Reimagining the Dreammachine: Pt. 1

Reflecting on the first art object designed to be viewed...with eyes closed

Reimagining the Dreammachine: Pt. 1
Man during Dreammachine session - Wikipedia

"Created from systems of science, art, and magic, the dreammachine is kind of a portal into the time-space continuum. It opens a window on a magical universe that is a very real place inside all our heads."

"Look into a Dreammachine, and look deep. Here you will actually see the fundamental order present in the physiology of the human brain. Your brain. Order imposed on chaos. Life imposed on matter. History and Mystery."

"Visions start as a kaleidoscope of colors on a plane in front of the eyes and gradually become more complex and beautiful, breaking like surf on a shore until whole patterns of color are pounding to get in."

The first quote was taken from the 1997 documentary FlicKer that chronicles the origin of the device. The second and third are from the inventors themselves as portrayed in the self authored book "Dreammachine Plans" by Brion Gysin.

FlicKer Documentary

I first heard about the dreammachine while listening to a recent episode of Mysterious Universe (season 28, episode 23). The guys there were discussing how the use of stroboscopic light could potentially induce transcendental type experiences. They mentioned an art show in the 50's that featured these devices and the artists who built them who called themselves "dream mechanics". After listening to the podcast I decided to do some further research as it sounded like a machine I could easily build to join the ranks of dream mechanic.

What the device actually is is hard to categorize. Is it a kinetic sculpture? Is it a form of entertainment? A meditative device? A predecessor to the lava lamp? Wikipedia offers a more prosaic description, simply calling the dreammachine a work of "light art".

Brion Gysin's Dreammachine

Conceived by cut-up artist, Brion Gysin, and technician friend Ian Sommerville in 1959, the device produces stroboscopic flickering and is claimed to be the first art object intended to be seen with eyes closed. When experienced it can create "eidetic visual stimuli" that can puportedly lead to an altered state.

The device is conceptually simple enough. It's made from a cylinder with a pattern of shapes cut out of its sides. The cylinder is placed on a turntable and then rotated at a predetermined speed based on scale. A light bulb is placed in the center of the cylinder, which creates a strobe effect due to the holes in the sides. The flickering light that results is at a rate that is calculated to match the frequency of the brain.

Cut-out shape pattern for flicker effect

As per Wikipedia,  it is meant to be looked at through closed eyelids, upon which "moving yantra-like mandala visual patterns emerge, and an alpha wave mental state is induced." 

I've always had an interest in devices that claim to cause altered states through brain wave entrainment. I've written about the Brain Machine which works on the same strobing light effect principal, and look for my upcoming post on binaural beats, where sound is used for the same purpose.

The genesis of the idea occurred in 1958 while Gysin was traveling on a bus to Marseilles. While traveling down a long avenue of trees he closed his eyes against the setting sun and had an unusual experience due to the flickering light. Here's an excerpt of what he described in his diary at the time:

"Had a transcendental storm of color visions today in the bus while going to Marseilles. An overwhelming flood of intensely bright colors exploded behind my eyelids: a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time. I was out in a world of infinite number. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees. Was that a vision? What happened to me?"

Transcendental Storm - Image by Author

When Gysin wrote his good friend and author William Burroughs describing what happened, Burroughs wrote back excitedly "we have to storm the citadels of enlightenment, the means are are hand!" This led to Gysin's collaboration with technician Ian Somerville to build the initial "flicker machine" which ultimately evolved into Gysin's dreammachine.

The dreammachine was a good match for the advant-garde aesthetic at the time. Born out of the Beat Culture in the 1950's where central tenants included spiritual quests and the rejection of standard narrative values like economic materialism, there was an abhorrence to mainstream "programming" and the resulting encouragement of conformity. Many works from both artists and authors at the time included elements of pattern interruption like cut-ups. Works that encourage spontaneity, revelations, and help the experiencer view the world anew.

Gysin considered the device an alternative to television and envisioned every household having one. An idea that matched the Beat ethos at the time. Given that television programming involves someone external dictating what you see, the dreamachine offers the promise of an opposite experience: Visions interpreted from the inside, showing you what you cannot individualized experience.

It's poetic actually.

There are mentions that Gysin patented the device (although I could not find one after much research). He pitched a licensing deal to the electronics giant Phillips, but it didn't come to fruition. In his book Dreammachine Plans, Gysin summed up his experience with Philips this way: "When I told them that it made people more awake, they lost interest. They were only interested in machines and drugs which made people go to sleep."

Perhaps more likely it was the inherent risk of an epileptic seizure that scared them off. It's known that for about 3% of people with epilepsy, exposure to flashing lights at certain intensities or to certain visual patterns can trigger seizures.

Seizure risk aside, the descriptions of what people experienced using the device was enough for me to attempt to become a dream mechanic with my own home built version.

Consider becoming a free member f you would like to read my upcoming posts about how I built the device and my real-world experiences when testing it out.

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