Wednesday Jan 16

Ardra1 Ardra Neala isn’t just an incredible artist, but an ASMRtist. What does that mean? ASMR is an acronym for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It is a [currently not scientifically proven] sensation brought on by the observance of common, mundane tasks, certain sounds, or light touch. It is often described as a tingling, or what I like to call the good chills.

I recently took a special interest and began making my own ASMR videos on YouTube, a place where the ASMR community has set up shop, sharing their sound and visual creations with the world in order to relax them or help them with insomnia and some more serious problems, such as anxiety and depression, and oddly enough, Ardra Neala was the one who found me. Her videos are far better, and gorgeous to watch, and one of her videos, a clever psionic initiation role play, has upwards of 96,000 views! For someone in the ASMR community, that’s a great number, and it’s only going to grow (as it should). Ardra is one of the many people on a quest to soothe and aid people in their search for relaxation. But she is extraordinary. Her videos are truly works of art.

Ardra2 That’s not to say that other ASMRtists are not equally artistic, but this is Ardra’s well-deserved moment. I found her work to be especially spectacular and unique in the ASMR community, and I thought it would be a brilliant way to introduce both her art to you while also raising awareness about the growing phenomenon that is ASMR.

Most importantly, Ardra has incredible artistic skill that go above and beyond her digital video work. I had the pleasure of browsing through her paintings and digital over-paintings after befriending her on Facebook, and it all floored me. The sheer talent she possesses is amazing on so many levels, and I believe she is somewhat modest about her abilities, so she might disagree. You all can see and decide for yourselves. Below is a painting of Maria (Gentlewhispering) one of the most well-known ASMRtists on YouTube. The likeness is uncanny.

Ardra3 I’ve gotten to know Ardra over the last several weeks, but it was just the tip of the iceberg in comparison to what I learned throughout our interview [below]. I asked a few very basic questions and let her do the rest. This is one of the most thrilling Q&As that I’ve ever had the pleasure in partaking. Very educational and intriguing, you’ll most definitely walk away from this artisan feature having learned something new, and I hope you’ll enjoy it while you do. I know I did.

Feel free to visit her wonderfully creative YouTube channel after reading the interview, and please take a peek at some of the videos on this page, conveniently placed just for you.


                                      Ardra Neala interview, with Brittany Connolly

You are a very artistic person. From what I can tell, it basically runs in your veins in a seemingly organic way. Do you consider your ASMR videos to be art, and if so, how?

It hasn't always run in my veins. I'd say it's become more and more a compulsion than a love as I've gotten older and more desperate. I do consider my ASMR videos to be art, and think of ASMR as a new, revolutionary art form. Art movements throughout history have alwaysstarted out precariously with a lot of conflict when it came to whether or not the art form was legitimate, or had meaning. I think since we share our workon YouTube instead of in a gallery setting it inevitably will be slotted into a low brow kind of art category, if at all. Also a lot of the topics in ASMR videos are repetitive and there is actually a benefit to creating familiar, benign situations which are kind of antithetical to the whole ideal that art is supposed to push boundaries, sometimes to the point where the aesthetics suffer (or don't matter at all).

I get a lot of my inspiration from day dreaming to music. I imagine what it'd look like if I made the video to the song I'm listening to. Music videos are a good analogy for how I see ASMR videos relative to art. Even the epically long ones like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” run for about 15 minutes, so being able to tell a story within that time frame is challenging. Music videos also frame andenhance the audio, which is often intended to illicit a physical response like chills or frisson. The harmony or dissonance between notes can trigger that frissonresponse and artists intentionally try to manipulate the progression of notes, mixing familiar patterns with some unexpected twists.I studied music theory back in high school
for a while too so I guess it makes sense that I see them as connected.

ASMR video making is also an opportunity to integrate many different mediums; I'm trying to move my stuff in a direction that could be described as, I don't know, moving paintings. The 2d experience will likely remain part of my style. Art generally has been about simulating reality. Reminds me of "the treachery of images" painting, an image of a pipe with the words "this is not a pipe which was around the time what was considered art started to shift again. ASMR is kind of a throwback to pre-modern art values where mimicking physical reality is actually a desirable quality. I'd love to hear a critical analysis of ASMR from an art historian’s perspective and that's not an angle I hear much.

So, what brought you to the ASMR community?

Well, In 2009 I became very, very ill after a couple years of struggling with some mysterious symptoms after some tick bites in 2007. My main concern from 07’ to 09’ was to excludepsychosomatic psychiatric illness as a possible explanation, and to then manage it. I had already begun to get into meditation and yoga, and had been studying eastern religions for a few years. I had a very nice counselor at my university who would run a meditation group. We started doing our own one-on-one sessions where she
would guild me through it. One time she recorded herself doing a body scan meditation and gave me the disk. I loved it. It was thirty minutes long and I could never get all the way through it without falling asleep. I would get so relaxed, and when I become relaxedI'd get these waves over my scalp. Later on, after 09’, I enrolled in a chronic pain mindfulness course at a hospital near my house. The doctor's approach was based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. After the course completed I went to another group therapy program. This was before my Lyme diagnosis, it gets very complicated, but essentially the only treatment I couldget was psychiatric and I wasn't about to turn anything down, and it was an opportunity to learn how to emotionally cope with my symptoms as well as be close to the ER. After I realized my problem was physical and not psychological my experience at group therapy became somewhat hostile. There was alot of resistance to my assertions that my swelling and blue knuckles and unusual lab reports couldn't possibly be caused by my imagination. The atmosphere there was quite a lot different from what I had experienced before 09’ when I had received treatment for some anxiety problems years before. In the hospital setting, the disrespect and dehumanization of the patients was just appalling to me. Eventually I left because it was actually doing more harm than good for my mental well-being. But that's awhole other story.

One of the women there lent me a CD collection of Kabat-Zinn's sessions. It was ok, but compared to my university counselor’s body scan, it really wasn't as effective for me, so I decided to find some body scans on YouTube. Now, I was already consuming a lot of YouTube tutorials, from cake decorating to airbrushing and 3D modeling. I was trying desperately to teach myself a trade I could reasonably do at home because I was disabled. It's not easy to make a living just as a painter. But everything took money to invest. At this point I had a Lyme diagnosis in the US and was starting to get treatment through a specialist there, paying out of pocket. Anyway, I found a few body scan meditations that weren't related to ASMR. Then I found one I really liked by WhisperDuvet. I don't think I even realized that some of the ones I was finding were whispered instead of spoken. I noticed a lot of her videos had the term ASMR attached to them. I didn't really understand why some of them featured her drawing or rambling.

Now this is all a blur but I'm sure that I just found Theprincesshispers, WhisperCrystal, Gentlewhispering and, Whispersweety from the suggestion bar. They were all audio recordings. Gentlewhispering's "The Spark" comes to mind. I can't say it was an ah-ha! moment for me since I kind of assumed my tingles were a natural response everyone had. All of the ASMR body scan meditations, or sleep meditations were the first things I tried, just listening before bed with my earphones. I moved from just side bar suggestions and YouTube searches to actually exploring people's channels. I think Gentlewhispering's make-up role play was one of the first visual videos Iwatched. Oh, and lots and lots of hand relaxation videos.

When did you start making ASMR videos? Has your approach changed since the beginning?

Well, of the videos I have uploaded to my YouTube the earliest date is April 25, 2012 but I’ve deleted a lot... I honestly have no idea.

I didn't make ASMR at first, I made random videos about my first corset, my neck corset, then some terrible meditation video, a really random singing video and it was just a mess. I didn't know what I was doing. I made a few ASMR videos; one was a fibromyalgia naturopathic role play.I had tried to find so many things to make money at home and there just wasn't anything else. I was really desperate and just wanted the nightmare to end.For a while I was trying to fill out surveys for a couple cents a survey and for all that effort came up withnothing and I had racked up a lot of debt paying for a treatment which was not likely to have permanent effects. After I had established myselfa bit I had a really bad day and I just sat down at my table took out some black paint turned on the camera and started talking to myself. The cold paint and the calm state helped me wait through the burning running through my body.

I just decided “screw this,” and I made an Indiegogo account asking for donations fully expecting to get maybe a few people donating a couple dollars here and there. To my surprise people seemed to really care. This is when I abandoned my real Facebook page. I was shocked to find strangers more willing to help me than my own friends who knew exactly what was happening.

My ASMR videos at the beginning were more random and about what I thought people wanted to see. I thought I could appear as this soft, maternalentity that I see so often from ASMR female content creators, but every time I looked at myself I just couldn't buy it, it didn't feel natural. I'm just not the gorgeous, loving, young girl who is comfortable being feminine and I felt like doing the ASMR videos was stalling my life, I couldn't integrate them into my plan for the future. I didn’t like the attention I got from face videos.

I was also struggling with not actually having a camera, I had to borrow my mother’s which was this old, clunky thing that whirred with the sound of the gears inside. I'm always looking for ways to integrate things, to find the mostdirect and comprehensive solutions to a problem.

At some point I put out a video saying that I was changing directions, I deleted a bunch of my videos. I didn't want to set a president wherepeople expected a certain style or sentiment from me and that I would relentlessly and unapologetically follow my instinct because it had already taken me so far through the medical system.

What do you hope to achieve by making ASMR videos?

I hope to provide people with an alternative to psychiatric medication when it is not necessary and to cope with the issues in their lives whichcannot be changed or require focus to change. To bring ASMR into the future, to make it mainstream. This is something that I don't feel should be horded and sequesteredin a comfortable corner of YouTube, I believe that ASMR is an extension of humanistic psychology, and I feel that as a survivor of thepsychiatric system that we desperately need a more personal, loving and, most of all, engaging approach to mental health. Theengaging part is what I feel I can bring to ASMR, to keep people motivated. You know you'll see people who might not get ASMR falling in and out of the habit of meditating or taking that time to relax, and by keeping the content interesting itkeeps them engaged and coming back for more. But I also want it to motivate myself to build my skills as an artist, build a solid portfolio,keep my brain active and give me an opportunity to distract myself from the pain I feel in my body every day. I'm hoping that I can tell the people when I apply for the biomedical communications program about my channel and its impact on people’s health to show that I am committed to improving people's lives.

This next part is what frightens me the most because I have social anxiety, but I hope with the exposure that comes with doing ASMR videos I'll beable to turn the conversation to my experience with Lyme disease and how it intersects with psychiatry. I see this as a platform to do some kind of activism, to raise awareness. There are people who view my videos who know nothing about Lyme, don't know what it does to the body, don't know how to protect themselves from it and don't know that some of us are not getting better, and that the people who are trying to help us have to deal with constant harassment. Most importantly, there may be viewers who are undiagnosed Lyme patients, looking for an escape from their symptoms like I was, who have never considered it as a possibility. I've already spoken to a number of people in the ASMR community who have been touched by Lyme, some of whom have symptoms after tick bites and are currently fighting with their doctors just to get tested.

So, do you do make these videos as a sort of release for yourself to cope with your illness, or do you do it to help others in some way, or is it a mix of both (or other) reasons?

One of the main motivating factors is trying to repay the people who donated to me and helped me get medications. I want them to be able to see what they've done to help me because I can't keep doing this without something to help; it's a constant struggle for me to resist crawling back into bed. I was pretty much bedbound for 2 years, sometimes only getting up for one meal months at a time. A few of Dana Walsh's quotes from the Lyme documentary Under Our Skin pretty much sums it up for me as to why I started to make videos:

"I got to the point of just do or die, just go for something instead of sitting in my room, rotting in my bed... this is a brilliant distraction," Dana says about her job.
"Lyme pushes you to the point of 'What do you want? What are you living for.’ It's not just enough to be alive.”

I feel like after this entire experience, I'm just so angry and mistrustful and that the whole idea of the ASMR community and doing these videos and being forced to see other people's humanity will kind of save my soul.

Lately I've just been waking up and immediately turning onthe computer to start working, without eating or coffee or showering, it's just an escape from my reality at the moment. I've always hated art and creating because not being able to realize the visions in my head of what I want things to look like increases my sense of dysphoria, but now that I've begun really taking ASMR videos seriously and have been well enough to do the work, it's starting to line up more. After all the work is finished, I get to just sit in front of it, let it play through and I enjoy it. I get this intense rush of excitement, like things could change and be better and that I have control. I don't know it just feels like I exist. And to see the response from people does that too, makes me feel like I matter. Not that being somebody's daughter or sister or romantic partner doesn't matter, but I've always wanted to participate in society. I'm a very solitary person, I don't leave myhouse and sharing this makes me feel connected. It's too soon for me to say anything but I know in my heart that if I can keep it together with my health, this is just the beginning. I've never wanted to succeed in anything so badly. The way everything happened feels like destiny to me. All that I just said in the context of thequestion sounds selfish, but for me I feel I need to be to get that foundation. At the end of the day, yes, ASMR videos help people. But it doesn't cure you of Lyme or chronic illness. It doesn't actually get rid of what's making you depressed, it doesn't prevent the tragic life events that lead tosomeone developing PTSD or something... and that's the ultimate goal for me, to get myself to a position where I have some ability to make a real difference in people's lives.

That's not to say I don't think ASMR videos are valuable. My experience with the psychiatric/medical system was so soul-crushing and degrading. An ASMR video is a safe, accepting place where people canwork on their psychological health, which, in turn, helps their physical health. The medium itself is fixed. It doesn't change its attitude based on who you are or what you look like. And people can see what you have put into it. The process is also somewhat democratic in that people can make requests and give respectful feedback. In the psychiatric system interactions happen behind closed doors,where one is an authority figure and the other often belongs to a disenfranchised social class (i.e. the disabled, or the mentally ill). That lends itself to all kinds of abuse. There's an unequal power dynamic.

Your videos are more artistic than most other ASMRtists, which is why I thought of you for this column. When you aren’t making videos, what’s your favorite medium to work with?

Haha, I hate most art. But if I have to choose, I really like digital painting on top of a scanned image of something painted in acrylic. It allows you more control and you can have the undo button and use transparencies, it's free too, but also solves a lot of the problems with digital painting like lack of texture variance or general look of stiffness. I don't use custom brushes yet so I imagine people who do don't have that problem. For drawing I prefer to work with charcoal. I was trained as a figurative painter, so anything that involves a large open space intimidates the crap out of me.

Are you working on anything new, ASMR-related or otherwise?

Right now I'm working on my next ASMR video, almost constantly. I've set it up so I can work directly from my bed since I've been having problems lately, but as long as I can open my eyes, I can do this. I've worked in some 3D animation in there and a matte painting made from about 12 photographs, some digital some darkroom and a painting I did a few years ago, some digitalpainting on top, and I plan to put a little bit of guitar playing in there. I've experimented with a few after-effects plugins. This will be part one of two, then I'm going to do the second half, and after that I'm going to have to finally finish up the perks from my the Indiegogo campaign I started almost a year ago. I prioritized the videos because I felt everyone who donated could sharein that, and I won't be making anything new until those are finished.