Saturday, November 29, 2008

Dream Machine

Speaking of American Trancendentalism I came across this article in the Globe and Mail about Brion Gysin, Edmontonian, member of the beat generation, creator of the Dream Machine, William Burroughs collaborator and lover, and shaman. He is finally getting his due in a new documentary based on a biography written by another Edmontonian; John Gieger.

Back in the ninties I collaborated with Bruce Fletcher on a journal called Virus 23 published in Edmonton and wrote an article on Gysin.

Gysin grew up partly in Edmonton before leading a typically itinerant beat existence in Paris, London and Tangier. An enigmatic figure, even among Burroughs's coterie, he came up with the concept for the Dream Machine by accident. He was looking out of the window of a bus in 1958 while travelling to an artists' colony in Marseilles, and the flickering pattern of light through the trees gave him a feeling of transcendence.
Later, a young mathematician, Ian Sommerville, another within in the beat circle, helped to build the device. Gysin then spent years trying to peddle the invention to electronics and media companies. Long story short, his invention got no takers and Gysin died in relatively obscurity in Paris in 1986.
Only now is he getting his due. The Dream Machine is widely seen as much more than a mere device, as Gysin himself described it, but as an art piece, blending the Arabic patterns that influenced his work with his idea of a kind of almost mechanical abstraction that ran throughout his artistic work. For instance, Gysin is primarily known (and increasingly being rediscovered) for his “cut-ups,” pieces of newspaper joined randomly together.
What Burroughs and Gysin wanted was to fight societal control, to fight the middle-class normality that pervaded postwar America.
“Remember the transcendentalists in the American literary tradition – Emerson, Thoreau – and this whole tradition of individualism, of taking over your own world, whether it be Walden Pond or whatever,” Sheehan says. “It's often said that the beats were the 20th-century answer or echo of the transcendentalists. Again, ‘Take control, don't trust the Man. The control systems are out to get you. They are blasting at you their television and radio.'”
So Burroughs and Gysin's alternative was the Dream Machine. “And they literally were serious. They wanted to replace the television with these machines in everyone's suburban living room,” Sheehan adds.

Strange and wonderful visions of the counterculture

Based on John Geiger's well-received book Chapel of Extreme Experience: A Short History of Stroboscopic Light and the Dream Machine, Sheehan's compelling documentary delivers a culturally incisive job of unmasking Gysin. That's no small feat, considering the mercurial and spectre-like nature of a man who believed himself to be the reincarnation of the 10th-century King of Assassins and who counted writer William S. Burroughs, singer Marianne Faithfull and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones among his friends and lovers.
Sheehan goes out of his way to prove that, for a man who lived in infamy and died (in 1986) in obscurity, Gysin's influence on today's culture extends beyond rap and dub poetry and into the emergence of audiences as creators of their own computer-made and distributed entertainment. Experts from stuffy neurosurgeons to hip DJs are interviewed in an attempt to shed light on Gysin as a visionary and the Dream Machine as a precursor to anything Apple Inc. puts an "i" in front of and sells to the creative masses: iPhones, iPods, iMovies.

A hit when it screened earlier this year at Toronto's Hot Docs Festival -- it was awarded a special jury prize for Canadian Documentary -- the film explores the life of Gysin, who was born in a Canadian military hospital in England in 1916, raised in Edmonton and lived the impoverished-yet-glamourous life glorified by the Beat writers. He left Canada for Paris, where he fraternized with the Surrealists and later lived in the Beat Hotel (where William S. Burroughs finished Naked Lunch and Allen Ginsberg wrote Kaddish); worked as a spy during the Second World War; and co-founded a restaurant for the expat community of Tangier, Morocco. A renaissance man, Gysin was a writer, an artist, and, perhaps most of all, an innovator; he was the originator of the "cut-up" technique (the literary process later used by Burroughs and others in which text is literally cut up, rearranged at random and reconstructed to make a new work). Sheehan, though, chooses to focus on the life of Gysin by filtering it through another one of his inventions: the dream machine.

Chapel of Extreme Experience: A Short History of Stroboscopic ... - Google Books Result

Interview with John Geiger
Author of Books on Brion Gysin and the Dream Machine
John Geiger is the author of four books. His first two concerned Arctic exploration. His next two,
Chapel of Extreme Experience: A Short History of Stroboscopic Light and The Dream Machine and Nothing Is True - Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin, concerned the Beat movement. In an age when many authors opt for specialization, publishing book after book on the same topic, the range of Mr. Geiger’s publications might strike the casual observer as odd. Here’s a guy who is a Governor and Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. What’s he doing writing about the Beats?
Impressed by the Gysin biography and curious to know more about the juxtaposition of Mr. Geiger’s interests, RealityStudio prepared the following interview questions and Mr. Geiger graciously agreed to respond.
RealityStudio: What first drew you to study Brion Gysin, William Burroughs, their peers and their era?
Geiger: I had written two books concerned with geographic exploration, and — at the time — didn’t want to write a third. I was interested in Gysin and Burroughs both as another kind of explorer, of inner space… I was also intrigued by the idea that someone like Gysin, a bohemian, gay, had come from Edmonton, Alberta, which was a small conservative town in the 1920s. He was such a fascinating creature, Brion: how is it that such a barren landscape — then — could produce such a harvest? But the idea for the book came from a lovely guy, James Grauerholz.

Interview with John Geiger(Pataphysics)

You’ve been working on this book for many years. What was the thing that really began your interest in Brion Gysin?
What surprised me was the discovery that Brion Gysin grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, which still has some very ‘old west’ sensibilities about the place, so you can well imagine what it would have been like in the 1920s, when Brion was there, growing up and receiving most of his schooling. It was a very conservative, small frontier town perched on the edge of the great forests of the North. It struck me as being remarkable that this kind of person could’ve come out of that kind of place. I think that exploration in our own time has been undertaken by people like William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, and I think in the case of Burroughs, a book like The YagĂ© Letters is very much a narrative of exploration, in the same way Ernest Shackleton’s narratives are. So to me, I was just conducting research into another very different manner of exploring. Those things together caught my interest. I was already aware of Gysin, but interestingly not throug! h Burroughs so much, although in hindsight I had seen his name obviously—you can hardly read Burroughs without seeing Gysin’s name or some reference to his ideas—but it was really through Paul Bowles that I first discovered him.
It’s interesting that right at the end of Semiotext(e)’s Burroughs Live, in a discussion with Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs mentions that Brion was a potent shaman. Certainly he had an erudite involvement with magic, and his availability to intuitive principles seems quite advanced. How did you take those things into consideration when you were writing the book?
When I first spoke to William Burroughs about the biography—he was an enthusiastic supporter—he made it very clear to me that the approach should be a conventional biography, and he felt that Brion needed to be taken seriously, and that there had been enough homages and remembrances, that really someone ought to just examine his life very carefully and set out the facts of that life. So, obviously his interest in ‘the other way,’ in what Burroughs called ‘the magical universe,’ was integral to Gysin’s character. I mean it’s something that he learned from the very earliest moments of his life from the Indian people he was encountering. Brion Gysin was always different, he wasn’t a normal child anymore than he was a normal adult, and consequently he found himself hanging out with people who were marginalized, even when he was a child. In the context of Canada in those years and p! robably even to this day, those people were aboriginal people, they were North American Indians. It was through those interactions that he first took magic mushrooms—that was when this interest really first took hold and he was introduced to an alternative approach to life and thought.

Key to Hallucinations Found

Almost fifty years ago, the beat poet Brion Gysin (1916 - 1986), described a visual hallucination that he experienced while riding a bus:
...Had a transcendental storm of colour visions today in the bus going to Marseille. We ran through a long avenue of trees and I closed my eyes against the setting sun. An overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns in supernatural colours exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time. I was in a world of infinite number. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees. Was that a vision? What happened to me? (Brion Gysin, 21 December 1958)
Gysin, a writer and performance artist, though known for his discovery of the cut-up technique, which inspired writers like William S. Burroughs, was also the co-inventor (along with scientist Ian Sommerville) of the Dreamachine, a stroboscopic flicker device designed to be viewed with the eyes closed and produces visual stimuli.
At the end of his documentation, Gysin asks, "Was that a vision? What happened to me?"
According to Dominic ffytche of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, and author of 'The Hodology of Hallucinations,' a study recently published in an issue of Cortex, "Fifty years on we are able to answer Gysin's question." Gysin's hallucinations were quite similar to what Jan
Purkinje (1787-1869), the father of contemporary neuroscience, experienced as a child.
"I stand in the bright sunlight with closed eyes and face the sun. Then I move my outstretched, somewhat separated, fingers up and down in front of the eyes, so that they are alternately illuminated and shaded. In addition to the uniform yellow-red that one expects with closed eyes, there appear beautiful regular figures that are initially difficult to define but slowly become clearer. When we continue to move the fingers, the figure becomes more complex and fills the whole visual field. (Purkinje, 1819)
When Purkinje moved his fingers, he simulated an effect similar to that of Gysin's Dreamachine.
Because of the brevity and unpredictability of hallucinations, up until now, surprisingly little is known about brain changes that occur during hallucinations—one cannot anticipate when a hallucination will occur. The chances of capturing a hallucination during a brain scanning are small.
However, it has long been recognized that flashes of light at particular frequencies, like those experience by Gysin and Purkinje, produce hallucinations of intricate patterns and vivid colors. Indeed, these stimulated visual patterns are described as Purkinje patterns. For anyone who's confused out there, the Purkinje patterns ffytche describes in his paper are much more complicated than the stuff everyone sees after a camera flash or when we stare at the sun too long without protective eyewear. They're actually much more than that.
"They are more complex...entirely unexpected the first time you encounter them. At slow rates of flashing through closed lids you experience exactly what you might expect, a dull red light pulsing with each flash. At the critical frequency the whole thing changes and colours, patterns and forms appear. The Beat poet Brion Gysin's description puts it better than I can."
Most people have a rough idea of what a hallucination experience might be like, but when it comes to defining a hallucination, that's more difficult. If a hallucination is defined as 'seeing or hearing something that is not actually there,' then dreams and imagery would be considered hallucinations.
According to ffytche, visual hallucinations, (people do hallucinate with other senses), "are located in the world around us, not in the mind's eye. They are not under our control, in the sense that we cannot bring them on or change them as they occur. They also look real and vivid, although the things one sees may be bizarre and impossible. Purkinje phenomena meet all these criteria and can thus be considered true hallucinations.
However, Purkinje phenomena are induced by experiment rather than occurring spontaneously as in the Charles Bonnet Syndrome, an eye disease that causes patients to have complex hallucinations. ffytche points out:
"We are only beginning to understand just how common this Syndrome is, partly because patients have been unwilling to admit their hallucinations for fear of being labeled as having serious mental illness. Charles Bonnet Syndrome patients almost all hallucinate patterns and geometrical forms identical to Purkinje phenomena. Many also see figures, objects and faces, the types of experience we generally associate with hallucinations. The hope is that what we learn from the Purkinje phenomena will also apply to these other hallucination experiences."
ffytche also adds that "most people will experience Purkinje hallucinations under appropriate conditions of visual stimulation, although their clarity and ease of induction varies from subject to subject. I have only encountered a few subjects who do not seem to have the experiences for reasons I do not fully understand. I assume the visual systems of such 'immune' subjects are wired up in a slightly different way."



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