PHILADELPHIA – They have mucus, crackling plastic, whispering, scratching, brushing, and the throbbing of exquisitely groomed fingernails. They are either the antidote to anxiety or a source of anger, depending on who you are talking to.
But can they be art too?
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response videos – ASMR for the millions of viewers who devour them online – have been described as therapy, sleep aids and short breaks in Tingleville. Also, the ability to watch strangers doing bizarre things. They're about the same age as this decade – unless you remember the dulcet sounds of Bob Ross and "The Joy of Painting," which some older "dingleheads" do.
ASMR videos create sensations that emanate from the head and scalp and radiate throughout the body. The name sounds like a medical journal, but basically it's Stuff That Makes You Tingle – the rough-hewn hook, a knife pulled through the sand, a cat licking her paw, whatever the sensuous "Triggers," as the people of ASMR call it, work for you
Recently, the ASMR movement seems to be entering its commercialization phase. ASMR videos have been monetized, prominently featured, and co-opted to sell Ikea furniture, Dove chocolate, and a McDonald's Quarter Pounder, possibly the least ASMR thing on the planet.
Earlier this year, Nato Thompson, artistic director of nomadic non-profit Philadelphia Contemporary, observed his 13-year-old niece, who was engrossed in ASMR videos. The work consisted of a stylish woman pouting her face in bread – the imagination that spectators who crave hot dough for their flesh will have vicarious pleasure in watching them. But to Thompson, who has looked at many well-known video installations in well-known gallery environments, came the idea: "This seems to me to be very close to art."
Hooked he saw thousands of videos. Most were "pleasingly disturbing".
The result was the ASMR Film Festival, which took place late last month on a recently refurbished mixed-use pier on the Philadelphia coast. The festival was an open juror show – open to regional teens – and was judged by three adult ASMR stars, including Bread Face, the "artist" who drew Thompson's attention.
ASMR "is performative. It is extremely sensual. It's completely pointless in a good way, "says Thompson. "They are fast. You are meditative. From whispering to slurping, losing weight and folding. This is a tactile work for this entire generation, which is all screen man. "
And possibly a feminist. "Which is nice, the ASMR world is very feminine," says Thompson. Historically, the art world was definitely not. The Festival's festival guests were mostly female and preteen, perhaps because of the presence of Glitter Slimes, an ASMR star in the sub-genre of Slimes.
Nicolet's Waltzer from Orange County, New York, was once a waitress at Ruby Tuesday's. Today, at the age of 22, she has 2.1 million followers on Instagram and a dozen employees helping to create and send her own slime, which her enticing videos help sell. She releases three videos a day, unpacking, thrusting, massaging and stretching her elegant fingers in colorful, viscous containers.
"I love the visuals of mucus," she says. An art critic might recognize in her works echoes of Takashi Murakami's saturated color and playfulness or Matthew Barney's penchant for wax and Vaseline mud. So she does not necessarily look like her creations. "I love the sound, the pounding sounds. Many people tell me that they are doing it for relaxation and stress relief, that my videos reassure them. "
"People use it for background music," says Lily Whispers, 24, of Pittsburgh. Her face remains visible in her videos, but it's all about the voice – the long anodic monologues she shares in a sustained whisper, a (for some) mesmerizing soundbath of gentle vocal chords, song and breath. She stares at the audience in these videos with the intense intensity of performance artist Marina Abramovic, who was known to spend months in the Museum of Modern Art staring into the faces of strangers.
But the fanbase of Whispers is not necessarily related to their work as art. "They use it to concentrate, for example, to lie down for bed or when they have anxiety," she says. Many ASMRtists, such as Whispers, create videos to make people feel more euphoric and less stressed online, often after hours of online stress.
It works? The neurosciences for this phenomenon are still low, but researchers at Sheffield University recently stated that they had made the first physiological research on the subject, and came to a mixed conclusion.
"Our studies show that ASMR videos indeed have the relaxing effect anecdotally reported by explorers," wrote Giulia Poerio, "but only in people who feel."
Whispers has been producing ASMR videos for six years, an eternity. Like other stars of the genre, she has a talent manager. Whispers understands that there can be something like ASMR overkill. Some fans develop "tingling". When videos "stop working on you," she advises, "the best medicine is a break."
On the pier she demonstrated her sensory arsenal of triggers: finger flapping, whispering, slow speech, slow speech in whispering, knocking, brushing, crumpling.
However, the festival did not have the high-performance microphones installed, which are compelling tools of the trade and can absorb any noise and noise. The busy, windswept pier in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge was not the optimal environment for tingling – that would be a bedroom, of course.
The whole whispering, knocking and touching, the intimacy of an ASMRist creates "a sexual perception," explains Whispers. "Is it exciting? It's about the intention. You can sexualize everything. No one makes a video to excite people. This is the twisted perception and confusion of people. ASMR creates an intimate, sensual atmosphere. "
Which brings us to Bread Face, a woman with few words and so many baked goods. The resident of Brooklyn has 202,000 followers on Instagram. Her work celebrates food fun, like Mika Rottenberg's "Dough" or "Squeeze". She is Karen Finley of ASMR – the performance artist who is known to smear her sometimes-nude body with chocolate and other foods when Finley clings to Bread and G-Rated content.
Oh, the different forms of gluten that were sacrificed for smoothing Bread Face: croissants, un-steamed bao rolls, Chinese rolls, sticky rolls and a ball nominated by James Beard. The best breads for intended face plants are "the spongy, least nutrient-rich species. They give."
She slowly unwrapped each bread as if she were undressing. On stage, the work lost much of its intimacy, but not of its diabolical absurdity. Who would have imagined bread as a landing pad or pillow? Like a warrior, she proudly showed stripes of flour and frosting. Occasionally, Bread Face chewed on a piece of her latest, smashed work as praise or triumph.
Unlike Thompson, she is not convinced that what she does is particularly creative. "ASMR is always one thing because it's more of a service than" art "or" content. "As long as people enjoy feeling calmer and more relaxed, ASMR will prevail," she notes.
Although maybe not forever. "Like everything in my life, I plan to do it until it stops giving me pleasure."
The first known ASMR film festival received only 10 entries, suggesting that the next ASMR outbreak event may not be geared towards Philadelphia teens. Two of the three winners – they were awarded Dandy Plastic Trophies – did not bother.
Thompson was enthusiastic, though. "It was such a successful experiment, we plan to create more opportunities," he says, "the amazing culture that takes place on the Internet."