On its surface, Luxury Escapism: The Oddly Satisfying Spa seems like The Museum of Ice Cream, 29Rooms, or other selfie-optimized art experiences. It’s a colorful array of Insta-friendly installations curated on a theme; in this case it's the oddly satisfying, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)-triggering videos that attract millions on YouTube and Instagram. The twist is that, to enjoy all the beautiful lighting, architecture, and art visitors must check their phones at the door. With that one limitation, a show that could be a social media gorge-fest becomes an utterly soothing detox. Walking through its photogentic hallways, it’s impossible not to reach for your phone camera. For an internet-addicted millennial like me, not finding it there is torture, and it hurt so good.
Curator Tyler Pridgen became fixated on oddly satisfying videos after he started using ASMR to destress from his job at a virtual reality company. He teamed up with experience designer Lyndsey Wheeler and technical designer Brendan Bercik to bring his euphoric online hobby into a physical space. The decision to take away people's phones came from what Wheeler describes as, "an anxious feeling at the end" of selfie-centric art experiences. "Your actual experience is of waiting in line to take a selfie," said Bercik. "Is that really the best use of your time? Is that #livingyourbestlife?"
In contrast to the half-dozen brand sponsorships that funded 29Rooms in 2017, The Oddly Satisfying Spa had no corporate involvement aside from a loose affiliation with GIPHY, which loaned some equipment to the production. With no goals for social media impact, Pridgen, Wheeler, and Bercik were free to experiment with the formula of viral Instagram art show. They gathered work by all-female art and tech collective Motherlode Lab, creative VR duo The Endless, botanical MIDI tinkerer Data Garden, and VR "auto-shaman" David Lobser with the goal of creating what Pridgen calls, “The most satisfying art show in Brooklyn.”
I got the chance to test out Pridgen’s experience when it opened for three days last weekend at a repurposed LGBTQ event space called The Dreamhouse. Over 250 people bought tickets for 90-minute sessions where they could sit in a smoke-filled “steam room” and manipulate cosmic physics or play an orchestra made from living plants. “It was like going back to the '60s, but without the drugs,” said Suzanne Curley, a 69-year-old out-of-towner who heard about the Oddly Satisfying Spa through a friend. "Anybody who's never had good drugs should come here. It's a non-toxic and healthy environment to experience the same thing."
Midway through my time there, I was lying belly-down on a massage table and realized I had never felt so relaxed at an art show before. I’d soaked up a poetry-like live Audio-Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) performance by Pridgen, gulped down a “placebo” cocktail supposedly designed to cure dissatisfaction, and played with kinetic sand in a geodesic dome for 15 minutes. Now an artist from Motherlode Lab draped a towel over my back and placed rocks along my spine. But more than the soothing activities, the source of my zen was simply being unable to document the art. I could focus all of my attention on it and commit it to memory.
Luckily, I was allowed to bring photographer Zhongjia Sun, who captured the whole thing for me.