Dreamachine promises to invert the experience with viewers submitting to the markedly uncurated workings within our minds. Sitting on a cardboard bench in the waiting room with a small group of strangers, our guide tells us what we would see inside the futuristic-looking vessel would be completely unique to each and every one of us. There is, we are told, a science to this. The Dreamachine was designed by Collective Act in collaboration with Turner Prize-winning multidisciplinary collective Assemble, composer Jon Hopkins, plus scientists, technologists, and philosophers to tap into the individual potential of the visual mind. To create powerful images using only music, white light, and closed eyelids.
The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On
When I arrive at the Dreamachine at Woolwich Public Market, I am asked to take off my shoes and put them along with my bag and phone in a locker. Of course phones have a tendency to go off, but to leave one’s shoes? That must be symbolic - a way of leaving the filthy streets of London and the rush of the underground. I am reminded of one of my favourite essays, ‘Please To Leave Your Umbrella’ written by Charles Dickens for Household Words in 1858. Upon arriving at the Palace at Hampton Court, Dickens was asked to leave his umbrella in the foyer, allowing it to ‘drip on the stone floor with the sound of an irregular clock.’ As he goes about the rooms of the Palace, he is so immersed that he forgets the world outside, yet cannot allow his mind to relax at the thought of leaving the only item in his possession at the entrance. To leave behind judgement and preconception, and be swept along by the curators and forces outside our own minds and hand over our agency to them.
"To create powerful images using only music, white light, and closed eyelids"
The experience itself is a simple one. We sit on a large round circle, something like a cyclotron, with speakers between our heads playing Hopkins’s gentle music. The guide lulls us into a state of relaxation, using simple breathing techniques reminiscent of the mindfulness classes I found so vital to unwinding during my time at university. Letting go of our bodies, bringing our breath under control, and gently closing our eyes to the world, the experience begins. What follows can only be described as a form of lucid psychedelia, wherein tessellations, phosphenes, and geometric patterns come and go, bright colours shift and reform in the mind, all while being reminded that all anyone with their eyes open would see is an orb of pulsating white.
"bright colours shift and reform in the mind"
When the experience is over, the group moves out of the Dreamachine into a calming space for reflection on what we have seen. I am overcome by a desire to illustrate one of the images that stuck with me, though I am no visual artist. There is a table piled high with similar visualisations others have felt similarly compelled to recreate, and I take a stash of chalk and a black sheet to begin forming patterns, and a human figure I have seen at the end of the ride - a breathtakingly beautiful nude woman appearing to descend from the heavens, her hair blending with the night sky and her gaze fixed entrancingly with mine.
In his Proslogion, Saint Anselm set out his ontological argument for the existence of God - that something which exists in reality is always greater than that which can be conceived in the mind. I think of these words as I attempt to recreate that female figure on my canvas, inevitably disappointed at being unable to draw what I saw. Afterwards, lying on a bean bag in another part of the room, I speak to someone who saw something similar – not a woman, but the spellbinding figure of Jesus Christ. While the things we saw were different and impossible to explain, I am glad not to have gone through alone.
When I return outside and am reunited with my shoes, phone, and handbag, I realise what I really left behind when I entered the Dreamachine. It was more than the preconceptions and mental agency Dickens had talked about in ‘Please To Leave Your Umbrella’ - it was my sense of rationality and scepticism with which I approach all aspects of life. It was an invitation, or invocation, to open my mind and for an hour or so to embrace the spiritual potential of my neurological pathways. It’s possible to explain away the Dreamachine with science, but I am more intrigued by the role of philosophy in its creation - to give in to that lucid sleep and open myself to what dreams might come.
Cover image: Dreamachine. Photo by David Levene