Meet Claire Tolan and her intriguing array of ASMR-inspired artistic projects

ASMR Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response UniversityClaire Tolan is an artist residing in Berlin, Germany who is weaving ASMR into new and exciting artistic domains.

She has created and hosts a regular ASMR radio show, has incorporated ASMR into a surveillance-themed exhibition, has integrated ASMR into a Techno night club, is merging ASMR and karaoke to explore facets of audience participation, is putting the finishing touches on an ASMR ring tone project, and also has some ASMR-themed games in her crucible.

And if all that is not enough, Claire has even collaborated with the American musician Holly Herndon to produce, what Wired magazine calls, “the album’s most curious track.”

If art is a manifestation of the essence and being of an artist, then my interview with Claire showed me that her projects are only a glimmer of the profound and intriguing person behind those productions.

In my interview with Claire she shares her interest in the therapeutic potential of ASMR, how ASMR can be said to “leak with love”, her incorporation of data into her work, her beliefs and involvements with political activism, her reasons for defending ASMR, her favorite YouTube ASMR artists, and more.

Below are my questions in bold, her replies in italics, and links to Claire’s website and some of her ASMR-inspired productions.

When did you first begin incorporating or featuring ASMR triggers into your artistic performances and works?

Claire, “I began working with ASMR in early 2014, with a radio show on Berlin Community Radio, You’re Worth It.  I’d become very interested in ASMR in 2013, and a radio show seemed to provide a good route into working with the sounds.  

A lot of the power of the videos lies in the seduction of the visual elements, and I was interested in what would happen to the sounds if they were divorced from this visual grounding.

I thought the sounds were complex enough to merit exploration without a visual component.  Plus, inserting thematic and narrative elements seemed easier when the focus was sound alone — I have little experience producing video.”

How have your ASMR-inspired radio show and your interests in ASMR evolved over time?

Claire, “Hosting a radio show every two weeks for nearly two years has pushed me to develop new material very rapidly, and this, I think, has allowed me to quickly mature my ideas about ASMR and locate new avenues for exploration — or, more exactly, fill out the shape of my intuitive enchantment with the form.

My interest in ASMR was sparked, actually, not by the tingling, but because I had worked with field recordings in the past, and I liked the long stretches of ambient noise.  I was also captivated by the relationship between the viewer and the ASMRtist, which represented a very different form of interaction than what I was familiar with on the Internet.  The ASMRtist directly addresses the viewer, pretends to be a familiar.

As time passed, these intuitive interests in ASMR matured.  Now, I’m primarily interested in how ASMR videos attempt not only to provoke the tingling sensation, but also serve as a kind of fringe therapy for maladies like insomnia, anxiety, and depression.  The soft, soothing sounds somehow serve as a worthy vehicle for exploring different configurations of hospitality, groupthink, ritual, privacy, and intimacy, as well as complex technological, psychological, linguistic, and economic subjects.”

“Lonely at the top”, an ASMR-inspired track you created with Holly Herndon, seems to be the track on her new music album which is drawing the most positive attention from music critics. Can you explain how you two created this track and what were your goals for the track?

Claire, “Holly and I were introduced via email by her partner Mat, because of our shared interest in ASMR.  And so, the collaboration began remotely.  At some point during our correspondence, Holly mentioned that she had just read an article about the coping strategies developed by the extremely wealthy to justify their status — the methods by which they ease their anxiety about being on the upper-end of vast global inequality. 

She suggested that we make the piece a kind of “therapy for the 1%”, an anxiety-relieving ASMR track that instructs the wealthy not to worry about it — it’s not their fault!  They work hard!

This idea synced with some of my fascinations at the time, which included alpha male self-validation videos on YouTube (it’s terrifying, but they exist) and Gregory Bateson’s early writing on double binds — that is, the anxiety induced by finding oneself in an inescapable, impossible position.

Working with Holly on the track represented my first experiment with ASMR beyond radio, and therefore marks something of a watershed in my work with sound.  While I’m still so happy to continue my radio show, it’s lost a bit of my focus as I work on performances and other projects.

In many ways, the sounds of ASMR are similar to those that Holly was already using in her music — dancers squeaking on a floor, hard drives spinning.  Insisting on ASMR as music is really just a few steps away from the sound palates that she’s been developing for some time.

Plus, ASMR as a genre can be said to “leak with love,” a phrase that Holly and her close collaborators, Mat Dryhurst and Colin Self, have been using in their performances to emphasize the importance of a kinder, more open, and more caring relationship with each other, with strangers.”

In addition to your radio show and collaborative track with Holly Herndon, can you share some of your other ASMR-inspired performances and productions?

Claire, “Last year, I was very fortunate to receive the annual Radio Lab prize awarded by Deutschlandradio Kultur and the CTM Festival, which is a festival of adventurous music and sound in Berlin.  As part of the prize, I created a radio play for Deutschlandradio (Click HERE to listen) and an exhibition at the CTM Festival in January.

The exhibition, Always Here for You, was a consideration of privacy, surveillance, and sous-surveillance (self-surveillance), as viewed through the lens of ASMR.  In addition to videos — ranging from “typical” ASMR intimate role plays (hair dresser, doctor, lover) to a computer hacker spying on the viewer — I hosted daily performances in a glass-walled chamber inside the exhibition.  Though everyone could watch the ASMR role plays that were performed in the glass room by friends and strangers, only two audience members at a time could listen to ASMR role plays through headphones.

I also built and installed laser microphones, classic surveillance devices, to reflect off of the glass of the performance chamber.  Though the microphones were far more finicky in installation than I had hoped, they produced a cool buzz of static sometimes combined with a hint of signal of what was being spoken in the room.  This neatly sums an abiding question in my work with ASMR — what is the signal in the sounds, and to what effect?

Over the past months, I’ve become more and more interested in mobilizing certain tropes of ASMR through interactive performances.  I was so happy to perform with Holly, AGF, and Amnesia Scanner at the Berghain, a huge techno club in Berlin, in June.

At the Berghain, the main dance floor is on the second level. I stood at the entrance on the first level, greeting people as they entered. I whispered hello, welcome, wow you look fantastic.  I often greeted those I knew by name.  My voice was piped up to the dance floor, where my friend Gabi was stationed in the DJ booth.

Throughout the performance, I fed her statistics about people entering after I greeted them, remarking on clothing color, mood, and whether or not I knew them.  Gabi entered this data into a series of projected, real-time data visualisations that I had programmed.  An ASMR soundscape played throughout during the set.

During my residency in London, I developed a couple of new performances, which are helping to advance my experiments in audience participation.  I’m attempting to seduce audience members, or the entire audience, into performing the roles of the ASMRtist and of the ASMR subject, given a voice.  I’ve been getting at this through the creation of customised ASMR karaoke videos.  The lines in these videos can be performed by me, an audience member, or the audience as a whole, with different speaking parts assigned to different characters.

At a performance in London, again with Holly, plus Mat Dryhurst, Colin Self, and Jam City, I modeled different systems by first recruiting decentralised nodes in the audience and then working through different karaoke videos featuring centralised, decentralised, and distributed systems, asking the audience to speak lines in unison at different times depending on the system.”

What core philosophies do you try to express through your art?

Claire, “With ASMR, I’m most invested in the above-described therapeutic nature of the sounds; this inspires me more than the search for the “tingles”.  I’m extremely interested in the crippling sublime that the individual experiences in the face of complex, planetary systems — climate (and its change), finance, etc — and the anxiety that this sublime produces.

I see ASMR as providing one coping mechanism for this anxiety.  I am asking if through studying the sutures for anxiety (the shushing, the soothing — the therapeutic work of ASMR), we can reformat the anxiety, or feel less alone inside of it, or find a different, more strategic and empowered response to complex systems.  I’m not sure, but it’s a generative exploration.”

I read an article which referred to you as an “ASMR activist”. Can you share how you are melding ASMR and activism?

Claire, “Much of my professional work for the past several years has involved political activism around issues relating to human rights abuses, information freedom, and privacy advocacy.  I work as a web developer, and I once trained as an archivist, and so these hacking/activism/information freedom discourses touch me in many ways.

I value practices that alter the imagination and models that we have for structuring and understanding information.  This work can be done with art, and it can be done with many other lines of inquiry.  It’s essentially “hacking”, which is just altering the given structure of a platform, tool, or narrative to endow it with a different functionality.

This is the work undertaken by Chelsea Manning, through Wikileaks.  It’s the work of Aaron Swartz and of Bassel Safadi. It’s what Holly is working towards with Platform, through incorporating so many different disciplines into a work of experimental music. It’s the inspiring work of TransHackFeminists, of the PENG Collective, of Robinhood Minor Asset Management Cooperative, of unMonastery, and of many, many others.

As technologies become increasingly black-boxed, obscuring the power dynamics that shaped and continue to shape them, I would say that it is the work of everyone, and especially of the artist, to ask why, how, so-what, what-else, and what-now.

I try to apply these questions to my work with ASMR, both in how I approach the genre and in the subjects that I explore through performance and recording.  I often work with a conceptual agenda – demystifying technology, applying systems theory to large audiences, exploring hospitality, the act of hosting.

ASMR is a wonderful genre for delivering critique, because I can say anything as long as I say it in the right, soft tone.  The voice blends with the other sounds to act merely as a vehicle for the sensation (tingling, or relaxation, or both).  What kinds of messaging does this allow me to inject into my work?

Ultimately, one of my favorite things about ASMR sounds are the diffuse potential engagements.  You can take the message, or you can relax, or you can tingle, or you can talk over the sounds.  I think all are acceptable reactions to my performances.  There’s something beautiful to me about insisting to continue speaking quietly in the background.”

I have also seen you referred to as an “ASMR ambassador”. Do you find yourself doing a combination of enlightening people about ASMR while also defending ASMR?

Claire, “I do! I often introduce people to ASMR, and I always encourage those who talk with me to watch the videos on YouTube.  I recommend my favorites: ASMRer (Tony Bomboni), ASMRRequests, Yanghaiying, HeatherFeather, VeniVidiVulpes (I wish her account hadn’t gone dormant!), EphemeralRift.

I think that these videos are a much better representation of what ASMR “is” and “does” than my performances, which are merely playing on the themes that I find most interesting (and of course, introducing ASMR soundscapes in “open” environments — as opposed to “closed” listening in headphones).  Plus, the videos are wonderful; the imagination and devotion to form that I find in ASMR videos are so inspiring to me.

As for defending ASMR, I do a fair amount of this as well.  I am taken by ASMR: by the desire to care for strangers (anyone, any gender, any age, any nationality), by the sounds, and by the imagination and re-imagination of everyday objects.  I think that there is something immensely transgressive and beautiful in the idea that any object can be touched and any voice can whisper in a way that triggers soothing, sleep, or the tingling sensation.

There are lots of negative critiques you can throw at ASMR — you can talk about the gender imbalance of ASMRtists (which I think is overstated), you can talk about uncompensated affective/emotional labour, you can characterise it as snake oil (which always makes me laugh, given the havoc that “legitimate” medicines like anti-depressants wreak), false intimacy (whatever that means), and loads of other things.  And I think these discussions are quietly woven into my work.  

But I don’t find it inspiring to come at the entire genre/culture/practice from a position of negative critique — it creates too narrow of an avenue of approach.  And so, I’m often defending ASMR from readings that I think are too easy, too simplistic, too one-dimensional.”

What other ASMR artists, in addition to those on YouTube, do you know about?

Claire, “Sophie Mallet is an artist doing great work with ASMR, which she will expand during a residency at London’s White Building in 2016.  

And sasCha mumurZ, an ASMRtist in Los Angeles, is working with ASMR in performance and in amazing videos, on and off of YouTube.”

What future ASMR-themed ideas do you have on the horizon?

Claire, “In the coming weeks, I will launch SHUSHTONES, themed packages of ASMR ringtones and the debut project of my new company, SHUSH SYSTEMS. SHUSH SYSTEMS will, in the future, host all of my ASMR projects.

As an extension of my interactive performance interests, I’m looking forward to developing an ASMR RPG similar to Dungeons and Dragons, which will create small, modular, and open-ended performances-as-games.  Much of this creation will occur in February and March 2016 during a residency with BLITZ in Malta.”

Where would you like to see the global understanding, expression, and/or application of ASMR be in 10 years?

Claire, “One hope is that YouTube (and Google) don’t go under — that would result, ultimately, in the loss of “ASMR.”  Of course, that doomsday seems unlikely.  But as a kind of corollary, I hope more people begin to work with ASMR off of YouTube.  The sounds and the scenarios demand more experimentation.

I think the openness towards object functionality that ASMR culture encourages can be seen as a threshold to other kinds of object relations and relations with each other.  I have been experimenting with this in performance — when I apply ASMR to a social space, how do people react to the sounds — and does this change how they react to one another?  What can I combine with ASMR sounds to further enhance this experience of a different kind of social situation?  How does this change what is possible in the club and in the classroom, and, later, in the streets?

I’m really not sure — there’s a lot of work to be done here.  I don’t think the application of ASMR is enough to achieve some capital-L Liberation, or a total redrawing of social norms, or anything like that.  But I do think that the experience of ASMR — and the willingness to experience ASMR — either as tingles or as soothing — opens up a pliable space in the everyday that can be used to move towards different social configurations and realities.

ASMR can be used as one tool for the invention of the future — and then for quietly, insistently, demanding it.  ASMR is so queer when compared to the norm of everyday encounters — its attention to objects, its pleasure in objects, its immense compassion and hospitality towards strangers.  I’d like to see these aspects of ASMR seeded in the mainstream.”

Click HERE to visit Claire’s website

Click HERE to follow Claire on Twitter

Click HERE to listen to episodes of Claire’s ASMR-inspired radio show, ‘You’re worth it’

Click HERE to sample Claire and Holly Herndon’s collaborative audio track, ‘Lonely at the top’

Click HERE to watch a video of Claire talk about her ASMR experiences, perspectives, and works.

Click HERE to learn more about Claire’s ASMR ringtone project, ‘Shush Tones’

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