“Tool of Enlightenment”: The Dreamachine’s Effects for Individual Autonomy

Katie Oates

Brion Gysin (1916-1986) was an artist, poet, lyricist, linguist, musician, and performer, but first and foremost he was an experimenter and innovator. Spanning 1935 to 1986, his oeuvre illuminates his extreme interdisciplinarity, a quality that has granted him cult status in New York, Paris, and Tangier subcultures, such as the Beats. Though Gysin’s work has been exhibited worldwide, he is best known for inventing the Dreamachine—an apparatus that uses the flicker effect to produce visual hallucinations in the minds of its observers. He conceived of the machine after what he later discovered was the natural flicker effect from the sun. This occurred in 1958 while he was travelling by bus from Paris to the Mediterranean. As the setting sun shone through the branches and leaves of a tree-lined avenue, the fragmented rays of light, combined with the precise speed of the vehicle, produced flashes of light before him. He described the effect this created as: “An overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns and supernatural colours exploded behind my eyelids: a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time.” The brief phenomenon that ended as abruptly as it began—as soon as the bus passed the line of trees—spawned Gysin’s determination to develop a machine that could reproduce the natural phenomenon “at the flick of a switch.”

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Katie Oates is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Western Ontario (London, Canada), where she also completed her M.A. in Art History. She earned her Honours B.A. at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) in English and Art History. Katie’s current research explores histories and theories of photography as they intersect with American culture and literature, the archive, gender, and the operative and affective dimensions of photographs. Her work has been published in BeatdomLiterary Journal, Forest City Gallery’s (London, Canada) Digest, LondonFuse, and earned her the Western’s Caucus on Women’s Issues Essay Award.

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