Dreamachine: less relaxing than cycling home afterwards on the A206

·3 min read
Dreamachine - David Levene
Dreamachine - David Levene

“Are you sitting comfortably?” asks a guide at the start of Dreamachine, a trippy new free “experience” that’s part of this year’s Unboxed “celebration of creativity”, once dubbed the Festival of Brexit.

I’d say: around 15 of us have gathered in a circle on comfy chairs inside a temporary wooden structure within a listed market in southeast London. (Designed by the Turner Prize-winning collective Assemble, it’s a little like an indoor “skyspace” by the American light artist James Turrell.) And, although we’re not exactly supine, we have been issued with eye masks and blankets, and are already reclining at 45 degrees. Dreamachine, I’d heard, is an art installation that tries to send people to sleep. Having cycled 15 miles to see it, a nap would be jolly nice.

What follows, though, is perhaps the least relaxing 20 minutes of my life. To an ambient score by the composer Jon Hopkins, bright white lights, trained at the participants, begin to pulse frenetically in staccato, impossible-to-follow patterns, which increase in intensity as the music builds. The idea, inspired by the research of the artist-inventor (and friend of William S Burroughs) Brion Gysin, who created the first, homemade Dreamachine in the Fifties, is to experience this with your eyes closed: it’s so intense that it stimulates a bespoke, kaleidoscopic light show fizzing on the backs of your lids. The psychedelic effect is meant to be soothing and possibly transcendental.

Perhaps, when I visited, I was put off by the health-and-safety preamble, which involves a buzzkill questionnaire to determine any medical history of epilepsy, migraines, severe anxiety, and so on. (Anyone deemed ineligible for the full “high-sensory” experience is instead invited to enjoy a “deep-listening” session, concentrating only on the music.)

Either way, as the lights came on, I felt like a vulnerable, transfixed lab mouse, or some credulous chump in the desert of New Mexico, about to be sucked into a UFO. Whenever I closed my eyes, I worried that someone was about to grab my ankles, which admittedly may say more about my general jumpiness. Also, it’s hard to take notes with your eyes wide shut.

Dreamachine - David Levene
Dreamachine - David Levene

Maybe you’d be whisked off to another dimension; many who’ve tried the Dreamachine, which, later this year, will travel to Cardiff, Belfast, and Edinburgh, report that they were. Yet, I found myself at not some sublime internal cinema but the optician’s, staring at those patterns of light in their machines. A red target appeared, grew larger, then: pouf! Do I need reading glasses?

Otherwise, the constantly shifting colours and shapes that I saw were like pieces of bland Op Art by the artist Victor Vasarely, or blurry screensavers from the Nineties. Mildly diverting for, let’s say, 30 seconds – but the Ibiza lounge music kept swelling, and the entire quasi-orgasmic experience went on and on, with minimal ocular development. How was it for you? I wasn’t blissed-out, but bored.

Insisting on mindfulness and collective experience, Dreamachine couldn’t be more “now” if it tried. Yet, Gysin’s assertion that it turns passive consumers of mass-produced media into active viewers should be challenged: slumped in their seats, the participants are submissive, with zero control over the visions that appear. British artist Haroon Mirza has created installations that aren’t a million miles away, but are much more powerful.

When the guide (sorry, “guardian”) finally returned, to invite us into a “reflection space” where people could draw what they saw (what are we, five years old?), he said, to ease the comedown, “Give your shoulders a little shrug.” Don’t worry, I thought: mine had been shrugging for a while – and I headed outside to “experience” the busy A206 and calm down.

Until July 24; dreamachine.world

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