Weird and wonderful

Giulia Poerio visits an ASMR exhibition at the Design Museum.

16 June 2022

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a pseudo-scientific term. It was coined in 2010 to label an intensely relaxing, scalp tingling sensation elicited in specific situations such as getting a haircut, or by so called ‘ASMR triggers’ such as soft touch, whispering, and close interpersonal attention. 

ASMR is a feeling experienced by many since childhood, but with the rise of ASMR content creators (aka ASMRtists) on sites such as YouTube, ASMR has become much more than a feeling. It is an internet subculture, inspiration for musicians, filmmakers and advertisers, and enables easy access to soothing sounds, sights, and simulations to help millions of viewers to relax or nod off. 

London’s Design Museum new exhibition ‘WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD: The World of ASMR’ invites visitors to become more aware of what ASMR is (and isn’t) and how it emerged from a previously unnamed feeling into public consciousness and popular culture. The basement gallery of the Design Museum has been transformed into an immersive multi-sensory ASMR-inducing haven, with a spa-like atmosphere of tranquillity aided by the directive to remove your shoes upon entry. 

The exhibition does what internet ASMR cannot by inviting you to experience ASMR through touch. Visitors can co-create their own ASMR soundscapes in an interactive live studio space created by artist and researcher Julie Rose Bower. Here, you are guided to interact with tactile materials, microphones, and fellow visitors across five installations that exaggerate and amplify the sounds of touch. In this space, you can wear headphones while someone creates sounds with different makeup brushes and experiment with amplified sounds of a studded ‘mountain range’ of cloth.    

Perhaps the most impressive part of the exhibition is its centrepiece ‘The ASMR Arena’: a ginormous ground level seating structure fashioned from masses of flesh-coloured, bean-bag pillow tubes, folded to resemble the intricate structure of the brain’s surface. Inside this cocooning hug-like pillow, there are screens with headphones suspended from pink hands that encourage you to lie back, relax, and experience ASMR in its various weird and wonderful formats. Videos have been carefully curated to capture the breadth of ASMR content from meticulous dog grooming and mesmerising pattern of slow-motion paint splatters, to the hushed tones of Bjork describing how a television works and the peaceful mundanity of BBC Radio Four’s daily Shipping Forecast

There are other intriguing ASMR-inspired artefacts housed at the exhibition. They include artist Tobias Bradford’s disgustingly lifelike plastic tongue, which undulates and drips with synthetic saliva, screens displaying a wall of hypnotising 3D motion design nodding to visual ASMR trends, and an entire room dedicated to the ‘Godfather’ of unintentional ASMR, Bob Ross, featuring original paintings and screened episodes of The Joy of Painting

Weird sensation feels good: The world of ASMR runs until 16 October at the Design Museum 

Reviewed by Giulia Poerio, University of Essex