The internet has given us a few new ways to watch things, but many more new things to watch. It’s not just that we now tune in to our favorite shows online rather than on television, but that our “favorite shows” have assumed forms we couldn’t have imagined before. Thirty years ago, if you’d gone to a TV network and pitched a program consisting of nothing but the process of antique restoration — no music, no narration, no story, and certainly no stars — you’d have been told nobody wanted to watch that. In 2020, we know the truth: not only do people want to watch that, but quite a lot of people want to watch that, as evidenced by the enormous view counts of Youtube restoration videos.
At Vice, Mike Dozier profiles the Swiss Youtube restoration channel My Mechanics. Its “videos don’t just appeal to people interested in antique restoration, which they surely do, but many viewers watch because they find the process relaxing.”
Some come for the techniques and stay for the “hypnotic quality — the sounds of clinking metal, the grinding of sandpaper and the whirring of a lathe populate each video. And watching something, like a rusty old coffee grinder, come back to life, shiny and looking brand-new, is uniquely satisfying.” This verges on the newly carved-out territory of “autonomous sensory meridian response,” or ASMR, a genre of video engineered specifically to deliver psychologically pleasing sounds.
In Korea, where I live, ASMR has attained disproportionately massive popularity — though not quite the popularity of mukbang, the style of long-form eating-on-camera video that has gone international in recent years. One theory of the appeal of mukbang holds that it offers vicarious satisfaction to viewers who are dieting, broke, or otherwise unable to consume enormous meals themselves. That may also be true, to a degree, of restoration videos. To bring a 19th-century screwdriver, say, or a World War II military watch back to like-new condition requires not just the right equipment but formidable amounts of knowledge and dexterity as well. Clicking on a Youtube video asks of us much less in the way of time and dedication. And yet, among the billions of views restoration videos have racked up, there are surely fans who have acted on the inspiration and built old-school skills of their own.
In our increasingly digital age — characterized by nothing more acutely than our tendency to spend hours clicking through increasingly specialized Youtube videos — skilled physical work has become an impressive spectacle in itself. As everywhere on the internet, subgenres have produced sub-subgenres: take the vintage toy restoration channel Rescue & Restore or art restorer Julian Baumgartner (who produces both narrated and ASMR version of his videos), both previously featured here on Open Culture. If those don’t absorb you, have a look at Cool Again Restoration, Iron Man Restoration, Hand Tool Rescue, MrRescue (a model-car specialist), Restoration and Metal, Random Hands… and the list goes on, given how much needs restoring in this world.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.