One day in 1958, Brion Gysin had a transcendental experience on the way to Marseille. The flickering of sunlight through avenues of trees along the roadside and the speed of the bus he was riding proved optimal, or so he thought, to put him in a hallucinatory dreamlike state.
“An overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns in supernatural colours exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space,” Gysin recalled. “I was swept out of time. I was out in a world of infinite number. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees.”
Gysin, an avant-garde artist and poet perhaps best known for the textual cut-up method that inspired David Bowie to creatively randomise his lyrics, was determined to create a gizmo that could induce others to experience what he had during his bus trip – namely vivid illusions of moving patterns when flickering lights shone through closed eyelids. After conversations with the novelist William Burroughs and Cambridge maths student Ian Sommerville, Gysin devised a cylindrical device he named the Dreamachine, which he described as the “the first art object to be seen with the eyes closed”.
The Dreamachine would awaken humanity, Gysin hoped, from cultural stupefaction and liberate us from being passive consumers of mass-produced imagery. Gysin hoped it would replace every TV in every home in the US and make us creators of our own cinematic experiences. You may have noticed that didn’t happen.
Sixty-four years later, Jennifer Crook, an art producer and director of Collective Act, which specialises in delivering challenging events in public spaces (she built – and burned – a 72ft (22 metre) community-built temple in a zone between Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland, and catalysed a re-enactment of the largest rebellion of enslaved people in US history) has updated the Dreamachine for a our age. Thanks to Netflix and social media timelines, we risk becoming more screen-fixated and experientially passive than Gysin imagined in his worst nightmares.
Collaborating with neuroscientists, philosophers, Turner prize-winning artists and trance musicians, among others, Crook has created a 21st-century Dreamachine that, later this year, will be offering 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 one where the technology was hidden and the potential for inducing mind-bending hallucinatory states optimal. Serendipitously, Anthony Engi Meacock from Assemble did his master’s thesis on Gysin’s Dreamachine, so knew where Crook was coming from. Moreover, Assemble specialises in discreet interventions, winning the Turner prize in 2015 for their project in Liverpool’s Four Streets community, refurbishing and beautifying run-down houses. The success of that project in Toxteth was marked by the very near invisibility of their signature contribution.
Meacock estimates 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. “Levels of comfort, whether you were lying or sitting, how visitors were located to the light source, all of these completely changed the nature of the experience generated by the strobing effects.”
While Gysin’s Dreamachine, rather like Wilhelm Reich’s near-contemporaneous “orgone accumulator”, was designed to stimulate intense, subjective experiences, Crook’s Dreamachine is a collective version.
“Gysin created an object, I wanted to create an experience,” says Crook. “Both an intensely subjective one, rather like the transcendental one he had on the bus, but also a collective one.”
In this, she was inspired by going to a 2014 Royal Festival Hall gig by Jon Hopkins, an electronic musician who has collaborated with Brian Eno and Coldplay, and who has supplied 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 everybody seemed to be dancing in the aisles. It just felt like this transcendental moment.”
Hopkins, whose latest album, Music for Psychedelic Therapy, gives a sense of his lifelong interest in accessing alternative states through music, yoga and meditation, stresses the value of undergoing such transcendental experiences in group settings. “It’s like the difference between singing solo and in a choir. There’s an exponential improvement to the experience in the collective.”
But what is the value of achieving these alternative states? “The important thing about these practices is the loss of ego and the beginning of shared experience,” says Hopkins. “These are alternatives to our problem-solving, scientific consciousness of reality. I think we evolved to have other forms of consciousness. For indigenous tribes in the Amazon, those alternative consciousness states become part of the shared experience of everyday life. We live in a society that doesn’t believe in that.”
Hopkins believes that, after the past two years, we yearn for collective experiences and deeper personal ones: the Dreamachine may provide both. “There has been a decline in general mental health and a yearning to live differently. In my opinion, looking inside ourselves is where we find the answer.”
Anil Seth, professor of computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex, hopes the Dreamachine project will highlight for the British public the hard problem of consciousness and the rich inner diversity of human mental lives. “We’re used to, as it were, external diversity – skin colour, different belief systems. When people report what they have experienced in the Dreamachine, it shows us something that has obsessed me for years: internal diversity. Your experience of blue may be different from mine, but language suggests they are the same. In fact, maybe language works because it papers over these differences.”
Seth has become involved to stimulate public interest in what consciousness is and how perception works, and to invite an audience to take part in one of Britain’s biggest scientific research projects. A “perception census” compiled from visitor questionnaire responses is aimed at shining a light on our inner perceptual inner worlds. “It will be citizen science on an unprecedented scale,” says Seth. He hopes that 100,000 or more visitors will be involved when Dreamachine tours to London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh this year as part of Unboxed – the £120m festival commissioned by Theresa May’s government to celebrate British ingenuity.
Dreamachine will also be involved in A New Direction, the schools project that resulted in Steve McQueen’s Year 3, an exhibition of photographic portraits of every year-three London schoolchild, which resulted in more primary school pupils than ever before thronging Tate Britain. Pupils will be invited to reflect on the issues the Dreamachine raises. “Seven year olds naturally ask profound questions about consciousness and perception, so I anticipate they will find Dreamachine really engaging,” says Seth.
But what is going on when flickering lights induce the hallucinatory, even psychedelic, experiences that Gysin described? “Normally we see with the visual cortex,” says Seth. “The geometric and kaleidoscopic images that people see might be the visual cortex revealing its structure to us. These flickering light effects may be inducing us to see the cortex. It’s not by any means certain, but computational models suggest as much.”
Like Gysin, Crook hopes her Dreamachine can revolutionise humanity. Eyes wide shut, we might open the portals of perception wider than ever. “We have this big organ that’s capable of so much and we’re using so little of it. My dream is that Dreamachine could be a new kind of secular temple. I really want it to change the world.”