A wild new room-scaled artwork has just opened in London, but no one will see it.
Or at least not with their eyes open. Called Dreamachine, this immersive art piece is a carefully orchestrated light show intended to be experienced with closed eyes. Through flickering and pulsing light patterns and an accompanying soundtrack, Dreamachine generates a visual experience that doesn’t require the eyes to be open. Something like a mix of hallucination and imagination, the show will be different for every person who experiences it.
As an artwork, it claims to be the world’s first piece intended to be experienced with closed eyes. That may or may not be the case, but the project does make a solid argument that it’s possible for immersive visual art to exist without explicitly being seen.
Dreamachine is an expanded realization of an artwork 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 “viewed” with closed eyes would create a kind 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 within their mind’s eye. He hoped that dream machines would make their way into living rooms around the world, a more introspective and active version of the entertainment available on television.
Gysin’s TV takeover never materialized. But the ideas explored in his device have become the stuff of actual neuroscience. Researchers have shown the flickering light’s effect on the human mind to be a powerful force, and one capable of inducing vivid visual experiences. The phenomenon, known by researchers as “stroboscopically induced visual hallucinations,” can be traced back to our earliest ancestors who gathered around flickering campfires. The light’s impacts on the brain go beyond the areas associated with vision to the entire cerebral cortex—the physical center of our consciousness.
The project to turn Gysin’s concept into a large-scale artwork was led by Jennifer Crook, an artist and director who has worked on participatory art projects with artists like Christo and Olafur Eliasson. In contrast to Gysin’s original vision for a small device that might sit on a coffee table or in a living room, Crook’s Dreamachine is its own auditorium-like space, with a ring of reclined seating. The room was designed by the art and architecture collective Assemble, winner of the 2015 Turner Prize for Art and known for its innovative community-focused projects and art installations. The project also involved advisers ranging from a philosopher and a sound designer to a neuroscientist.
Crook specifically wanted the space to be large enough for groups of about a dozen people. Even though each person’s experience of Dreamachine is unique, she wanted people to go through the experience collectively, and to be able to discuss what they saw and envisioned after leaving the room. The scientific team on the project created an interactive Sensory Tool, in which participants are guided through a series of questions to try to verbalize their experience inside Dreamachine. Some can even contribute visual representations of what they experienced in the form of drawings. The mobile venue for Dreamachine features spaces where these discussions and reflections can occur.
After its run in London, Dreamachine will travel to several other cities throughout the U.K. Tickets to access Dreamachine—and your mind’s eye—are free.