“We wanted to create a communal experience at heart – one of those moments that lifts you out of the everyday and affects both the way you think and the way you feel.”
— Jennifer Crook
Inspired by Brion Gysin, an associate of William Burroughs and the Beats, Dreamachine is a radically 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 alongside the neuroscientist Anil Seth at the Sussex Centre for Consciousness Science in Brighton. The project was realized through a £10 million commission from Unboxed: Creativity in the UK, an unprecedented festival of creativity that unfolded across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland throughout 2022. Like Gysin's original creation, Dreamachine generates an intense visual experience that takes place behind your closed eyes, created by your own brain and not shared by anyone else. Audiences are welcomed into a cocoon-like, meditative space designed by the architecture collective Assemble 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, unique to each participant. Across its 2022 tour, Dreamachine had a profound impact: as evidenced by the tens of thousands of audience testimonies, 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. As one participant put it, 'Dreamachine provided a space where I felt safe to explore my perception. I felt accepted by others and found acceptance of myself. I do not doubt the potential this project holds for transformation on a dramatic scale. Don’t underestimate what's been created here. It’s beautiful.' 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 those seeking connections with others who'd experienced Dreamachine, another for those who experienced feelings of grief, love, loss or nostalgia, and a third for those marveling at the power of their own mind or wondering where they sit within the broader universe. Dreamachine will tour internationally from 2023 on. 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.