Director Nik Sheehan on 'FLicKer'
“I admire people who seek to revolutionize human consciousness, whether they succeed or not,” director Nik Sheehan said in a recent e-mail interview about FLicKer. Sheehan’s film, an official selection of the 2008 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, focuses on the late Brion Gysin, an artist who invented the Dream Machine.
Users of this machine experience hallucination, trances and drugless highs, but they can come down from these highs if they open their eyes. “The Dream Machine is an artwork meant to be looked at with eyes closed, so whatever you see is inside your own head, and will be different in each person,” Sheehan reported. “The viewer becomes the artist. I think Gysin was saying this must be the end of art because where could you possibly go from there? He might be right.”
Fascinated with Gysin’s Dream Machine, Sheehan hired a prop shop to create one for him. “It is quite difficult to make a real one, and Mike, the fellow from the prop shop I eventually hired, put far more work into it than the money he was paid would warrant. But he became fascinated with the machine, and spent many hours getting it right,” Sheehan explained.
A dream machine is constructed using a 100-watt light bulb, a motor and a rotating cylinder and cut-outs. A person then takes this device, sets it on a record player and lets it spin around at a specific speed. Someone sits in front of it with his or her eyes closed, and if the machine works correctly, that person experiences a high without the use of drugs.
“The Dream Machine is based on a common phenomenon of nature called ‘flicker.’ This is stroboscopic light between 8 and 13HZ, the same frequency as alpha waves in your brain, those associated with dreaming and visions. Most people have probably experienced a form of flicker when driving by trees with the sun setting behind them. Different people get different effects from the dream machine, ranging from full blown hallucinations to nothing at all.”
Sheehan himself experienced visions while using his own home-made dream machine. “At first I wasn’t sure if the Dream Machine actually works, and I didn’t really care -- it is a beautiful metaphor and looks very cool,” he stated. “But when I brought it home the first time and set it up, I was astonished to experience a powerful hallucination of angels flying through the sky towards me.”
Gysin’s art, poetry and calligraphy also intrigued Sheehan, who decided to immerse audiences in Gysin’s bizarre universe through his documentary. In the beginning, the art world didn’t think much of Gysin and brushed him aside, thinking he had copied many of his ideas from those whose work was similar to his when, in fact, they were original.
Gysin believed his Dream Machine and the high it created would revolutionize human consciousness. Does Sheehan agree? “Yes, I think it is possible. After seeing or reading a powerful work of art, whether the Mona Lisa or Les Miserables (the book, though for some, perhaps, the musical), I think you could argue human consciousness is forever altered.”
According to Sheehan, Gysin always had admirers in the art world, just not the right establishment admirers for the time. ”Reportedly, he was difficult to deal with at times, though in the end his career suffered from that phenomenon everyone in the arts is familiar with: bad timing.”
(FLicKer screens on April 23 and April 26 at the 2008 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. For tickets, call the festival box office at 416-637-5150 or go to www.hotdocs.ca . To find out more about this film, please visit the official website.)