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Brion Gysin: The pioneering artist who invented the Dreamachine


Brion Gysin is truly an artist for our time. While almost entirely forgotten now, the painter, sculptor and sound artist’s various innovations have influenced some of the most important creatives of the 20th century. Take David Bowie for example, who utilised Gysin’s ‘Cut Up’ technique to reconfigure permeable narratives into oblique and engrossing lyrics.

In a world where the way we perceive and gather information has been completely fragmented, this dadaist approach to creation appears to have been rather prescient. Indeed, many of his greatest works, including the Dreamachine – an installation designed to inspire transcendental experiences in the user – hold more relevance now than they did when they were crafted, all of which begs the question: Why has Gysin’s name not endured?

Gysin was born in 1916, by which time his native England had been at war for just under two years and morale was beginning to fade. His father, a captain in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, was killed in action just eight months after his birth. War in Europe would dog Gysin’s young life, with the relative calm of the interwar years offering him the chance to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, where, in the mid-1930s, he fell in with The Surrealist Group, which counted Salvador Dali, Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Man Ray, and Max Ernst among its ranks. After his first exhibition in Paris, he was expelled by Andre Breton for not adhering to the founder’s strangely limiting surrealist manifesto.

Following a spell in the US army during World War Two, Gysin travelled to Morocco with Paul Bowles. Here, under the North African sun, Gysin was introduced to Beat writer William S. Burroughs, with whom he travelled back to Paris in 1958. It was in one of the shabby hotel rooms of the Rue Gît-le-Cœur, where Gysin and Burroughs first experimented with the cut-up technique, which involved them taking passages of text, cutting them into fragments with scissors, and then rearranging them to reveal new meanings. The pair’s experiments would eventually lead to The Third Mind, the cut-up manifesto that would eventually be discovered by David Bowie. Speaking in the 1970s, Bowie explained that the method served as a way of “igniting anything that might be in my imagination. I was doing it with diaries and things, and I was finding amazing things out about me and the things I’d done, and where I was going. It seemed as though it could predict things about the future.”

That future, and the way it would alter human experience, was constantly playing on Gysin’s mind. In the 1960s, he embarked on a project with young computer scientist Ian Sommerville. Together, Gysin and Sommerville attempted to write poetry with the aid of computer algorithms, making Gysin’s Permutations some of the earliest examples of computer-generated literature. Some of these poems were written down, while others, such as ‘I Am I Am’ and ‘Pistol Poetry’, comprised solely of gunshots recorded at varying distances, exist only on magnetic tape. We’ve all heard tell of how the world of AI is rapidly embracing art, well, Gysin was already taking steps to do so just ten years after the invention of the Turing test.

Around the time of his first Permutation experiments, Gysin had a transcendental experience on a bus to Marseille. Gazing out of the window, he found himself lost in the gentle flickering of the sun as the bus passed along the city’s tree-lined streets. As the artist later recalled, the unity of light and movement elicited quite the cerebral response: “An overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns in supernatural colours 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 numbers. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees.”

This experience would lead to the invention of Gysin’s Dreamachine, an instrument not unlike William Reich’s Orgone accumulator, in the sense that it was designed to awaken humanity through the power of transcendental experiences. Gysin wanted to give everyone a taste of his experience on that bus to Marseille and so set to work with Sommerville to craft something capable of recreating it. The Dreamachine is a cylinder with slits cut in the sides and a light bulb placed in its centre. The whole thing spins on a record turntable at 78 rotations per minute. This speed is very important because it allows rays of light to emerge at a frequency of eight to thirteen pulses per second, corresponding perfectly with the alpha waves emitted from our brains when we are relaxed.

Using the machine generally induces a state of trance, in which hallucinations are possible without the need for psychoactive drugs. Gysin hoped that the Dreamachine would liberate the masses from the stupefying impact of television, which he feared was turning humanity into a race of passive consumers content to let their brains turn to hot mush. Burroughs was in agreement, arguing that the instrument could be used to ‘storm the citadels of enlightenment.’

Gysin dreamt of a world in which every household would have its own Dreamachine, but as you can probably tell, that world never arrived. Thankfully, 64 years after Gysin’s invention was first exhibited, it has been given new life by artist Jennifer Cook, who has expanded the scope of Gysin’s original idea. Cook, who has teamed up with electronic producer Jon Hopkins, will invite participants to assemble in a room and sit in a circle, after which they will be asked to close their eyes and let the Dreamachine do the rest. Combined, Hopkin’s music, Gysin’s Dreamachine, and the room itself provide the perfect environment for collective transcendental experiences and life-changing hallucinations.

While Gysin may have died in poverty, still a relatively unknown artist, his dream of awakening society from within is more alive than ever. Cook’s Dreamachine will tour Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London for Unboxed festival. You can book free tickets from late March.