Inside Farah Al Qasimi’s Surreal Bedroom Dreamscape

by Shumon Basar

Farah Al Qasimi, Desert Dreamscape, 2024. Commissioned by Hyundai Artlab, © Farah Al Qasimi.


Pink chiffon sheets on a faux Louis XIV style bed. The dog is asleep. Cupcakes, fragrant candles and watermelon slices. Vanity mirrors — mirrors to the soul. It's sunrise, and the desert dunes and steep rocks outside are bathed in golden light. It’s nighttime, and the moon is large and close enough to be in the room with us. Someone has left a message on the Barbarella-era dot-matrix orb. The sands from outside roll inside this bedroom like an undulating carpet of catastrophic time. When, exactly, is this?

We are inside Farah Al Qasimi’s Artlab digital commission, Desert Dreamscape. It might look cozy here, strewn as it is with paraphernalia likely familiar to many girls of many generations. In fact, it is the artist’s own bedroom after some unnamable apocalypse, taking place at some time in the near or distant future. It is a portrait of speculative anxiety — hers, mine, ours — as seen from some CCTV camera hidden in the corner of a room; the kind distraught Airbnb users find creepily embedded in a ceiling lamp or fake plastic peach by their voyeuristic hosts. These days, we know that when we are looking at something, there's a good chance it's looking back at us. Our ways of being are now entwined in our ways of seeing. On and on this goes, across wires and wavelengths. More reasons to be anxious.

Anxiety and her cousins, stress and trauma, are some of the core reasons that ASMR (an acronym for “autonomous sensory meridian response”) YouTube videos have become so popular and prevalent in recent years. These videos often come with descriptive titles, such as “Ambience/ASMR: 18th century Kitchen and Fireplace” or “Cyberpunk Future City Hacker Room 7 Hours 4K - Sleep Relax Focus Chill Dream.” Format wise, these user-uploaded streams often depict a single tableau of a room that’s mostly still except for a few gently moving elements, such as outside traffic or a computer screen with live financial markets climbing and crashing.

Farah Al Qasimi, Desert Dreamscape, 2024. Commissioned by Hyundai Artlab, © Farah Al Qasimi.

The soundtracks are soothing, consisting of “brown noise,” a slightly rumbling, low-frequency sound that is said to do wonders for your tired brain. The music in Desert Dreamscape is composed and played by Farah, inspired by an Aphex Twin song, #3 — an ambient classic that seems to have no beginning nor end. A plaintive, electronica forever.

These kinds of ASMR YouTube videos are notable for all that’s not happening. They are tableau vivants designed for insomniacs and victims of 21st century over-stimulation. Collectively, they’ve been watched billions of times, in millions of bedrooms.

Anyone with an internet connection can now find community via content that both reflects their private pathologies, and tries to “fix” them with the right content. ASMR YouTube videos offer a near-free solution for “The Therapy Poor.”The fact that so much of this content is now AI-generated—both visually and aurally—dissolves the myth that only humans can truly understand and therapeutically help other humans. While machines might be making us sicker in new and strange ways, they’re also here to make us feel better about getting sicker.

“Hey Farah,” the voice message in Desert Dreamscape says, “I’m just waking up from a nap because I didn’t go to sleep. I hope you had a good time. I don’t know what you did for the eclipse.” It’s the artist Diamond Stingily, a close friend of Farah’s. Both artists are based in New York City, which was recently in the path of near-total solar eclipse.

Solar eclipses tend to bring out the spiritual in even the most secular of people. The sense of end times, darkness, and infinity feel palpable during this rare cosmic event. It turns the sun into a huge glowing power indicator about to reach “Low Batt.” We all know how it feels to be at Low Batt — more anxiety, this time caused by the looming threat of disconnection.

Farah Al Qasimi, Desert Dreamscape, 2024. Commissioned by Hyundai Artlab, © Farah Al Qasimi.

Born 20 years after the formation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971, Farah has become known for a sickly-sweet photographic style documenting both her motherland and the United States. Her imagery is prone to chromatic shrieks, clashes of commercial brand names, the invisible plight of Gulfie women, and the omnipresence of corporate beauty standards. Farah’s portraits often depict the intimacy of her friends’ and family’s homes in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Ras Al Khaimah. Like Desert Dreamscape, these too, are stage sets choking with color and pattern and filled with fragile, passing moments. Farah’s world evokes the opposite sensibilities of today’s austere minimalism. For Farah, sentimentality is not a sin and in Farah’s rooms, feelings feel like facts.

This emotional, personal connection with objects is deeply present in Desert Dreamscape. The LED message orb sitting on the coffee table is based on one that Farah and I discovered in Dubai at a place called Dragon Mart, the largest retailer of Chinese-made goods outside of China. ​​We have made many excursions together to this place, and other inexpensive shops in old Dubai. We have gawped at the improbable names of perfumes (“It’s All Man Show,” “Darknet”) and random, bathetic things made of squeezable plastic. Farah’s taken by the sincerity of these items, and the way they have designed desire against the backdrop of a globalization that is lived but not necessarily understood.

Pink chiffon sheets on a Dragon Mart-sourced Louis XIV style bed. The dog, still asleep. The sands from outside roll inside like a cautionary metaphor for catastrophic time — a reminder of why so many sci-fi movies take place in the desert. When, exactly, is this? Well, it’s kind of forever: Farah intends her ASMR tableau to exist in perpetuity and only online; her own fan fiction added to the always-growing library of other ASMR YouTube videos, such as the one posted by “Mr. Nostalgia,” which shows Tom, from the cartoon Tom and Jerry, fast asleep on a crimson cushion and decidedly unanxious for two whole hours. This content isn’t guarded or gatekept art to be viewed in a downtown white cube. For Desert Dreamscape, the bedroom is the new white cube; your screen is the vitrine.

If Desert Dreamscape exists in the time after the end of time, after the end of our illusions, see you at the last sleepover.