenna is surgically implanted into the occipital bone in his skull

“Everyone uses colour in a social way and as a code,” he says. “There’s a language to colour. So I felt like I was missing out not being able to communicate through it. It’s how we make sense of almost everything.”

In 2004, he had a device implanted into his skull that, through an electronic ‘eye’, transmits audible vibrations, and allows him to ‘hear’ colours as different musical frequencies. The antenna allows him to ‘perceive’ and transpose colours beyond the normal human spectrum of 360 hues.

Harbisson’s artistic innovation is about more than creating pictures – it’s an artistic connection between him and his subject. When he creates a portrait of you, his antenna surveys your face’s composition by turning the colours it sees into audible frequencies – what Harrison calls a “face concert”. He writes down the different ‘notes’ of the hair, eyes, skin and lips, then creates a musical chord that he then translates into a colour and shape.

Harbisson calls his art “sonochromatic”, a neurological phenomenon, resulting in portraits that viewers can hear, as in the case of his celebrated portraits of Prince Charles and Nicole Kidman. He also does the reverse, creating pictures from the sound of a human voice. His recent show at Dubai Canvas Festival was perhaps his most ambitious yet, translating the colours of the Dubai skyline into a musical composition. 

“I can hear a rainbow and I can hear someone’s eyes,” he says. “A glass of orange juice is a glass of F sharp and a glass of milk is a glass of silence. I now play music by looking at things. I give colour concerts instead of piano concerts. I don’t need an instrument, I am the instrument.”

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Harbisson's disc paintings are a response to particular albums

Harbisson can also receive phone calls, pictures, videos and music directly into his head. He can also connect his antenna to satellites and telescopes and extend his senses into outer space.

Kim and Harbisson regard themselves not as conventional artists missing senses, but as extrasensory artists. Their art represents both empowerment and perhaps a new world-view through heightened and augmented senses.