Inside sensory art exhibitions Dreamachine and Weird Sensation Feels Good

From ASMR-inspired displays at the Design Museum to a psychedelic trip in Woolwich, these London art shows are designed to stimulate all your senses

These are the mind-expanding sensory art exhibitions you need to book this summer

Immersive art is all the rage. In the tentatively post-pandemic world, it seems we are craving unique, expansive, in-person experiences more than ever before. But, we are also seeking comfort and reassurance. Two new sensory art exhibitions in the capital – Weird Sensation Feels Good at the Design Museum and Dreamachine in Woolwich – try to strike the right balance between these wants and desires.

Over the last few years, I have been to a lot of immersive shows, sensory art exhibitions and ‘experiences’. I’ve seen gallery spaces transformed into playgrounds, sat on enormous floor cushions like a giant adult baby, and had coloured lights and strange, unplaceable scents pumped at me. But, until about a week ago, I had never witnessed anyone be so immersed, so utterly transported, that they were knocked unconscious.

But, then again, I was at Dreamachine, so when snores began to bob across the space, I guess the self-described “immersive experience like no other” was doing exactly what it said on the tin. Indeed, Dreamachine is probably one of the only art experiences in London where drifting off to sleep isn’t a sign of boredom, but of success — a sure indication that someone’s consciousness has been shifted into another dimension; into a dreamscape.

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Dreamachine. Photography: David Levene

The current iteration of Dreamachine is based on an invention patented in the 60s by artist Brion Gysin. After discovering that simple flashing white light could create vivid visual hallucinations behind closed eyelids, Gysin created a homemade device that used light to create kaleidoscopic patterns in the viewer’s mind. Essentially, it was designed to be a psychedelic phenomenon – a free trip.

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Brion Gysin and his Dream Machine William Burroughs c1970 London

Over 50 years later, in the disused Woolwich Public Market, the essence of Gysin’s invention remains the same. Except now, things are a little bigger; a bit more theatrical. Before entering you lock all your belongings away. You take off your shoes. You sit on low, undulating stools made of foam, and staff members tell you that if at any time it all becomes too much, you can signal that you want to leave. They give you blankets; settle you into your seats; wait as you lean back, relax, pull a mask down over your eyes, and wait for the show to begin…

The concept behind Dreamachine may be simple, but all this stagecraft works to build tension and expectations to a fever pitch. Truthfully, this tension is apt, because, more than anything, the experience is a work of contrasts. You enter as a group, but have an entirely unique, personal experience. It is comforting, but also stimulating. Calming, but hyper-sensory. White light, but also pulsating, rotating rainbows of colour. If some people in the machine were literally dreaming, others were undoubtedly in a heightened state, their nerves thrumming.

There’s clearly something in the air at the moment, because Dreamachine isn’t the only sensory art exhibition that’s opened recently in London, attempting to alter visitors’ consciousness while evoking audiovisual thrills. Indeed, it’s not even the only one to encourage people to get comfortable and slip into a slumber. At the Design Museum, a new exhibition is delving into the weird and wonderful world of ‘autonomous sensory meridian response’, better known as ASMR.

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ASMR Arena, Ed Reeve for the Design Museum

If you have somehow missed the recent rise of ASMR content, this little-studied yet internet-breaking set of sensations are best described as ‘tingles’. Triggered by certain sounds, textures and visuals, these relaxing, pleasurable tingles can, supposedly, only be felt by some people. Might you be one of them? If you’re not sure, then the only thing to do is enter the cocoon-like structure at the heart of the exhibition, find a place on the coil of cushions that line the floor and walls like brain folds, and — as in Dreamachine — lean back, relax, and let the experience wash over you.

A woman’s hands shuffle through beads. Another carefully cuts a dog’s fur. In a side room, three separate screens play Bob Ross painting happy little clouds. If Dreamachine is meant to be akin to a psychedelic trip, WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD: The World of ASMR seems like it might be the morning after; the hangover cure. ASMR is about comfort, reassurance, small movements, whispers, and minor bodily responses. Goosebumps. The hairs on your arms standing up. Your muscles and your mind becoming a little looser. 

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Ed Reeve for the Design Museum

This, ultimately, is the connection between these two sensory art exhibitions — they aim to get you out of your head and into your body. They aim to slow things down, and to let you rethink your relationship with both the world around you, and with your own perception. Perhaps neither of these works are ‘art’ in the more traditional sense, but forms of therapy. Perhaps, after years of a brutal pandemic, successive lockdowns and an ongoing political and economic climate of chaos, it is unsurprising that there is an overwhelming desire for these kind of experiences, and, perhaps, if we lean back, relax, and let them wash over us, we’ll feel better for it.

Dreamachine is at Woolwich Public Market until 24 July
WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD: The World of ASMR is at the Design Museum until 16 October

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