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(Credits: David Levene / UnBoxed)


Dreamachine: the art installation changing the world through collective tripping

Dreamachine review

When I’m asked to close my eyes, I do so willingly. I’ve spent the last ten minutes doing deep breathing exercises under the instruction of a dulcet-toned gentleman called Sam and feel as though I could slip into a deep, velvety sleep. For some reason, I find myself recalling the name my coffee-breathed high school science teacher gave to the darting shapes that wiggle their way across our vision. ‘Floaters’, he called them, the term given to white blood cells moving along the capillaries in our retinas. I imagine he thought his class would be stunned by such insight. In truth, it was met with the adolescent wheeze of “hahaha, sir said floater.”

I tell myself I need to concentrate. Then, suddenly, that niggling internal monologue retreats of its own accord. The darkness lifts and is replaced by a honey-gold haze, the kind that dappled our eyelids on childhood holidays in countries more clement than our own. For a moment, everything is still. As ambient pads continue to swell, the tangerine gauze behind my eyes is replaced by a veil of jittering technicolour static.

Inside this kaleidoscopic landscape, whole worlds are conjured into being only to be swept away. Initially, I try and control what I’m seeing, attempting to form pictures of my own, but my brain seems to have other ideas. Twisting funnels radiate outwards, giving way to slices of pale blue honeycomb and mandelbrot galaxies. At first, I’m a little overwhelmed, but soon the light becomes a comforting, paternal presence. As I dream, the music plays on, bending itself into increasingly unlikely shapes before, at last, setting me down with the lightest touch.

When I open my eyes, I remember where I am: a cushioned chamber in deepest South London. All around me are supine journalists who, like myself, have just been treated to a preview of Unboxed’s new immersive installation, Dreamachine. Premiering in London from May 10th until July 24th, 2022, the experience invites audiences to embark on a hallucinatory journey without the need for actual hallucinogens. Combining flickering light designed to work on closed eyes and a 360 spatial score created by Grammy-nominated composer Jon Hopkins, Dreamachine is the multisensory experience crafted entirely inside your own head.

Regeneration is an essential part of the Dreamachine project, both in terms of its ability to stimulate connection and conversation between individuals and its emphasis on revitalising sites of cultural and civic significance. In London, Dreamachine will be held in the Grade II listed Woolwich Public Market (Now Woolwich Works). In Cardiff, where the experience will run from May 12th to June 18th, the Dreamachine will be housed in the Temple of Peace, which Sir Thomas Percy designed in the wake of the First World War to further international peace efforts.

Audiences take their seats in a space designed by Turner Prize-winning artists Assemble, where they will stay for around 20 minutes, losing themselves in an enveloping swirl of colour and sound. After the experience, participants will be taken to the reflection room, where a team of neuroscientists and philosophers from the University of Sussex and the University of Glasgow have joined forces with creative technology studio Holition to develop a selection of creative tools for audience reflection.

Dreamachine might sound distinctly millennial, but it was actually first formulated back in 1959 by the pioneering and shamefully underappreciated artist Brion Gysin, who came up with the idea after having a transcendental experience on a bus to Marseille. Eyes closed, he found himself lost in the gentle flickering of trees moving in front of a low-slung sun. 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 aimed to awaken humanity from within. Gysin wanted to give everyone a taste of his experience on that bus to Marseille and so set about crafting something capable of recreating it. His device was a cylinder with slits cut in the sides and a light bulb placed in its centre. The whole thing was designed to spin on a turntable at 78 rotations per minute. That speed was critical because it allowed rays of light to emerge at a frequency of eight to thirteen pulses per second, corresponding perfectly with the alpha waves emitted from the human brain when relaxed. 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. William S. Burroughs was in agreement, suggesting that the instrument 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. Nevertheless, over 60 years after it was first invented, Unboxed’s reimagined Dreamachine heralds the possibility of a truly collective transcendental experience. Each and every participant will step into their own inner universe, experiencing something unique and revealing about themselves. The installation seeks to change the way we see the world around us, helping us to embrace the mystery of lived experience. All we need to do is step inside.

Dreamachine will also be presented at Carlisle Memorial Church, Belfast (25 July – 4 September 2022) and Murrayfield Ice Rink, Edinburgh (13 August – 25 September 2022). The programme is delivered in partnership with Cardiff Council, Northern Ireland Science Festival, Edinburgh Science, and Edinburgh International Festival, and in association with Woolwich Works and W5 Belfast.