Remember the first time you saw a strobe light, and your friends looked like robots in a weird silent movie? Totally trippy, right? You were experiencing a variation on the “flicker effect,” a neurological phenomenon in which pulses of light directly stimulate the brain, altering states of mind and, in some cases, inducing hallucinations. Nowadays you can’t walk into a club without being assailed by flashing lights, but 50 years ago these dance-party staples were known only in the realms of medicine and science, as neurologists studied the flicker effect’s relation to brain patterns.
It’s a heady journey from there to here, one that wends its way from the labs of Europe to the nascent psychedelic era in America to the Beat Hotel in Paris. The trip is deftly detailed in Chapel of Extreme Experience: A Short History of Stroboscopic Light and the Dream Machine (Soft Skull) by Canadian author John Geiger, as well as in a forthcoming documentary based on the book, by director Nik Sheehan. Geiger’s slim but dense account is centered on the Dream Machine, a kinetic device that has fascinated major intellectual and cultural figures from the 1950s to today—yet which, despite its primitively simple construction and an attempt to mass-produce it, remains essentially obscure.
Indeed, at a recent launch party for Chapel at the Lower East Side lounge Chez Es Saada, some of the assembled guests didn’t even realize that the spinning cylinder casting pretty light patterns on the walls was in fact a Dream Machine. If they did know, they certainly weren’t “viewing” it in the proper fashion: with closed eyes.
Geiger first encountered the Dream Machine while researching a biography of the Beat writer and painter Brion Gysin (1916?1986), and was immediately intrigued. Chapel , Geiger says, is his attempt “to understand the science behind that artwork.” (A Dream Machine is often referred to by acolytes as an artwork.) He explains that viewing the contraption is not, in fact, “an optical experience. It’s something that’s coming from the cortex, so in that sense it’s more profound and meaningful.”
The idea for the machine was born one afternoon in 1958, when Gysin closed his eyes as his bus passed an avenue of trees and found himself transported out of time by a “transcendental storm of color visions.” Hungry to relive the experience, Gysin contacted his friend and collaborator William Burroughs, whose mathematician boyfriend, Ian Sommerville, then built what was the first Dream Machine—a cardboard cylinder with cutout slots, lit by a 100-watt bulb suspended inside, all of which sat on a turntable revolving at 78rpm. It wasn’t elaborate, but it worked. Immediate advocates included Allen Ginsberg, who, as Geiger recounts, told Timothy Leary that the Dream Machine enabled him to see “jeweled biblical designs and landscapes without taking chemicals.”
While the creation illuminated the Beats’ minds, science still can’t shed much light on why it works. Geiger does a formidable job documenting the origins of the Dream Machine in the work of neurologists Grey Walter (whose research in the ’50s with war victims and epileptics revealed that light flickering at a frequency of 8 to 13 flashes per second re-creates the brain’s dreamlike alpha state) and John Smythies (who cataloged the kaleidoscopic visions that the machine produces and reported that such strobe experiences can enhance the effects of hallucinogenic drugs). Aldous Huxley, who followed Smythies’s work, made the leap from the science lab to the psychedelic scene, espousing in his 1956 book Heaven and Hell (a sequel to his study of mescaline, The Doors of Perception ) that flickering light can enhance the experience of drugs.
“Huxley is the key here,” Geiger says, “because he was the one who introduced what hitherto had been a very rarefied debate amongst neurologists and scientists to a broad public. And Burroughs picked up on that.” So when Gysin called him about his strange trip, Burroughs recognized his friend’s experience as the phenomenon Huxley had described. “Burroughs,” Geiger adds, “is the one who said, ‘Well, there’s science behind it,’ and Sommerville and Gysin took it out of the laboratory and into anyone’s living room.”
From the beginning, Gysin had big plans for the Dream Machine. He believed his brainchild could one day replace the television. As Geiger puts it, “Why have a preprogrammed box in your living room when you could actually just sit there and make your own movies?” And although a New York socialite named Leila Hadley found Gysin an agent and hosted Dream Machine parties to attract investors, they were never able to sell the idea. Geiger believes there’s a pragmatic reason for this: “A small percentage of people who experience [the flicker effect] have a photo-epileptic response to it,” he says. “This is something they might have spontaneously in nature, but manufacturers didn’t want to risk a lawsuit because some person had a bad trip.”
Some of this fear still exists today. Remember the infamous 1997 Pokémon episode that induced altered vision, trancelike states and seizures in 12,000 Japanese viewers? Geiger notes that it featured lights that flashed 12 times per second. He also notes that bootlegs of the episode are extremely popular.
There are even some conspiracy theorists who link Kurt Cobain’s suicide to a Dream Machine, claiming that one was found in the Seattle garage where he died and that Cobain’s obsessive use of it prior to his death encouraged suicidal thoughts. Police reports contradict this, but Cobain, a Burroughs fan, did own a Dream Machine, allegedly made by L.A.-based artist David Woodard.
According to Geiger, Burroughs himself found the Cobain accusations repugnant. And Woodard does still sell Dream Machines to a select clientele and shows his work in museums and galleries. He also built a machine for Burroughs’s own memorial service in 1997. The deluxe model is made of copper and ermine, and Woodard is now thinking about selling it. But consider yourself warned: His prices run into the thousands of dollars. (Interested parties can contact him at email@example.com .)
Genesis P-Orridge, a musician and friend of Gysin and Burroughs from the ’70s till their deaths, sees another reason for the object’s failure to go mainstream. “Basically, all of Brion’s work was dedicated to breaking preconceptions of what we call reality,” he says over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. “Something that reminds us of mystery and potential is a threat. That’s probably the real reason it didn’t make it to the general public.
“The really radical aspect of the Dream Machine, though,” he continues, “is how simple it is and how cheap it is to construct. If you can find an old record player and a lightbulb and a piece of cardboard, you’ve got one.”
In 1989, P-Orridge and his band Psychic TV (recently re-formed with a new lineup that includes author Douglas Rushkoff) introduced the Dream Machine to the incipient rave scene with the LP Brion Gysin’s Dreamachine . The band adapted the spinning contraption to create sound effects, and packaged the record with a cardboard Dream Machine “kit.”
“It was Brion’s dream—no pun intended,” P-Orridge says, “that people would finally be able to have a safe psychedelic experience and realize that the world is not necessarily quite as it seems.” And with the resurgence of interest that Geiger’s book and Sheehan’s film are likely to inspire (and the ready availability on the Internet of instructions for making Dream Machines), that may still come to pass. Even Geiger has trouble accounting for the Dream Machine’s failure the first time around. “Remember,” he says, “this was right on the cusp of the whole psychedelic ’60s; in hindsight, it’s remarkable that it didn’t take off. It was just so, y’know, groovy.”