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Arts and Entertainment

Inside The Touch Museum, An Immersive, ASMR-Inspired Art Experience

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Millions of people are watching YouTube videos of soft-spoken artists crinkling plastic bags, tapping on containers, and whispering detailed descriptions of household objects. If you're one of them, then you're going to love L.A. artist Julie Weitz's Touch Museum.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (AMSR) is a little understood phenomenon. Those who have it describe it as a pleasant tingling sensation typically felt in the scalp, back, or limbs. It's triggered by a variety of stimuli: whispering, personal attention, hand movements, tapping, and occasionally sounds like crinkling or running water. Visit YouTube and type "ASMR" into the search bar, and you'll come across hundreds of videos of "ASMRtists," as they're known, gently trying to induce tingles. Some perform elaborate role-plays of situations as mundane as getting a physical or a facial, to as strange as departing for an extended space vacation in a distant future. The most prolific among them have hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Many people say they use the videos to relax or fall asleep.

Here's an example:

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Los Angeles artist Julie Weitz explores ASMR in her new project, Touch Museum, which can be visited at the Pacific Design Center's Young Projects Gallery through February 22.

The Touch Museum takes the perspective of a painter. Weitz herself is a painter, but has steadily been incorporating technology into her work. And while the Touch Museum references painting in many ways, it takes place in an immersive space that captivates multiple senses. She describes it as her "most ambitious project to-date," and also a clue as to the direction in which her work is headed. She said that with Touch Museum, she's exploring how the body feels in a digital world, both from a physical and psychological standpoint.

Weitz's relationship with ASMR videos came as she herself edited video, finding the sounds that the videos often contained—a quiet crinkling, a page turning, or fingertips brushing over silicon bristles—to be relaxing work noise. Though she doesn't typically watch the videos, she said she was inspired by the DIY-nature of many of the content creators, and how the videos are "a sensory experience through a digital mechanism." In particular, how a majority of the videos imagine the camera as the viewer's head.

She's also inspired by colors, textures and, she noted, '60s and '70s rock culture and psychedelics. "Psychedelics explore the potential of human imagination and sensory experience," she said. She mentioned a recent experience with ayahuasca, and the Touch Museum can certainly feel trippy as you walk through it.

When you enter the Touch Museum, you step on squishy foam around a number of chains hanging from the ceiling. You have a few choices here. You can enter a small cave-like space near the entrance, or you can move further into the space. You should check out the entire space first, then end with the cave.

Beyond the chains, the space is dark and enveloping. You will be able to watch a number of looped videos. They show hands working with paint and porcelain, gently fiddling with a variety of objects, a full head of hair being gently brushed. The woman in these videos is Weitz, but light and color obfuscate her identity. Mirrors confuse as you prowl the show, and make the space seem larger than it is. The soundtrack, courtesy of musician Deru, is ambient. It plays throughout, though you may find it diminished when you reach the final room, where sub-woofers create an intense, droning vibration. This room contains three separate videos, and there are chairs where you can sit and take it all in, presumably as long as you like. One video is a woman fingering the chains you previously walked through, while another shows Weitz shining a flashlight in your direction.

Those who actually experience ASMR may find themselves experiencing it here, particularly in the final room and in the cave. In the cave, you are invited to sit down on a pile of pillows, put on headphones and watch a video of paint being dripped down a mold of a human brain. This is the only part of the show where you hear Weitz speak.

Weitz said she's had a variety of responses to the room. Some people stayed for an hour, taking off their shoes, and settling in. One person said they cried, while another experienced nausea. One male guest, oddly enough, informed Weitz he had an erection the entire time he was in the exhibit. One might find the videos sensual, perhaps, as Weitz pours paint on her legs or fiddles with chains hung from the ceiling, but they are not explicit.

The Touch Museum also has its own ASMR YouTube channel. The flashlight video—reminiscent of the portion of your yearly eye exam where the doctor asks you to follow a light with your eyes— is there, only now you can hear Weitz whisper excerpts from Emmanuel Levinas' Totality and Infinity. This video is kind of like the opposite of the usual art experience, Weitz noted. In it, she is looking into the viewer's eyes, the reverse of the guest peering at the art.

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The Touch Museum is on display through Feb. 22 at Young Projects Gallery, located 8667 Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood, 323-377-1102. Free.