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Artists’ Fascination with the Soft, Tingling Sensations of ASMR

As ASMR videos have sped across the internet, artists have started making their own versions, inducing shivers with soft sounds like clacking, cracking, scratching, and whispering.

Heather Feather, "Candy Queen ASMR Role Play for Relaxation" via YouTube
Heather Feather, “Candy Queen ASMR Role Play for Relaxation” (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic via YouTube)

Sometimes we all just want someone’s gentle, soothing voice whispering in our ear that it’s all going to be okay, or we long to hear some meditative, relaxing sounds that induce calming sensations. ASMR, or “autonomous sensory meridian response,” offers these types of sensations from the comfort of your home.

People who experience ASMR tend to notice shivers and a pleasurable, relaxing tingle in the scalp, the back of the neck, and at times the entire body, a reaction that’s triggered by soft-spoken female voices, gentle male voices, or sounds like the magnification of a fountain pen’s tip while writing. Then there’s also my personal favorite: the sounds of clacking, shaving, cracking, and scratching as found in this “making fire with IKEA products” YouTube video. Personal attention is another experience that people find triggering of ASMR. Other more New Age-y ASMRtists (an abbreviation for “ASMR artists,” which describe the people who create and share ASMR–inducing sounds) such as Gentle Whispering, whisper soothing nothings, addressing an unseeable internet “you,” for almost 40 minutes, while others like Free Spirit whisper an energy reading and healing session with a friend into the camera.

As this phenomena has sped across the internet in the past couple of years, video and new media artists who are intrigued by ASMR and ASMRtists started making their own, often playful, versions of ASMR videos.

T.M. Lewin, "How to Iron a Shirt" via YouTube. This video has become a part of ASMR because of the soothing gentle voice in it.
T.M. Lewin, “How to Iron a Shirt.” This video has become a part of ASMR because of the soothing gentle voice in it. (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic via YouTube)

When new media artist Anne Orchier is dressed as her ASMR artist character sasCha murmurZ, there’s something inherently half-serious and half-spoof about the whole thing. MurmurZ literally murmurs, echoing the whispering qualities of the ASMR aesthetic. When she appeared on the ASMR talk show hosted by Adam Papagan, Orchier showed up in her signature purple lipstick, wearing sunglasses and a hat, and dressed in a sort of hippie garb of a long skirt and shawl. Orchier admits that she doesn’t experience the ASMR sensation (full disclosure: I do!). Instead, her interest for it began on the internet.

“I got into ASMR in general as a sub-road or corridor of YouTube, and just really being interested always or compelled by all of the possible K-holes that one can fall down into through YouTube,” Orchier told Hyperallergic. Her character of sasCha murmurZ came about as part of a shared interest with her friend Claire Tolan, who had moved to Berlin and started an ASMR radio show on Berlin Community Radio called “You’re Worth It,” where Orchier/murmurZ was a guest on.

“For me, because my background is in film and video, I was really interested in the structure of these videos from a purely visual standpoint,” says Orchier.

Where my and Claire’s interests dovetailed was in the narrative aspect of it. What are these specific stories and interactions in these videos that people are interested in? For her, she’s also a musician and sound artist; from a sound level, how far can you push the boundaries, the different ways of creating the sounds and presenting them? What does it mean to have these sounds in the absence of anything visual? What would it look like if you divorced those things?

sasCha murmurZ interview with Adam Papagian. Image via YouTube.
sasCha murmurZ interview with Adam Papagan (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic via YouTube)
sasCha murmurZ interview with Adam Papagan. Image via YouTube.
sasCha murmurZ interview with Adam Papagan (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic via YouTube)

As Orchier’s work as murmurZ evolved, she realized that it would be more fun to create an ASMR persona and a backstory. “It’s a slippery slope to giving this character a life and presence on the internet,” said Orchier. “That’s the convention too within ASMR, the people who make videos, they do it — it’s like porn. They have pseudonyms.”

I first saw sasCha mumurZ this summer at Light Touch: the art and science of ASMR, an evening of talks and ASMR performances organized by Samantha Culp of the creative art agency Paloma Powers at the LA gallery Various Small Fires.

“Whenever the ‘art world’ touches the communities of folk art, or even subcultures in general, there’s always a concern about appropriation, but I feel in the recent interweaving of ASMR and art practitioners, there’s been a lot of thoughtful and genuine encounters,” Culp told Hyperallergic. “All of the artists we worked with in the event and exhibition are engaged with ASMR because they are fascinated by its aesthetic techniques and audience impact, and seem to be (thoughtfully) experimenting with those methods to enhance their own practices, and contribute to the ASMR community itself.”

The idea of ASMR is not necessarily new, but it has only recently become more popular within art circles. The pseudoscientific notion of ASMR began in a chat room in 2008, explains Tolan in an interview. People in this forum were talking about a feeling they got when they heard these types of whispering, tapping, soft sounds, water sounds, nail polish bottles, or even paper crinkling. Some have even pointed to Bob Ross’s painting instruction videos as some of the earliest soothing ASMR videos. Currently, there are more than 2 million videos like this on YouTube. “There’s this endless ability for new scenarios in which the soothing and tingling can occur,” explains Tolan in the interview. “I haven’t met an object yet that I can’t make into an ASMR sound.” Sometimes, an ASMR video can be as simple as pushing a comb across a surface.

New psychological research points to the benefits of ASMR, mostly through the tingling sensation in the back of the scalp that participants say points to an elevation in mood. In a recent study published in the journal PeerJ, 80% of respondents say their mood improved after an ASMR session — that is, for those who have the ability to experience it.

From the interview with Claire Tolan. Image via YouTube.
From the interview with Claire Tolan (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic via YouTube)

LA artist Julie Weitz, who examines “the experience of embodiment in the digital realm,” was naturally drawn to ASMR. Last year, her installation Touch Museum at Young Projects created ASMR–inducing experiences: it combined an immersive video installation, original soundscape by LA–based composer Deru, and a YouTube channel that whispered the philosophy of Henri Bergson from Matter and Memory (1896) and Creative Evolution (1907).

"Safe Place" by Quiet Kate. Image via YouTube.
“Safe Place” by Quiet Kate (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic via YouTube)

Kate Merritt, aka Quiet Kate ASMR, uses similar techniques as murmurZ, embodying a type of ASMRtist character through her YouTube videos, while also self-reflexively critiquing corporate and internet branding by hosting a “preliminary branding meeting.” In a very different kind of video, “Safe Place ASMR Caring Friend Rape Survivor Role Play,” she is a caring friend comforting a rape survivor. The role-play of this video is both sincere and disturbing, and shows the potential for ASMR videos by women for women to be acts of resistance, a type of internet feminism.

The ASMRtist addresses “you,” making the experience feel both intimate and distant at the same time. Some read into the phenomena as indicative of our loneliness and alienation in the age of technology, or as an attempt to substitute human feelings and emotions for those provided by the internet. Claire Tolan sees ASMR as actually a type of care in the face of potential social isolation.

“I think of ASMR as quite analogous to nursing in the type of care it gives, in that it is very personal, focused care, but in a specific dosage for a specific type of situation. And I think it’s quite powerful — care takes place in a specific type of situation in the hospital when you’re ill, and ASMR takes place in your home when you’re well,” she added. It’s a relationship that takes place between strangers, or, as she put it, “It’s a new form of being close to somebody, and this immediately makes it quite powerful to work with.”

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