Dreamachine: Immerse yourself in Woolwich’s free colourful art experience

People taking part in Dreamachine
Dreamachine invites its visitors to sit back and relax

Until four years ago, Woolwich’s old covered market was threatened with the bulldozer. Now it’s home to a psychedelic art experience which is free for all to visit for the next 10 weeks. NIKKI SPENCER took a trip and found out more.

A new, free immersive art experience which explores the limitless potential of the human mind has opened in the disused Woolwich Public Market.

Dreamachine, which The Guardian has described as “as close to state-funded hallucinogens as you can get” will welcome up to 300 adults a day until July 24, with tickets available now.

The experience brought together the Turner Prize-winning artists Assemble, the Grammy and Mercury-nominated composer Jon Hopkins and a team of leading technologists, scientists and philosophers.

Jennifer Crook, the director of Collective Act, has previously collaborated with artists including Olafur Eliasson and Jeremy Deller. She came up with the idea for Dreamachine after being inspired by a little-known homemade invention by the artist, writer and inventor Brion Gysin.

In 1959 Gysin made a device which used flickering light to create vivid illusions, kaleidoscopic patterns and explosions of colour in the mind of the viewer. His vision was that his invention would replace the TV in every home in America. It didn’t happen, but his work is now being reimagined in Woolwich over 60 years later.

Brion Gysin with his dream machine
Brion Gysin’s experiments in America inspired Dreamachine

Dreamachine is described as an “immersive experience like no other” and uses both light and sound to enable us to create our own unique images behind our closed eyes.

While the live experience is for over-18s, there is also a major UK-wide education programme which will run alongside it. Developed by A New Direction, who worked on Steve McQueen’s Year 3 project at Tate Britain, the programme fuses science with arts. Both are part of the Unboxed: Creativity in the UK festival.

Hosting Dreamachine is a big coup for Greenwich Council, which owns the market space, and follows from the opening of Woolwich Works, the new cultural hub at the Royal Arsenal, which is also involved in the project.

The market has been largely unused since it closed in 2017. In March 2018 Street Feast took over the building and opened Public, a street food market with bars and DJs, but it closed suddenly less than a year later. The market is earmarked for regeneration and will be the home of a five-screen cinema as part of the new Woolwich Exchange development.

People in Public at Woolwich in April 2018
The Public Market in Street Feast days. The roof had been threatened with demolition until Historic England stepped in

The Collective Act team were on the hunt for a London location for Dreamachine when they came across the empty building, explains Crook.

“We were all looking for venues and one of the team was walking past on their way to work,” she says.

“The door was ajar so they looked in and just went ‘wow!’ We got in touch with the council and they were really excited about what this would do for Woolwich.”

Crook fell in love with the building when she saw it. “Look at that roof! I fell in love with that roof!” she says.

The market, which was built in 1931, is the earliest known example of a criss-cross Lamella roof to survive in England. The building was given a Grade II listing by Historic England in 2018 after early plans for Woolwich Exchange threatened to demolish it.

It is the perfect location for the experience, Crook explains.

Dreamachine being installed at Woolwich Public Market
Dreamachine has now taken over the whole covered market

“It is a building with a public history.” she says. “Some of our team grew up here and went to the market as kids. It’s in the heart of the town centre where people already are, so we are not asking them to come to a gallery.”

They have spent the last two months transforming the space and Dreamachine has already created quite a buzz.

“So many people have been walking past asking ‘what’s going on, what are they doing in the market?” says Crook. “There is a real ownership of this building, people love it and want to see it used.”

Last week they invited some passers-by and local shopkeepers to preview the experience.

“This way we are reaching audiences you wouldn’t usually”, says Crook. “They all wanted to come back and bring their friends and family.”

In conjunction with Woolwich Works, the organisers have also been inviting local groups to try Dreamachine. “We are already sold out for the next few weekends, but we have kept tickets across the week for community groups. When people come with others the conversations afterwards can be beautiful”, says Crook.

It is recommended that participants allow 90 minutes for the experience, which includes time in The Reflection Space where there’s a drawing table so people can share what they saw afterwards.

“We don’t say exactly how long is as we like to have some magic in there and generally people lose sense of time”, says Crook. “We have 32 people at a time which is a nice number. It’s important that it doesn’t feel like a conveyor belt, and that people have time and space to enjoy it.”

Now it’s my turn to try Dreamachine for myself. There are two versions of the experience, both with 360-degree spatial sound.

The High Sensory is the full bells and whistles with strobe lighting, while the Deep Listening has a more gentle lightscape.

Before you book you have to fill out a form with health questions to find out which option is most suitable. Given that I am prone to migraine and hate bright lights, I am allocated to the Deep Listening experience.

People lying back and taking part in Dreamachine
Visitors are allocated to one of two different experiences

After stowing our bags – and phones – in lockers and removing our shoes, we are given blankets and led into a large circular chamber where we lie back on comfy seating, making sure that there are speakers positioned either side of our heads. Our guide encourages us to breathe deeply, we close our eyes and the soundscape begins.

I had wondered if it’d feel like I was missing out without the full-on flashing lights, but I needn’t have worried.

As the music ebbs and flows, my brain goes into overdrive and sends me off on a joyful, uplifting, sound-induced colourful trip full of ever-changing jagged bursts of flaming oranges, hot pinks and bright emerald greens.

I have no idea how long it all lasts – I forgot to look at my watch – but when it ends, and I emerge blinking into the daylight, my first thought is: “I want to come back and do this every day!”

Dreamachine is at Woolwich Public Market, Plumstead Road SE18 7BZ daily until July 24. Tickets are free but must be booked in advance at dreamachine.world.

NIKKI SPENCER is a freelance journalist who has also written for The Guardian, The Independent, Lewisham Ledger and Peckham Peculiar.

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