Way back when we lived in our first apartment, my wife went away for the weekend. My best buddies were all busy, so I debated how to spend this sudden influx of me-time. Eat nothing but pizza? Marx Brothers marathon? Read all of Wikipedia?
I threw on a bootleg Muppet Babies DVD and built a Dream Machine.
Thanks to David Cronenberg and Peter Weller, I’d become a bit obsessed with William S. Burroughs. This led me to a device designed by his friends Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville. Gysin thought the dreamachine would find its way into every home, as ubiquitous as a television set.
The hardest part about building my dreamachine was finding a cheap record player that played at 78 rpm (I have a decent turntable now, but I wouldn’t use it for a dreamachine–it might damage the motor). Most thrift store turntables only play 33 1/3 and 45 rpm, which will work but doesn’t look as cool. My mom was the one to find me an old school record player–“old school” as in 1970s public education–and the rest was just elbow grease.
Everything I used to build my machine:
Basic tools: craft blade, large flat piece of cardboard, electrical tape, large t-square , card stock, screwdriver
1. 78rpm turntable
2. 34″x32″ craft butcher paper
3. Thrift-store lamp
4. Light bulb cord and bulb
My wife supplied me with the black butcher paper. Following plans from the internet (check the links at the bottom), I created a grid with a t-square and used my card stock stencil patterns for the shapes. The most expensive part of the whole project was getting the thing laminated for stability. I met with some resistance on that step–the folks at the Kinko’s worried my paper might get torn up in the machine. If I built another one, I’d use a sturdier material that wouldn’t need lamination.
The lamp portion came from a thrift store, and I was able to connect it to the turntable through the tonearm hole (hence the need for a screwdriver to open up the turntable). The bulb hangs from a short light bulb cord, available at any hardware store. At one point the inside of the column was coated with sparkly wrapping paper, but it has long since come unstuck. Electrical tape holds the column together and keeps it on top of an old polka record.
You use the machine by leaning in quite close with your eyes closed. The spinning column causes the light to pulse at the right frequency, which you can adjust by the height you’re looking and the turntable speed adjustment. With your eyes closed, you see fractals and other shapes, much like when your rub your eyes. Worth the effort? I think so. It’s great for getting in the mood to write. And not only is it relaxing and meditative, it makes for a great conversation piece. It’s nice to combine it with headphones and some Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, or Portishead.
(WARNING: Obviously, flashing lights can be dangerous for some people, such as those with epilepsy. Never turn this thing on before checking with everyone.)
Resources for building your own dreamachine:
Also of interest:
FlicKer, a full documentary about the Machine available on Youtube and Amazon Prime.
Excerts from The Flicker, a 1965 film by Tony Conrad with a similar effect. This one is viewed with the eyes open.
At the time I built my machine, I couldn’t find the column to purchase at a reasonable price. It looks like now you can get them here (US) and here (UK). I’m unaffiliated with these stores, and have no idea about the quality.