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Drugs Without Drugs: Gentrifying Gysin’s Dreamachine
Robert Barry , May 14th, 2022 08:39

Assemble and Jon Hopkins team up for the Festival of Brexit. Robert Barry dies of cringe

Dreamachine photo by David Levene

With my eyes closed, the light comes over me in waves. A wash of warm saffron yellow. A fierce red. Cool blue. A slight flickering starts up – just at the edges at first, then growing in intensity, gradually taking over the whole field of my inner vision. Shimmering geometric patterns in constant motion, like something out of an Escher print, animated in lurid reds and greens. The whole thing starts to tilt and turn and then spin. I’m reminded of the ecstatic visions of Hilma af Klint and Emmanuel Swedenborg, of the “phosphene patterns” experienced by Philip K. Dick in his mid-70s visionary period, the mandalas that Carl Jung believed belonged to the deep collective unconscious. Most of all, I’m reminded of the time, aged fourteen, I spent a significant amount of time staring at the flickering snow of a detuned cathode ray TV after swallowing a white pill which my classmate at school had insisted was Drugs but which, I later learned, was in fact a Junior Disprin. It is remarkably easy to trick the brain into transcendent experiences.

The original Dreamachine was invented by the poet Brion Gysin and William Burroughs’ “systems advisor” Ian Sommerville in 1960 while residing at the Beat Hotel. It consisted of a metal cylinder, no more than a couple of foot high, with a series of holes cut out of it. The tube was to be placed on a record deck, spinning at 78rpm, with a lightbulb inside it. Inspired by neurophysiologist William Grey Walter’s book The Living Brain (which was itself inspired by Russian behaviourist Ivan Pavlov – he of the obedient dogs), the flickering stroboscopic patterns produced by the light glinting through the apertures on the rotating cylinder were supposed to trigger the brain’s alpha waves resulting in spontaneous visual hallucinations.

In the 1960s, there was a whole thing for a while of experiences which promised to be psychedelic without the use of actual psychedelics. It was a tagline used to advertise events like the Trips Festival in San Francisco and clubs like The Electric Circus in New York. And for a while, the Dreamachine was popular amongst a certain sort of celebrity. David Bowie had one, as did John Giorno, Paul McCartney, Timothy Leary, Marianne Faithfull, and later Beck and Kurt Cobain too. Of course, as with all the stuff that was advertised as resembling a drug experience without the need for drugs, only the absolute squarest of the squares ever considered indulging in the thing without also indulging in some actual proper drugs as well. You know, just to make sure.

None of that seemed to help much with Gysin’s efforts to monetise the device he had helped to create. In 1961, he took out a patent on the device and tried hawking it around the big electronics corporations. They lost interest when Gysin told them it made you “more awake” (“They were only interested in machines and drugs which made people go to sleep,” he ruefully concluded) Nor, initially, did the art world. Gysin loaned one machine to the collector Helena Rubenstein who failed to sell it and ultimately returned it. Peggy Guggenheim had no better luck with the thing. But today, the device is held in several public collections. And thanks to the team behind Unboxed (fka ‘The Festival of Brexit) it can now also be a jolly corporate away day, sort of like paintball for the age of dot coms and start-ups with beanbags in the office.

Brion Gysin and his Dream Machine William Burroughs c 1970 London. Credit Charles Gatewood/TopFoto

“My name’s Sam and I’m going to be guiding you through the experience today…” Arriving at Woolwich’s former public market building a little after ten, we were ushered into the space by a man in a dreamachine-branded sweatshirt and immaculately ‘messy’ hair. “We’re all on this journey together,” insisted Sam. “We invite you to leave this world behind. Please take a blanket on your way in.” The whole thing smacked faintly of a kind of millennial version of that bit in Milos Forman’s (1971) film Taking Off where an unctuous Vincent Schiavelli leads a group of middle-aged suburbanites through their first joint. “Your breath is always there with you,” Sam told us, a phrase that somehow managed to sound like both a platitude and a threat.

Looking at photos from 1960s of Gysin and Burroughs experimenting with their dreamachine, they look like they’re in the kind of dingy, two-bit apartment where Philip Marlowe might find a body. The pop-up event space here in Woolwich resembles more some manner of branded backstage lounge at a fancy music festival. We are ushered into a womb-like arena with an outer ring of complexly-contoured seats surrounding a domed ceiling emitting a bath of white light, like a James Turrell installation. The sense of a carefully-designed luxury experience was only emphasised by the Jon Hopkins soundtrack, a sighing and bubbling piece of plinky-plonk ambient electronics pitched somewhere between early 80s new age meditation tape and the sort of music you might find on the website of one of the more expensive international airlines. For all the insistence on the part of the copious wall texts that this was to be a dreamlike experience “that you control”, I felt distinctly guided by the narrative of the music. It urged me to experience the sequence of flashing lights that ensued in a particular way, to act in a certain way, to feel a certain way. And what it seemed mostly to be directing to me towards was an upgrade to business class. I longed for silence.

At a certain point over the last half century, the kind of sounds we label “psychedelic” and the kind of sounds we might expect to hear when put on hold by an upscale insurance provider appear to have merged. Radical mid-century experiments in consciousness expansion have been neutered and gentrified, absorbed into the spon-con mediascape of the experience economy. There may be some hapless boomers for whom this experience offers a tantalising glimpse of all the shit they were just too lame to partake in half a century ago. Anyone else would be better off downloading a Tor browser and ordering themselves some proper drugs.