Dreamachine review – as close to state-funded psychedelic drugs as it gets | Art

Jhe entire population of Britain is to be given LSD in a government-sponsored attempt to cheer us up after the pandemic and make us forget about inflation. Well, almost. Dreamachine, one of Unboxed UK’s 10 national projects – formerly known as the Festival of Brexit – is as close to state-funded hallucinogens as it gets.

It’s a free journey inside your own head. It’s a 21st century – fully credited – take on a psychedelic technique patented in the 60s by Brion Gysin, friend and collaborator of Naked Lunch author William Burroughs. The insight Gysin had, while smoking kif in Morocco and popping pills in Paris, is that being exposed to a simple flashing white light while you have your eyes closed can cause intense visual hallucinations. Light flickering between eight and 13 flashes per second synchronizes with alpha brain waves to trigger this bizarre phenomenon.

So at Woolwich Public Market and three other venues in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh, in an experience created by a team including Turner Assemble winners and musician Jon Hopkins, you start by filling out a medical form, then put away your belongings into a locker and take off your shoes before being gently led as a group into a large circular chamber where you lie down on a comfortable reclining chair with speakers on either side of your head. Induction is based on danger and tension. Can he really live up to this drama?

Healthy, harmless and worth every penny.
Healthy, harmless and worth every penny… Dreamachine. Photography: David Levene/The Guardian

It can. The thrilling soundtrack starts to get louder as you lie down with your eyes closed and the space darkens, which you perceive through your eyelids. Then it starts and I see a large cloud of warm purple spreading out in front of me, a magenta haze blooming in the void. The speed or brightness of the flashing white lights change (I guess) and I’m dazzled by a bright orange sky – a marmalade sky. But it’s not so much a sky as a wall of color, electric and dazzling. And inside of me.

I say “I” because everyone will have a different experience. Maybe you will see real places, old faces, heaven and hell. In my case, everything was deliriously abstract except for a moment when there seemed to be a face at the end of a tunnel of light, but I couldn’t recognize who it might be. At the maximum intensity of sound and light, complex crystalline structures like bright white beehives or molecular networks formed out of nowhere, an architecture of pure light.

It’s definitely a psychedelic experience, but made with flashes of light instead of chemicals. It may be “an irresponsible use of public money”, as the Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has called the Unboxed festival, but it certainly gave me a pleasant Saturday morning. Despite all the health warnings, if you can lay back, relax and open up, it’s a sumptuously enjoyable ride. I just loved it – seeing such majestic beauty and knowing that it’s all just an illusion created by your brain. It makes you wonder what reality is, if we can so easily produce an antidote in our heads. If all it takes is a pulse of light to make us see infinity, we walk through the poems of William Blake.

“I see a large cloud of warm purple spreading before me, a magenta haze blooming in the void.” Photography: David Levene/The Guardian

During lockdown, I watched with my family a streaming interview with theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli in which he was asked what prompted him to start. Somewhat unexpectedly and awkwardly from a parental perspective, he said taking hallucinogenic drugs in his youth really helped him see the fabric of reality. So what the Dreamachine let me see may not have been fantasy at all, but the nature of the actual quantum universe, as Rovelli describes it in his mind-blowing book Heligoland.

Rovelli argues that we only exist in relation to others and that Dreamachine is a community experience, not a solitary one. While you see what only you can see, you lie down with others. At the end, we are led to a relaxation area with soft seats and ottomans and a drawing table to share the experience.

Some people make sketches of what they have seen. Intense colors, pulsating patterns… it turns out we all see similar things after all. As people try to describe what they saw in the relaxation zone, I realize that we have all experienced something supernatural and sublime.

Gysin was truly a visionary because it is the communal utopian psychedelic dream of the 1960s reborn without addiction, without victims. It’s a healthy and harmless way to take advantage of the secret intoxicants in your own brain and connect with other people who are having the same adventure.

Dreamachine is the only good thing to come out of Brexit and is worth every penny. I say it’s not addictive – but when can I do it again?

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