Thursday, 23 February 2012


This fascinating and engrossing documentary from 2008 sheds much needed light on an artist who has too long lived in the shadow of friend and collaborator William Burroughs. Brion Gysin, avant-garde writer, painter, inventor, magician, performance artist and sound poet is best remembered for introducing Burroughs to the Cut-Up method, whereby random words and sentences are spliced together to form new and unexpected meanings. It marked a new direction in Burroughs' writing, the technique was incorporated in the writing of Naked Lunch, and later both men would develop the Cut-Up method for sound art and Cinema. Gysin's other major work which forms the centerpiece of Nik Sheehan's film is the Dream Machine (or to give it its exact title, Dreamachine), a light flicker device which rapidly alternates between shadow and light creating striking hallucinatory patterns behind the closed eyelids of the viewer.

Gysin first began thinking about the Dreamachine during a bus trip to Marseilles in 1958. Gysin was resting against the window and the light from the sun flicking through a line of tress created a strange pulsating effect behind Gysin's closed eyes. Gysin wrote of the experience in his diary:

"An overwhelming flood of intensely bright colors exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time"

Constructed in 1960 by Brion Gysin and mathematician friend Ian Sommerville, the Dreamachine is a simple yet brilliantly effective object. The original prototype for the Dreamachine was a cardboard cylinder with slits which sat on a spinning 78rpm turntable. Inside the cylinder hung the light source, a 100W bulb. For Gysin, the Dreamachine was the ultimate "drugless high", and he had hoped it would bring nothing less than a revolution in human consciousness.

Brion Gysin and William Burroughs experience the Dreamachine
Sadly the Dreamachine never caught on. Gysin came close to doing a deal with Philips to produce a line of Dreamachines but the plan fell through. The strange story of the Dreamachine is thoroughly explored in the documentary, alongside an excellent overview of Gysin's life - his years in Tangier, where he introduced Western listeners to the drone music of the Master Musicians of Joujouka, his years at the Beat Hotel in Paris, his residency in London (in view of MI5's headquarters much to Gysin's amusement) and his lifelong friendship with William Burroughs, both of whom collaborated on the 1977 book The Third Mind, which further explored the Cut-Up technique. Gysin's other art is featured as well - his beautiful grid paintings, and his series of artworks based on Japanese calligraphy. Gysin's sound poetry is also heard in the film, like his 1960 spoken word cut-up "I Am That I Am".

Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo and the Dreamachine
Sheehan's film includes a diverse and interesting cast of musicians, writers and film makers, including Genesis P-Orridge, Kenneth Anger, Iggy Pop, Lee Ranaldo, Ira Cohen and DJ Spooky. P-Orridge, who has done much to champion Gysin's work since his death in 1986, takes us on a tour of what's remaining of his personal archive (P-Orridge's London home was famously raided in 1992 while he was abroad, his belongings were seized by Scotland Yard investigating the activities of his organisation Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth), while Iggy Pop is joined on stage by the Dreamachine during a Stooges show in Paris. Sheehan also opens up the film to a wider discussion on the meaning of art and the role of the artist, and despite the film's esoteric subject, FLicKer makes for intelligent and bad pun aside, illuminating viewing.

FLicKer is available on DVD in the US on the Alive Mind label. The DVD features a very pleasing 1.66 transfer - the interview footage Sheehan filmed for the documentary is very clean with strong vibrant colors, while the archive footage is a little rougher but otherwise in good shape. Sound is fine too, and the score sounds very robust. The DVD features no extras except for trailers for two other films on the Alive Mind label. Alternatively, you can view the entire film here.

UbuWeb hosts an excellent archive of Brion Gysin's sound art albums, all available to stream or download as good quality mp3s. Also the official Brion Gysin website is an excellent and comprehensive resource of Gysin art, images, articles and interviews


  1. Great stuff, Wes. There's a good interview with Burroughs and Gysin in RE-Search - an old 80s publication that you can still buy back issues of

  2. Many thanks Jon, great link. I picked up that RE-Search compendium a few years ago and it's a fine book... I wasn't expecting any feedback about this post to be honest, but I wanted to do something on the FLicKer film as there are very few reviews of the DVD online. I still have plans to make my own Dreamachine if a record player comes my way. Also, it made sense to run this alongside the Burroughs post - it would have looked weird sandwiched between a bunch of Horror films. I have one or two additional Burroughs things to get out of the way before returning to normal (?) programming.

  3. I hear you, Wes. I used to work in an art college and have seen some dreammachines that students have made. Burroughs is endlessly fascinating. Thought you might have the RE-search books. Do you have the ones on JG Ballard?

    Incidentally, you explained where Plutonium Shores originated, but is the Vermillion Sands reference in your location a nod to Ballard? Or is there really a place in Cork called that?

  4. I didn't grab the Ballard RE-Search and I missed out on the Strange Films volume as well. I have the Burroughs/Gysin and the edition devoted to Industrial Music. Good, eclectic series of books.

    Yep, well spotted Jon, Vermillion Sands was my tip of the hat to Ballard. It's a fantastic collection of stories. It was gonna be Vermillion Sands or Boleskine - an even more obscure reference...

  5. Here's some great resources...