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Weird Sensation Feels Good: The World of ASMR

by Mihaela Man | 24 June 2022

Image Courtesy of Ed Reeve

‘And the dense glittered sound of much carbonation goes out over the beach’s heat-wrinkled air, and heads turn vanward as if pulled with strings as his gulp and refreshed, spiranty sounds are broadcast; and the final shot reveals that the sound van is also a concession truck, and the whole beach’s pretty population has collapsed to a clamoring mass around the truck, everybody hopping up and down and pleading to be served first, as the camera’s view retreats to overhead and the slogan is flatly intoned: Pepsi: the Choice of a New Generation.’ — David Foster Wallace, ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’, (1993) Over the past few months, I made a habit of working at the British Library on my dissertation. While studying in the reading room, I often felt distracted by the flipping of a page or the crackling sound of transparent plastic bags around me. These sensory acts of drifting in and out of reality occasionally felt like someone would be cracking an egg over my head with its runny yolk dripping over me. Why have perceptual experiences of this kind, formally known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Responses, gained enough popularity over the last decade to bring about an audience of millions looking to get goosebumps? Weird Sensation Feels Good: The World of ASMR, a current exhibition presented by The Design Museum in London in collaboration with ArkDes, is the first survey that formalises the actuality of ASMR as a feeling and field of creativity that has been growing from the 1990s through to today. More obliquely, the selection of digital, tactile, and commercial artefacts also point at an irrevocable (and sometimes dysfunctional) incursion of ASMR into everyday life as experienced via recent and contemporary consumer culture. The first exhibition room takes the form of an introductory survey of ASMR. Taking over the wall opposite the entrance, the record of the first Wikipedia article on ASMR, dated 4 September 2011, posits that revelling in a piece of art or music, watching another person complete minute tasks, or viewing instructive videos are some of the primary triggers of the sensory response. The article, jostling side by side with anthropomorphic rubber forms, multi-channel animations, and interactive assemblages, underlines that pretty much anything around us can set off the response. These multimedia and textual pieces hint at the likelihood of ASMR leaking into everyday experiences with broader social, cultural, and physiological implications. While ASMR crosses as a feeling currently engendered by computer-based encounters with the materiality of mundane objects, the response emerged from ‘a ritualistic participation’ fostered by the instructional television shows of the 1990s. The adjoining room introduces none other than ‘Godfather of ASMR’ Bob Ross with his 1993-1994 instructional TV show The Joy of Painting. Visitors sitting on duffel bags listen to sloppy paint sounds applied to canvas before discovering a golden plaque presented to Ross for passing 1,000,000 subscribers on YouTube. The inclusion of the plaque is not coincidental. By the 2010s, Google-owned YouTube began to extend the sensorially stimulating entertainment previously nurtured by television. As a result, the public demand for meditative close-looking, close-feeling, and close-listening determined the beginnings of an online ASMR culture. Flickering light-emitting screens flood the main exhibition hall. A triptych of three monitors on one of the room’s walls reveals ‘drug-like’, ‘tingly’, ‘euphoric’ voices of digitally native ASMRtists telling me to ‘sit back and relax’. I find it near impossible to do so. I then interact with binaural microphones, feathers, brushes, and synthetic dummy heads around the monitors. The creeping feeling of others watching (or filming) me as I try to ASMRify my gallery visit makes me feel nothing but uncomfortable.

Screenshot of the 2021 Virgin Atlantic Advert, titled 'Virgin Atlantic ASMR'

A soft amphitheatre with several monitors in the middle of the exhibition hall further cements the shortfall of ASMR or, in the words of Jonathan Crary, ‘the incapacitation of daydreaming or of any mode of absent-minded introspection that would otherwise occur in slow or vacant time’. Much advertising remains to this day, as Marshall McLuhan points out, ‘too hot, too specialised, too fragmentary’. From the 1990s onwards, advertisers sought to embody ‘the ritualistic flow’ of television and, by extension, of ASMR. One of the binaural videos screened in this room is a 2021 Virgin Atlantic promo fashioned similarly to the 1990s Pepsi ad David Foster Wallace describes in the opening quote. Before presenting a highly somatic experience directed at consumers dulled by a life spent in multiple lockdowns, the Virgin Atlantic promo opens with a voice whispering, ‘sit back, relax, and dream of where we will be flying you next’. The reality is that the actual flight (for the many with basic-economy middle seats and side tables enveloped in grease) renders the dream of revelling in first-class breakfasts and extravagant travel destinations unattainable. Once ASMR shifts from being an autonomous sensory experience to becoming a non-autonomous artifice that incites an off-screen act of consumption – such as an exclusive holiday or a highbrow exhibition – one’s flight from day-to-day life risks disenchantment. However, merely antagonising ASMR’s failure to embody other forms of entertainment than homemade YouTube videos or instructional TV shows is reductive. ASMR is a virtual act of sensory consumption – existing on-screen and occurring within (or being augmented by) one’s imagination. Provided it leverages day-to-day tasks that do not aim to affect one’s existence directly, ASMR can still nurture undiluted meditation. A few days ago, a friend told me how much of the research behind P.T. Andersen’s historical drama film Phantom Thread revolved around learning the how-tos of ASMR videography to fabricate multisensory everyday rituals on screen. The fiction film features – like V&A’s short documentary Conserving A Eurovision Dress (shown next to the Virgin Atlantic ad) – several scenes that combine task-oriented narratives with close-up film and crisp sounds of cutting, stitching, sketching, and embossing. With soothing dynamics and firm sound, these documentary and fiction films became domestic evening pastimes much like the television shows and ASMR videos one watches privately at the end of the day. Unlike the disenchanting reality engendered by ASMRified ads, these task-oriented scenes enable one to drift away from reality and, more surreptitiously than we can imagine, sensitise one’s perception of the physical world. Weird Sensation Feels Good: The World of ASMR hypothesises that, over the last few decades, ASMR unfolded as a commercial interface, a means of self-medication, an artistic medium, or a new way of perceiving, intentionally or unintentionally, our daily reality. By now, this sensory response has become an all-encompassing strand of everyday aesthetics formed on a synthesis of sound and images, television and industry, and domesticity and craftsmanship. And like every aesthetic, ASMR breaks through, leaks, affects, and saturates the everyday reality we experience, shape, and consume whether we like it or not.


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