Dreamachine, the psychedelic device that hopes to blow up British minds | Exhibitions
On day of 1958, Brion Gysin lived a transcendental experience on the way to Marseille. The flickering of sunlight through the avenues of trees along the road and the speed of the bus he was driving proved optimal, or so he thought, for putting him into a hallucinatory dream state.
“An overwhelming stream of intensely luminous patterns in unearthly colors exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope swirling in space,” Gysin recalls. “I was carried away by time. I was in a world of infinite numbers. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees.
Gysin, an avant-garde artist and poet perhaps best known for the textual slicing method that inspired David Bowie to creatively randomize his lyrics, was determined to create a gimmick that could inspire others to experience what he had during his bus journey – namely vivid illusions of moving patterns when twinkling lights shone through closed eyelids. After conversations with novelist William Burroughs and Cambridge mathematics student Ian Sommerville, Gysin designed a cylindrical device he named the Dreamachine, which he described as “the first object of art to see eyes closed”.
The Dreamachine would awaken humanity, Gysin hoped, from cultural amazement and free us from the passive consumption of mass-produced images. Gysin hoped it would replace every television in every home in the United States and make us the creators of our own cinematic experiences. You may have noticed that this did not happen.
Sixty-four years later, Jennifer Crookart producer and director of Collective Act, specializing in bringing inspirational events to public spaces (she built – and burned – a 72ft (22m) community-built temple in an area between Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland, and catalyzed a reconstruction of the largest slave rebellion in US history) updated the Dreamachine for our time. Thanks to Netflix and social media calendars, we risk becoming more screen-obsessed and passive about experience than Gysin imagined in his worst nightmares.
Working with neuroscientists, philosophers, Turner Prize-winning artists, and trance musicians, among others, Crook has created a 21st-century Dreammachine that later this year will offer visitors free transcendental experiences without the need for illegal hallucinogenic drugs.
Visitors to the machine will enter a room and sit in a circle before closing their eyes. Crook invited architecture collective Assemble to create an environment optimal for inducing transcendental experiences, but where the technology was hidden and the potential for inducing mind-blowing hallucinatory states was optimal. Coincidentally, Anthony Engi Meacock from Assemble did his master’s thesis on Gysin’s Dreamachine, so he knew where Crook was from. Additionally, Assemble specializes in low-key interventions, winning the Turner Prize in 2015 for its project in the Four Streets community of Liverpool, renovating and sprucing up dilapidated homes. The success of this project in Toxteth has been marked by the near invisibility of their signature contribution.
Meacock estimates that he has spent 40 hours inside various iterations of Dreamachine and that the nature and intensity of the experiences he has had are altered by the environment. “The levels of comfort whether you were lying down or sitting down, how visitors were situated in relation to the light source, all of this completely changed the nature of the experience generated by the strobe effects.”
While Gysin’s Dreamachine, much like Wilhelm Reich’s near-contemporary “orgone accumulator”, was designed to stimulate intense subjective experiences, Crook’s Dreamachine is a collective version of it.
“Gysin created an object, I wanted to create an experience,” says Crook. “At the same time intensely subjective, a bit like the transcendental one he had on the bus, but also collective.”
In this, she was inspired by a concert at the Royal Festival Hall 2014 by Jon Hopkins, an electronic musician who collaborated with Brian Eno and Coldplay, and who provided a musical soundscape for the new Dreamachine. “It’s hard to describe what happened,” she recalls, “but one guy in our row started dancing, and then everyone seemed to be dancing in the aisles. It was just like this transcendent moment.
Hopkins, whose latest album, Music for Psychedelic Therapy, hints at his lifelong interest in accessing alternate states through music, yoga, and meditation, underscores the value of having such transcendental experiences in groups. “It’s like the difference between singing solo and in a choir. There is an exponential improvement in the experience in the collective.
But what is the value of achieving these alternate states? “The important thing about these practices is the loss of ego and the beginning of a shared experience,” says Hopkins. “These are alternatives to our problem-solving scientific awareness of reality. I think we evolved to have other forms of consciousness. For the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, these alternate states of consciousness are part of the shared experience of everyday life. We live in a society that does not believe in it.
Hopkins believes that after the past two years, we yearn for collective experiences and deeper personal experiences: the Dreamachine can provide both. “There has been a decline in general mental health and a desire to live differently. In my opinion, looking inside ourselves is where we find the answer.
Anil Seth, a professor of computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex, hopes the Dreamachine project will shed light for the British public on the difficult problem of consciousness and the rich inner diversity of human mental lives. “We are used to, so to speak, external diversity – skin color, different belief systems. When people report what they’ve experienced in the Dreamachine, it shows us something I’ve been obsessed with for years: internal diversity. Your experience of blue may be different from mine, but the language suggests they are the same. In fact, perhaps language works because it masks these differences.
Seth is committed to stimulating public interest in what consciousness is and how perception works, and to inviting the public to take part in one of Britain’s greatest scientific research projects. A “census of perceptions” compiled from responses to the visitor questionnaire aims to shed light on our inner perceptual worlds. “It will be citizen science on an unprecedented scale,” says Seth. He hopes 100,000 or more visitors will be involved as Dreamachine tours London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh this year as part of Unboxed – the £120million festival commissioned by Theresa May’s government to celebrate the British ingenuity.
Dreamachine will also be involved in A new direction, the school project that culminated in Steve McQueen’s Year 3, an exhibition of photographic portraits of every three-year-old London schoolboy, which has engaged more primary school children than ever before crowding Tate Britain. Students will be invited to reflect on the issues raised by the Dreamachine. “Seven-year-olds naturally ask deep questions about consciousness and perception, so I predict they’ll find Dreamachine really appealing,” says Seth.
But what happens when flickering lights induce the hallucinatory, even psychedelic experiences described by Gysin? “Normally, we see with the visual cortex,” explains Seth. “The geometric and kaleidoscopic images that people see could be the visual cortex telling us its structure. These twinkling light effects can inspire us to see the cortex. This is by no means certain, but computer models suggest so.
Like Gysin, Crook hopes his Dreammachine can revolutionize humanity. With our eyes wide closed, we could open the portals of perception wider than ever. “We have this big organ that is capable of so much and we use so little of it. My dream is that Dreamachine can be a new type of secular temple. I really want it to change the world.