What is ASMR?
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a physical sensation typically felt in the head and surrounding area that is thought to be caused by very specific external and internal stimuli. Those that experience ASMR describe it as a very pleasurable tingling sensation, and the stimuli that causes ASMR is commonly referred to as a ‘trigger’. There is a sizable ASMR online community through which members create and view media aimed at triggering this sensation.
The internet community surrounding ASMR was the impetus for six months of ‘fieldwork’, which resulted in a performance / video installation, a 20 minute film and my MA dissertation. I place fieldwork in quotes here because at stake in this project is the notion of the field as a physical locale that one can travel to in order to conduct fieldwork and come back from. The Internet cannot be occupied in the same embodied way that traditional fieldwork sites are occupied. This posed a very interesting problem for me, compounded by the fact that my fieldwork would be accompanied by film.
To begin my domain research I traced the mediascape created by the acronym ASMR to several websites dedicated to aggregating textual information and video content catering to both the explanation and experience of ASMR.
My qualitative research consisted of extended conversations with people from the ASMR Research and Support Group and people heavily involved in the ASMR community, particularly video-makers and the authors articles on the subject. I conducted formal interviews with pro-amateur video makers that resulted in video responses or diaries that I would end up as projections in the video installation. The story of how the performance and video installation came to be are detailed below.
Videography and Performance
While it was feasible to splice and edit together YouTube videos and dairy responses, I found it more interesting and exciting to create a dialogue about ASMR in one place and time. I wanted to emerge a space, as an experiment, that would see ASMR videos being made live with the audience in the same spatiotemporal arena. So I created a new field site by curating and directing a one night performance that had as its nexus ASMR video practices and through them sought to explore the embodied viewers’ ability to perceive video haptically.
Haptic perception is defined by Laura Marks in her Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media as “the combination of tactile, kinesthetic, and proprioceptive functions, the way we experience touch both on the surface of and inside our bodies” (p. 2). It is a sensuous vision that is not abstracted from being in the world and does not rely on depth perception. In contrast to optical visual, haptic perception is used to navigate close-up spaces. The point is to re-embody vision, moving away from the idea that sight produces objective knowledge.
A haptic image reveals the sensation of touch as represented by video and felt by the viewer. This mode of performing for the camera can be seen in the various ASMR videos, in the way the performers move objects and their own body close to the camera and back away – which forces the auto-focusing camera (replicating the eye) to focus and refocus on the objects infront of it.
Marks argues for two capacities of haptic visuality in video. First, it foregrounds the materiality of the medium which results in an awareness that video may not be an objective representation of reality. Second, it “enables an embodied perception, the viewer responding to the video as to another body and to the screen as another skin” (p. 4). Haptic videos tend to invite a longer gaze and confuse the boundaries between the viewer’s idea of a separate self and image.
The installation consisted of five performers, each one enacting various ‘triggering’ mechanisms for a duration of 5-10 minutes separately from other performers. Each performer was filmed by a camera with a live output to a television that faced the audience, and a microphone that was connected to a mixer. The mixer distributed the audio signal from the performers to a wireless transmitter that then transmitted the voice and noises the performers made to wireless headphones, which every audience member wore. The performers enacted a variety of scenarios all in a whispered voice, all engaging tactile materials in a slow and accentuated way so as to elicit all the possible sounds from the objects. The video diaries I had collected during my Internet research were projected onto a wall in the back between between each of the performances. The result was a succession of 5 live performances and 4 video projections.
I depended on the collaboration of my colleagues in the anthropology department to achieve this performance – Imogen Putler was one of the performers, Alex Parkyn-Smith and Charlotte Heikendorf managed the sound, and Rodney Uhler acted as my director of photography, filming shots of the performance that I was unable to. This performance raised questions regarding ethnographic methods for both myself and my colleagues. What was the status in traditional anthropological terms of the exhibition? Was the Internet mediascape the fieldsite, was the exhibition the fieldsite, or is the resulting viewing experience of the film the fieldsite?
Fieldplay: ASMR and Haptic Cinema
While the sensation of ASMR is recognized by those experiencing it as originating in the physical immediate world, the ‘location’ of the production of videos takes place entirely on the Internet. What multi-sited ethnography contributes is an ability to bring the relations between these disparate sites to the foreground. With the material I gathered from Internet research and interviews, I was able to write an effective (in the sense that those in the audience of my installation reported a tingling sensation in their scalp and neck, which started a dialogue between viewers after the performance) script and performance program in a live space – bringing the video-maker, medium, and viewer together. The original translation was done by those video-makers on YouTube who create works to trigger ASMR, the structure of which I borrowed to inform the trajectory of the performance. This idea of multi-sited ethnography is a particular sort, one that moves from a virtual to physical site, and eventually back to virtual again (as I will, in the end, upload the film to YouTube).
It is productive to think of both the ASMR mediascape and exhibition space as performative and emergent sites – places, not always necessarily physical, where a new context is created by the interaction between anthropologist and informants, artists, performers, and audiences. In addition to this I claim two other types of ‘play’ involved – that between myself and my colleagues, who collaborated with me to create the exhibition, and the ‘play’ involved in the exhibition itself, the theater between performer and audience. While the design was largely mine, it could not have been carried out effectively without the help to multiple collaborators, most especially other anthropologists. With the help of my colleagues and a strict performance design I moved the discourse and practice of ASMR into a public space where people could ‘play’, where a peculiar sensual relationship to objects and others could begin to be talked about. This performance was well received both in the time and place of its happening and online. In closing it should be said that all of this begs the question about what precisely ASMR is and what its status in the world might be. I suggest further research in the natural sciences, as that is what people who experience ASMR are desperately trying to fund.