Explore the world of ASMR with ‘Weird Sensation Feels Good’ at the Design Museum

In conversation with curator James Taylor-foster, STIR unravels the relationship between design and this uncharted human phenomenon from a cultural lens.

by Samta Nadeem, Devanshi ShahPublished on : Jul 27, 2022

"Oddly satisfying" has become a familiar feeling for most dwellers of the internet world and part of our offline vocabulary in the recent times. From Instagram, YouTube, Reddit and beyond this has been one of the fastest growing hashtags that elicited a whole new category of content creators, the ASMRtists. Have you ever encountered an audio/video that evokes a tingling sensation running down your scalp through the spine leaving you deeply relaxed? Banal objects and actions in a repetitive performance, or whispers stating no secrets. Have you found this weird sensation so good that it puts you to sleep? Welcome to the world of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) – a term coined by Jennifer Allen in 2010 in an effort to legitimise this odd but mass human experience.

Still from Definitions of ASMR by ASMRtists, 2020 - 2022 | James Taylor-Foster | WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD | Design Museum London | STIRworld
Still from Definitions of ASMR by ASMRtists, 2020 - 2022 Image: Maxence Rodier - Made in France ASMR

As a revolutionary internet subculture, ASMR naturally got experts intrigued. While scientific research is being carried out, it is oddly satisfying to see established cultural institutions braving to venture into a largely unchartered but widely popular phenomenon at a public level. Weird Sensation Feels Good: The World of ASMR is an ongoing exhibition at the Design Museum, London, England, featuring immersive, interactive and video installations. Launched during Mental Health Awareness Week on May 13, 2022, it showcases the culture, community and creativity of ASMR. The exhibition is presented in collaboration with ArkDes, the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design, where it was first opened in 2020. It is so far the first and only exhibition on this topic presented at two major design institutions in Europe.

  • ASMR Arena | James Taylor-Foster | WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD | Design Museum London | STIRworld
    ASMR Arena Image: Samta Nadeem
  • Installation view of the exhibition | James Taylor-Foster | WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD | Design Museum London | STIRworld
    Installation view of the exhibition Image: Samta Nadeem

STIR sat down for a conversation with curator James Taylor-Foster to unravel the intrigue about an exhibition that is new in so many ways. First, most of our museum-going experiences are choreographed in a certain aesthetic – don’t run, don’t shout, don’t block – as spectators we are positioned and controlled in the display spaces (interesting to note that dwell time is a significant measure of an exhibition’s success), and here we walk into a hall full of people lounging, chit-chatting, lying down or even sleeping. This is something that Taylor-Foster takes as a compliment, “Why do people go to exhibitions because these are foremost spaces for social interaction… Culture at its core is social.” He continues, “Dispel some of those insecurities that museums tend to force on you a little bit... and get yourself in a context where you are open to feeling something.”

ASMR Handbook | James Taylor-Foster | WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD | Design Museum London | STIRworld
ASMR Handbook Image: Samta Nadeem

Thus, there are no labels or wall texts throughout the space, no routes, no hush or rush. Visitors are given a handbook that opens with a poem and quickly moves to set a context for the field, and what to expect as you go on, giving information, cues and examples that leave you in close introspective proximity. The handbook is not just information but a teaser of the experience by leaving these hair-like prints that induce a visual itch demanding touch.

Installation view of the Bob Ross video installation | James Taylor-Foster | WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD | Design Museum London | STIRworld
Installation view of the Bob Ross video installation Image: Samta Nadeem

In the video conversation in the banner, listen to Taylor-Foster highlighting the intertwined relationship between our senses and how in ASMR sound imitates touch, a softness that feels like a caress and relaxes the audience.

ASMR and Design

Time in the modern world is constantly accelerating and the advent of any new technology is purposed to catalyse this acceleration. The internet is a boon as it is a bane of our times. While the internet-based technologies, including social media, make fast our work, research, output, communication, interaction and connection, “ASMR subverts it by softness, slowness and sweetness,” says Taylor-Foster while talking about the larger relationship with design, as he states “the internet is a territory for design” and ASMR “is a field of design that mediates between mind and body, and emphasises how mind and body are not disconnected. We are one sensory being and ASMR helps us understand that in a context.”

We are squishy beings moving through a world that’s full of sharp objects… ASMR allows us to acknowledge that we are sensory beings. – James Taylor-Foster

At close inspection of most ASMRtists’ tool kit you will find everyday objects like pens, brushes, soap, beads, slime-glue and so on, being the props. At the same time, the source of ASMR triggers is the interaction with these objects and the feeling those interactions evoke. Hence, ASMR is deeply rooted in material culture, the duality of subject/object that designers mediate and traverse.

Meridians Meet, Interactive Commission Space by Julie Rose Bower | James Taylor-Foster | WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD | Design Museum London | STIRworld
Meridians Meet, Interactive Commission Space by Julie Rose Bower Image: Ed Reeve

For Taylor-Foster, “What highly contemporary design can do is help create the space in which we can reflect a little bit on the ways we are living and understand where we are going.” Responding to what’s next for this project, the curator wants to take it forward and continue exploring these questions.

Exhibition view | James Taylor-Foster | WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD | Design Museum London | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Weird Sensation Feels Good Image: Samta Nadeem

How is ASMR different from meditation or mindfulness, is it about someone else paying attention as against us doing it ourselves? Let us know your thoughts or share your ASMR experiences in the comments section below.

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