Brion Gysin and the Dream Machine
“Had a transcendental storm of colour visions today in the bus going to Marseilles. We ran through a long avenue of trees and I closed my eyes against the setting sun. An overwhelming flood of intensely bright colors exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional 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?”
Extract from the diary of Brion Gysin, December 21, 1958
The Dream Machine is a device for altering brainwave frequency essentially inducing an alpha state at which point the brain begins to generate waking visions similar to the effect(s) of LsD, peyote, psylocybin and other hallucinogens.
The machine is a simple rotating cylinder with slats in the sides and a light inside that creates a flicker pattern as it spins. The user of the Dream Machine sits in front of it with eyes closed, and allows the precisely-calibrated flicker pattern to play over their face, creating a strobe effect in the darkness behind their eyelids. After a short period of adjustment, the user begins to experience eidetic imagery, in the same way that one does just as passing over the threshold between wakefulness and sleep.
Developed in the 1950s by Brion Gysin (January 19, 1916 – July 13, 1986), who was expelled from the Surrealist Group by André Breton at the age of 19, and the electronics technician Ian Sommerville, the Dream Machine surpassed the techniques of the Surrealists for bizarre image generation. Salvador Dalí’s Paranoiac-Critical exercise is an example of an earlier method (the artist would fall asleep in an armchair while holding a rock in his hand and, upon his fingers relaxing the rock would crash to the ground and wake him up whereupon he would immediately record what he had just seen or dreamt.) The Dream Machine allowed for a convenient and immediate way to get at eidetic imagery without the need for sleep or chemical stimulation
Gysin was inspired by the history of and medical research in flicker effects – Nostradamus was alleged to have had visions by closing his eyes, facing the sun and flickering his fingers in front of his eyes. While staying at the infamous Beat Hotel in Paris where he lived with Sommerville and Burroughs (along with Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Derek Raymond and others) he constructed the first prototype od the Dream Machine and Burroughs wrote extensively about Dream Machines in his novels in which he depicted it as a weapon for the freedom of consciousness in the eternal war against Control. The author spoke highly of his friends’ invention, saying: “Subjects report dazzling lights of unearthly brilliance and color… Elaborate geometric constructions of incredible intricacy build up from multidimensional mosaic into living fireballs like the mandalas of Eastern mysticism or resolve momentarily into apparently individual images and powerfully dramatic scenes like brightly colored dreams.”
The machine was officially unveiled in 1962 at the Louvre’s Museé des Arts Decoratifs to a fascinated public and press but Gysin, unsatisfied with a small art audience, dreamed of mass production. Along with the cut-up method of text composition he had honed with Burroughs, Gysin considered the Dream Machine his magical message to the world.
Gysin died in 1986, the cause of the Dream Machine having been taken up by his protégé Genesis P-Orridge and the loose occult and media subversion network the Temple ov Psychick Youth. TOPY both propagandized the Dream Machine and distributed information on how to make your own, using Gysin’s original plans. The construction is not difficul: All you needs is a large sheet of cardboard, a sharp blade to cut the slats out, a light source suspended by a cord and a spare turntable. There are also web pages and programs that generate the same flicker effect . You can even get a free Dream Machine iPhone app.
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John Geiger: Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin
Flicker: Documentary film from 1997 on Brion Gysin’s Dreamachine. Directed by Nic Sheehan.