ASMR is, by nature, somewhat of a private topic. Only within the last year or so have I dared mention it to anyone socially, as the physical nature of it lands it firmly in the realm of "body talk". To casually mention that your body is autonomously stimulated by certain quotidian sounds is to then be expected to explain yourself in depth, and ASMR is yet unexplained by science. Thankfully, the miracle that is YouTube has provided community to those of us with a penchant for the delicious sound of a whispered voice, slow-turned page, or make-up brushes clattered around in a soft fabric bag. And with YouTube community comes exposure, growth and some extremely strange quirks.
Allow me to reverse a bit, and acclimate you.
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It is the sensation of tingling and an allegedly consequential sense of peace that is caused by specific intimate sounds. The intimacy, however manufactured, is the most essential part of the ASMR experience for me. Indecipherable whispers are reliable triggers, meaning if I sit and listen to a YouTube video of someone whispering to themselves over sociology homework, sans narrative and without any attention paid to me, I can usually expect to feel something from it. I've described the feeling to friends as an opiate-like, or as being dropped into an insta-meditation state where, instead of focusing on the universal OM, I eavesdrop on the quietness of certain sounds.
I can recall first noticing this feeling at a very young age, perhaps 5 or 6, while working at a desk in class. The secret song of #2 pencils on wide ruled paper while fidgeting first graders took a spelling test soothed me, evoked in my young body a recognition of certain sounds as signals of peace. I found the sound sensations in the library as well, listening to the unfolding of chapter books and licked fingers on the dog ears of pages. It waited for me at nap time, when the singsong voices of teachers read slowly as to lull me off to sleep, instilling in me an association between the safety of slumber and the softspoken word. And, most pertinently, I found ASMR at the art museum, as the modest-heeled pumps of docents tapped rhythmically around the galleries. I felt (and indeed still feel) that the pregnant space that surrounded the art, the space inviolate between the myself and the work, serveed as a sound cushion, and words uttered within said space were particularly delicious on the audio-pallate. There is a socially understood sanctity of the museum space, articulated by the quiet tone that most assume and encourage when visiting. And, considering these observations, I'd venture a guess that the quiet sounds serve as a signal to my physical being that I'm in a safe place and can allow the relaxation of my nerves on a cellular level.
ASMR exists on a precipice right now, awaiting scientific examination and understanding. The ASMR YouTube community is one of eager, creative, and ever-curious sound artists who tweak and perfect the process of capturing trigger sounds (and, if the artist is skilled, the sound's cushion - the intimate setting within which it was created). And the more they create, the more spotlights are shone on something built in the presence of night lights. This American Life, Vice Magazine, and even Yahoo! News have aired or posted articles about ASMR and the personalities and effort behind the YouTube video community, and I've found myself in myriad conversations regarding the topic over the last six months. For almost every person I've encountered who is disturbed and made uneasy by the trigger sounds and videos, I've found another weirdo like myself who falls down the whisper video rabbit hole every night for a taste of that remarkably innocent, natural feeling of soothed security.
And so for this reason, I am seizing my opportunity at The Hammer Museum to document this precious moment in scientific time. The only thing I know is that the human body physically interacts with a quiet museum space, but for whom and for what reason, I'm clueless. Tomorrow, I shall walk through the Hammer Museum, whispering quietly to myself and savoring the sound of every footstep I create while recording the entire experience. We shall then air the recording live on KCHUNG and throughout the main gallery, an amplified ASMR experience within its native space. I invite you to join me in the gallery tomorrow, Thursday Sept. 19 at 2:30 PM, as we listen to the sounds of whispers, footsteps, and pages turning in the presence of great works. There will be a single question ballot regarding your reaction to the sounds at the KCHUNG broadcast cart, so please don't be shy to join me there and leave your feedback.
For those of you interested in ASMR sounds, I recorded a YouTube video DJ set live on KCHUNG last week, sampling the juiciest bits of some of my favorite recordings. It can be accessed via the KCHUNG Radio archives: http://www.kchungradio.org/archive/2013-09-09/LadyC_ASMR_Show-09.09.2013.mp3 --Christina Gubala, KCHUNG DJ
Established in 2011, KCHUNG is a creative hub of artists, musicians, philosophers, and tinkerers broadcasting live on 1630AM from a studio above a pho restaurant in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. The radio station currently airs 74 live, original shows each month, including reports on wildlife conservation, on-air meditation, gestures of an economic and performative nature, as well as music. While in residence at the Hammer through the end of the year, KCHUNG presents the station’s regular programing on-site as well as new programs developed for the museum. Visitors can look forward to projects such as audio tours composed by KCHUNG and remixes of past Hammer programs.