Last week, as a follow-up to my ASMR post, I convinced my good friend Stephanie—who does not experience Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response—to accompany me to the Pacific Design Center to view Julie Weitz’s Touch Museum at the Young Projects Gallery. Unsurprisingly for a weekday afternoon visit to an exhibit inspired by an obscure and recently identified phenomenon, it was a ghost town, but the artist was there to welcome us into the space. She allowed us to wander at our leisure through dark rooms (assuring us that our eyes would adjust) in which video screens displayed scenes ranging from hands caked in cracking mud to scissors cutting through netted fabric. All the while, beautiful and slightly eerie music by Los Angeles composer Deru filled the air.
I’ll be the first person to admit that I don’t “get” modern art. In 2000, Kirsti dragged me to a Paul McCarthy exhibit at MOCA and I still haven’t forgiven her. But as I walked through the Touch Museum, I began to grasp what Julie was trying to convey. My first clue came while watching a scene in which a pair of muddy hands runs over a length of metal chain. I instantly felt the sensation in my palms. Observing a video of hands caressing sculpted heads and feeling every groove of the carved hair under my own fingers, I understood how this exhibit—comprised of little that is tangible beyond a series of two-dimensional screens—is, in fact, ALL about touch.
Since feeling physical sensations in response to observing touch is normal for me, I didn’t think much of it until I consulted Stephanie about her experience. Looking at another video of hands running down a curtain of hanging chains, I asked her what she felt. She said that she had an impression of cold, but that was it. “You don’t feel the chains in your hands?” I asked. “No.” As an adult of a certain age, I’m still taken aback when presented with how uniquely we all experience the world. We tend to assume that most people see and feel things the same way that we do, so it’s a surprise to suddenly realize that something we’ve taken for granted our entire lives may not be standard. As we watched a video of mannequin hands petting a wig of thick, wavy hair, the sensation of the strands passing through my fingers was strong, but Stephanie felt nothing.
After walking through the exhibit, we entered a room with pillows on the floor and two headsets facing a screen showing an ASMR video that Julie created for her YouTube channel. Stephanie and I sat down and put our headphones on to watch, but there were a couple of people talking loudly in the hallway outside the gallery and I wasn’t able to get into the relaxed state necessary to experience the tingles of ASMR. I caught the barest sense of them from listening to Julie’s soft voice, but the video contained images of a model brain with long pins stuck in it, and the uncomfortable sensation of having my skull poked with hatpins was not conducive to producing tingles.
Julie mentioned that she is interested in the work of Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist specializing in behavioral neurology to whom I wrote in 2012 about my experience with synesthesia. She is drawn to his studies of mirror neurons and how they relate to empathy, dovetailing with her art and the way in which observing images and actions can evoke a physical response.
If you don’t experience ASMR, I’m not sure that this exhibit will have much to offer you, other than some boldly-colored images and atmospheric music. I myself did not get any tingles as I watched the videos, despite feeling the physical sensation of touch. But to those on the leading edge of this movement, which is still in its infancy, it presents a doorway to fresh avenues of inquiry and a new way to experience art. As a number of people who signed the guest book expressed in one way or another, “I was touched.”
Stuff Worthy Of Our Notice™ in this post:
The Touch Museum will be on view at the Young Projects Gallery in Los Angeles through February 22nd. All photographs in this post from the Julie Weitz Touch Museum.