Making Ghosts Walk In Public
Explained: the role of the legendary stroboscopic Dream Machine in the consciousness exploration of the ‘60s.
by John Geiger
Excerpted from: Chapel of Extreme Experience: A Short History of Stroboscopic Light, Flicker and the Dream Machine. Copyright © 2003 John Geiger. Published by Soft Skull Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. This excerpt published in Arthur No. 7 (Nov., 2003)
On December 21, 1958 Brion Gysin, a painter and writer, and at the time a resident of Beat Hotel in Paris, momentarily and unexpectedly entered the place where, in Aldous Huxley’s words, “the visual merges with the visionary.”
Gysin was traveling by bus from Paris to an artists’ colony on the Mediterranean. As the bus passed through a long avenue of trees Gysin, closing his eyes against the setting sun, encountered “a transcendental storm of color visions.” He recorded the experience in his journal: “An overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns in supernatural colors exploded behind my eyelids: a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time.” The phenomenon ended abruptly as the bus left the trees. “Was that a vision? What happened to me?” asked Gysin. The flicker experience recalled the first films he had seen as a child in Alberta in the 1920s, films using the often explosive silver halide base which gave a “magic light to the film, a flickering shimmer cut stroboscopically by the frames of each image.” Gysin immediately wrote William S. Burroughs, a close artistic collaborator, with an account of his fall out of rational space. Burroughs replied portentiously: “We must storm the citadels of enlightenment. The means are at hand.” The means, Gysin determined, would be to develop a machine to harness the visionary potential of flicker, a device that would make illusory experience available at the flick of a switch: a Dream Machine.
Once he understood the scientific explanation for his random encounter with flicker (an explanation provided in physiologist W. Grey Walter’s 1953 book The Living Brain), Gysin determined to find a way to mechanically reproduce the effect in a manner that could be mass produced. He saw in flicker the potential for human advancement. Gysin discussed it with Ian Sommerville, a mathematics student at Cambridge University and young boyhood friend of Burroughs’. Somerville had a genius for electrical improvisation, and indeed had a unique relationship with the electrical current: his thin blonde hair often stood up as if a charge ran through it, he was not fond of water and found rain oddly menacing. Gysin wanted to find a way, he said, to “make the ghosts walk in public.”Continue reading