The woman who can
feel every earthquake
in the world
Author: Gabriella Garcia | Photographer: Alex Thebez
hen Moon Ribas performs, anticipation hangs heavy throughout the space. Dressed in all white, Ribas stands motionless with eyes closed as Brian Eno’s Lux fills the air. Suddenly, she gasps and convulses into action—sometimes it’s a small gesture, other times her body seems to writhe beyond her control—often for less than a minute before returning to complete stillness. Like erratic clockwork, the waiting begins again.
What can’t be seen by the audience is that Ribas’ choreography is cued by a small chip grafted into her elbow which sends seismic readings from all over the world; whenever there is an earthquake, the chip vibrates to reflect the magnitude of the shakeup, which Ribas translates into movement.
As such, she reflects the same uncertainty as anyone living along earth’s many fault lines: trusting in stillness, but knowing that turbulence can come at any time. By grafting the chip into her arm, Ribas has committed to a continuous conversation with the planet, feeling its tremors whether or not she is performing her aptly titled piece, Waiting for Earthquakes. “It’s like a heartbeat—the Earth is constantly beating,” Ribas tells Hopes&Fears, “so I feel like now I have two heartbeats: my own heartbeat and the Earth’s.”
Ribas was not always a technophile. In fact, Ribas says that she went as far as rejecting technology, feeling as though it was cold and distant. It wasn’t until she attended the School for New Dance Development at Amsterdam’s Theaterschool that she began to integrate technology into her performances with the encouragement of her teachers. While her peers interpreted the pedagogical challenge by using technology to change the landscape of the performance, Ribas saw an opportunity to experiment with how technology could alter her senses as the performer. “I was wondering how we could experience movement in a different way, and then I realized we didn’t have the sense of speed,” Ribas recalls. So she developed gloves that could help her perceive movement around her; vibrating from one hand to another, Ribas could sense exactly how fast something was traveling based on the interval of space between vibrations. She then created earrings using the same concept, feeling speed travel from one side of her head to another. Soon, she could fluently translate the different speeds of movements around her based on the vibrations without calculating the time between intervals, intrinsically creating a new sense.
t wasn’t until the seismic sensor that she decided to make the technology a part of her being. When determining which sense to stitch to her body, earthquakes seemed an obvious choice for the choreographer. “When you think about dance, you think about movement. Then you realize that not only humans move, there are lots of things moving,” Ribas explains. “The planet moves constantly: not only rotates, but also shakes. It shakes everything, and constantly. That’s powerful.” Similarly, the chip in her elbow is also constantly active, responding with vibration to seismic readings regardless of whether or not she’s performing. If there happens to be an earthquake while she’s talking to someone, she might pause for a moment. Ribas laughs about this, saying, “Earth keeps interrupting my daily life! It’s a nice feeling.” She has paused multiple times during our conversation, and I wonder how many were because of earthquakes.
Waiting for Earthquakes has thus developed into an expository portrayal of the living earth, during which Ribas uses the artificial mechanism in order to amplify the natural world. When performing, Ribas says that she feels as though she is in dialogue with the planet—the earth, she says, decides “when,” and Ribas decides “how.” In a way, she plays a conduit through which the planet can say, “I’m here and I’m active.” It’s strange to think that it’s necessary to anthropomorphize Earth in order to understand it. Yet Ribas notes that we consider earthquakes a sort of personified evil that acts beyond our control, when in all actuality, they are quite organic and rather unaligned with our human philosophies of good versus evil.
Along the path of her career, Ribas has developed a trust in technology as a way to extend the limitations of the body. “Adding more senses, you have a different relation to the planet—a different experience of reality,” she says. By literally implanting the chip into her body, she is a card-carrying cyborg in the truest fashion. Ribas now bases herself out of New York, where she lives with longtime friend Neil Harbisson, himself a cyborg who resolved his colorblindness by implanting an antennae that translates color into sound so that he can perceive their differences. Together they started the Cyborg Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes applied cybernetics, defends cyborg rights, and promotes awareness of cyborg activity in both arts and sciences.
ibas hopes that more people will consider sensory extensions, saying that they can create a different relationship between individuals, the planet, and others. “If everyone extends their sense of ultraviolet light, for example, your experience will be different when you go to the beach because you would be more conscious of the sun and how it will affect your skin,” Ribas explains. In this way, she hopes that cybernetics will create a more respectful interaction between people and their surroundings. “If you have a different experience of your surroundings, maybe your behavior will also change.”
Despite her own choice, Ribas doesn’t believe that surgical enhancements are necessary in order to internalize the cyborg experience. “It’s more about the mind, and the relationship between mind and technology. It doesn’t matter if the technology is inside the body or outside, what matters is that you feel it,” she says. In fact, Ribas affirms the belief that more people are cyborgs than are identifying as such. The internet, for instance, is an extra sense that extends our capacity for knowledge and changes the way we relate to time and space by providing the capability for open communication. She hopes to see people extend their senses based on personality, depending on what individual interests are.
I think it would be nice to say, ‘Oh what’s your sense?’ It’s much more interesting when everyone can develop their own perception of the world.
ot surprisingly, the cybernetics movement is not without its detractors, especially because its most visible constituents require surgical augmentations. Ribas notes that the Cyborg Foundation’s biggest challenge has been facing the bioethics community, with some members arguing that cybernetic enhancements aren’t necessary. Surgical procedures go through a rigorous approval process in order to be implemented at hospitals; so, without the support of bioethicists, those who wish to “explore life in a different way” (as Ribas puts it) must go through experimental means, or even employ DIY methods. However, Ribas argues that this is just a symptom of neophobia, saying, “new things are always scary to people. When TV came a lot of people were against it; anything that’s a big change scares people.”
Accordingly, the Cyborg Foundation’s biggest champions have been young people, who Ribas says have less of a prejudice against technology. “Lots of people our age and older, they think this union between humans and technology is bad and it will destroy this world,” Ribas observes. “But we are the ones who need to make sure this union isn’t bad and negative, to show that it’s a good thing and that it makes us more empathetic to nature and to this planet.”