Review by Graham Rae
“We must storm the citadels of enlightenment. The means are at hand.”
Dreams. Let’s face it, nobody truly fully knows what they really are. We spend a third of our lives asleep, inscrutable calcium fortress skulls encasing reality-drained mammalian brains in energy-conservation-mode lockdown, being carried along a constant unintelligible river of tattered neon headswimages, safely drowning in cryptic riptides of brief-flare neuronic-and-synaptic mosaics of our daily lives.
Historically, dreams have been charged with everything from curing health problems to prophesying upcoming world events, bearing the weightless weight of would-could-should-be future human evolution and revelation. Musings on our nocturnal cranial emissions moved from prophetic to psychological study mode with Freud’s 1900 volume The Interpretation of Dreams. This book spawned a pop-pseudoscience-fiction literary subgenre about the supposed “meaning” behind various symbols and subjects encountered in dreams, and what they “meant” for the dreamer. More recently, however, hard science has tackled our sleeping dreaming wondering selves with excellent volumes like An Evolutionary Psychology of Sleep And Dreams, which attempt to unravel the evolutionary physiological reasoning behind our everynight internal flickershows.
One man, however, who was not so much interested in what dreams “meant” as with recreating them at will by means of electronic stimulus was artist Brion Gysin, the only man William S. Burroughs ever respected (always wondered what that meant with regards to Allen Ginsberg, who basically got WSB his literary career, but that’s beside the point). The far-traveled secret agent provocateur agenda artist was in France in December 1958, when he experienced a lightshow-and-tell that would change his life forever. As he put it in a diary entry for 12/21/58:
Had a transcendental storm of colour visions today in the bus going to Marseilles. We ran through a long avenue of trees and I closed my eyes against the setting sun. An overwhelming flood of intensely bright colours exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling through space. I was swept out of time. I was out in a world of infinite number. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees. Was that a vision? What happened to me?
New documentary FLicKer, based on the John Geiger book Chapel of Extreme Experience, attempts to explain this very question. The puzzled man’s bemused musings on his tripping-the-light-fantastic experience were only sort-of solved when the ever-cutting-edge reader Burroughs passed him the then-new neuroscience volume The Living Brain by W. Grey Walter, the man widely credited with inventing artificial intelligence. Gysin was fascinated to learn of the hypnotic stereopticon stroboscopic effects of certain light-and-dark alternating patterns on stimulating the brain’s alpha waves, and how the headspinspiration produced could synthetically generate something pretty much akin to dreams or visions.
Gysin wanted to harness the prophetic power of lightwaves for visionary fun and for profit. Pondering synthetic vision-inducing methods, the nomadic artistic-truth-seeker came up with the idea for a dream machine, an eccentric device basically incorporating a 100-watt bulb, a turntable, and a cut-up cylinder of cardboard, to create a strobelight effect on the viewer’s closed eyelids. This in turn approximated the effect Gysin had experienced on his revelationary French bus trip, and the awed viewer could sit and experience a drugless high to his or her heart’s content.
In theory, if not in practice. Gysin took his baby to brilliant English mathematician Ian Sommerville and got him to construct a prototype, realizing that mass manufacturing of this device could lift him from his shabby garret-dwelling existence and into far richer realms than he inhabited. He tried to sell his invention to electrical company Phillips, but noted ruefully that they wanted a device to put people to sleep whereas he wanted quite the reverse. Nobody quite knew what to make of the dream machine, whether it was an art piece or a toy or an entertainment. Or was it the End of Art (to be looked at with the eyes closed, as was sagely noted) and something that would make artists outdated? This contradictory classification conundrum was never solved and Gysin died broke in 1986 in Paris, to sleep eternally perchance to machine-dream of a mainstream artistic breakthrough he never achieved during his lifetime.
This sad, fascinating, quixotic quest is comprehensively covered in this excellent documentary, running parallel with a brief, tantalizing discussion of Gysin’s artwork and his undervalued place in the art world in general. This whole aspect of the man could be doing with a whole movie itself, because by necessity the filmmakers are concentrating on Gysin’s lightflight invention. What is contained, however, is as illuminating as the machine whose evolution it documents, and when a contemporary dream machine is constructed and used by various artists and musicians past and present, it certainly made me want to build one of my own.
Various surviving 60s countercultural heroes like Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithfull and Kenneth Anger are interviewed about their meetings with the artist, and it makes for entertaining stuff, especially as most of the old crew in the doc seem a bit drugfried; Terry Wilson, Gysin’s one-time sorcerer’s apprentice, seems particularly, eh, short of a reality check or two. But that’s fine. When you’re dealing with dabblers in drugs and the occult you have to expect a braincrash or two. Special passing mention here must go to Psychic TV singer / all-round far-out artistic malcontent Genesis P-Orridge, who gives off an unpleasant and unsettling aura of pain and depression and deep mental imbalance as he discusses at length his friendship with the film’s subject.
With a set of implanted breasts (he believes he is the male-female incarnation of himself and his now-deceased wife) and blonde wig he looks uncannily like Andy Warhol after bad plastic surgery, and I felt a mixture of pity and revulsion and boredom watching him and his bad 60s-psychedelia-meets-Joy-Division band playing along to dream machine-like strobelights. Much better and more interesting footage is stuff like a British Channel 4 interview with Gysin and Wilson from 1983, or footage of the artist’s “soulmate” Burroughs shooting up, or the mad experimental films they made together during the 50s and 60s. There’s some great animation explaining who Hassan I Sabbah (Gysin believed he was channeling the 10th century King of The Assassins) is, and, in a rare moment or two of levity, some hilarious footage of a tortoise-robot from the 1950s when W. Grey Walter and his pioneering cybernetic work is being discussed.
Gysin was obsessed with writing and rewriting his signature graphomaniac-style-after-different-new-style, changing and arranging and rearranging and deranging the letters of it into every configuration possible to see which would look better, obviously obsessed with, and confused by, identity. He believed by eliminating the name you could eliminate the body; his art was magical in basis, with a lot of this gleaned from living in Tangier in the 50s, where he met Burroughs in 1954. The two men’s thinking was an odd admixture of scientific and magical, with them seemingly able to believe in utterly worthless garbage sometimes and do stuff like try to put spells on astronauts in space. This pathological paralogic surrounding Burroughs is never something I’ve been able to understand or accept, except as a consequence of rampant hardcore drug abuse and constantly-altered realities, and I guess linear logical thinking (which the two artists would probably have said was overrated anyway) was always going to be a casualty of the eternal internal drug war in these two fascinating individuals.
It’s funny though. Musing on how Gysin (described as “the conjuror swallowed up by his own spell”), who was penniless and mostly unknown (even today) when he died, Marcus Boon, author of The Road to Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs, says of Gysin in the film:
He somehow disappeared as the agent of the forces he was setting in motion, and that in some sense was actually a success, it actually proved that he was able to do something or other. And again, that’s why we’re talking about him 20 years after his death. Some kind of force was unleashed and made its way into all these different channels of culture. But he himself seems to have disappeared in the process.
Which, judging by what he was trying to do with eradicating his name, is more than a little ironic. This superb documentary (to which there is much more than I have discussed here) is wholeheartedly recommended to both Burroughs / Gysin aficionados or newcomers to Gysin’s oeuvre, like myself. I personally learned a lot, and realized how much I had devalued Gysin’s role in Burroughs’ life and work and worldview. A fundamentally stupid error, of course, as is Gysin’s still relatively unknown status, but hopefully this educational and inspirational work will go some way to rectifying that. That would be a magical act indeed.
PS: Feel like making a dream machine for fun and no profit? Go have at it!