April 8th, 2008

operesque

We visit the dream machine

At a dinner party on Sunday at Schloss Wiesenburg celebrating David Woodard's 44th birthday the composer demonstrated a dream machine he'd built. It was the first time Hisae and I had tried one of the devices -- essentially a record turntable rotating a slatted shade to create light-bursts at between 8 and 13 pulses a second. This frequency stimulates alpha waves and, viewed through closed eyes, creates an impression of seething colours and patterns -- a "drugless high".

"The first exposure was the biggest surprise, a fresh experience," Hisae told me. "The more you do it the less sensitive you get. The first time I didn't know what to do, the second time David introduced it. You have to get as close as possible and close eyes and he was asking me after a few minutes what colour... he was giving examples of the colours you would see, green and blue, but I said "Oh no, but I see the combination of white and red!" and he said "Oh, but that's a very good combination!" Afterwards I felt very stable, or calmed down. But I was very scared of this, when I first went there I thought of what happened with Pokemon, lots of children got very sick."



Hisae is referring to this episode of Pokemon (don't watch it, obviously, if you're subject to epileptic reactions). And indeed one in 10,000 adults does experience a seizure while viewing the dream machine, and one in 5000 children.

Although she enjoyed the Dream Machine -- "It's very soft happiness sitting there!" -- the experience reminded Hisae of something much less pleasant: "When I went to see Colleen and someone slipped me a dating drug, and I saw so many geometric patterns which I didn't want to see, it was very similar. But this dating drug thing also made me sweaty and stopped my blood circulating properly, and I couldn't stand up, so it's different, but what I saw is very similar... But the second time I tried the dream machine I thought I could go on forever."

Created in 1958 by artist Brion Gysin and scientist Ian Sommerville (inspired by William Grey Walter's book The Living Brain), the Dream Machine seems to have made Kurt Cobain want to go on forever -- or possibly die -- too. David Woodard started building and selling dream machines for $145 a piece (the price for the machines he builds now is much higher: around €10,000. he tells me) after corresponding with William Burroughs. Woodard met Cobain at a party in 1993. The musician ordered a dream machine and reportedly stared into it for 72 hours continuously shortly before his death. Asked by the High Times whether he thought the machine had contributed to Cobain's suicide, Woodard said yes. When Burroughs died in 1997, Woodard made a dream machine "of Tupinamba-harvested ermine, cocobolo and copper" for the writer's funeral.

FLicKeR is a new National Film Board of Canada documentary about the Dream Machine by Nik Sheehan featuring interviews with Burroughs, Marianne Faithful, Genesis P-Orridge, John Giorno, Iggy Pop and Kenneth Anger. You can see a preview here.

I personally didn't get much out of the dream machine, probably because I was too busy filming other people experiencing it to immerse myself for long enough in the rhythms. I'm generally rather hypno (and drug) resistant. After all, if hypnotism really worked, hypnotists would rule the world, and they patently don't -- if they did, they'd hardly bother putting on corny magic shows in provincial theatres, would they?

Of course, it's possible that they (the real hypnotists, not those frauds in theatres) do rule the world, and have simply hypnotised us not to notice. And maybe they're using the regular rising and setting of the sun and the moon as an ultra-slow motion dream machine. Why not?