When WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD: The World of ASMR opened at London’s Design Museum in the spring of 2022 there was less uncertainty about the response it might receive from visitors than when it opened at Stockholm’s ArkDes in 2020. Although we might have been confident enough that the exhibition was compelling, it was not obvious that visitors would agree. Any concern was soon replaced by larger anxieties – the dawn of the roaring twenties proved to be among the most formidable in living memory. As a pandemic raged, an exhibition that (more than most) was designed to be touched and felt together retreated into the annals of the internet. A ‘virtual vernissage’, which took the form of a ninety-minute soft-spoken tour and television show, reached out to uneasy people in isolated homes.
The irony lay in the fact that this somewhat experimental exhibition sought to lift a predominantly internet-based creative field out from screens and into public space. The exhibition architecture—what visitors met and experienced—was central to this inquiry. How could an exhibition operate as an environment in which visitors might make sense of a work of ASMR that was two full hours in length? If an exhibition is, above all, a social space—an observation that I tend to honour in all exhibitions I am a part of—then how can a gallery transform into an environment that feels comfortable enough to linger in for longer than half an hour?
2022 has seen a grand relearning of what it means to be among those outside of our immediate circles. The first and second incarnation of WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD bookend the most serious period of the pandemic so far. During that time large-scale behavioural changes have subsumed into daily life. Donning a pair of public headphones felt less dangerous before COVID-19. Sitting near a maskless stranger in a windowless, subterranean interior gallery was a normal part of public life. Taking your shoes off and taking steps onto a communal carpet may have felt like a novelty – a threshold which, following a collective trauma, tested the limits of visitors’ vulnerability.
Even faced with this, ĒTER’s exhibition architecture proved to be remarkably pliant. The design gestures that define it changed very little between 2020 and 2022. During the development of the second iteration, there was a wilful desire among the team to test a return to pre-pandemic normalcy – all the while acknowledging that society had modified itself in meaningful, possibly undetectable ways. For any cultural space trust between visitors, as well as between visitor and institution, is enormously beneficial. Very few exhibitions or institutions achieve anything close to it, let alone make it an objective. In the context of an exhibition which demands more than the usual, degrees of trust become vital. “The institution is not supposed to be a piece of cozy, pleasure-inducing machinery,” Vasif Kortun wrote for Solicited: Proposals in 2021. Rather, “can you trust that it can make a coherent argument that may touch your life and lead you to see things otherwise?” Although I’d not deign to assume that this exhibition, nor the institutions that have hosted it, manage anything close to argumentative coherency, it is an ambition to make room for a visitor to see things otherwise. Much of this is down to what is seen and felt. (That said, WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD is unashamedly cosy and, for those receptive to Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, some sort of pleasure-inducing machine. Perhaps an exhibition can, in fact, be both?)
In the world of exhibitions, there is nothing quite like the room that ĒTER has designed: a space of carefully articulated dialectics – hard and soft, bright and shadowy, delicate and robust. The result of countless conversations, iterations, and dexterous value engineering, it represents a gentle declaration of a softer way of making sense of habitable space. If a latent trust manifests in the exhibition, it is largely a result of the experience of the room itself – the way it frames and unfolds between objects, the countless invitations to sit (or lay down), the very human scale that it tenders to a child or an adult. It curves against the contours of itself. It is a place to be alone, together.
Exhibitions are, by definition, temporary. They are designed to frame objects, to prompt thoughts. That makes them an important testing ground. During the processes that have led to WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD, ĒTER has allowed the ideas on paper, screen, and iMessage bleed into their broader practice. When I visited their daycare centre in Cēsis in the summer of 2022, it felt familiar. Aside from the delightful tubular mattresses which signal a formal relationship to the exhibition, there was also a telltale appreciation of proportion and cautious extravagance in the organisation of the spaces. A young boy resident in the daycare was excited by our small group of visitors. Leaping from room to room, he read the space as a home away from home. It is the same natural appropriation of space that I have seen make the exhibition what it has become – and it takes a great deal more than a good idea and solid execution to achieve this. It takes something comparatively hard to pinpoint: a soft touch and an empathetic commitment to sincerity in design.
By now, tendencies towards “softness” in design have unfurled in all directions, and the tropes that define it can be seen all around. What it stands for, however, is something larger than we might at first imagine: it is an earnest ambition as much as a haptic reality. Architecture and design have been until now disciplines of the sturdy, the strong, and the lasting. But even a gossamer-like material can be strong. A wafer-thin material can be robust. Things don’t need to last forever, nor should they. If we begin to imagine a new softness in space-making, we need only follow ĒTER for guidance.