EPISODE 9: QUESTLOVE HEARTS EMOJIS
I know it’s weird to start a show about art in the shower.
But I’m going to start this show in the shower with Paola Antonelli.
She’s a Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA.
Paola Antonelli: I don't know how it happened...maybe under many showers, I don’t know, but I just started thinking of the @ sign.
The @ sign. That’s the little “a” with a circle around it that you use in every e-mail you’ve ever sent.
Paola Antonelli: I just started thinking of how beautiful it is, I started thinking of how useful it is, I started thinking how much it's a part of our lives...
... and I started thinking "why can't we acquire it?"
I should mention, Paola is not just some random person I’m standing in the shower with. She happen to be a Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA. So in other words, she’s one of the biggest and most forward-thinking people in the art world and she wanted an “at.”
Paola Antonelli: I started digging into the history and I found out that it first appeared in the Middle Ages. So the monks, that were copying manuscripts, were using the @ sign to conserve energy because basically, it was a fusion of the two words in the preposition AD, you know, the Latin preposition, which means the same that the @ means today, it means towards, in relationship with, in connection with. And it was even in first typewriters in the 19th century and throughout the 20th century it was used by accountants.
Abbi: It feels like it's so new.
Paola Antonelli: I know right?
Abbi: It feels like it's so related to the web.
Paola Antonelli: No, it's been there forever.
Paola Antonelli: And in 1971 there was this engineer, Ray Tomlinson, that was working for the company, that was actually contracted by DARPA to design the internet. Basically, they were designing the internet. And in particular, Ray, was designing the email system. I know, right?
Abbi: That is crazy.
Paola Antonelli: I know. And so he was always using the name of the person, then he was using all these lines of code to connect the person to, at the end, to the name of the machine, so always the same lines. So at some point he thought "maybe I can abbreviate this." He looked at the keyboard of the teletype machine that he was using, he saw the @ sign, said "huh." Did a little research, and saw that it was exactly what he needed and he just used it, and the first email that he sent was talking about the @ sign. So it's just amazing you know, it blew my mind.
Abbi: Yeah, every single one of us that, every single day.
Paola Antonelli: It blew my mind.
Paola Antonelli: And when we contacted him to tell him we wanted to do so, he just passed away last year, but he was still alive, he was so thrilled.
Abbi: That's a huge impact.
Paola Antonelli: See to me, modern design is exactly that, it's gorgeous, it's useful, it's available to everyone, and it has a connection to history and that, to me, was just this great circle.
Paola actually had someone paint the @ symbol right on the wall of a gallery -- which I have to say, to me, is pretty inspiring.
I’m Abbi Jacobson, and this is A Piece of Work.
In this episode: not all “art” is fine art.
The world is full of little things that we use everyday -- things that people have obsessed over, designed and re-designed and re-designed again. And some of those things are in the Museum’s collection...but do they belong there?
In addition to being a badass in the art world, Paola is one of the most charming people I’ve ever met.
Paola Antonelli: We have our furry mics, woo!
She’s super into video games…
Paola Antonelli: I am an addictive gamer and I try to...
...but at the same time was like effortlessly stylish and does not look like a gamer at all.
Paola Antonelli: I am obviously Italian and I’ve been here at MoMA for 23 years.
Abbi: Ok, we are sitting in… is it called the Sculpture Garden?
Paola Antonelli: It’s still called the Sculpture Garden but it’s the Garden, I’m trying to change that. The Design Garden.
Abbi: The Design Garden. Yeah, why not.
Ok, so let’s see if you can guess the first things we’re going to talk about…
Visitor: There’s the one with the two hearts…
Visitor: There’s music, there’s a microphone, there is…
It’s something that started in Japan but now people in the US use everyday.
Visitor: The laughing face…
Visitor: Middle finger...
Hearts… arrows… a sun… a snowman… a spooky, tongue out ghost...
Did you guess it yet? Come on, the last clue gave it away...Emojis! You knew, you had it. This is not a back in forth dialogue, but I know you guys got it.
Anyway, Paola put almost 200 of them on the wall of the Museum.
But these were not the emojis you have on your phone, that you probably just texted to like your current fling, to be like “what’s up, hey hey hey”... they’re the very first emojis ever created. So they’re like really blocky and lo-fi. Just 12 pixels by 12 pixels. Paola showed them to me on her iPad.
Paola Antonelli: We decided to go for the first emojis ever that were designed in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita, who was a designer working for NTT DoCoMo, that's a telecommunications company, a telephone company in Japan at that time. Interestingly, the reason why emojis were designed was for the company to communicate with its clients. So they were almost like shorthand for marketing communications and other little cute services like horoscopes or faces of the moon, the weather. So it's very interesting because that kind of corporate communication then became the way we communicate amongst human beings.
Abbi: It almost reminds me, when I was growing up in elementary school, it was clip art.
Paola Antonelli: Oh yeah you're so right!
Abbi: Like the first clip art.
Paola Antonelli: Oh my God, the toasters!
Abbi: Yeah where you could like, it was the coolest thing, to just get to attach a little--
Paola Antonelli: The flying toasters! Yay!
Abbi: That’s what emoji’s were.
Paola Antonelli: So to make a long story short, it looks like these are just pixels but in truth it's code. And there’s the mandate of the museum which is to preserve and show things in the future so we need to preserve code, and people think that code is easy, it's more fragile than porcelain, it's amazing.
Abbi: As things update you can't get back to the system that can handle the old code.
Paola Antonelli: Yes, yes, absolutely! So for the emojis that's easier because-
Abbi: That’s the vaguest way I’ve ever heard someone describe this. As the systems update you can't get back to the old way-
Paola Antonelli: It's absolutely right!
Abbi: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Paola Antonelli: No, Abbi, that's it.
Abbi: It’s a big deal. It's interesting, these are the first ones, and the evolutions of this-
Paola Antonelli: Well these like 176, and now's there's thousands and thousands.
Paola Antonelli: So to begin with, the vocabulary has become much more complex and rich.
Abbi: And when there were way more limitations it was...
Paola Antonelli: Yeah! You can tell, he was doing magnificent things with those 12x12's, including the googly eyes.
Paola Antonelli: They were not dynamic, they were static but still, they were impressively detailed and I hope everybody's that listening is already going online and trying to see them cause they're amazing.
Abbi: Can I say, personally, now, I, and maybe I'm making a big statement here, the emojis that we have now, call me crazy, you’re the expert! I think they are designed poorly and I don't like the look of them. I like the look of these better.
Paola Antonelli: Well first of all, it's interesting because, emojis are designed different ways depending on the platform, right?
Paola Antonelli: That's why there's a foundation, the Unicode foundation, that is responsible for kinda distilling the DNA of every emoji and making sure that that is what gets to every device and then gets translated into the final graphics. So, the smiley face looks one way in Gmail, another way in Apple, another way- have you ever noticed?
Abbi: You're making me feel like I'm experiencing the smiley face differently than you are, like my chicken tastes different than your chicken.
Paola Antonelli: I know, I don't know what you have but it's definitely that way.
Abbi: It is different. And sometimes people send a thumbs up and it's huge.
Paola Antonelli: I know!
Paola Antonelli: I know...
Abbi: There's something about it that rubs me the wrong way, the way it's actually... it's not representing me in the way I want to be represented.
Paola Antonelli: I guess you could design it your own way I mean, I think we'll get to a point where we'll be able to customize the design of the final product.
Abbi: How cool would that be?
Paola Antonelli: I know, I think it's gonna happen, and you said it here, you launched it.
Abbi: You heard it here first! In this podcast!
Paola Antonelli: Yes, Abbi, they're gonna be called the Abbi’s. Yeah. I’m gonna make myself an Abbi!
I think these old school emojis are great. And I might even prefer them. But when MoMA announced that it had acquired the set, they didn’t get much love from the art world.
In fact, a bunch of critics were pissed. They accused the Museum of slumming it or that it was trying too hard to be cool.
Ahmir Thompson: I have people that have broken off friendships with me because of my insistence on communicating only with emojis.
Abbi: Yeah, you did send me your emoji-self this morning (laughing). With confetti.
Ahmir Thompson: I feel, yes, I wanted to add more to it.
This is my friend Ahmir Thompson -- he’s not just obsessed with emojis. He’s also super into bitmojis, those bigger ones which look like cartoon versions of yourself.
Ahmir also happens to be an incredible musician… who you probably know as: Questlove.
Ahmir Thompson: I think emojis are such, a fabric of the society we're in now. And actually, I’ve seen some people do some really cool things with emoji art online.
Abbi: But so, the image you sent me today that was like you in celebration…
Ahmir Thompson: I use bitmojis.
Abbi: Okay see I don't even have that, cause I'm not into into it.
Ahmir Thompson: It's fun!
Abbi: Secret's out. It is fun. People send them to me all the time, and I'm like "love it!" But there's just something about them…
Ahmir Thompson: Are you afraid that you'll lose a part of yourself?
Abbi: I kinda like these vector graphics better, like image-wise.
Ahmir Thompson: Yeah, I use those too.
Abbi: You do?
Ahmir Thompson: It's also interesting with bitmojis where you see people’s self-image.
Abbi: Right, cause you design yourself.
Ahmir Thompson: So you're telling a person how you see yourself.
Abbi: What you think of yourself.
Ahmir Thompson: But I often find myself not only communicating with emojis but I will direct message a lot of these emoji makers to on ways they can improve their emojis. And I was kind of joking, like I communicated with them and said, y’know, “I want to play too, I want to play reindeer games, can you guys include more culturally inclusive physical features?
Ahmir Thompson: So I can, you know, I don’t want my friends thinking like “oh this is what Ahmir thinks he looks like,” “No, I’m only going with the features you guys gave me” -- eyes, and noses, and lips..the one that I use now which is bitmoji, and in the very beginning the guy was like look I am a one man operation, I didn’t think this thing was going to catch on, you’re reaching out to me, I can’t believe this. But he told me, like, I have a regular job and yada yada yada, I did this on my spare time, and slowly I’m going to get to it. Of course now he’s improved on it and it’s quote “more inclusive”. So um, do you remember in the beginning when people were even complaining about the lack of options?
Abbi: Oh yeah.
Ahmir Thompson: Mine were less about the facial features. I was mad that the food ones were limited. I wish they had a better food option for their emojis.
Okay so, the big question of the day is: are emojis really art? Do they deserve to be part of a museum collection?
Ahmir Thompson: Does it belong?
Abbi: Yeah, what do you think?
Ahmir Thompson: All right, I'll ask you, did it cause debate?
Ahmir Thompson: Was it controversial?
Ahmir Thompson: There's your answer, yes.
Ahmir Thompson: I think, similar to music, I'll always ask, any album that's ever come out, and I had to ask, "is this allowed?" Then... it's pretty much high art.
This is A Piece of Work.
Visitor: I have a friend that I meet every day for dinner and when I asked to meet him I said, see you at 6 o'clock and I put an emoji of the angel. Why angel? Because the place where we meet, the light creates shape of an angel on the wall, so that's how I identify the place where we meet.
So like I said earlier, Paola Antonelli is a bit of a rabble rouser...Bringing the stuff from everyday life into the museum. But as it turns out, she’s actually just following tradition.
Paola Antonelli: So, MoMA was founded in 1929 and, interestingly, it was founded by three ladies by the New York society...
Abbi: Of course, an under-known fact, that it was founded by three women.
Paola Antonelli: Well, yeah, and it's quite amazing because they founded it and they hired a director in his late 20s.
Paola Antonelli: Yeah I know, it's Alfred Barr Jr. He was an art historian and he had just done a tour of Europe so, he had visited the famous Bauhaus. And, you know, the Bauhaus, it was the one school where there was the belief that all the arts coming together, including architecture and design, could make the world a better place, so there was this egalitarian look at the arts, So here you had modern art all the Matisse’s, the Picasso’s, the Impressionists, plus you had the the architects, the designers and there was Phillip Johnson, who we know as a collector and a curator since the beginning here at MoMA. So he did the first architecture and design exhibitions here. And he proposed an amazing exhibition that was all ball bearings, propellor blades, parts of machinery that would be mounted on white pedestals against white walls as if they were Brancusi’s. But that exhibition was amazing, it was called "Machine Art" and in a way, it's the precursors to the emojis being here because, if people, even at that time, thought that design was the decorative arts and furniture, they realized that it can be something else also hidden, unsung heroes of our everyday life. But to museum goers at the time, it was a beautiful shock.
Abbi: Obviously this is still a thing today, where people, some museum goers that come in have an issue with like "this is not what I came into a museum to see, like this isn't art." But, it probably makes them think about, "All this, sorry, all this shit in my life has actually been designed for me…
Paola Antonelli: Yeah, you’re completely right.
Abbi:... and the thing is, every single thing is designed and thought of. Like all this stuff, like I'm touching my turtleneck, everything has been designed and was on purpose and it’s, I dunno, it makes everything, kind of, a little bit cooler.
Paola Antonelli: Between then and now, so much as happened, the collection has grown, and those objects range from nice furniture and cars to ball bearings, to emojis, to video games, to digital fonts.
Wait, wait, wait, I wanna back-up for a second -- did you catch what Paola said right there?
Paola Antonelli: those objects range from nice furniture and cars to ball bearings, to emojis, to video games...
Video games! She said “video games!” I mean how cool is that?
One of the perks of Paola’s job is that she can make the case to bring one of her personal obsessions into the collection.
Abbi: I love that you are an addictive gamer.
Paola Antonelli: I know!
Abbi: You're not the typical...
Paola Antonelli: Well ...
Abbi: It’s usually people think of gamers they think of 14 year old boy, right?
Paola Antonelli: No, I'm a geek!
Abbi: ... but I love it.
Paola Antonelli: I'm a geek.
Abbi: It's the best. Before we get into it, what's your favorite game?
Paola Antonelli: Well, believe it or not, I'm classicist. I still play Tetris sometimes.
Abbi: Oh yeah, see that's my kinda...
Paola Antonelli: But my favorite game, which I don't play anymore because it's an arcade game, so it's not easy to play it, it's Tempest. It's so beautiful.
Abbi: Oh, I don't know...
Paola Antonelli: It was an Atari game. It's in the collection, also. It was amazing because even though it was an early game, the kind of special effects and graphics that you could achieve just with vectors was just unbelievable. I like games that take obstacles and limitations of technology and make them into beauty.
Paola Antonelli: And there are a few.
So a couple years ago, In 2012, Paola brought an exhibition of games like Pac-Man and Tetris and SimCity 2000 into the Museum. You could go in there and not only appreciate the design and the entire cool aspect of a video game, you go into MoMa and play these video games.
But it also touched a nerve...with like a bunch of people.
Paola Antonelli: There was controversy on one side and absolute enthusiasm on the other so, but the two were very uneven in the sense that the enthusiasts were a much bigger chunk of the population than the non-enthusiasts. I have to say that a lot of the non-enthusiasts were kind of old farts.
Abbi: I’m sure
Paola Antonelli: And they revealed their colors, I mean it was almost... When I saw there was one particular review that came out that said “videogames are not Picasso, they shouldn’t be nearby, no no no MoMA.” And instead of being hurt, which you usually..I mean no one has such a thick skin not to get hurt by bad reviews, but I was embarrassed for the reviewer because he was really sounded so out of touch.
Abbi: And I read one. And I would argue to the reviewer, the people who make the video games, is this not a expression of their whole lives, from their soul to anyone experiencing it?
Paola Antonelli: Yeah! So many.
Abbi: Just cause the new stuff's coming in doesn't mean it's kicking out old masters.
Paola Antonelli: Yeah, absolutely, they live side by side.
Abbi: Yeah, they should.
Paola Antonelli: Actually they live better, they're perfect together. Video games are so much more than video games, they are whole universe, means of expression, means of education, means of communications, it would be crazy not to take them into account...
Paola Antonelli: ...if you are working in a museum that is about the art of our time. Duh.
Paola Antonelli: Yeah, duh! (laughter)
Paola Antonelli: Ultimately I am always amazed at human creativity and also at human potential for destruction. There’s so much power.
Abbi: Fine line.
Paola Antonelli: Yeah. It all comes down to that. I'm interested in politics, I'm interested in society, I'm interested in beauty as a social form of expression, and that's what it comes down to, and I just want to share my intuitions, it's all I can do, it's all I'm good at and I want to share it with as many people as possible.
Abbi: I feel like that's a really good way to end and I feel like wow, that just got me inspired, I have to like, look at my life.
Paola Antonelli: Just do! Thank you, Abbi.
Abbi: Okay great. Thank you so much for talking with me.
And that was A Piece of Work. You can see pictures of the stuff we talked about today on our website: apieceofworkpodcast.org
And if you like the show, why not leave us a review where ever you get your podcasts. Come on, leave a review.
Special thanks to Paola Antonelli and Ahmir Thompson.
The show is a co-production of WNYC Studios and MoMA.
I’m Abbi Jacobson, thanks for listening.
Ahmir Thompson: Thank you!
Abbi: Thank you! That was amazing.