PHILADELPHIA — They feature slime, crackling plastic, whispering, scratching, brushing and the thrumming of exquisitely groomed fingernails. They are, depending on whom you talk to, either the antidote to anxiety or a wellspring of annoyance.
But might they also be art?
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response videos - ASMR to the millions of viewers who devour them online - have been described as therapy, sleep aids and brief vacations to Tingleville. Also, a chance to watch strangers doing bizarre stuff. They are about as old as this decade - unless you hark back to the dulcet tones of Bob Ross and “The Joy of Painting,” which some older “tingleheads” do.
ASMR videos are designed to produce sensations that originate in the head and scalp and radiate throughout the body. The name sounds pilfered from a medical journal, but it’s basically Stuff That Makes You Tingle - the catch in a husky voice, a knife drawn through sand, a cat licking her paw, whatever sensuous “trigger,” as ASMR folks call it, works for you.
Lately, the ASMR movement seems to be entering its commercialization phase. ASMR videos have been monetized, celebritized, and co-opted to sell Ikea furniture, Dove chocolate and a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, which seems possibly the least ASMR thing on the planet.
But early this year, Nato Thompson, artistic director of the nomadic nonprofit Philadelphia Contemporary, watched his 13-year-old niece engrossed in ASMR videos. The work featured a stylish woman smooshing her face into bread - the conceit, apparently, that viewers who crave warm doughiness against their flesh will derive vicarious joy watching her. But to Thompson, who has viewed plenty of edgy video installations in noted gallery settings, it prompted the thought: “This looks awfully close to art to me.”
Hooked, he watched thousands of videos. Most, he found, were “pleasurably disturbing.”
And so the ASMR Film Festival was born, staged late last month on the Philadelphia waterfront at a newly renovated mixed-use pier. The festival was an open juried show - open, that is, to regional teenagers - and judged by three grown-up ASMR stars, including Bread Face, the very “artist” who attracted Thompson’s attention.
ASMR “is performative. It’s extraordinarily sensual. It’s totally useless in a good way,” Thompson says. “They’re quick. They’re meditative. From the whispering to the slurping to the sliming to the folding. This is entirely tactile work to this entire generation that’s entirely screenal.”
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And possibly feminist. “What’s nice is the ASMR world is very female,” Thompson says, when historically, the art world has been decidedly not. Festival patrons were mostly female and preteen, perhaps due to the presence of Glitter Slimes, an ASMR star in the subgenre of slime.
Slimes, aka Nicolette Waltzer, of Orange County, New York, used to waitress at Ruby Tuesday’s. Today, at 22, she has 2.1 million followers on Instagram, and a dozen employees to help create and ship her custom slime, which her tantalizing videos help sell. She releases three videos a day of her unwrapping, poking, massaging and stretching her elegant fingers in vats of colorful, viscous goo.
“I love the visuals of slime,” she says. An art critic might see in her work echoes of Takashi Murakami’s saturated color and penchant for play, or Matthew Barney’s fondness for wax and petroleum jelly ooze. That’s not necessarily how she regards her creations. “I love the sound, the poking noises. A lot of people tell me they do it for relaxation and stress relief, that my videos calm them down.”
“People use it for background music,” explains Lily Whispers, 24, of Pittsburgh. Her face remains visible in her videos, but it’s all about the voice - the lengthy anodyne monologues she shares in an amplified whisper, a mesmerizing (for some) sonic bath of gentle glottal stops, vocal fry and breath. She stares at viewers in these videos with the haunting intensity of performance artist Marina Abramovic, who famously sat for months at the Museum of Modern Art gazing into the faces of strangers.
But Whispers’s fan base doesn’t necessarily engage with her work as art. “They use it to focus, like winding down for bed, or when they’re having anxiety attacks,” she says. Many ASMRtists, like Whispers, make videos to make people feel more euphoric and less stressed-out online - often after spending hours online becoming stressed.
Does that work? Neuroscience on the phenomenon remains slim, but researchers at the University of Sheffield recently conducted what they assert is the first physiological research on the subject and came up with a mixed result.
“Our studies show that ASMR videos do indeed have the relaxing effect anecdotally reported by experiencers,” wrote Giulia Poerio, “but only in people who experience the feeling.”
Lily Whispers has been making ASMR videos for six years, an eternity. Like other stars of the genre, she has a talent manager. Whispers understands there can be such a thing as ASMR overkill. Some fans develop “tingle immunities.” If videos “stop working on you,” she advises, “the best medicine is to take a break.”
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On the pier, she demonstrated her sensory arsenal of triggers: finger flutters, whispering, slow talking, slow talking while whispering, tapping, brushing, crinkling.
But the festival hadn’t installed the high-performance microphones that are mandatory tools of the trade, capable of picking up every crackle and murmur. The bustling, windswept pier in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge was not the optimal environment for producing tingles - that, of course, would be a bedroom.
All the whispering, tapping, touching, the intimacy of an ASMRtist creates “a sexual perception,” Lily Whispers explains. “Is it arousing? It’s all about intention. You can sexualize anything. No one is doing a video to arouse people. That’s people’s twisted perception and confusion. ASMR creates an intimate, sensual type of atmosphere.”
Which brings us to Bread Face, 30, a woman of few words and so many baked goods. The Brooklyn resident has 202,000 followers on Instagram. Her work celebrates fun with food, like Mika Rottenberg’s “Dough” or “Squeeze.” She’s the Karen Finley of ASMR - the performance artist known for smearing her sometimes naked body with chocolate and other comestibles - if Finley stuck to bread and G-rated content.
Oh, the various forms of gluten sacrificed for Bread Face’s smooshing: Croissants, bao buns (unsteamed), Chinese roll cakes, sticky buns and a James Beard-nominated boule. The best breads for intentional face plants are “the spongy, least nutritious types. They give.”
She unwrapped each bread slowly, as though undressing them. Onstage, the work lost much of its intimacy though none of its doughy absurdity. Who would have imagined bread as a landing pad, a pillow? Like a warrior, she proudly sported streaks of flour and icing. Occasionally, Bread Face chewed a piece of her latest smashed work as a form of praise or perhaps triumph.
Unlike Thompson, she isn’t convinced what she does is particularly creative. “ASMR is a forever thing because it’s a service more than it is ‘art’ or ‘content.’ As long as people enjoy feeling soothed and relaxed, ASMR will prevail,” she observes.
Though perhaps not forever. “Like everything in my life, I plan on doing it until it stops bringing me joy.”
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The first known ASMR Film Festival received only 10 submissions, suggesting that the next breakout ASMR event may not be centered on Philadelphia teenagers. Two of the three winners - they were awarded dandy plastic trophies - didn’t bother showing.
Thompson, however, was delighted. “It was such a successful experiment, we plan to create more opportunities,” he says, for “the amazing culture-making happening on the internet.”