Thanks for your application video. We loved it! We’re pleased to invite you to join us.
The group meets Tuesdays at 8pm at the Sproull Centre at Central University’s south campus. Come to the back door by 7.55pm to be let in (off Davis Street). Latecomers aren’t permitted. I hope it goes without saying that the location is hush hush. The content of our February sessions was decided at the January planning meeting. They’re all loosely based on the theme of dough. We recommend Ossic 3D Wireless or Bose QuietComfort 35s, but a few people have Turtle Beach Precision 350VR and find them OK. Whatever your budget is comfortable with.
Reading it, I felt the adrenaline rush of a cheater about to embark on the non-digital part of their affair. They had accepted my application. I took a deep breath, exhaled a blend of giddy and sick, clicked the link to the Ossic 3D Wireless and bought them.
The next morning, I stared at the box, wondering if I should try them out or wait till the meeting. I pondered the dilemma by watching a few Ossic 3D Wireless unboxings on YouTube, playing out the conflict between expectation and reality. If I could make every element of Tuesday’s meeting its most new, it might elevate the experience beyond anything I could comprehend. I didn’t want it to be less than I was imagining, but would I taint it by over-prepping?
As I pulled the headphones from the plastic forma, I caught a hint of new car smell. The ear pads had the perfect squish-release timing, like the softest memory foam. And the tension in the headband was the right balance between a grip and a hug. I settled the anechoic chambers over my ears, running my fingers over the casing and giving the tips the buzz you get by stroking the clean, milled surface of a new MacBook. God, hardware’s nice, I thought, sliding the ‘on’ switch to on with my right index finger.
The wake-up chime circled round my head a few feet from my ears like a flute over ice. I hadn’t expected that the Ossics would change my perception of the online videos much, but holy shit. I looked through my Spotify lists to see if anything might suit as a test, but even the intro tone convinced me that they needed something more actual, more intended to simulate real sound in space. I decided to wait.
A few people were heading in as I arrived at the centre. Everyone seemed purposeful. Two guys with matching buzzcuts walked in together. I recognised one from a class I had taken on Spinoza. The guy on the right was tall, a little lanky, and wore a pair of dark, fitted jeans with what looked like a purpose-made loop for a headphone clip. The one from my class carried a backpack too small for anything but Ossics and a wallet. As more people arrived, I noticed more customised headphone accessories. My clumsy kit made me self-conscious enough to hang back, to wait so I could see what to do. A woman in her early thirties walked in carrying two laptop cases, nodding to someone just obscured by the door. Two younger women in expensive gym gear bore small protective camera bags. Someone with bleached blonde hair appeared from the inside, wedging the door open with a shiny, white trainer.
Ever since I found the group’s ASMR YouTube channel in 2013, I had felt I should be one of them. I wanted to know what they looked like. I wanted to have it confirmed that they were just like me, and normal. I wanted to break from the anonymity of screen names and sit with them and see them breathe and move and talk and enjoy all the same sensations that I do. That need finally crystallised into purposefulness. I walked up to the person on door.
“Hi,” she said. “You must be Phoebe, right?”
I nodded. She smiled broadly. “I’m Megan. We loved your video. We don’t make a huge thing about introducing new people before we begin. We just tend to start the session. If you get your headphones on and find an empty bean bag, we’ll get going. You’ll meet everyone in the discussion after. It’s in 4A. Just follow everyone up there.” She gestured vaguely behind her.
I headed down the corridor towards the media room, locating an empty bean bag just in time for the dimming of the lights. A few people came in after, but everyone quickly settled into a respectful silence, staring at the two floor-length projection screens. I looked around—only 12 people. I felt so honoured.
As the lights dimmed, I placed the Ossics over my head. The greeting sound sparkled in the dark as the screens slowly brightened, kissing the top of everyone’s head with a greyish blue light and catching dust particles as they lifted off the bean bags to glow above us.
The light grey image on the screen was mottled, or maybe scratched. The scratches seemed to shrink very slowly. The image gradually became bluer, colder, then a surface emerged: a metal surface that, as the camera drew back, became cleaner and sharper and curved. A flash of light moved around the screen, a reflection in the bottom of a stainless steel bowl.
I couldn’t tell if it was aural or visual at first, but I had the sense that snow was falling and instead of the silence that cloaks everything after fresh snowfall, this snow was pattering, like microscopic drops of rain on the windscreen of a silently accelerating car. The only sound that of mist-like speckles hitting coated glass. Now, imagine that sound is everywhere, and everything is becoming whiter and whiter as gathering dots form into a mass of hushed white noise, a soft screen image of the palest greys and beiges and blues. And as the whites spread across the screen, the sound fades into the faintest whispering patter, muffling further as the speckles multiply. For an indeterminate amount of time, the visual white noise was accompanied only by silence, a vacuum held over my ears by the grip of the headphones. And it was only then that I realised that I was considering, for the first time, the sound that flour makes as it is sifted into a stainless steel bowl. Only then did I understand the delicacy and precision of the video and audio.
Fucking genius, I thought.
The quiet was held in such exquisite tension for so long that it was a wild surprise when crystalline chunks, like vast ice sculptures, fell densely into the white, landing with a thump and sending up a spray that crashed in soft, scattered thuds about a metre to my right.
From behind me, a crackle echoed and a thousand tiny ball bearings were dropped on a metal slide, but far away and caught by foam. The teeny clatter produced a pleasant ringing in my left ear that travelled in a tickle up my neck, to the top of my head. The image spun to reveal pale, sandy grit—dried yeast.
Water started dripping, slowly at first, landing with elastic materiality, springing about and pooling, producing splats and rolling over the flour particles, picking up a fine, grey-white layer on its undulating surface. Each drop sat lolling for a moment before giving in to the flour, producing, as we zoomed out, a moon landscape of craters and bumps.
Soon, the sound of falling water began to clang: a clear but dense reverberation that moved through my body—like needing to pee, or the flush of wanting sex. Sound moves though bodies like the water they're composed of. Sound touches things, I realised. It takes the sensation you’re watching right into every quivering nucleus. It vibrates. It places you in space. It situates. It transports. By the time the water stopped pouring, my toes were shaking. Bubbles rose up to the surface with bright pops, and as my breath shortened I felt the cool sensation of a tear rolling down my left cheek.
I was watching a beautiful, burping swamp come to life, giving up air and making air. It was no longer clear if the springy pops were happening in real time or too fast or too slow, inside my ears or at the edges of the room, in the bowl or in an echoey cave. It was marshy, alien, gloopy, and yet effervescence was all around me—alive! A large, bulging bubble rose in the centre. It grew and grew, its surface thinning to an impossible membrane that stayed intact just longer than should have been possible, until finally it popped, echoing around my head as the screen faded to black and the trademark credit was whispered deep into my right ear: “A Soft Things Production, shot on Canon G16 and Phantom v2512, sound recorded on Rode NT1-A and a hacked 3Dio Free Space”.
The lights rose, a few people were jotting down notes, cocooned in headphones. Most were already heading out the door—casually abandoning what felt to me like a sacred encounter. I noticed Megan looking at me still slumped in my bean bag. “You coming?” she asked.
I nodded and got up. Next door, everyone waited for Megan to speak. She turned to me. “So you’ll see how the group works, Phoebe. We need a majority to vote to even move forward with a piece, but it has to be more than a democratic ruling. If all the last questions aren’t answered, they’ll remain in your head forever. I don’t think any of us could stand that. Could you?”
“No”, I said, carefully. “I guess once a query is aired it’s hard to un-see it.”
“Democracies don’t create aesthetic excellence,” the guy on my left said solemnly. “They consume it.”
“Exactly,” said Megan. “Let’s vote. Who thinks it’s ready for upload?”
I tentatively raised my hand, joining the eight or nine others who agreed with me.
“OK, 10 out of 12, not bad”.
“Ben, you first.”
Ben was the guy from my class. He was looking at his notebook carefully.
“I still think the whites should be brighter,” he said. “The complete white-out needs to feel more blinding, to tie it to the reflection at the start. It needs to be a visual high to counteract the quiet.”
I heard a sigh from the guy to my left who muttered by way of explanation: “Ben’s into post-production. He always thinks that a video should be enhanced.”
“Oh,” I said, quietly. “I really like its colour honesty,” to which he returned an agreeing smile.
Addressing the group: “Phoebe and I both agree that we like its colour honesty,” giving me a nudge and wink. I cringed.
“Thanks Tan, and Phoebe. Is anyone actually with Ben on this?”
Everyone shook their heads. A few murmured “sorry, mate,” or “nope.”
“Anyone else got a query that isn’t about post-production?” Megan asked. A woman in biker boots raised her hand.
“I worried about the water being too loud. Did it sound a bit, I don’t know what the word is, but maybe artificial? I mean, it might have just been my headphones, but I felt a bit too weird, I think.”
The comment was met with a confused silence, a couple of beats of mutual incredulity.
She laughed, “OK. I’m overruled. To be honest, I don’t want to argue it again.”
“Agreement?” asked Megan of the group.
“Great, thanks Marin,” said Megan, adding: “Upload time?”
Everyone raised their hands. I joined in, eagerly — my vote mattered.
Megan clicked ‘upload’ and we all waited in suspense for the video to complete.
Ben leaned my way. “First one, Phoebe! Now you’re really part of it!”
By Friday night, the upload had over 800,000 views. I rewatched it several times, trying to parse what Marin had meant when she said the sound of the water was ‘artificial’. If so, it seemed that to her artificiality must mean realer than real. The water had been so penetrating, so oddly body-like that it felt as though the sound was living, not just a recording of water, but actually making the water in my body echo the water in the bowl. By the following Tuesday, it had had over 2 million views. Definitely a record.
Within minutes of arriving for the next meeting, everyone had settled into their viewing positions. To my right, Megan had her notebook out and was jotting something down. Ben was using his heels to drag his bean bag to the front, at which point the lights went down and the screen grew bright, bathing us all in too much light. I put my Ossics on and squinted at the sickly, pale peach image, making out two distinct textures: a reflective, glossy surface and in its centre a mass of smooth dough, slightly too pastel hued to become bread.
After what seemed like a long time, a faint and high-pitched gurgle began to bubble up inside me. I looked down at my stomach, then back to the screen. The fizzing was definitely interior, like I had swallowed a Berocca tablet whole and could hear the bubbles rising from my stomach to my head, to pop right by my ear canal. Too close, but also too quiet. My stomach trembled, causing me to wonder if the dough was me. I stared at it, deciphering. It looked like it could be a belly living apart from its body, but then again it was so abstracted that it could be any live thing bound in smooth skin — a bald, fat piglet, asleep. It seemed inert, and yet making these incredible sounds. Over time, the gurgles crescendoed almost imperceptibly till the resulting tickle at the top of my neck caused my shoulders to feel so tingly that the strangeness of the thing I was looking at, coupled with the sensation, made me queasy. I gulped, to shush my body’s reaction.
Materials have a strange way of lying to you, even when you’re looking straight at them. I only knew that the soft shape was not skin when a small hand came into view at the top of the screen. Although bathed in the same peach light, it was not as luminous, not as uniform, as the dough. It looked like real skin. And yet it was tiny, moisturised, and had perfectly manicured peach nails, like it knew it was on show.
The hand touched the dough with its index finger tip. The surface gave a little, letting out a barely audible puff of air that seemed to rise off the top of my head. The hand persisted, moving deliberately and quickly over the mass, pushing it in places, creating a multitude of dimples like cellulite on a pale thigh, each one letting out a little gasp that contracted a hair follicle, a pleasant shudder that danced over my scalp.
The material readjusted after each impression, creeping back to its original position, making its innards seem alive. The hand stretched out its fingers and pressed harder, sinking into the surface. The shape squished, letting out a prolonged, intensifying deflation that whistled round my ears. The hand pressed deeper, past the knuckles, up to the wrist, disappearing. And then another hand appeared where mass met gleaming surface, pushing the innards out, as though it had been inside all along.
It could have been a camera trick, but I could swear the material was beginning to grow, and the mass, in being handled and manipulated, had become more elastic. It whooshed up behind me as the hands, both from inside and outside, stretched it until it coiled and twisted around them, pummelling and kneading in constant manipulation. The wobbling stuff smacked and slapped and squeaked, slamming off the floor and stretching above me, making satisfying splats to my left and right, as though the kneading was pushing me right into the centre of the action—a sleight of hand in visual and sound recording that completely baffled me.
More hands crept in to join them, grabbing and holding as much wibbly matter as possible, while it spilled over them onto the shiny surface below. A damp thud squelched behind me, causing me to turn, as the screen faded to black and the trademark credit was whispered deep into my right ear: “A Soft Things Production, shot on Canon G16 and Phantom v2512, sound recorded on Rode NT1-A and a hacked 3Dio Free Space.”
Another video began immediately. I found myself hovering above a sharp and blocky Japanese cleaver that lay on its side on a dark stone table, trembling slightly, as though it were a table that people were walking around and it was vibrating with their footfall. Light glinted across the blade as the vibration knocked lightly at the entrance to my right ear. The screen drew back, and in one smooth motion brought me to eye height, looking down at the knife as though I was now the person about to use it. A man’s hand picked it up, causing it to scrape across the table top, a crisp, close scrape, like the stone surface was part of me, the rasping sound flowing through my ears and along the matrix of every bone in my arms.
The screen drew left to reveal a rounded lump of dough, a perfect oval of matte white on the hard, dark surface. Laying his left hand on the table, the man manoeuvred the knife in his right into a hovering position just above the dough. His next movements were quick and deft: 12 precise slices, in matching timing, dividing the dough into a segmented clock face, every slice producing a startling, gritty sound, like cutting through ice.
What followed happened slowly and carefully. His hand, with extreme precision and grace, moved from the centre of each cut piece to its outer edge, pressing his thumb, coaxing the material downwards, destroying the slices, as though the dough was composed of a sand-like substance, and not even real sand, but a breathtaking multitude of tiny, sparkling diamonds held to each other with a clear, stringy matter—a glinting collection of crystals and spiders webs at war within itself, between the cohering power of its binding medium and the slow, steady tug of gravity. It produced a crackly and glistening cascade of visual collapse. The sound hovered between me and what I was seeing, infecting the light from the screen with its texture and bathing me in the sticky pressure of slowed time.
The movement, the actions, the visuals, the sound, were so compelling that their seductive predictability, the repeated dragging sound, the identical replicated movements, the burgeoning beauty and audible destruction melded into an experience as close to perfection as I’ve ever had. So that when the trademark credit was whispered deep into my right ear, I could hardly bear to hear it. I only wanted more.
Everyone was chatting excitedly. There was a palpable sense that this dough series was the best the group had ever done; the last video its apex.
Megan and Ben were both on their feet. Ben was adding a plug-in to the page code on the Dolby Vimeo that allowed for immersive audio to all approved headphones—a step that he was convinced would push the group’s work forward, force them to address the balance between art and affect, to protect their coveted niche in the online world.
They turned to address everyone. “Done,” Ben said, looking pleased. “OK, two videos this week. We’ll vote in two goes. Pink dough first. Votes for upload?”
I didn’t raise my hand this time, but most of the others did.
Megan turned to me, surprised. “Phoebe, you don’t like it? I’d be keen to hear your thoughts.”
“Um. It’s not that I didn’t like it. It’s that I started to question how it was done. Perhaps that’s just because it was followed by such an amazing one, too—it made me compare. I can’t help thinking that a video is more affecting if your mind isn’t trying to figure out where the camera was, how the sound was recorded, what the material is made of. Last week’s worked so well for me because I didn’t worry about those things. I just felt it and saw it.” I paused, hoping not to offend. “Does that make sense?”
Dean responded, a little defensive. “It’s both of those things,” he said. “It’s both production value and the effect it produces. It’s supposed to be alien and make you feel strange, but also of course to make you wonder how it was made, to make you question what you’re looking at.”
Sara tried to clarify. “For me the desire to do this also has a lot to do with how good we’ve got. It’s a fine line, for sure. But did you ever see the camera or the mic? Were you really aware of how it was made, or are you just questioning that because it’s almost like it’s too clever, like you can’t imagine it was actually made at all?”
“That’s what we’re into,” Megan added, sounding enthusiastic.
“Yeah, it’s not an illusion, it’s just damn good,” said Tan.
“OK, I understand.” I said, still feeling unsure.
“Anyone else?” Asked Megan.
Nobody said anything. “Great,” said Megan. “Upload?”
She barely checked if every hand was up and clicked ‘OK’.
“Great,” she said. “Next!”
“Just upload it,” someone shouted.
“Decorum, please. We still need to vote. Hands?” she said, looking round at everyone’s arms stretched upwards.
“Unanimous,” she nodded, beaming, to rapturous applause.
Back home, I watched the last video again and again on my own. Perfection has a strange attraction, I thought. It’s like wanting to line things up right, to create neatness and order, and somewhere right down inside your body, the arrangement of physical stuff feels nice, as though ordering physical matter causes cosmic agreement in your cells, and when you destroy it, it hurts with a curious pleasure.
I adjusted my headphones. The hand moved slowly across the pale shape, creating and completing its glowing destruction. I watched over and over, and yet the video never lost its appeal. Repetition did nothing to numb its effect. I turned the response tracking on. Millions of viewer’s emojis dropped off the screen every millisecond, every frame. I watched them tumble, reflecting the emotions of thousands of the group’s followers, all connecting via the videos put into the world.
I restarted the video, and kept the tracking on while viewing, watching the little emojis respond as I too shuddered deeply with every cut, each one slicing into my body as if it were the sand. I watched, with millions of others, as the material slowly fell apart, feeling the joyful ache at the cascading slow motion, the sound making me weak while the image of the sand, losing itself to gravitational pull, took my senses with it, starting as tears in my eyes and flowing down through every relaxing muscle. Waterfalls of weeping emojis fell from the video. I pulled myself up close to my plasma UltraHD, grateful that true-sound, ear chamber devices could create environments so total that they properly, humanly, made people feel. By the last slice, the emojis amassed so quickly it was like they were pulsing at me, agreeing with me. We’re all so connected, I thought.
Photograph by Anelina / Thinkstock