A mind-bending, FREE psychedelic trip inside your own brain
I went on a psychedelic trip inside my own brain, hurtling down kaleidoscopic tunnels and smashing through blazing, stained glass windows.
And not only was I not breaking the law, the government actively encouraged it and even footed the bill for the mind-meltingly extraordinary (FREE) trip.
Was it all a dream? Almost. Dreamachine is an audiovisual, immersive experience using a flashing light technique created in the Sixties to trigger intense, psychedelic visions, alongside music by Jon Hopkins... because all hallucinations deserve a good soundtrack.
In another, brain-bending twist, it is one of 10 national projects from Unboxed UK, which was dubbed 'the Festival of Brexit’ back in 2018, when Theresa May announced plans for the Festival of Great Britain. And it is the only brilliant thing to come from Brexit.
It’s difficult to believe that this cerebral fireworks show took place inside an old Woolwich market. But we headed inside, duly stuffed our phones, shoes and belongings into the locker and seated ourselves among the circle of Lynchian characters who would be joining us for this experience. It felt (pleasingly) like joining a bizarre cult, or a support group for people with an addiction to patchouli.
A rigorous health quiz was to be completed beforehand and staff turned the anticipation dial up to 11 with their briefings. A pensioner nervously toyed with her necklace and reached for her husband’s hand. And a red-haired hippy closed his eyes to meditate before we were introduced to The Machine.
Guides provided us with blankets and eye masks and led us into a womb-like, circular space, with marshmallow-soft seating studded with speakers, where they guided us through relaxation techniques ahead of the experience.
Would it be a disappointment after this intense build-up? No. No. And also, no.
It was extraordinary. I closed my eyes, relaxed into it and - after a spot of eye-watering from the bright lights at the start - floated into an entirely new and exquisitely beautiful world, unfathomably created by my own brain, thanks to the ingenious lighting above my head.
The psychedelic technique was patented in the Sixties by Naked Lunch author, William Burroughs’ friend and collaborator, Brion Gysin. He discovered that closing your eyes in front of a flashing, white light - pulsing between eight and 13 flashes a second - synchronises with the brain’s alpha waves to induce powerful visions. He hoped his discovery would eventually replace the TV, allowing people to create their own entertainment.
And what entertainment it was. My partner was miffed because I distracted him with my giggling. But wouldn’t you, watching rainbow smoke dancing on your retina one second, and then leaping down neon rabbit holes a moment later and into a Technicolor world of Austin Powers patterns, LSD sunsets and unearthly rollercoasters?
When it finished, we all blinked at the comparatively drab, real world around us and headed into the chill-out space, peppered with the obligatory, bean bags to reflect on our experiences, with a drawing table and art materials, where some participants attempted to sketch their visions.
Professor Anil Seth, the neuroscientist who contributed to the project explains: "'The world we experience comes as much from the inside as from the outside: it is a construction of the brain that is using the information from our senses. Things like colours don’t exist independently from the mind. What we experience depends largely on the brain and we don’t all have the same brain.’
This is a show where everybody sees something completely different, but it is also a strangely connecting experience, with strangers sharing this intense adventure with you, before separating to head back to the real world outside - which seems much more grey than when we entered - all wishing we could return for one more trip.
Dreamachine is at Woolwich Public Market, SE18 7BZ, from 10 May 10 to 24 July. Cardiff from 12 May - 18 June, Belfast from 25 July - 4 September and Edinburgh from 13 August - 25 September. Tickets are free.
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