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Johnny Smoke is photographed with a Dream machine on Oct 19 2012. The machine, invented in the late 1950s by Edmonton-raised Brion Gysin uses stroboscopic lights for visual stimulation. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Johnny Smoke is photographed with a Dream machine on Oct 19 2012. The machine, invented in the late 1950s by Edmonton-raised Brion Gysin uses stroboscopic lights for visual stimulation. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)


It’s high time: The Dreamachine is no longer just a dream Add to ...

The description on the outside of the box reads, “Metal Table Lamp.” And when you peer inside, that seems about right. There is a stainless-steel cylinder 69 centimetres tall, perforated with about 30 petal-like shapes, and inside the cylinder, mounted in a socket atop a spindle, is a 60-watt light bulb. Plunk the felt-covered base on a table, plug in the electrical cord, flick the switch on the cord, et voila, a metal table lamp.

But there is one other component to the object: a knob on the base that when turned on sets the perforated part of the cylinder whirling. Within seconds, to the sound of a discreet metallic whir, the rotating cylinder is stroboscopically splaying light around the room, the turntable circling at 78 rpm.

Behold, ladies and gentlemen, the Dreamachine. In commercial production at last and soon, if the cosmos unfolds accordingly, available in a mall near you.

And behold it you must. To simply use the Dreamachine as a lamp to read Fifty Shades of Grey is entirely beside the point. No, the trick is to sit close to the whirling cylinder, close your eyes, then let the lights! colours! patterns! hallucinations! (near the end of a recent 50-minute session, yours truly kept seeing an eyeball floating inside a pyramid – an image found on the back of the U.S. one-dollar bill) arise, vanish, then arise as the oscillations flick flashes, eight to 13 per second, onto your eyelids, inducing, for some at least, a drug-less high. Or, as the Dreamachine’s more passionate adherents prefer, “a throwing back of the limits of the visible world.”

The Dreamachine is hardly new. Indeed, the effects of pulsating light on the brain have been studied by scientists since the early 19th century. What is unclear to this day is precisely what brain mechanisms are producing the patterns and images initiated by the strobe. Is it because the light stimulates alpha waves in the brain – the waves most associated with “wakeful relaxation” and the creative state – so that one is dreaming with eyes wide shut? Or are they side effects – a function of the brain responding to the relentless spasms of light by rapidly creating a series of “file folders” to make sense of the stimuli?

The Dreamachine – invented by a once-obscure, now-legendary British-born artist, writer, performer, one-time resident of Edmonton, and all-round provocateur named Brion Gysin and a English mathematician, Ian Sommerville – has been prompting these sorts of questions for more than a half-century.

Gysin got the idea for the apparatus in late 1958 via an entirely “natural high”: Travelling at sundown on a bus to Marseilles from Paris, he closed his eyes as the bus entered a long enfilade of evenly spaced trees. The resultant flickering, he later wrote, “swept him out of time” into “a transcendental storm of colour visions.” Recounting the experience to his friend, Beat legend William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch), he announced his determination to find a way to reproduce it mechanically.

The Dreamachines produced since then have tended to fall into two broad categories. Many have been cumbersome, handmade affairs of limited durability, sometimes no more than a tube of paper with holes in it, set on a rotating record turntable with a light bulb dangling from above. Others have been specialty items, produced with exotic materials and selling for $500 to $3,000 (U.S.).

Now, though, the Dreamachine seems poised to move from cult artifact/underground semi-secret to household object, thanks to John Weitner, a 59-year-old venture capitalist from Fort Erie, Ont., and Johnny Smoke, 36, an artist, former gallerist, software writer and jack of all trades from Niagara Falls. Late last year, after much research and testing, they ordered the manufacture of about 650 “plug-and-play” Dreamachines from a factory in Guangzhou, China. The devices will be sold online this fall and the two hope that they will be available soon through department stores, lighting shops and other retailers.

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