Dreamachine, a device exclusive for aesthetic hallucinations
May 16, 2016
The first object to have been designed with the purpose of being seen with closed eyes.
‘The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees. Was that a vision? What happened to me?’
–Brion Gysin on his experience with the Dreamachine
In an attempt to recreate a spontaneous hallucination he had during a bus ride to Marseille, Brion Gysin created a stroboscopic device known as The Dreamachine. Gysin says that once, he closed his eyes while he was riding a bus as it was going down a long street surrounded by trees at sunset, suddenly, he began experiencing innumerable brilliant colours exploding behind his eyelids, as if he was staring into a kaleidoscope. This is probably an illusion we’ve all experienced as we rub our eyes while we’re facing the sun or, like Gysin, when we close our eyes as we travel down a street where the light is interrupted by trees.
The device is a cylinder with cut-outs on its sides. If the cylinder is placed on a platform that turns at 78 or 45 rpm (for example a turntable)with a light bulb in its centre, the intermittent flashes produce a frequency that corresponds to that of alpha waves, which immitate the natural waves that occur when the human brain is relaxed or meditating.
The Dreamachine is the first object to have been designed with the purpose of being seen with closed eyes. It explores the different possibilities of perception—as Gysin puts it— ‘for our thoughts to function beyond any control’. The blinking light stimulates the optical nerve and the nervous oscillations of the brain, producing visions of fast, bright movements and geometrical patterns. A prolonged session before the machine can take the experience one step further, altering our perception of time and space, leading to a dream-like state. In an interview with John Savage, Gysin pointed out:
I have seen in it practically everything that I have ever seen—that is, all imagery. All the images of established religions, for example, appear— crosses appear, to begin with; the eyes of Isis float by, and many other symbols like that appear as if they were the Jungian symbols that he considered were common to all mankind.
During the Fifties and Sixties, Gysin met Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouak and William Burroughs in Paris, and spent some time living with them in what was known as the ‘Beat Hotel’. Burroughs once mentioned that Gysin was the only man he had ever respected, and used the machine’s intermittent technique while he worked.
The Dreamachine was immortalised in Nik Sheedan’s film FLicKeR, which has recently been shown at the MoMA and The New Museum in New York. On Gysin’s official website you can find the instructions to build your own machine or you can buy one online.