‘Dreamachine’ is a visual art that you live with your eyes closed

A wild new room-scale artwork has just opened in London, but no one will see it.

Or at least not with open eyes. Called dream machine, this immersive work of art is a carefully orchestrated light show meant to be experienced with eyes closed. Through shimmering, pulsating light patterns and an accompanying soundtrack, dream machine generates a visual experience that does not require the eyes to be open. Something like a mixture of hallucination and imagination, the show will be different for each person who experiences it.

[Photo: David Levene/courtesy Dreamachine]

As a work of art, it claims to be the first piece in the world meant to be experienced with eyes closed. It may or may not be the case, but the project makes a strong argument that it’s possible for immersive visual art to exist without being explicitly seen.

[Photo: Urszula Soltys/courtesy Dreamachine]

dream machine is an expanded realization of a work of art first developed in the late 1950s by artist and inventor Brion Gysin. Like a perforated lampshade made to spin around a light bulb, the device created a rhythmic pulse of light that, when “seen” with eyes closed, would create a sort of kaleidoscopic experience for viewers. An acolyte of postmodern author William S. Burroughs, Gysin envisioned his “dream machine” as a tool for people to create their own cinematic experiences in their minds. He hoped dream machines would make their way into living rooms around the world, a more introspective and active version of the entertainment available on television.

American poet, writer and painter Brion Gysin with his dream machine [Photo: Harold Chapman/TopFoto/courtesy Dreamachine]

Gysin’s takeover of television never materialized. But the ideas explored in his device have become the stuff of real neuroscience. Researchers have shown that the effect of flickering light on the human mind is a powerful force capable of inducing vivid visual experiences. The phenomenon, known to researchers as “strobe-induced visual hallucinations”, dates back to our earliest ancestors who gathered around flickering campfires. The impacts of light on the brain extend beyond areas associated with vision to the entire cerebral cortex, the physical center of our consciousness.

[Photo: Urszula Soltys/courtesy Dreamachine]

The project to turn Gysin’s concept into a large-scale work of art was spearheaded by Jennifer Crook, an artist and director who has worked on participatory art projects with artists like Christo and Olafur Eliasson. Unlike Gysin’s original vision for a small device that could sit on a coffee table or in a living room, Crook’s dream machine is its own auditorium-like space, complete with a ring of reclining seats. The room was designed by the art and architecture collective To assemblewinner of 2015 Turner Prize for Art and known for its innovations community-oriented projects and art installations. The project has also involved advisors ranging from a philosopher and sound designer to a neuroscientist.

[Photo: Urszula Soltys/courtesy Dreamachine]

Crook specifically wanted the space to be large enough for groups of around a dozen people. Although everyone’s experience dream machine is unique, she wanted people to experience it collectively and be able to discuss what they saw and imagined after leaving the room. The scientific team on the project has created an interactive sensory tool, in which participants are guided through a series of questions to try to verbalize their experience within dream machine. Some may even bring visual representations of what they experienced in the form of drawings. The mobile site for dream machine presents spaces where these discussions and reflections can take place.

After his race in London, dream machine will be traveling to several other UK cities Tickets to access dream machine– and your mind’s eye – are free.