History of the Dream Machine

As I've written on BB before, Brion Gysin is one of my favorite artists, and his thinking and interests influenced me in myriad ways. Gysin is perhaps best known as the "discoverer" of the cut-up technique popularized by his best friend William S. Burroughs, and the co-inventor of the trance-inducing Dreamachine. Gysin was also a pioneer of sound poetry and multimedia collage that, in my mind, underpins remix culture, quick-cut video editing, and nonlinear Web experiences. In 1958, he experienced a hallucination caused by the sun flickering through trees and was inspired to develop the Dream Machine, a device meant to induce a dreamlike state though strobing light. According to Gysin, it was the "the first art object to be seen with the eyes closed." For more on the device and its effect, I recommend John Geiger's book "Chapel of Extreme Experience: A Short History of Stroboscopic Light and the Dream Machine" and the documentary film FLicKeR directed by Nik Sheehan. This month, Fortean Times published a feature about the Dream Machine. The photo below is me with one of Gysin's hallucination engines in Paris years ago. From Fortean Times:

 Images  Unjournee Images Pescodream-1

As the Sun set on 21 December 1958, the artist and poet Brion Gysin experienced a vivid hallucinat­ion while on a bus driving through rural France. In his journal he wrote:

"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 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 number. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees."

Although he was initially unaware of what had happened, Gysin had experi­enced the visionary, consciousness-changing effect created by rapidly flickering light. Returning to Paris, where he resided in the legendary Beat Hotel alongside his close friend and collabor­ator the author William S Burroughs (see FT251:42-47) and other beat lumin­aries, Gysin spoke of his experiences. Through conversations with Burroughs and their associate, the Cambridge mathematics student Ian Sommerville, he was introduced to W Grey Walter's book The Living Brain (1953).

Here, Walter observed that states of consciousness could be affected by rapidly flashing lights, and that this did not merely affect those areas of the brain assoc­iated with vision but the entire cerebral cortex; as Walter wrote: "Its ripples were overflowing into other areas." [2] Walter noted that the effect of flickering light on various subjects created "vivid illus­ions of moving patterns whenever one closed one's eyes and allowed the flicker to shine through the eyelids". [3] The patterns reported by the test subjects included vividly coloured spirals and explosions of colour.

Fortean Times: Dream Machine