Inspired by Brion Gysin, an associate of William Burroughs and the Beats, Dreamachine is a radically upsized and reimagined version of the experimental device Gysin built in 1959 with Burroughs's "systems adviser," Ian Sommerville – a device that used flickering light to create vivid illusions, kaleidoscopic patterns and explosions of color, not in the world around us but in the viewer's mind. The original Dreamachine – developed in the "Beat Hotel," a fleabag in the Latin Quarter of Paris that was home at the time to Gysin, Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and others – was a cylinder with regularly spaced holes cut out of it that was placed on a turntable and rotated at either 78 or 45 rpm. A light bulb suspended in the center of the cylinder produced a strobe effect, pulsing at a frequency of 8 to 13 times per second and inducing an alpha wave brain state when viewed through closed eyelids. Gysin viewed this as a technology that could reconnect us with our inner lives.
Gysin died in 1986, but his idea remains just as radical, and just as relevant. It was revived by Jennifer Crook, a specialist in participatory art and founder of Collective Act, a London-based producer of large-scale immersive experiences. Crook conceived the idea in 2014 and spent seven years trying to bring it to life. She was particularly interested in the scientific aspect of the project: Were the issues of perception it raised still a subject of active inquiry? A Google search at 3:00 AM one day led her to a paper by David Schwartzman, a researcher who had spent years investigating the topic at the Sussex Centre for Consciousness Science in Brighton. The project was realized through a £10 million commission from Unboxed: Creativity in the UK, a festival of creativity that unfolded across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland throughout 2022.
Like Gysin's creation, this new Dreamachine generates an intense visual experience that takes place behind your closed eyes, created by your own brain and completely unique to you. Audiences are welcomed into a cocoon-like, meditative space and treated to an experience that combines flickering light with 360 degree spatial sound scored by the composer Jon Hopkins. As the experience begins, a colorful, kaleidoscopic world unfolds behind their closed eyes. The experience changed how people view themselves and how they view their lives. Many participants reported remarkable new sensations which they had never previously imagined. And yet, because it is generated in the minds of the audience, all this is invisible to the outside observer.
Dreamachine was developed with extensive focus groups involving more than 2,500 community participants throughout a 12-month design process to ensure it was as effective, inclusive and accessible as possible – including for blind and partially sighted people, for the deaf and hard of hearing, and for those who are neurodivergent. The opportunity for creativity and connection was designed into it with interactive tools for writing, drawing, reading and conversation. More than 15,000 people created illustrations of their own experience, producing one of the largest collections of publicly generated artworks in the world. Tens of thousands of different colors were reported, with many witnessing colors they had never seen before. Some blind and partially sighted people even reported seeing color for the first time. Many visitors described profound emotional responses; one said the experience had such a positive effect on his mental health that he visited Dreamachine in London 27 times. Some described experiencing a range of emotions within a single visit, often likening it to a feeling of reckoning, and then relief.
From May to September 2022, Dreamachine had four sell-out shows, one in each capital city of the UK, drawing more than 38,000 people. At each location, a team of Guardians trained in disability awareness, empathy and mental health first aid played a key role in welcoming, guiding and supporting visitors. Afterwards, visitors were invited to join Campfire, a series of digital discussion boards – one for connecting with other people who experienced Dreamachine, another for those who experienced feelings of grief, love, loss or nostalgia, and a third for those marvelling at the power of their own mind or wondering where they sit within the broader universe.
Dreamachine will tour internationally from 2023 on, starting at the Edinburgh International Festival in August. Inquiries have been received from more than 40 cities in 25 countries across six continents. As the project travels the world, gathering and sharing the stories of the millions who experience it, Dreamachine will continue to gather and share the very human thoughts, experiences and emotions that unite us all.
A large-scale citizen science program led by scientists and philosophers at the University of Sussex and the University of Glasgow, the Perception Census is the first major scientific study of its kind to investigate how we each experience the world in our own unique way. Through the study, researchers are exploring such questions as how we perceive time, our beliefs about consciousness, and our sense of self.
This is the first time the phenomenon of stroboscopically-induced visual experience has been explored on such a scale. Researchers at the University of Sussex have been exploring this phenomenon for nearly a decade, but even with the tools of modern neuroscience, the question of how stroboscopic stimulation gives rise to such vivid experiences remains unanswered. The insights gleaned through audiences' experience of Dreamachine will contribute to major understanding of the nature of perception.
Thousands of audience testimonies have revealed the power of the Dreamachine to inspire awe and wonder. Many audience members left with profound questions about what it means to see if they can "see" with their eyes shut, what it means to "be" when they can so easily shift into a different state of awareness. Dreamachine has generated an unprecedented body of new scientific research, with audiences contributing directly to an inquiry that has never before been attempted on this scale. These findings will allow scientists to better understand how neurodivergence relates to perceptual diversity, transforming our understanding of the human mind. The Census will be open into 2023, and the findings, currently being assessed by two PhD students, will likely be published in 2025.
A new curriculum, developed in partnership with the British Science Association, the UK Committee for UNICEF and the education-focused UK nonprofit A New Direction, has so far achieved more than 75,000 downloads. Fusing science with the arts, the curriculum is built around the ideas, themes and possibilities explored through Dreamachine: the power of the human mind, our sense of self, how we see the world, and how we connect with others. Over 30 accredited lesson plans in science, citizenship, and health and well-being have reached more than a million students. Meanwhile, Life’s Big Questions, a nationwide interactive survey for ages seven and above, brought some of the biggest philosophical questions into homes and classrooms across the UK.
Collective Act produces powerful, large-scale, participatory experiences – shared experiences that bring people together and transform the way we look at the world. Based at Hackney Downs Studios, a former printworks transformed into a creative workspace in East London, the organization takes a collaborative and multi-disciplinary approach to new work, taking the risks required to bring ambitious ideas to life. Its name is a verb, not a noun: Collective Act is a practice.
Jennifer Crook is the founder and chief executive of Collective Act and director of the Dreamachine program. She has led critically acclaimed public projects for festivals and arts organisations around the world, including the London 2012 Festival, and in the process has collaborated with such artists as Danny Boyle and Olafur Eliasson. In 2019 she served as performance producer on Slave Rebellion Reenactment, which recreated an 1811 slave revolt in the Mississippi River parishes outside New Orleans.
The spatial design and audience journey through the Dreamachine experience were created by Assemble, a Turner Prize-winning interdisciplinary collective that works in architecture, design, and art. The digital elements were the work of Holition, a digital innovation studio made up of scientists, filmmakers, artists, mathematicians, UX designers, technologists and others. The technology and lightscape were created by Dev Joshi, an award-winning designer and technologist. The Grammy-nominated musician Jon Hopkins composed the score.
The Perception Census and other scientific elements of the program were overseen by Anil Seth, professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex and author of Being You – A New Science of Consciousness, named one of the best books of 2021 by The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Economist; by Fiona Macpherson, professor of philosophy at the University of Glasgow and director of its Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience, and by the cognitive neuroscientist David Schwartzman, who works with Seth as a senior post-doctoral research fellow at the Sussex Centre for Consciousness Science.
"You start by filling out a medical form then stow your possessions in a locker and remove your shoes before being led gently in a group into a large circular chamber where you lie back on a comfy recliner with speakers either side of your head. The induction lays on the danger and tension. Can it really live up to this drama?
"It can. The pulsing soundtrack starts to get louder as you lie back with eyes closed and the space blackens, which you perceive through your eyelids. Then it begins and I see a great cloud of warm purple expand in front of me, a magenta mist blooming in the void. The speed or brightness of the flashing white lights changes (I assume) and I am dazzled by a sky of bright orange – a marmalade sky. But it is not so much a sky as a wall of colour, electric and dazzling. And inside me. . . .
"I just loved it – seeing such majestic beauty and knowing it is all an illusion created by your brain. This makes you wonder what reality is, if we can so easily produce an antidote to it in our heads. If all it takes is a light pulse to make us see infinity, we’re walking William Blake poems." —The Guardian
“'Immersive'” is thrown at basically any event these days, but this felt so in the most transporting sense of the word. Great, multi-layered, cosmic bursts of texture and colour rush into vision, replaced by something altogether different from one moment to the next. . . . It is hugely intense, almost overwhelmingly at times, but once you get used to the all-out nature of the thing and — as wisely instructed by one of the technicians before we entered — 'just let yourself go', it’s something quite amazing.
"Once it’s all over, outside of the Dreamachine, we’re invited to reflect on what just happened, either through drawing, talking with fellow attendees, or with the help of prompts delivered by tablet devices. Really, I just wanted to go back through it all over again. Without the help of any law-breaking substances, this is one of the wildest trips you can take." —The Evening Standard
"In the late 1950s, when altered states of consciousness were all the rage, the artist Brion Gysin invented a drug-free route to psychedelic euphoria. His Dreamachine – a spinning cylinder that shines flashing lights onto a viewer’s closed eyes – was intended as a shortcut to spiritual enlightenment for the masses. Now, art producer Jennifer Crook has revisited Gysin’s invention as a sci-art multimedia experience. The aim is to produce a communal head trip that will not only expand visitors’ experience, but also probe the depths of human consciousness. . . .
"At the centre of the installation are vivid hallucinations created by the brain in response to specific sensory inputs. In the 1950s, the pioneering neuroscientist Grey Walter discovered that dreamlike hallucinations could be induced by lights flashing on closed eyelids at 8 to 12 hertz, the same frequency as the oscillations of “alpha” brainwaves when we are relaxed and wakeful with our eyes closed. Normally, when we open our eyes, these alpha waves are disrupted by visual inputs. Flashing lights at alpha wave frequencies on closed eyelids stimulates the optic nerve, but provides little visual information, and the brain responds by generating hallucinations.
"Because of this, the Dreamachine can produce kaleidoscopic visions and a sense of calm. These hallucinations may also reveal a lot about the way the brain works. As part of the project, neuroscientists Anil Seth and David Schwartzman at the University of Sussex, UK, are collecting the experiences of visitors, which they hope to use as a window into the workings of the brain. Seth is among the many scientists who believe that hallucinations are part of the way that our brains generate our conscious experience of the world." —New Scientist
"Dreamachine stands apart from other techtastic experiential art environments in the calibre of its collaborative creators, in its ‘citizen science’ element and educational outreach, and in the fact that it will definitely not be Instagrammable. Dreamachine’s hallucinatory spectacle only happens inside your head. . . .
"The origin story runs that on a sunny day in 1958, [Brion] Gysin was dozing in the back of a bus, being driven along a tree-lined stretch of French countryside. That flickering forest light seems to have set off (pre-psychedelia) transcendental explosions in Gysin’s brain, crashing waves of intense colours and shifting geometry.
"Gysin returned home, discovered that what he had experienced was not supernatural or psychosis, but a recently categorised neurological response to flickering light of a certain frequency – known as 'stroboscopically induced visual hallucinations.' He was determined to create a small-scale device that could recreate the effect, what he called the 'first artwork to be experienced with your eyes closed.' He succeeded using a turntable, a lightbulb, and a carefully slotted cylinder. Gysin hoped his device would eventually replace the TV in every American home. Fat chance." —Wallpaper*