Storming the Citadel of Enlightenment: Brion Gysin and his Dreammachine


Brion Gysin (1916-86) was a British-Canadian writer, artist, performer and mystic who was a seminal influence on the Beat writers and the subsequent counter-culture movements that came in their wake; despite the fact that he was relatively unknown outside artistic circles. The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently showing an exhibition called “Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life” which, to be honest, was my first formal introduction to Brion Gysin’s works outside of the his development of the ‘cut up’ writing technique famously employed in William S. Burroughs’ novel ‘Naked Lunch’ . The gallery exhibit’s primary focus on Gysin was focused around his years spent with Burroughs at the ‘Beat Hotel’ at 9 Rue Gît-le-Coeur in Paris during the late ’50’s and early ’60’s.

Gysin’s residency at the Beat Hotel led to a period of immense creative output which was perfectly described by the late music journalist Robert Palmer, stating that Gysin “threw off the sort of ideas that ordinary artists would parlay into a lifetime career, great clumps of ideas, as casually as a locomotive throws off sparks”.

One of the most interesting concepts to come out of the Beat Hotel collaborations was the ‘Dreammachine’ which was a device that created strobe-like visual pulsations of light which was designed to alter a users brainwave frequency and put them in an ‘alpha wave’ state. The alpha state is essentially a specific frequency range of electrical oscillations present during the natural resting or ‘dream’ state of the brain and the purpose of the device was to replicate this state ‘on demand’ allowing the user to enter a hallucinatory, altered state of consciousness without the use of psychedelics.


The Dreammachine is a rather simple device, consisting of a rotating cylinder with cut out slat ‘windows’ that is lit internally with a 100 Watt lightbulb. To use the device, a user simply sits directly in front of the cylinder as it spins (usually at a speed of 78 revolutions per minute) with their eyes closed, creating a brain stimulating strobe effect in the darkness. William Burroughs wrote about the Dreammachine extensively and saw it as a useful tool in the conscious struggle against our repressive western culture, famously stating his intent that it be used to ‘storm the citadels of enlightenment’ itself.

I’ve included a great National Film Board of Canada documentary by Nik Sheehan that tells the story of Gysin’s Dreammachine and has several interviews from friends and admirers of Gysin and his works including Marianne Faithfull, Genesis P-Orridge, Iggy Pop and experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger.  Touring Instability will also be posting additional articles on Gysin and Burroughs’  highly influential artistic collaborations in the near future.

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