A Strangely Familiar State:
Flicker Film and Altered Consciousness

Patrycja Loranc

Patrycja Loranc, ‘More Of What I Don’t Know’, 2022. Still.
The following article was written by Patrycja Loranc in the context of her art practice and her film ‘More Of What I Don’t Know’, which was recently shown at the Postgraduate Degree Show 2022 at Goldsmiths College, London. A trailer is embedded below (contains flashing imagery).

The sunlight shines between the trees seen from a moving train. While my eyes are closing slowly, I become aware of new colours and shapes in light-like forms, the perceptual experience carrying me off into a different state, my journey becomes a trip.

A similar experience inspired Brion Gysin to create the Dreamachine, an art object that induces an altered state of consciousness by the rapid flicker of light through cardboard cutouts on a turntable, making brilliant imagery appear behind the closed eyelids and absorbing the viewer in a direct sensory experience. Intense absorption in the present moment is familiar to those who practice various forms of meditation: whether in the context of Buddhist philosophy, or in the Western practice of mindfulness. But in the context of technology, it is the medium of cinema that provides increasingly more advanced developments aimed at the viewer’s sensory immersion within the time-frame of a film.

Brion Gysin, William Burroughs and the Dream Machine, London. Charles Gatewood 1972.

The altering of consciousness through the flicker of light, known to humanity from ancient shamanic practices involving fire, became the subject of scientific exploration in the 1950s with W.G. Walter’s book “The Living Brain”, which suggested that different brainwave frequencies correspond to different states of mind that can be influenced by stroboscopic light. [1] While brainwave entrainment is a familiar concept nowadays, be it through flicker of light in the Dreamachine mobile app, or through binaural beats, whose availability exceeded R. Monroe’s original patented technology “Hemi-Sync” with now being widely popular as Youtube videos, my interest lies beyond the aims of developing a productivity superbrain. [2]

I am fascinated by the way flicker has been used as an exploration of the mechanism of cinematic projection in the 1960s by a subgenre of structural film including such works as Paul Sharits N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968). The 36 minute film mainly comprises rhythmically changing frames of solid colours and patterns of light and darkness, which evoke in me the same strangely familiar state. I become so absorbed in the direct sensory experience that nothing else exists besides it, and I emerge changed in a way impossible to verbalise accurately. As a person with sensory sensitivities, I realised early on that I belong to the category of people who revel in the visual attractions of flicker, becoming hypnotised into an altered state in a matter of seconds. The colours of N:O:T:H:I:N:G intensify my experience, creating patterns of moving grids and spinning circles, tiny fragments merging and dancing in shimmering waves before my eyes, evoking a meditative relaxation and a soaring sense of pleasure. I find the words to describe it, still with considerable difficulty, only after the film is over, once my awareness reconnects with the ability to use language. These kinds of closed-eyes luminous visions are known as entoptic phenomena, which usually occur under the influence of medicinal plants, electrical stimulation, sensory depravation, intense concentration, and rhythmical movement, but also under circumstances of flickering light (the fire for our ancestors, stroboscopic light for us). People from different cultural backgrounds, in states altered by a variety of factors, can often experience similar geometric patterns, as the entoptic phenomena are generated by the human nervous system itself.

Sharits, in his Notes on Films (1969), revealed an interest in the viewer’s engagement as a part of the work itself, as well as in creating an “occasion for meditational-visionary experience”. [3] His project was inspired by the Buddhist symbol of mandala, on which he structured  the colours and duration of film frames.

In the origins of cinema, flicker was a by-product of the shutter mechanism, which served to conceal the movement of the celluloid film strip through the projector. Concealing this movement paradoxically allows for the appearance of movement in the images on screen - the single frames turn into a flowing moving image.

The concern with sensory experience as the driving force for flicker films is taken up further by contemporary filmmakers such as Joshua Gen Solondz in his Prisoner’s Cinema. Grey mandala and Op Art-like patterns alternate with the flicker of black and white frames, the spectator’s brain receiving cues as to what it could be seeing, and effectively the experience is mediated and intensified. The frames flicker in alpha frequency, associated with creativity and meditation, but the sound pulsates in comatose gamma, both producing conflicting stimuli to the brain, and drawing attention to the technology’s ability to manipulate the rhythms. [4]

Joshua Gen Solondz - Prisoner’s Cinema (2012)

The focus on experience - sensory and based in the here-and-now, as well as the concern with temporality, appear to be the common denominators for the ancient philosophy of Buddhism and some of the explorations of flicker film, revealing something about the nature of the phenomenological and subjective aspect of life. Everything is transient, and only flowing with change; without clinging to any one thing, one is able to experience the peace of mind that comes with the direct experience of the present moment. If the flow of images, of light and darkness, is halted, it is not a moving image anymore, it becomes a still image, a single photograph. To keep it alive in movement, the frames need to keep changing fluently, just like the open mind allows to let go and live in the present, instead of resorting to futile attempts at halting time.

But my dive goes even deeper into the mechanisms of perception and the moving image. Scientific evidence coming from experiments on the phenomena of binocular rivalry, where the human perception shifts between an image seen by the left eye and a different image seen by the right eye, suggests that perception is not continuous, but comprising of “successive periodic cycles”, as described by neuroscientist Evan Thompson. [5] This idea indicates that, even though our experience appears continuous, just like the movement in a film, it is actually made out of discrete attentional moments, like film frames. The flicker fusion phenomena, where at frequencies faster than a certain rate we see light as continuous, and the pitch-rhythm continuum, where a rhythm sped up over 20Hz is heard as a pitch, are other phenomenological examples of the human conditioning for the fusion of tiny fragments. Therefore the artistic inquiry into the shutter and mechanisms of cinema is simultaneously a study into the nature of perception and experience. In flicker film, through the exposition of the dividing mechanism of the shutter, consciousness is altered not only by the direct neurological effect on the brainwaves rhythms, but also by questioning the functioning of our perception and therefore reality itself, or rather, our relationship with it.

Patrycja Loranc, ‘More Of What I Don’t Know’, 2022. Still.

What can happen, neurophenomenologically, visually, and spiritually, within the film-trance and its timeframes as a work of art? While I believe that sensory absorption can be key to transcendence, the legacy of structural film lives on in experimental approaches to technological possibilities to alter the state of consciousness.︎

Patrycja Loranc believes in the psychedelic (mind-revelation) in art practice as a spiritual process of wellbeing and transformation. She explores direct experience as a meditative altered state through video, sound, writing, and photography. In a journey through the complexities of identity and vulnerability of being, the neurodiversity paradigm and sensory profiles inform her intuitive practice rediscovering the relationships with nature, spaces, and objects, within experimental structures.

You can find out more about her work at https://www.psychepoeticlaundrette.com/ or on Instagram @psychepoeticlaundrette

Text contains fragments of: Loranc, P. (2022) Occasions for Experience: direct experience of film as an altered state of consciousness: flicker and sensory-induced transcendence”.
[1] Walter, W.G. The Living Brain. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1961.
[2] Monroe, R.A. Journeys out of the body. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
[3] Sharits, P.  ‘Notes on Films 1966-68’, Film Culture, 47 (Summer), 1996. pp. 13–16
[4] Betancourt, M. ‘Technology and Transcendence: On Joshua Gen Solondz’s Prisoner’s Cinema (2012)’, Bright Lights Film Journal, July 26, 2015. Available at: https://brightlightsfilm.com/technology-and-transcendence-on-joshua-gen-solondzs-prisoners-cinema-2012/#.YiiqIvvP1Od (Accessed: 9 March 2022).

[5] Thompson, E. Waking, dreaming, being: self and consciousness in neuroscience, meditation, and philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

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