2016-10-26 16:56:15
Critic's Notebook: Look Who’s Smiley Now: MoMA Acquires Original Emoji

Your phone has just come into possession of a tiny little collection of modern art.

On Wednesday, the Museum of Modern Art announced that it had acquired the original set of 176 emoji for its permanent collection.

These glyphs, designed for pagers made by the Japanese mobile provider NTT DoCoMo and released in 1999, were the first pictographs to make their way into mobile communication. It would take another decade for emoji to explode into an American phenomenon, when Apple integrated its first emoji set for the iPhone in 2011. There are now nearly 2,000 standardized emoji.

The emoji we recognize now as the slick, round yellow smiley face was just a rudimentary line drawing back then, with a little rectangular box for a mouth and two carets for eyes. Looking back at old emoji feels a bit like trying to read pictographs from an ancient civilization. But look close enough, and you’ll find tantalizing hints about the assumptions embedded in modern online communication.

The original emoji, designed by Shigetaka Kurita, are each made within a grid that is just 12 pixels wide and 12 pixels long and rendered in one of six colors — black, red, orange, lilac, grass green and royal blue. Many of these symbols are illegible, their mysteries only revealed with the help of a translator. The red circle with three lines stands for “hot spring”; the amorphous purple blob, perhaps fittingly, translates to “art.” Others are stultifying in their literalness — simple digital translations of existing symbols. There are the 12 astrological signs, the four playing card suits, a “no smoking” symbol, a bathroom sign.

But there are glimmers, too, of the whimsical, figurative, emotive glyphs that have come to dominate online culture. There are lots of hearts, a closed fist, a cat and a dog. One of the most compelling modern emoji — a pair of googly eyes that’s used to convey a range of meanings, from wide-eyed shock to conspiratorial speculation — has its roots here.

Some early emoji take cues from manga, the Japanese graphic novel genre — a comics-style light bulb signifying an “aha” moment and a bomb with a lit fuse. But the dominant inspiration on display is corporate synergy.

Many of these emoji were created not for people eager to connect but for companies hoping to reach potential customers. DoCoMo used emoji to deliver weather reports to pager users (hence the sun, lightning bolt, umbrella and snowman emoji) and direct them to local businesses; the hamburger symbolized a fast-food joint, the martini stood for a bar, and the high heel indicated a clothing shop. DoCoMo also partnered on its first emoji set with the Japanese ticket seller Pia and the restaurant review company Zagat, and these old corporate deals remain baked into the DNA of internet culture. Modern smartphone keyboards still offer an emoji for the word “soon” under a right arrow, an old Pia symbol for a show that’s about to begin.

MoMA’s acquisition adds the emoji set to a growing collection of digital objects, including the @ symbol and a range of video games. When MoMA acquired the @ symbol in 2010, Paola Antonelli, the senior curator in the department of architecture and design, called it perhaps “the only truly free” object in MoMA’s collection. The addition of the @ sign “relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary” to the museum, she wrote. It has freed curators to “collect” objects too large to fit within the building (like, say, satellites) and works too ephemeral to hang like a painting (like emoji).

Starting in December, MoMA will show the emoji in the museum lobby, in a display that incorporates both 2-D graphics and animations.

MoMA’s emoji acquisition gives official recognition to the idea that internet culture is one big collaborative art project that belongs to everyone and to no one. But it’s also a reminder that there are corporate interests embedded in it, too.