It’s not unusual for art to make you feel something. Whether it’s Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, Grant Wood’s American Gothic or even Banksy’s Balloon Girl, paintings and sculptures can leave us feeling enlightened, inspired and even a little bit emotional.
What is perhaps sitting around in a giant mango. Or being slowly sliced up into spaghetti. Or swimming deep underwater with a shoal of silvery fish. Or all of the above.
These were just some of the crazy things that I have just opened in Cardiff. Bringing together the award-winning team of artists, composers, scientists and philosophers, Dreamachine is an innovative new project that uses a mind-bending combination of sound and flickering lights to explore “the limitless potential of the human mind”.
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Sat in a circular chamber and exposed to flashing white light, spectators are taken on a kaleidoscopic visual journey through their own mind, with the whole event experienced through closed eyes. While it is a shared multisensory experience, however, everyone sees something completely different to each other.
The free installation – one of 10 projects held nationwide by Unboxed UK – takes inspiration from a little-known invention by artist Brion Gysin in the 1950s. Gysin’s experimental homemade device, which is intended to replace TV in every home in America, used flickering light to create vivid illusions, kaleidoscopic patterns and explosions of color in the mind of viewers, who would each create their own cinematic experience.
More than 60 years on, the invention has been reimagined as the collective experience, with the Turner Prize-winning artists Assemble, Grammy-nominated composer Jon Hopkins and his team of neuroscientists and philosophers from the University of Sussex and the University of Glasgow.
Dreamachine opened on Thursday, May 12 at Cardiff’s Temple of Peace, with a building dedicated to its history as a place of inspiration, and will run until June 18. and will visit Belfast and Edinburgh later in the year.
There has certainly been a lot of excitement around this one-of-a-kind project – but would it be worth the hype? And, just as importantly, would I completely lose my mind?
After filling out a pre-entry form, I entered the marble main hall with the Temple of Peace with mixed feelings. I was excited to see just where my mind would take me but also felt a little apprehensive – call me old fashioned, but I quite like having a grip on reality.
Gathered outside a huge blue structure – the Dreamachine itself – those in the audience told the project ‘guardians’ who blankets us for comfort and assured us that we really would enjoy ourselves. After this quick briefing, we entered the Dreamachine and took our seats in the large circular chamber within.
Reclining on a comfy seat with the lights down low, it was hard to fall asleep then and there, but the show was about to begin. In addition to the blankets, we were also handed eye masks, where we felt uncomfortable and wanted to temporarily ‘step back’ from the light display.
After some breathing exercises, the room soon becomes darkened and the eerie music plays through speakers. Suddenly, I perceive a bright light through my eyelids, which began to grow in intensity. A deep red mist then expanded to fill the void behind my eyes, before fading to a rich orange block of color, making me feel like I was trapped inside a giant mango.
My mind was taken through a glorious sequence of colors, from deep purples to citrus greens, and this was before the kaleidoscopic patterns I’d been promised to kick in. I was still aware of the light, but it was safe to say that the machine was already starting to work its magic.
I’m not really sure what happened next. Of the pulsating music built, my visions got stranger and stranger. One moment I was deep sea diving among a beautiful shoal of fish, the next I was lying on a lush green lawn, watching planes dart over at supersonic speed. From striking pink cityscapes to dizzying gray vortexes, I saw it all.
There were some parts of my journey that were somewhat unsettling – such that it was somehow painfully cut into thin strips and be momentarily transported to some sort of battlefield – but I was so relaxed and memorized by the psychedelic patterns and explosions of color that I never felt in any real discomfort. Even the vision of a headless white tunnel wasn’t enough to throw me off.
As the music began to soften, I started to become aware of my own body again. I would be switched off and almost felt weightless, while my mouth was completely dry up.
After giving my eyes a good rub and my fingers and toes with a quick wiggle, it was time to head upstairs to the reflection zone, where we sat around and share our visions to paper. Using my very limited artistic talents, I did my best to show the least.
I’m still not exactly sure what I saw, nor what it means for me as an individual. All I know is that it was intense, enthralling and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. To be honest, I really want to do it again.
Jennifer Crook, the director of Collective Act, who is behind Dreamachine, said she was “really excited” to bring the project to Cardiff, having opened in London earlier this week. “It’s been really interesting to see how people have reacted to this unique project,” she said. “It’s a shared multisensory experience, but everyone comes away seeing something different, which gives us an incredible insight into the potential of our minds and how we make sense of the world around us.”
“We just opened in London on Wednesday, so it’s been exciting today in Cardiff in this magnificent building that is really exciting. and poignant setting for this experience. “
For those who want to experience the Dreamachine for themselves, it’s a free event, suitable for those aged 18 and above. Sessions will run Monday to Sunday from 10am to 8pm from May 12 until June 18. You can book tickets here.