by Nicholas Wells
She flicked the switch. Nothing happened. The light shone, but the cylinder didn’t spin. I was standing in artist Kate Specter’s apartment in Carroll Gardens, hoping to have my first non-drug-induced hallucinatory experience using her Dreamachine.
Invented by artist Brion Gysin in 1961, the Dreamachine was a precursor to the acid-fueled haze of the late 1960s. “The only work of art you see with eyes closed,” it is a cylinder with slits cut out of it, placed on a turntable. A 100-watt bulb is suspended within the cylinder and, when switched on, light is flashed between seven and 13 times per second, a rate corresponding to electrical oscillations in the brain known as alpha waves.
Gysin imagined the Dreamachine after a bus trip to Marseilles. Passing over-hanging trees, light from the sun reached his closed eyelids at a steady-enough rate to induce the flicker effect, a stimulation of alpha waves in the brain. Gysin described “an overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns in supernatural colors.”
“I’m really sorry,” Specter told me, “but mostly sorry for myself.”
Gysin was not the first to utilize flicker to transcendental ends. Since Prometheus, humans have been mesmerized by the brilliance of fire. Nostradamus reportedly stood at the top of a tower, waving his hand before his face so the sunlight would flicker on his eyelids before writing his prophecies.
At the Beat Hotel in Paris, Gysin collaborated with Ian Sommerville, a mathematician who had read W. Grey Walter’s 1953 book The Living Brain, which explains the flicker effect. Soon, the two built the first Dreamachine on a 78-rpm turntable.
At the time, Gysin and William Burroughs were investigating the mechanisms of “Control.” That is, the established ways in which people receive information and draw meaning from symbols and ideas. In creating the “cut-up” method, they sliced apart pieces of writing, pasting them back together to create unintended juxtapositions and new meanings within the text. The Dreamachine allowed viewers to explore their inner selves rather than simply consume media; Gysin hoped that it would overtake the television as de-facto home entertainment.
While Gysin could not find investors who shared his desire to refocus the public inwardly, the device lived on in subcultures and those who continued Burroughs’ and Gysin’s attempts to subvert the tune-in industry of mass media and plasticized culture. On July 7, the first American retrospective of Gysin’s artwork will open at the New Museum, including paintings, text-based works and a working Dreamachine.
Like most activities having to do with subterranean cultures, there is a tradition of viewers constructing their own Dreamachines. Specter told me about high school friends who would set one up on their parents’ turntables to enhance acid trips. Even Kurt Cobain owned a Dreamachine for a year before his death; the machine’s role in his demise was debated in a 1994 issue of High Times.
I decided to spurn further attempts to locate an existing Dreamachine and simply build my own. Spending $20 at an art supply store and $10 at a hardware store, I called my friend Caitie and got down to converting the plans for a 78-rpm turntable to run on my standard (33- and 45-rpm) player. To give the cylinder a base, I sacrificed an extra copy of Off The Wall, taping the paper tube around the record’s edge.
We put on Spacemen 3’s Dreamweapon and closed our eyes.
Once the after-burn of the 100-watt bulb disappeared, there it was: a “multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space.” Colors and shapes spinning and careening into a universe that seemed to unfold beyond the limits of sight; it was halfway between iTunes visualizer and coming into a dark room from a sunny day when your eyes bloom and blister with the sudden change.
After a few minutes, images appeared, first in the periphery then floating into the center of my vision. A death mask appeared and stood transfixed as I tried to see the face. A lion, photo-framed, seemed to exist alone then fade into the background like credits rolling in a 1980s PBS special. It wasn’t exactly out-of-body, but images and thoughts coalesced in a dreamlike way.
Startled by a sudden rush of mid-century European political iconography, I opened my eyes and was relieved to be sitting on the floor with Caitie across from me, still rapt in her semi-waking dream.
Originally posted on New York Press