IMG MGMT: Breathe In

by Jeanine Oleson on January 22, 2015 IMG MGMT

Editor’s Note: IMG MGMT is a series of image-based essays by artists. This week’s essay is by Jeanine Oleson, whose work incorporates photography, performance, film/video, and installation. She has exhibited though out the country, including the Kansas City Museum of Art and the New Museum. 

If you’ve never heard of ASMR (Auto-Sensory Meridian Response), it’s a web-disseminated series of thousands of videos that (hope to) cause pleasurable tingling on the head, neck and back through mainly auditory stimuli. Whisper-y, sensitive, mostly attractive females “guide” you through a mundane activity that is especially designed to stimulate viewers to a tingle-y brain orgasm and promote sleep like some futuristic technology come to be. The whisperers are well-mic’d, so you generally hear the sound of the mouth and saliva while someone is easing you into any number of bland situations–from making a dentist appointment to back-tickling demos, to putting the camera/watcher to bed as a baby. It’s intense role-playing which, although devoid of any overt sexual content, I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to call fetishistic (or perverse).

I learned about ASMR from a performer (Lisa Reynolds) during rehearsal for an experimental opera I wrote and directed at the New Museum. In the libretto, all of the performers recite a series of lines together that basically places them away from Earth, having survived something, and fully ecstatic about the possibilities of the present. It starts out funny/uncomfortable and moves toward physical sensation and for the audience, a critical discomfort. The performers spoke the lines by pushing all the air out of their lungs in a rush which basically removed oxygen from their systems and made them high. It sounds like an intense, emotive vocality–kind of an ASMR for the stage. This section of the larger opera read as a relentless, spaced-out, cultish, uncomfortable and unfunny ecstatic arrival to an off-planet Space.  I wanted to disrupt the normal reception of performed material and have a moment where it was really unclear what I was trying to achieve outside of any normal range of theatrical/musical tone and told the performers to believe in what they were saying (I literally said ‘drink the Kool-aid’ over and over again). Watch here.

I think Lisa equated my direction with ASMR because of the tension between linguistic meaning and the way of speaking and listening that changes the performer’s bodies and audience’s expectations–it was more like enacting an ASMR video for a live audience. I started watching ASMR videos in the middle of these rehearsals. I was stressed out, not sleeping, and the Kool-Aid portion of the opera described above made me almost vomit with self-induced distress in every rehearsal because it was indescribably wrong and maybe right because of that. Somehow ASMR videos were that potent mix of soothing and laughable that is an optimal state of conflicted suspension for me. I was particularly into the sci-fi themes (I loved the sometimes advanced screens/graphics and future-kink narratives). Without thinking about the work I was making, or even relating to to my work at all, I realized the conflicted tingly feeling I have about, and due to, ASMR videos is very similar to what I was trying to achieve in that section of the opera.

The sci-fi-themed ASMR videos are still mundane, but they take on the outer dimensions of narrative that sci-fi is allowed to access having to do with mind control, systems, and a relationship to technology. Viewers depart from the typical mundanity into an alternate universe of procedural steps, such as buying a space flight ticket, being tested for AMSR border entry by an alien, intergalactic trading, real time space suit repairs, alien abduction, and android pathos. I REALLY like this– ASMR is so distinctly about comfort through technological transmission, and in the case of sci-fi, falls into the realm of technolust. They say sci-fi and pornography are difficult to define, but that you know them when you see them. In this case, it seems a bit like both. It’s like the meta imaginary of the relationship between the interior Self, space travel and the web as a cognitive mindscape.

When EpicASMR uploads the final track in this list “Christopher and his drones repair your E-brain,” a rare male and (not surprisingly) very procedural track, we experience through perception, perhaps what our consciousness would be if we were a glitching system. In Heather Feather’s “After the battle: Sci-fi suit repair role play for relaxation,” we see Heather as she works on our system, quietly at first, with data and inset screens, then building to identification images including knit alien toys in coffee (?) and spoken references to online gaming. It’s interesting to also consider the role that the author’s bodies play–women are tastefully clothed, pretty, and soft while menare more like technicians (oh what a sadly imagined future.)  The comments are also FASCINATING–the fans and other makers in the ASMR community encourage and build on each author’s work, protect against Youtube’s indiscriminate censors, and gush for more. Sci-fi ASMR reveals present and future anxieties of disconnections in social interaction, and have found a cognitive space of safety and intimacy easing toward an erotic. As Olivia’s Kissper ASMR channel says, “Warmth and technology don’t go together? Think again!” In this awful world, it’s some form of conflicted respite.

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