The Thrilling and Complicated World of ASMR

Despite the internet phenomenon’s enormous reach, its implications have not been widely explored. An exhibition at Swedish design museum ArkDes aims to rectify that.

Still from "Oddly IKEA": IKEA ASMR by IKEA USA (2017) shown in the exhibition "Weird Sensation Feels Good" at ArkDes in Stockholm

Over a four-hour-long YouTube binge aimed at experiencing the phenomenon of autonomous sensory meridian response, I watched dozens of attractive women slowly whisper sweet nothings into Hollywood-grade recording equipment. They also performed fake eye exams, slurped Jell-O, and gnawed on honeycomb, all for the sake of conjuring this strange feeling in their viewers. Occasionally, I felt it at the base of my skull—ASMR!—a tingling, squirmy sensation that spread across my shoulder blades and, eventually, faded without a trace.

Once a niche subsection of the internet, ASMR is now a sensory emporium of more than 13 million videos. In a precarious world where long working hours and a lack of access to relational care are the norm, ASMR’s proponents see it nearly as a stand-in for therapy. Thousands of professional ASMRtists, as its practitioners are called, now make a living by producing soothing videos that help insomniacs fall asleep at night or simply help people deal with stress. “Cheaper than therapy, less work than A.A.,” reads one comment on a 2012 video of a woman speaking softly that’s been viewed 22 million times.

Despite the enormous reach of ASMR, its influence and implications have not been widely explored by mainline cultural institutions. “Weird Sensation Feels Good,” a first-of-its-kind exhibition open April 8 (with a virtual vernissage at 5 p.m. CEST on April 7) through November 1 at ArkDes, Sweden’s national architecture and design museum in Stockholm, aims to rectify that, and to lend some credibility to the often-ridiculed subculture. “There is an inherent value to what the ASMR movement represents: connectivity, close attention, care,” says James Taylor-Foster, the museum’s curator of contemporary architecture and design. “By bringing it into an institutional space, we can help legitimize it as an urgent and significant field of study.” Practically speaking, this will involve curators and visitors spacing out in front of slow-mo molten mercury, engaging in bubble-popping bliss, and pursuing other lines of inquiry.

A rendering of an installation for Stockholm's ArkDes exhibition "Weird Sensation Feels Good," designed by Ēter Architects, features graphic works by Irene Stracuzzi + PostNew. Rendering courtesy Ēter Architects.

In addition to examining the pre-internet history of ASMR through immersive installations, live performances, and video presentations (Bob Ross, the beloved late American painter and tender-hearted TV host, is a key protagonist), the show assesses how ASMR is now being used as a design and advertising tool. Always looking for a new way to draw consumers, brands like Pokémon and Ikea have started lacing their commercials with well-known ASMR triggers like whispering, rustling, and tapping. “Weird Sensation Feels Good” also meaningfully broaches troubling issues about gender parity and compensation in ASMR. Women are most often the ones performing the labor, and that labor is often unpaid: For every successful ASMRtist, many others receive little or no payment.

The title of the show comes from ASMR’s genesis on an early-aughts internet forum. In 2007, a thread titled “WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD” appeared on SteadyHealth, a medical message board. Its pseudonymous author identified a strange yet pleasurable feeling, both physical and mental, that was seemingly triggered by calming acts of care, such as being read to or watching a puppet show. An empathetic reader replied, “It’s like a silvery sparkle through my head and brain… [Like a] head orgasm, but there is nothing sexual about it.” Today, their conversation seems endearingly naive, like two strangers attempting to communicate in a language neither fully understands.

“ASMR existed long before YouTube, as a product of the natural world,” says Giulia Poerio, a psychology lecturer at the University of Essex, in England, who studies the physiology of ASMR. The internet has made the sensation readily accessible, but online videos have their downsides. “Many people will find that ASMR in videos doesn’t work because it’s not spontaneous enough,” Poerio says. Most of the artists she has encountered in her research had their first ASMR experience during an otherwise mundane social event, like getting their feet measured for shoes or watching a classmate color a drawing.

The number of people having conscious, intentional ASMR experiences has exploded recently, fueled by an ever-growing content pool. Yet ASMR is still often discussed online and in the press in highly reductive ways, as a gimmick or in sexual terms. Whether that treatment stems from the lack of a precise, research-based vocabulary or latent, pervasive misogyny, it fails to adequately capture ASMR’s wild, multifarious nature.

Exploring the many iterations of ASMR, the exhibition includes the work and TV programs of the smooth-voiced artist Bob Ross, host of PBS's The Joy of Painting from 1983 to 1994.

“In some senses,” Poerio says, ASMR is “useful for women because it enables them to have flexibility in their work. But it’s typically conventionally attractive women who are doing it.” It’s a double-edged sword in other ways, too. While online ASMR videos can offer therapeutic benefits and help ameliorate feelings of anxiety and loneliness, they risk further alienation by providing easy substitutes to meaningful real-life interactions. Why bother sustaining an actual relationship when you can sate your emotional needs through someone you never have to meet?

It’s no easy task to salvage an innate human feeling from capitalist exploitation, but ArkDes is making an effort to do so. As part of the exhibition, it will build a kilometer-long pillow sausage and invite a handful of ASMRtists to Stockholm to perform at a big, and meticulously planned, party. ArkDes is hoping to induce, in Poerio’s words, “the collective euphoria of a football game”—but with all the safety precautions of a guided hallucinogenic trip.

ArkDes’s live event may be a one-time-only affair, but Taylor-Foster imagines even bigger uses for ASMR, in the realms of architecture and urban planning. Speculating about a future in which attending a public ASMR event is as straightforward as hopping onto a city’s Wi-Fi network, he asks, “Could ASMR be the next step of civic space?”

This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To experience the complete issue subscribe here.

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