"An alternate-universe America in which every home would tune into internal landscapes instead of commercial programming."

From the Jan 20, 2005 NYTimes:

Decor by Timothy Leary
By MARK ALLEN

AT first glance it looked like something in the window of a
TriBeCa furniture store, an oversize lamp from the early
60’s maybe. But when Kate Chapman flicked a switch and the
three-foot high latticework cylinder in front of me began
to spin, it was clear that we were dealing with more than
just another piece of midcentury flotsam.

The machine started to cast strobelike patterns of bright
light on our faces, and when I closed my eyes as
instructed, there they were, the dazzling multicolored
forms that I’d been told about: mandalas and crosses and
even Mandelbrot fractals, dancing across my eyelids.

I was sitting on the floor of Ms. Chapman’s Brooklyn loft,
and she was demonstrating her prized household appliance, a
1996 Dreamachine originally made for William S. Burroughs.
Besides the trippy visual effects the device is said to
induce an “alpha state” – a state conducive to lucid
dreaming or intense daydreaming – in people who face the
cylinder with their eyes closed as it spins around a bright
light.

Dreamachine enthusiasts – whose ranks have swelled recently
thanks to chat forums and a book published last year –
claim that it promotes a trancelike serenity, intensifies
creativity and insight and even uncovers suppressed
memories. Ms. Chapman’s Dreamachine is one of more than a
thousand that have been manufactured since the early 90’s
by a California composer and conductor named David Woodard.
One is on display this month at the Clair Obscur Gallery in
Los Angeles along with an exhibit of photographs of
Burroughs taken by John Aes-Nihil, an underground
filmmaker, and the premiere at the gallery of his film,
“William Burroughs in the Dreamachine.” Burroughs, along
with other figures from the Beat Generation like Allen
Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, was fascinated, even at times
obsessed by the Dreamachine, which was invented in 1959 by
their fellow Beats Brion Gysin, an artist, and Ian
Sommerville, a math student at Cambridge. Mr. Leary called
it “the most sophisticated neurophenomenological device
ever designed”; Mr. Burroughs experimented with it for
nearly four decades. (The film shows him using his
Dreamachines at his home in Lawrence, Kan., shortly before
his death in 1997).

I had come to Ms. Chapman’s loft to see if the machine
lived up to the hype, but I didn’t get very far in my first
session. The colorful undulating patterns that I began to
see almost at once were intriguing: far more vivid than the
fuzzy images you see when you rub your eyes, although just
as hard to focus on. But as far as I could tell my state of
consciousness barely changed during the 20 minutes that I
sat cross-legged in front of the spinning cylinder. When I
opened my eyes, Ms. Chapman seemed to sense my
disappointment.

I had been somewhat skeptical, but was still hoping for
more, given what I had learned about the machine and its
history. Mr. Gysin and Mr. Sommerville built the first
Dreamachine after learning of research by John Smythies and
W. Grey Walter, scientists who had noted in experiments
that light flickering at 8 to 12 flashes a second against a
subject’s closed eyelids seemed to slow the electrical
pulse rate of the subject’s brain to a state of
semiconsciousness known as the alpha state and produce rich
dreamlike imagery.

Although his fellow Beats were excited about using the
device, Mr. Gysin had broader ambitions for it and tried to
distance himself from their enthusiasm, says John Geiger,
the author of “Chapel of Extreme Experience: a Short
History of Stroboscopic Light and the Dream Machine” (Soft
Skull Press, 2004).

“He was focused on its commercial potential,” Mr. Geiger
said. “He imagined a Dreamachine in every suburban home, in
the spot formerly occupied by the television set, but
broadcasting inner programming. He really saw this idea as
his ticket out of bohemia town.”

Mr. Gysin’s attempts to commercialize the Dreamachine
during the 60’s and 70’s never got very far. He met with
corporations like Philips, Columbia Records and Random
House, but they did not share his vision of the Dreamachine
as the successor to TV. They were also worried about
lawsuits resulting from seizures caused by the machine.

“For the high majority of people this is a completely safe
device,” Mr. Geiger said. But Dr. Robert Fisher, the
director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Stanford,
said that 1 in 10,000 people is likely to have a seizure in
reaction to the its stroboscopic light, and that children
are about twice as susceptible.

David Woodard, who now makes Dreamachines to order at his
studio in Los Angeles, learned about the device from a
friend of Mr. Gysin’s a few years after his death in 1986.
Mr. Woodard was able to borrow the original Dreamachine
templates from the friend, and built his first one in 1989;
within a few years word of mouth and modest advertising led
to a full-fledged business. He made two for William
Burroughs and has made others for celebrities including
Iggy Pop, Beck and Kurt Cobain. ( Rumors circulated that
Cobain had been using the device heavily in the days
leading up to his suicide, although later reports
contradicted this.)

Mr. Woodard charges $500 for a basic model with a cylinder
of acid-free matting board. (The cylinder surrounds a
150-watt bulb, which is mounted in the center of a wood
base holding a motor that spins the cylinder at 80 r.p.m.)
Custom models, with cylinders made from steel, copper or
cocobolo wood – or even covered in ermine fur – can cost as
much as $3,000.

After the mixed success of my first experiment with the
Dreamachine, my hostess urged me to try again. Ms. Chapman,
30, is a former neuroscience researcher for the
Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a
nonprofit organization that sponsors “scientific research
designed to develop psychedelics and marijuana into
F.D.A.-approved prescription medicines,” according to its
Web site.

“I’m just an artist now,” she said.

Ms. Chapman thought it might be helpful if my body were
more relaxed, so I lay down on a sofa, and she put on
soothing music. She flicked the machine back on as I shut
my eyes. A moment later there they were, the same flashing
patterns as before. After a while I became bored and my
mind began to drift.

That’s when it happened. I didn’t “see” as much as I
strongly imagined a campfire in a clearing in a dense
forest at night. My boyfriend Jim was sitting to my left,
laughing. Later I seemed to find myself in a large empty
auditorium, walking toward some chairs arranged in the
middle of the room. In one creepy moment I was in a
basement hallway, following closely behind someone walking
ahead of me, whose face I couldn’t see.

I was imagining these scenes so vividly that it was almost
as if I were seeing them. The thoughts had a kind of
slow-motion jump-cut feel, just like dreams, but because I
was fully conscious, I was able to contemplate all of this
as it was happening.

With my eyes still shut and my mind now very relaxed and
slightly adrift, I started to notice that the wall of
flashing patterns was receding backward and developing a
dark border around its edges. It was at that moment that I
sensed someone to my left, sitting beside me, watching what
I was watching. This figure was not in the room with me,
but in my head, which had now turned into a little theater.
I felt that if I turned my head, I would be able to look
over at this person.

I opened my eyes, and reality rushed back in, to my relief.
That last vision hadn’t really been frightening, but it
wasn’t exactly heartwarming either. But I was impressed. As
I talked to Ms. Chapman about my experience, I became aware
of an unusual serenity and mental clarity, as if I had just
waked from a refreshing nap.

Days after my experience with Ms. Chapman I found myself
craving the Dreamachine and the vivid imagery and sense of
calm it had produced. I’m not sure I would part with $500
to bring one into my life. But having lived through the
experience, it was hard not to think about Mr. Gysin’s
vision of an alternate-universe America in which every home
would tune into internal landscapes instead of commercial
programming.

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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2022: I publish a weeklyish email newsletter called LANDLINE = https://jaybabcock.substack.com Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca., where I practiced with Buddhist teacher Ruth Denison and was involved in various pro-ecology and social justice activist activities.