Welcome to the TECH-SPA: Artists Mess with Digital Healing

Digital de-stressing has become a boom industry. But with two very different artworks approaching the world of super-sized healing apps, what’s the best way to actually aid the attention-exploded minds of today?

Hello! Welcome to our website.

We put a lot of work into this magazine, and this page, and our data tells us that you’ll probably spend around a minute and a half reading it, which is a pretty long time, if you think about it.

You might well have clicked away already, because our attention spans, and, by extension, our ability to be aware of the world around us, diminishes constantly. It’s the stuff of a thousand hand-wringing broadsheet columns, themselves turned into competition for our precious engagement time, but it’s quite a staggering turn. I just read a headline that says that our attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish, which I would have read, if I didn’t just get another email.

Unsurprisingly, a huge number of people are making money making apps and tutorials about de-stressing and healing our brains. It’s the post-industrial manufacture of mediation – LifeHacker has even compiled the best mindfulness apps, so you can be sure you’re relaxing just right. It’s like a digital spa.

Two artworks this week deal with this fascinating business in different ways: Ian Cheng’s Bad Corgi, commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery, an app about becoming aware of just how arbitrary and frustrating life is, and Pinar&Viola’s Made You Come Here ASMR video.

The practice of surface-designers Pinar&Viola fuses online subcultures and new-age philosophy. Today, the Paris based Turkish-Dutch pair (who have previously worked with Nike, MTV, Creative Commons and Rhizome) are releasing a new video of a handsome, bald-headed man telling you to notice the world around you. It uses the techniques of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos, which use specific registers of sound to induce the spine-tingling, involuntary shivers, which adherents say is relaxing. The point is to hit the lizard parts of your brain with a message about planetary unity, and the need for self-healing, saying he’s coming from the trees and your phone. It’s quite chilling, but also, if you’re open to it, very relaxing. You can watch it here (it’s best with headphones):

When did you hear about ASMR groups online? 

Pinar&Viola: A few months ago, while browsing for new inspiration, we bumped into the YouTube channel of Tony Bomboni and his theatrical role play videos. He offers virtual treatments to his viewers, from makeup consultations, chocolate testing sessions to alien abduction role-play. In addition to that he resembles a Ken doll wearing wears dramatic make-up with a highly sensitive voice. Tony Bomboni was the first ASMR artist we discovered. We got so intrigued and found many other different artists offering their own exclusive treatments in different styles and settings. 

It’s wild that digital technologies are enabling ultra-relaxation. It’s like mindfulness and mediation are becoming algorithmically super-sized. Are you critical this move –  or do you think it’s A Good Thing? 

Pinar&Viola: We are critical. One may seek salvation in these peace-promising products and technologies, but they can’t solve your issues. People often chase a quick-fix for their problems, one fix after the other. They only work temporarily, because meditation and mindfulness experiences become the distraction from the issues we have, and not the solution. Though when these self-wellness treatments are used as side tools, they can do us good, and bring some ease and refreshment.

Why do you think it’s so necessary?

Pinar&Viola: We created a reality of hectic lifestyles filled with crises. Many people are experiencing a lot of anxiety and stress in their daily lives. The media makes sure we are aware, 24/7, of the threats around us. This global anxiety brings about a big craving for healing, relaxation and a deeper meaning of our lives.  

“ASMR brings a new level of care-giving to our screen. It seems that people are not really prepared for this kind of kindness and are very suspicious about it.” – Pinar&Viola

ASMR is a literally chilling effect – and the video is pure uncanny valley. Yet the message is pretty chill: it’s nice that he’s noticed how tired I am. Do you agree there’s a disconnect?

Pinar&Viola: In the world of ASMR everything is possible: it challenges our social norms. ASMR brings a new level of care-giving to our screen. It’s very altruistic, far beyond our common social etiquettes around hospitality companionship and intimacy. It seems that people are not really prepared for this kind of kindness and are very suspicious about it.

You recently showed a video in Paris for the climate talks, in which Mother Earth gave a message to the leaders of the world. Here’s the voice of the trees and your phone telling you to relax, and adore our shared home. How does your interest in digital subculture interact with your thoughts on the environmental crisis?

Pinar&Viola: We are very concerned with the impact of our lifestyles on our planet. Having made healing videos with a seductive contemporary visual language, we wish revamp the image of ecology, add new words and visions to its vocabulary. Our interest in digital subcultures taught us the codes of visual desire. We use that to take the environmental peace messages far away from their moralistic corner and add contemporary mystery and sensuality to them: the only path for a change is passes through seduction and not repulsion.

We believe that our environment is the reflexion of our inner state. It starts with your own room and crosses the borders of the continent you live in. Once we realised the interconnectedness of things, it made us want to connect environmentalism with our contemporary digital desires. Technology is often blamed for taking us away from nature, but we are nature ourselves, that is why nature should be more present in technology. As Pinar&Viola, we’re experimenting with different ways on how to give shape to nature on our screens.

Ian Cheng’s Bad Corgi is a world away from the mindfulness apps which it lives next to in the Health & Fitness section. You play a a shepherding dog, who is, infuriatingly, near impossible to control. You lose points every time it goes the wrong way, charges into sheep or destroys a bush. This happens very often, as do things completely beyond your control: as soon as you think you’ve got the hang of it, a giant exploding trash-bag destroys everything you’ve made. Even giving up loses you points. It’s not calming: it’s an accurate encapsulation of life’s troubles and irritations. But this, Cheng says, exactly is the point.

When I heard that you made a mindfulness app, I expected a nice, relaxing, trouble-free experience, but it’s not. It’s frustrating, violent, and failure-ridden. Why did you decide to make Bad Corgi so damned hard? 

Ian Cheng: I wanted to make something that was as frustrating (and rewarding) as real pet ownership. 

You’re assailed from all sides, you have barely any control over yourself, and matter what you do, you lose points, even if you given up. Ian Cheng, is this a metaphor for contemporary existence?

Ian Cheng: On a software level, the aspiration for Bad Corgi is to be an app that can fully metabolize bugs, user frustration, bad reviews and negative feedback, incomplete features, and turn the stress hell of publicly launching software into an ongoing source of energy. The Russian Belgian chemist Ilya Prigogine talks about dissipative structure – how even though the overall tendency of the universe is to become more chaotic and random, some systems in nature are able to absorb, benefit from, and dissipate entropy. Bad Corgi is an attempt to make an app that can judo “bad” (and good) energy as food for its ongoing evolution.  

“The industrialization of mindfulness has led to a fast-food results-oriented take on mindfulness, namely its beneficial side-effect of calm bliss. But true mindfulness is about training the mind to view the joyful, pleasurable, happy stuff of reality alongside the painful, stressful, horrible stuff.” – Ian Cheng

Mindfulness tends to be aim for warm-blue-ocean levels of calm. What do you think that such an emphasis on the need for a blissful mind misses out? 

Ian Cheng: The industrialization of mindfulness has led to a fast-food results-oriented take on mindfulness, namely its beneficial side-effect of calm bliss. But true mindfulness is about training the mind to view the joyful pleasurable happy stuff of reality alongside the painful stressful horrible stuff of reality from a distance that accepts both of these ends of the experience spectrum, with neither end being more or less valuable than the other. Calm bliss is really a side effect of this accepting perspective.

How do you think Bad Corgi helps people achieve that? 

Ian Cheng: Bad Corgi will definitely not help people achieve bliss! 

There’s a fascinating place where digital technologies are being built to actively enable relaxation. It’s like mindfulness and mediation are becoming algorithmically super-sized. Are you critical of this move –  or do you think it’s generally A Good Thing? 

Ian Cheng: It’s great that we are becoming more aware of our own uncertainty and feelings of restlessness that come with being alive today. On the other hand, I feel it is important to not get caught up in relaxation as a means to hide from change.  

Why do you think it’s so necessary?

Ian Cheng: As human beings we have an emotional and cognitive limit to how frequently we can break out of our habits and routines, unravel our life scripts, and adapt to a changing world. We’re naturally invested in our own set of lens because they gotten us this far. Mindfulness is a way to safely practice looking at our stresses and anxieties outside the lens in a more unfiltered way. Perhaps in practicing this, we can step outside of our lens, or even be in a more confident position to let our lens break.

Is it possible to actually relax online today?

Ian Cheng: Yes, if you visit the same websites or follow a static number of people.

How about off-line?

Ian Cheng: Yes!

Has it ever been?

Ian Cheng: Change probably came slower to people in the past. I imagine it was more relaxing in general but also much more painful when your life got stuck. In those moments, there was less recourse to tools for coping and metabolizing change.

Get Bad Corgi here.  You can follow Pinar&Viola’s work through InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

Charlie Robin Jones
Digital art
Ian Cheng
Pinar&Viola
Self-help
Serpentine Galleries