When Weird Sensation Feels Good: The World Of ASMR opened in May 2022, it sold out of tickets on its first weekend, demonstrating the modern world’s obsession towards this peculiar genre of sound known as ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response).
The exhibition, held in London’s Design Museum and curated in collaboration with ArkDes, the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design, invites visitors to step into a peculiar soundscape to discover how different tools (both familiar and unexpected) can be used to interpret sound, and trigger the often talked-about “tingle” that ASMR lovers experience.
ArkDes curator James Taylor-Foster explains: “As little as a decade ago, ASMR was largely dismissed as a figment of the imagination. Today, the term represents one of the largest movements on the Internet.”
A quick search on YouTube reveals millions of videos made by ASMRtists (as this group of creatives calls themselves), each tapping into a different type of ASMR, which involves the use of myriad tools and techniques – from rustling pieces of paper, to tapping long fingernails on plastic bottles, to chewing on blocks of ice.
Calling himself an “old-school ASMR fan”, ArkDes curator James Taylor-Foster’s favourite trigger is microphone brushing. Credit: Elsa Solang
For many, ASMR evokes a physical sensation of euphoria, sometimes felt as a tingle down the spine, which strongly resembles the classic symptoms of “frisson” (getting chills or goosebumps).
It’s indeed a weird feeling, which Taylor-Foster acknowledges, calling the exhibition “odd”.
Speaking to Dezeen, he urges people to open their minds: “We need to expand what we mean by the term ‘design’, what can be in a design museum, what can be in a design book; once you really start to dive deep into the world of ASMR, you understand that it’s connected to so many design disciplines.”
HIGHLIGHTS OF ‘WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD’
A TRIBUTE TO BOB ROSS AND HIS ‘UNINTENTIONAL ASMR’
A visitor admiring Bob Ross’ artwork, exhibited in the UK for the first time. Credit: Ed Reeve
Way before ASMR was a thing, there was American painter Bob Ross, who had an instructional television show called The Joy Of Painting that aired from 1983 through 1994.
All we hear is Ross speaking in an almost-whisper, as he mixes paints and explains how to create masterpieces in 30 minutes. Without any background music, each dab of paint on the palette and every brushstroke across the canvas is clearly audible, sending the viewer into a trance-like state of relaxation.
ASMR aficionados call Ross the “godfather of ASMR”, since he unintentionally set the bar for what future ASMR would be like.
At Weird Sensation Feels Good, there is a section dedicated to Ross, where his artwork is exhibited in physical form in the UK for the first time.
SOUND YOU CAN ACTUALLY TOUCH
Stroke, pinch or poke – the slab of skin will let you know how it feels. Credit: Ed Reeve
This is the sort of thing that exists in your nightmares – you want to run away, but your attention remains glued to the grotesque sight in front of you.
Mark Teyssier’s “The Voice of Touch” exhibit features an uncannily lifelike slab of skin, which you can poke and prod to elicit a vocal response that can be heard through earphones.
The “skin” is made from silicone, painstakingly reproduced to a level where it becomes hard to differentiate what’s real or not.
Teyssier’s previous works also feature the human anatomy to some extent, like a webcam shaped like a human eye (complete with eyebrow) and a robotic limb that looks and feels like an actual finger.
BECOME AN ASMRTIST FOR A DAY
“Meridians Meet” lets you play with different items to create ASMR sounds. Credit: Ed Reeve
“Meridians Meet” by Julie Rose Bower is an interactive studio space with five installations: a cave, a sandpit, a wishing well, a microphone with brushes, and long tubes of cloth. Try your hand at becoming an ASMRtist by sweeping a fluffy brush across a microphone, squeezing hanging bags of sand, or feeling some fabrics with your palms.
As an artist and sound designer, Bower focuses on crossmodal and embodied qualities of sound, especially the intersection of sound with movement and touch in her art.
RELIVE THE MAGIC OF DAVID BOWIE’S MUSIC
Listen to David Bowie’s “Sound for Vision” through this head-shaped microphone with eight ears. Credit: Ed Reeve
Chris Milk started out as a music video director, having worked with The Chemical Brothers, Courtney Love, U2, Johnny Cash, Modest Mouse, and more.
Since then, he has branched out to creating cross-media innovations, like this custom multi-channel binaural microphone used in Hello, Again, a concert featuring Beck.
For his “Sound for Vision” installation at the Design Museum, the eerie eight-eared, head-shaped microphone captures Beck performing David Bowie’s 1977 song of the same name, together with a 160-person orchestra, to create an impressive listening experience.
A DUMMY HEAD THAT DOES MORE THAN LISTEN
Neumann’s KU100 dummy head mic is the “gold standard” in ASMR recording. Credit: Ed Reeve
Meet the ASMRtist’s tool of choice – the KU100 dummy head microphone by German brand Neumann showcases what “immersive audio” truly means.
Resembling a human head with two microphone capsules built into the ears, the binaural microphone recreates sound in 3D, replicating what we would hear with our own ears as opposed to listening in stereo.
This is why when you listen to ASMR videos, it feels as if your scalp is being massaged, or your hair is being brushed.
Even major corporations have jumped on the ASMR bandwagon; here, you can also check out what Ikea and Virgin Atlantic have explored in terms of creating a unique sonic experience for their end users.
Other fascinating sound highlights at the exhibition include baking videos, getting clean-shaven at Japanese barbershop, a Korean dog enjoying a grooming session, and more.
Weird Sensation Feels Good: The World Of ASMR is currently running at the Design Museum in London until 10 April 2023. See more information or purchase tickets here.
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All Images: Design Museum
Writer | Michelle Tan
Having spent the past decade turning her passion into profession, Michelle is a freelance writer/translator based in Malaysia. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.