In the Dreamachine

Sam Kinchin-Smith

Participant drawings from the Dreamachine experience

There’s a scene in the last Pierce Brosnan Bond film, Die Another Day, in which Toby Stephens, playing the revolting entrepreneur-philantropist Gustav Graves, explains that the main downside of the ‘gene therapy’ he underwent to change his appearance – for Graves is actually the North Korean colonel Tan-Sun Moon! – is acute insomnia. Still, he goes on, pointing to a glowing mask made of fibre optics and glass, ‘an hour on the Dream Machine keeps me sane.’

A terrible film, but an idea with some pedigree: in 1959, Brion Gysin dreamed up ‘the first artwork to be experienced with your eyes closed’, a device that used flickering light to create kaleidoscopic illusions behind the eyelids. He imagined a future in which his ‘Dreamachine’ replaced the television in every home in America: instead of mass media, we would all generate our own cinematic experiences. By 1961 Gysin had created a working prototype with Ian Sommerville, Beat Hotel resident and ‘systems adviser’ to William S. Burroughs, which has been an object of fascination and imitation ever since.

The latest tribute is one of the ten projects in UNBOXED, the rebranded festival of Brexit. ‘Critics whisper that the creatives have run away with the show,’ Henry Mance wrote in the FT in March. Its £120 million budget is 50 per cent more than Martin Green, the festival’s chief creative officer, had to work with for the opening and closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics; thirty shortlisted projects were given £100,000 to develop their ideas, and the ten winning teams each received more than £3 million, insane sums by Arts Council standards. But ‘shortly before UNBOXED begins,’ Mance wrote, ‘almost no one has heard of it.’

Which is a shame, because Dreamachine – a collaboration between the creative producers Collective Act, the architectural artists Assemble, the musician Jon Hopkins and ‘a team of leading technologists, scientists and philosophers’, inspired by Gysin’s invention (Sommerville goes unmentioned in the bumf for some reason) – is legitimately amazing.

Small groups of strangers are invited into a large mobile pod, packed with surround-sound and strobe-light technology, designed to resemble a ‘secular temple or modern campfire’ and currently housed in a rickety old covered market in Woolwich (it opens in Belfast later this month, before travelling to Edinburgh). You sit in a circle, lean back comfortably with your head between two speakers, and close your eyes. A pulsating display of white lights combines with a warmly manipulative techno soundscape and the natural rhythms of your brain to create a psychedelic, hypnagogic vision of patterns and colours that is truly subjective: ‘It’s almost as if the brain is looking at itself,’ according to the neuroscientist Anil Seth, a collaborator on the project. Afterwards you share your experiences with the rest of the group and the organisers, using a graphics app, chalk on black paper, and trippy conversation.

My experience began with something like old-fashioned computer graphics, in shocking pink and red, before a stained-glass window pathway led me into a universe of yellow and black-green orbiting worlds that gradually dissolved into an infinite floor of expensive looking paisley tiles glowing from peach to orange, before being swallowed by a skyscape of tiny stars – I’ll stop there. But I was struck by two things in particular: the way the experience became richer, more multi-dimensional, as I allowed my brain to relax into what was happening to it, as if my inner head were sinking squishily into an old leather armchair; and the way my imagination plausibly filled in the breaks between strobing sequences with wormholes.

I’d been subjected to something similar once before, at the old Shredded Wheat factory in Welwyn Garden City. The occasion was the infamous fourth outing of Sean Rogg’s Waldorf Project. As part of another small group of impressionable strangers, I had spent three and a half hours being smeared with custard and old coffee grounds and force-fed mysterious alcoholic jellies by dominatrix prison guards, as we ran and crawled and jumped through the wreckage of the factory and hugged each other, half naked, for warmth.

Rogg had turned the irresponsibility up to eleven in his pursuit of transcendental ‘empathy creation’ (essentially, traumatising attendees into intense bonding with one another through BDSM theatre) – provoking a minor scandal and a much-needed debate about the ethics of immersive performance. The culmination of Chapter Four/BARZAKH was supposed to be a cleansing ascent into heaven, the reward for two hundred minutes of hell, but the short period spent lying under powerful strobe lights was actually the most awful moment of all – a feeling of not being able to close my eyes tightly enough, of tortured receptors.

Rogg made grand claims about the extent to which his work was informed by, and informing, experimental psychological research, before BARZAKH was inconveniently disowned by his collaborator at UCL: ‘Obviously, you have to have certain ethical protocols,’ Daniel Richardson said. ‘I am doing science, I can’t do it without full consent and there are lots of health and safety considerations.’

Dreamachine couldn’t have been more different: its overarching seriousness and the sensitivity of its safeguarding processes, the efforts of its devisers and facilitators to create an inclusive safe space, were among its most heroic aspects. ‘As close to state-funded psychedelic drugs as you can get,’ Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian. ‘Maybe this is “an irresponsible use of public money”, as the parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has called the UNBOXED festival, but it certainly gave me a pleasant Saturday morning’ – a rave review that nevertheless greatly annoyed the visual anthropologist who facilitated my session. It could be more convincingly argued that this is in fact a remarkably responsible use of public money, a testament to the way generous state funding of the arts can produce work that’s planted firmly and meaningfully on an edge of things that doesn’t always have to be bleeding.

The Dreamachine closes in London on Sunday 24 July and advance tickets are sold out, but walk-up tickets are still available.


  • 31 July 2022 at 10:57pm
    louiseshona says:
    surely this was first done by the artist James Turrell; he made a machine that one entered, lay down, then experienced pulsing lights etc producing what sound like the identical effects now attributed to the new Dream Machine - colourful visions of architectural domes and fractal-like spaces opening endlessly around one. I saw this in Halifax Scuplture Garden in the 90s, and it was absolutely amazing. The only difference seems to be that Turrell's work was for one viewer/occupant at a time. Just think Turrell should get some credit for the invention.