March 22, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Design
@ at MoMA

Ray Tomlinson. @. 1971. Here displayed in ITC American Typewriter Medium, the closest approximation to the character used by a Model 33 Teletype in the early 1970s

MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design has acquired the @ symbol into its collection. It is a momentous, elating acquisition that makes us all proud. But what does it mean, both in conceptual and in practical terms?

Contemporary art, architecture, and design can take on unexpected manifestations, from digital codes to Internet addresses and sets of instructions that can be transmitted only by the artist. The process by which such unconventional works are selected and acquired for our collection can take surprising turns as well, as can the mode in which they’re eventually appreciated by our audiences. While installations have for decades provided museums with interesting challenges involving acquisition, storage, reproducibility, authorship, maintenance, manufacture, context—even questions about the essence of a work of art in itself—MoMA curators have recently ventured further; a good example is the recent acquisition by the Department of Media and Performance Art of Tino Sehgal’s performance Kiss

The acquisition of @ takes one more step. It relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that “cannot be had”—because they are too big (buildings, Boeing 747’s, satellites), or because they are in the air and belong to everybody and to no one, like the @—as art objects befitting MoMA’s collection. The same criteria of quality, relevance, and overall excellence shared by all objects in MoMA’s collection also apply to these entities.

In order to understand why we have chosen to acquire the @ symbol, and how it will exist in our collection, it is necessary to understand where @ comes from, and why it’s become so ubiquitous in our world.

A Little History

The @ symbol used in a 1536 letter from an Italian merchant

Some linguists believe that @ dates back to the sixth or seventh century, a ligature meant to fuse the Latin preposition ad—meaning “at”, “to,” or “toward”—into a unique pen stroke. The symbol persisted in sixteenth-century Venetian trade, where it was used to mean amphora, a standard-size terracotta vessel employed by merchants, which had become a unit of measure. Interestingly, the current Spanish word for @, arroba, also indicates a unit of measure.

Arroba sign in document from the 1400s denoting a wheat shipment from Castile

The @ symbol was known as the ‘”commercial ‘a’” when it appeared on the keyboard of the American Underwood typewriter in 1885, and it was defined as such, for the first time, in the American Dictionary of Printing & Bookmaking in 1894. From this point on the symbol itself was standardized both stylistically and in its application, and it appeared in the original 1963 ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) list of computer codes. At the time @ was explained as an abbreviation for the word “at” or for the phrase “at the rate of,” mainly used in accounting and commercial invoices.

Ray Tomlinson’s @

In 1967, American electrical engineer Ray Tomlinson joined the technology company of Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), where he created the world’s first e-mail system a few years later, in 1971, using a Model KSR 33 Teletype device. BBN had a contract from the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense to help in the development of ARPAnet, an early network from which the Internet later emerged. Working with Douglas Engelbart on the whole program, Tomlinson was in particular responsible for the development of the sub-program that can send messages between computers on this network. It was the first system able to send mail between users on different hosts connected to the ARPAnet, while previously mail could be sent only to hosts that used the same computer.

In January 1971, @ was an underused jargon symbol lingering on the keyboard and marred by a very limited register. By October, Tomlinson had rediscovered and appropriated it, imbuing it with new meaning and elevating it to defining symbol of the computer age. He chose the @ for his first e-mail because of its strong locative sense—an individual, identified by a username, is @ this institution/computer/server, and also because…it was already there, on the keyboard, and nobody ever used it.

Is @ Design?

The appropriation and reuse of a pre-existing, even ancient symbol—a symbol already available on the keyboard yet vastly underutilized, a ligature meant to resolve a functional issue (excessively long and convoluted programming language) brought on by a revolutionary technological innovation (the Internet)—is by all means an act of design of extraordinary elegance and economy. Without any need to redesign keyboards or discard old ones, Tomlinson gave the @ symbol a completely new function that is nonetheless in keeping with its origins, with its penchant for building relationships between entities and establishing links based on objective and measurable rules—a characteristic echoed by the function @ now embodies in computer programming language. Tomlinson then sent an email about the @ sign and how it should be used in the future. He therefore consciously, and from the very start, established new rules and a new meaning for this symbol.

Why @ Is in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art

Tomlinson performed a powerful act of design that not only forever changed the @ sign’s significance and function, but which also has become an important part of our identity in relationship and communication with others. His (unintended) role as a designer must be acknowledged and celebrated by the one collection—MoMA’s—that has always celebrated elegance, economy, intellectual transparency, and a sense of the possible future directions that are embedded in the arts of our time, the essence of modern.

What Have We Acquired?

Tino Sehgal’s Kiss presents interesting affinities with @ in that it is mutable and open to interpretation (the different typefaces one can use) yet still remains the same in its essence: it does not declare itself a work of design, but rather reveals its design power through use; it is immaterial and synthetic, and therefore does not add unnecessary “weight” to the world.

A big difference between the two pieces is the price, which brings to an extreme the evanescent difference between art and design. Being in the public realm, @ is free. It might be the only truly free—albeit not the only priceless—object in our collection.

We have acquired the design act in itself and as we will feature it in different typefaces, we will note each time the specific typeface as if we were indicating the materials that a physical object is made of.

A Few More Details About @

The @ symbol is now part of the very fabric of life all over the world. Nowhere is this more vividly demonstrated than in the affectionate names @ has been given by different cultures. Germans, Poles, and South Africans call @ “monkey’s tail” in each different language. Chinese see a little mouse, and Italians and the French, a snail. For the Russians @ symbolizes a dog, while the Finnish know @ as the miukumauku, meaning the “sign of the meow,” and believe that the symbol is inspired by a curled-up sleeping cat. The @ symbol has become so significant that people feel they need to make sense of it; hence it has inspired its own folkloric tradition.

The @ sign is such an extraordinary mediating symbol that recently in the Spanish language it has begun to express gender neutrality; for example, in the typical expression Hola l@s viej@s amig@s y l@s nuev@s amig@s! (Hello old friends and new friends!) Its potential for such succinct negotiations (whether between man and machine, or between traditional gender classifications and the current spectrum) and its range of application continue to expand. It has truly become a way of expressing society’s changing technological and social relationships, expressing new forms of behavior and interaction in a new world.


What a cool idea.

When I was little, I was taught a slightly different history that’s interesting: that the derivation of the symbol (which as you note was largely in the commercial sphere, meaning “per” “or at the rate of”) was a kind of shortland for “each at,” being an “a” inside an “e.”

But as you note yourself, the symbol can be traced back to trade circles in Italy, where it was an “a” inside an “o” (for “ogni a”), and made its way from there to France, where it could be seen as a “a” inside a “c” (for “chaque à.”)

Anyway, I have always cherished this trilingual version of events (true or not) with little volition. At the extremely old-fashioned grammar school I went to, this was what we were taught, and the symhbol was called the “each at” symbol, which is still a mannerism so ingrained in me I have been unable to shake it and constantly confuse people by referring to it as this.

Anyway now I have to end this “e-chat” and get back to work.

this is neat! I never knew so much about @!

I still don’t understand how MOMA has “acquired” the @ symbol.

i wonder who does this “acquisiton” come from and for how much?!? :)

@tamsen (assuming I can still write that without crediting MOMA), I think the best response is not to question but to follow MOMA’s bold lead. I can now proudly announce that I have successfully added the letter “e” and the number “6″ to my personal collection and, to celebrate these exciting acquisitions, I will be using these typographic symbols quite frequently.

Intellectual garbage, wrapped as a merchandising gag. Not more.

Have you been drunken?

Really nice info about the @. The Finnish word is correctly spelled “miukumauku”, although no-one actually uses that anymore (no-one under the age of 50 at least), people just say “at”. Funny how Finnish words and names never get spelled correctly in mags/newspapers/websites etc. Not that it’s so hugely important, but for future reference.

Even after reading the article, I’m mystified.

I’m sure this money used for this project could have been used to acquisition of actual artwork instead of a stupid symbol.

I echo tamsen. I still don’t understand the “acquisition” part. Interesting information about @ though!

I enjoyed reading this article, but I wish it used a better font for reading.

I´m seriously thinking in the acquisition of the spanish “ñ”

You’re correct, k h—thanks for letting us know! It’s been fixed in the post.

i like this.

does it mean other ephemerals are now up for grabs?

anyone wanna buy a moon?

This is brilliant.
David Colman, love your story and your pun.
MoMA, I hope you will use your new acquisition precendent as selectively as the rest of your acquisitions.
As always, your articulation of the Art bring it to life and makes it accessible to a broader audience.
Thank you.

Dear M@M@, don’t you think you dramatize a little here, or maybe this was artistic irony?

Now my question : Tomlinson “chose the @ for his first email [...] Tomlinson then sent an email about the @ sign and how it should be used in the future.” hem.. at which address?

^@^ (R)

Didn’t you read the part about it being “free” for MoMA to acquire? There was no money involved, they didn’t ask anyone’s permission, they are simply using is as art in their gallery, thereby “acquiring” it.

7 days to April’s Fool . Enuff said.

what is the accession number for @? how do you track it in your database & collection files?

Model 33s are still quite common, and Amateur Radio fans keep them in service on many repeaters. If MoMA was interested, I’m sure one could be found and its ‘@’ scanned for an exact digital image. (No offense meant to ITC American Typewriter Medium!)

This is one of the most hilarious things I’ve read in a long time; it reads like a Woody Allen parody.

Norwegians call it “alfakrøll”, which means “alpha curl”. I think I’ve heard it being called anything near “pig’s tail” about two or three times in my life, and then understood it only due to context.

Swedes call it, I believe, “snabel-A”, which means “proboscis A” (Proboscis is the nose of an elephant).

In swedish, ‘@’ is referred to as ‘snabel-a’ which translates as ‘(elephant) trunk a’

I’m affraid i went to the MoMa a few months too early! Forget about the Bauhaus collection, now we’ve got the @!

A shame i missed it, and i’m affraid i won’t be back in NY this year…!

So what do we English speakers call @? When other cultures have such delightful proper names for @ it seems a shame that we we can do no better than “the ‘at’ symbol”. I particularly like that Finnish has a word for “the sound of the meow”. However, I support John Lloyds use of the term “Astatine” to refer to the symbol. The chemical element astatine has the chemical symbol “At”.

Have they also acquired the letter ‘e’ as I believe that is in regular modern usage too?

Isn’t this latest “acquisition” merely a retro journey into Pop Art, which played on objects and symbols in everyday use? At least Pop Art had substance. Can we really call it art if it remains in the realm of the theoretical?

This is wacky nonsense. As someone said, the Norwegian word is alfakrøll. I have never heard “pig’s tail”. It’s one thing to write about architecture when you’re trained as an architect, but why do you think you can just branch out into linguistics without having a clue about how to set about it?

A nice little bit of history, an absurd lot of pretentious nonsense. @ is a linguistic (sort of) novelty, a meme. Devote an exhibit to the history of @, fine, but acquire the symbol itself? As well “acquire” a bit of air and call it your own.

http://www.purnas.com/2009/06/30/la-arroba-no-es-de-sevilla-ni-de-italia/ It’s the explanation of the 14th century symbol from Aragon

I do more to “acquire” a cup of coffee in the morning. Yet, coffee (being around longer than the @, and effecting more businesses throughout the world) has not achieved the level of artistic merit that MoMA esteems! Oh when will modern art throw off the shackles of creative oppression and embrace what art should truly be!?

This is a joke right? Seriously though…

Well, If I spin the wheel and collect enough money, maybe Pat will let me buy a vowel.

To answer Pat’s question: Accession numbers for works approved for the museum collection are assigned by the MoMA Registrar. The @ symbol was just approved on March 10 so it has not yet been assigned its permanent number. Like other ephemeral and digital works in our collection, the tracking and “storage” of the @ presents unique challenges (where DO we keep an idea??). Fortunately MoMA has already begun to address such challenges. Our Conservators are currently formulating and implementing new strategies for the care of such works, encompassing everything from old fashioned paper-trail archiving and oral interviews to advanced digital code preservation and archiving. @ will be quite a challenge – but we love the fascinating curve balls the curators keep throwing our way!

museums are now corporations. ip mergers and acquisitions.. will there be a licensing fee to use the @ symbol? oops used it already…

I call dibs on vowel symbol, umlaut!

H@ H@ H@ H@ H@! Very funny, you almost got me there MOMA!

what a load of codswallop, & th@t’s th@t.

You’re right Ender and AJP Crown, Norwegians call it an alfakrøll, not a pig’s tail, thanks for that, it has been corrected in our post. In Danish it is sometimes called a pig’s tail (grisehale) and also snabel (which means ‘a with an elephant’s trunk’). As fredrik said, Swedes also call it snabel, as well as kanelbulle, which is a type of rolled up cinnamon bun. Here is a great article on the story of @: http://www.guardian.co.uk/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-1773,00.html

well, the german “klammeraffe” literally means “clip monkey” or “bracket monkey”.
“klammeraffe” is also used for staplers.

You write:
…to express gender neutrality; for example, in the typical expression Hola l@s viej@s amig@s y l@s nuev@s amig@s! …succinct negotiations (…between traditional gender classifications and the current spectrum)…

This is something of either a misinterpretation or a misrepresentation.

@ is an increasingly frequent substitute in Spanish for the rather clunky “-o/a” or “-o/as” suffixes used to indicate that either the feminine (-a, -as) or masculine (-o, -os) endings may be appropriate.

It emphatically does not, however, create space for genders outside the traditional binary. In fact, it can be seen as very much reinforcing that binary by its implication that the overlaid “o” and “a” visible in @ between them encompass all of the possibilities of gender (linguistic or personal).

This is made all the more visible by the fact that Spanish does indeed have an emerging spelling convention that actually does intervene in “traditional gender classifications” on behalf of “the current spectrum”. That convention is to use an “x” rather than either “a” or “o” in gendered word endings:

hola, nuevxs amigxs!”

I suspect this convention comes originally from the overlap of punk and queer/trans subcultures, either in Catalunya or the Basque country (where the languages Spanish is used alongside use “x” more frequently). At this point it’s pretty common among politicized writers of Spanish worldwide: I’ve seen it used from Patagonia to New York City. It’s clearly understood in opposition to @ – the radical, gender-spectrum-oriented choice contrasting with the binary-reinforcing one.

So do we now have to pay the MOMA royalties everytime we send an e-mail?

Maybe I should acquire some arbitrary thing too. Maybe the question mark. Anyone claim that one yet?

If it were April 1st – this would all make more sense.

Since it isn’t, it doesn’t and it’s probably not supposed to – it’s just a tool to get people flappin’ about MoMA.

Good for…nothing.

I’ve never heard so many international references to things curled up. And I never gave curled up things so much thought. Maybe “the fetal A” would work beautifully?

While the @ sign has an long and important history, it is that very history that makes the @ a poor choice for MoMA. How can a symbol that is hundreds of years old be considered modern art and a fitting acquisition?

Maybe at the Museum of Natural History this type of symbol would find a home, but not at the MoMA!

Next thing you know the MoMA will be having an exhibit of Sumerian text or Egyptian hieroglyphics and then what would this country come to! We are not animals that need to acquire just any old symbol to satisfy our craven lusts.

No, I say, no! The @ has no place in the collection of MoMA. Have you no shame!

@Andreas Stötzner

Well sure its just theater, you can think its bad theater if you’d like. No need to get so sour,

I think the modern art world is getting pretentious.

That sure generated a lot of interest….!

Aside from the singular preposterous and presumptuous nature of the entire ordeal, and with the understanding that I believe a show on the subject would be both interesting and relevant, I feel that there are a few subsequent issues here that deserve particular attention.

Initially, I am in accordance with everyone who has inquired something to the degree of: how did the MoMA acquire what they essentially now claim to own? I have neither seen nor heard any legitimate explanation of this process. Similar efforts have been successful in the corporate world by companies such as T-Mobile who, through arguably dubious and indubitably odd legal measures, effectively owns the color magenta.

The comparison of the acquisition, social impact and incidental ‘design’ of the @ symbol to the purchase, interpretive nature and creative action of Tino Sehgal’s “Kiss” is very poorly constructed, as they are blatantly dissimilar in almost every way.

Referring to typefaces solely as a medium through which an action of design, in the most semantic sense, is represented, comes dangerously close to slighting those who actually engage in the action of designing them. I hope that the MoMA applies their new-found metaphysical stance to curatorial ethics and practices, as they most certainly should properly credit the foundries and designers for their every contribution to the upcoming show. These artisans and aficionados purposefully apply critical thinking, practical application and effectual aesthetic choices to the elemental, intangible and readily available symbols that the museum is claiming to celebrate and they thus in no way deserve to be made comparable to a tool in a conceptual tool box.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, The New York Times reported that a “committee composed of 25 architecture and design specialists” approved this spurious acquisition for the museum and Ms. Antonelli was quoted as saying, “…design these days is often an act with aesthetic and ethical consequences, not necessarily a physical object.”. These instances and those like them already have and continue to deserve very real, very serious critical attention as their implications and inferences possess staggering repercussive potential.

I have this @ in my keyboard right now.

Do I have to rip the key and send it to MoMA? Can I scan it and send an e-mail with the picture? If so… how do I type your e-mail address once I don’t have my @ any more?

A couple of reminders:

1. The above information about the sign ‘@’ has been available at Wikipedia for a long time.

2. In its present use, the sign is an abbreviation for ‘at’. As such, the sign is an extension of our ordinary alphabet. Nothing more.

3. Our alphabet is a set of phonetic signs that are public in character; they are part of the common good and belong to no one.

4. Since ‘@’ is a piece of that common good, acquiring it is at best an utterly pointless act. It is as pointless as claiming that one has acquired the English alphabet or our set of signs for the natural numbers.

In other words, the alleged acquisition of ‘@’ into the collection of the Department of Architecture and Design of the MoMA is merely a continuation of the cult of pointlessness and nonsense that has been the hallmark of “contemporary art” and a good deal of modern art since, say, the pseudo-intellectual acrobatics of Marcel Duchamp.

Much ado about nothing.

Ha ha ha hah! You almost had me there. A bit early for @pril Fool’s, but still, well done!

If it started meaning “at” the use is not even so new, as mail is made by the name of the user “at” @ the name of the mailbox. And the inmaterial things that we cannot buy can be any letter of the language, or the streets, public places, wether may be is more modern to say that we cannot by the wether. Is moma a modern art museum or a museum of things that become popular?

Is the MoMA now going to change its name to Museum of Modern At?

Paola? I just heard you on the radio as I’m sitting here in my NYC apt and I’m wondering if you’re the same Paola I worked with at the Carnegie AGES ago. Love that you’re spearheading this @cquisition, btw, people always scorn others ahead of their time. Would love to connect! Hope you get and/or read these posts. Lisa

In her MoMA blog post Paola Antonelli specifies that “Being in the public realm, @ is free. It might be the only truly free—albeit not the only priceless—object in our collection.” And in her conversation with Steven Heller – see http://www.printmag.com/Article/-At-MoMA – Paola Antonelli talks about how the acquisition of @ takes one more step, and that “It relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that ‘cannot be had,’ because they are too big (buildings, Boeing 747’s, satellites), or because they are in the air and belong to everybody and to no one, like the @, as art objects befitting MoMA’s collection,” and that “there is no need to physically possess.”

So, the acquisition of the @ symbol is akin to the Museum “tagging” the @ sign; it is an acknowledgment that the @ symbol has made its mark on how we communicate and that it is elegant and beautiful—criteria for works being acquired into MoMA’s design collection. The Museum did not acquire a physical object, intellectual property rights to the symbol, nor did it pay anyone to acquire it.

@ Rebecca Stokes – Thank you very much for pointing that out. People need to read a little bit before criticizing MoMA’s decision. Not to say that MoMA is beyond criticism, but many of the complaints leveled against this acquisition are built on false pretense. MoMA never stated they owned @ or required royalties to be paid. The word “acquisition” means something different in this context. I like that this acquisition has created much discussion, I just wish it were of a more intelligent kind…

This is @wesome! @ttention Everyone! The @t is @rt! Yeah!

This is why drugs should be banned.

@Rebecca, Your post makes the most sense. Museums are bureaucracies. Every object requires a number. If MOMA did not “acquire” the @ symbol, giving it an accession number, they would be unable to collect the historical documents of its “life cycle”, as Paola points out in her second post, “its production, distribution, and use.”

I get it now. But I also think @Ijustkant makes some valid points. There is something unnerving about businesses going around “acquiring” things from the PUBLIC DOMAIN. Certainly the example of T-mobile and the color magenta is problematic, as is the pharmaceutical frenzy to “acquire” particular genes. And let’s make no mistake….MOMA is a business.

@Daniel Wilson’s point is also a good one. If any museum is going to “acquire” the @ symbol, perhaps it should be the Cooper-Hewitt design museum…part of the Smithsonian Institution, a public museum.

I’ve got a ? in great shape that I can give you a good deal on. Also – a case of #s in mint condition!

In Czech, @ means rollmop. So we give addresses by saying, john, rollmop, gmail dot com. The actual word is “zavináč”.

Dear Moma,

You cannot “acquire” the @ symbol. You may petition artists to make art with the @ symbol, or with the @ symbol as inspiration, but you may not, in any way, shape or form “acquire” the symbol. You may hold a show in the @’s honor,host a party for the @, or get together and discuss the @.

It seems that your progressive thinking may merely be a thinly guised attempt to pay less for what you exhibit. This recent acquisition is as intellectually transparent as a bowl of alphabet soup.

The ‘aquisition’ is an economic and elegant embrace of the art in abstraction, rather than the opposite inverse of abstraction in art.

The value of the ensuing discussion, perhaps like the work itself, and perhaps also embedded in the work, is invaluable.

I just acquired :)

At 14:37 Eastern time today, March 26, I stole MOMA’s priceless @.

It has been destroyed through a process of electronic dissociation.

I hope it was insured.

A wonderful, funny parody of the vapidity of the art world… but I do wonder that MOMA doesn’t see that all of their work and writing amounts to exactly this.

How colonial to pillage @.

MOMA got it wrong. Its much more interesting to release free content than to acquire an insubstantial nothing.

Another name for @ used by many people in Sweden
was ( and still is ) “kanelbulle” ,
a traditional Swedish cinnamon bun.
It looks like that:
@ is a treat !

Taking the @ sign to dinner party this evening (left a note for MOMA @ is on loan) for more discussion among contemporaries. I think the “trivia” content is worth more than the MOMA art concept.

As someone who has designed hundreds of @ symbols for fonts I’ve published, I feel slighted by this. It reminds me of when I was a creative director in an advertising agency, and my boss, who had his name on the shingle, used to say, during presentations to clients. “I created this ad,” when it was I, not he, who had.

The original work of curation-is-art was Duchamp’s “R. Mutt” urinal. Hans Richter (in “Art and anti-art”) said of this, “Of course, the bottle rack and the urinal are not art … Art has been thought through to a conclusion. Nothing, nihil, is all that is left.”

Roy Lichstenstein ran into some trouble (eventually) with acquiring comic-book art as the “material” of some of his paintings, disappearing the original artist. Admittedly, MOMA has, in its literature, credited the true author of the @ symbol’s recontextualization, Ray Tomlinson, but it has not foregrounded his name as in “MOMA recognizes Tomlinson @ symbol”, which would have been the straightforward and honorable thing to do, but has instead come up with this “acquisition” nonsense. Shame on you, curators.

So here we see curators, empowered by their institutional position, aggrandizing their role in adding value to MOMA’s brand, above that of the traditional content creators, artists and designers (Tomlinson demeaned as the “unintended” designer), positioning themselves as auteurs.

Again, although the typeface used in the @ at the top of this page is credited, American Typewriter, its designers (Joel Kadan and Tony Stan), are not. Curators, respect the author!

Just because this banal and venal recontextualization, renamed “acquisition,” rejuices the tired old “but is it art?” conversation doesn’t validate it.

This opens the door for entrepreneurial cyber-curators to acquire whatever they please, including, perhaps, MOMA.

Don’t mind me, I’m kind of old-fashioned and apt to confuse art with objects, design with craft.

I think this is amazing. To see my post on it:

hi Serena, thank you for reposting and continuing the @ discussion on your blog. I am glad that there has been so much conversation about this acquisition.

The Unicode Consortium “acquired” and catalogued the @ symbol a few years ago, giving it code uni+0040:

In Unicode, there is a distinction between a character and a glyph. For instance, the character uni+0040 may be represented by many different glyphs, a different one in each different font.

MOMA has “acquired” neither the centuries old character, nor any particular glyph iteration of it, but something else.

Let’s be quite clear about this. MOMA has “acquired” the email address symbol, not @ in its guise as the (Unicode) character or any specific font glyph. It is Ray Tomlinson’s signification which has created the @’s significance for MOMA.

Just because Tomlinson’s design of the email address symbol is in the public domain, it shouldn’t be, from the point of view of a museum, any less his design. So I repeat, MOMA should be “recognizing” HIS design act, not “acquiring” a centuries-old character.

But if you must persist with this silliness, might I suggest you next “acquire” the left and right parentheses? (uni+0028, uni+0029). These were repurposed by Ladislav Sutnar for Bell’s American area code system in the late 1950s. Sutnar’s design of the area code symbol may be described in almost the exact same terms as those in which you above describe Tomlinson’s design of the email address symbol.

Well, as with any acquisition, how much did MOMA pay for @?
Whom or what organization did MOMA pay for it?
Is the symbol font dependent?
Who else owns @?
Who owns $?

In Israel it is called a “strudel” (as in the pastry apple strudel) because of the swirling shape.

Following MOMA’s lead, the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Albion College has acquired the Greek letter pi.

Since MOMA has ‘acquired “@” the art curators should consider acquiring the “@” sculpture by Larry Kagan http://www.buzzfeed.com/expresident/shadow-art
The artist recognised its importance years before MOMA.And he teaches at RPI School of Architecture and Design…a natural connection to MOMA

I doff my cap to this promotional stunt, even if the intellectual irony passes somewhat above my head.

But hey, if you only “get” even a fraction of what goes on at the MoMA then you are probably doing a lot better than most.

It reminds me a bit of that scene in the film “Midnight Cowboy” where Ratso Rizzo is asked why he is stealing the party food when it was free, to which he replies: “Well, if it’s free, then I ain’t stealin’.

Now I’m off to tag a Boeing 747, a few orbiting satellites, and a whole bunch of smilies for my own museum … you know, the one that only exists in the world of my imagination. If you like, you can visit it someday too … but first you must find a Golden Ticket hidden inside the wrapper of an oversized chocolate bar…. :lalala:


In a free market place, the acquisition of the goods offered to potential purchasers is characterized by the fact that, on the assumption that the purchasers have the means to effectuate a given purchase, all the purchasers are in principle on equal footing. In other words, and to take the example of art works, if I have the requisite amount of money, I may in principle acquire a given work no less than, say, an institution such as MoMA.

Obviously, that market equality does not obtain in the case of the acquisition of the linguistic sign ‘@’. Let me explain.

If I were to tell my friends that I have just acquired the dollar sign or one of the signs used for the mathematical concept of a derivative, they would at least roll their eyes, if not laugh out loud or wonder whether I am well. These perfectly legitimate and healthy reactions of theirs indicate that something is amiss in my statement and the alleged action it describes (acquiring a piece of the common good). What is amiss, of course, is that I made a category mistake in treating a piece of the common good as if it were an item offered for acquisition in the market place (this, in fact, is not unlike the proverbial sale of the Brooklyn Bridge).

What this example implies is that an act such as the alleged acquisition of ‘@’ is not an act carried out within the market place, since the minimal juridical condition for a free market place, that of the equality of the purchasers, does not obtain in the case of that act.

As such, the acquisition in question is not an acquisition in the ordinary sense of the word (a point already made in the above thread, albeit with apologetic intent), but rather an appropriation, a predatory act only made possible by the fact that MoMA is a world renowned institution, with the powers that accrue to such an institution.

What the larger implications of such an act are, in my view at least, I shall leave for another forum.

Think the acquisition is part of a much bigger move by MoMA, as I explain in my piece:http://www.unboundedition.com/pdp_thinking/2010/apr/13/momas-symbol-post-digital-museum/

I, too, love the humble @ sign! After hearing about your inspiring acquisition on NPR, I created an @ shawl/sweater pin (for hand knits/wovens) to honor the occasion. You can read about it here: http://tinyurl.com/ybbkgtv – it’s proven to be rather popular!

oh dear, I have many doubtful thoughts about the artistic argument MOMA’s curators are trying to make, but it definitely wouldn’t come full circle until they include their bloggers’ reactions to the din, which I’m sure the Marketing dept will be savvy enough to do!

thoughts on the museum’s role trying to stake a claim in the protean flux of contemporary media here:

wooow!!!! muy buena pagina felicidades!!!!

I’m a little disappointed that MOMA would actually feel that the @ symbol should be defined as Art? Yes, it should be in the Smithsonian to commemorate its history, but Not MOMA… it degrades the value of all of the other real, relevant art.

@ has been long used to represent “at” in its definition having to do with at the rate of, at the price of (e.g. 2 @ $4 eaah would cost $8) so it was at once logical and amusing that “whoever” incorporated that symbol into email addresses did so. I recall kind of smirking at the creativity – I knew it would fall into common use but I also knew that there’d be yet another “misuse” and subsequent misunderstanding then virtual obliteration of a correct or actual common use of such a symbol by kids who get raised on electronics. They can’t DO math, make change when they work at a market, store, restaurant, etc, and can’t grasp the concept of “at” as above, but they sure can keyboard @ into someone’s email address.

I’d like to add that the Dutch also call the @ symbol “monkey’s tail”

I just book marked your blog on Digg and StumbleUpon.I enjoy reading your commentaries.

That was a really interesting post, I enjoyed reading it. You are dead right!

Hello http://www.moma.org people
Summer time is upon us, pretty boring. Came to locate some extra entertaining internet funnies.
Will be glad to see your best finds

This is good

hi, i am mona. ur blog is awesome.

Hack again?!

While some see the @ symbol as the letter ‘a’ inside another letter (c, e, or o), I see the @ symbol as an ‘a’ inside a budding spiral. The Norwegians name for @, “alphakroll” or “alphacurl” inspires me to call it the “alphaspiral”. I think the Museum’s statement is sound and significant, and as an artist I’ve been replying creatively, allowing this symbol to inform and empower my work in painting and sculpture. U can see it @ my artsite http://www.romerolandia.com.

I am a modern artist in Santa Fe, New Mexico; I make modern ‘@’. See this vid/documentary called “Pedro’s Modern ‘@’ Collection”:

atta boy!

great histry

in Hebrew the @ character is commonly referred to as a “Strudel” because of the resemblance to a slice of the pastry when served from a Strudel “cylinder.”

This is why I think Icons are important, like an Iconathon.What is the Iconathon? The Iconathon is a month-long initiative to collaboratively design new civic symbols for the public domain.
http://iconathon.org/ It is a nationwide initiative, to help curate, powerful civic symbols.

I’d like add to Steven (May 3, 2010):

In Dutch we use the word “Apenstaartje” that can be translated as “monkey’s tail”.
In many languages the word monkey is used in names for @, but also dog or cat is used.

Salve Sig.ra Paola Antonelli,
è da olto tempo che tento di contattarla senza successo, gradirei ricevere una sua mail o di un suo collaboratore per poterle inviare una documentazione su inominforma (www.inominforma.it)
la ringrazio
sergio c.

Huh, M@M@ lol. Nice story, I enjoyed it, it was pretty entertaining. I don’t understand why there are so many negative feedbacks for this post…Relax, folks, that’s just for fun :)

The nature of this piece seems to be a pure attention grab. I see nothing wrong with recognizng the @ symbol and the design behind it; that seems quite proper. But why play games with your patrons? The word ‘acquisition’ implies ownership. “The MoMA ‘celebrates’ or ‘inaugurates’ the @ symbol” would have been more honest.

By your logic, hey, I just stole the @ symbol from your collection. You don’t have it any more. You know, cause I said so.

But yay, we’re all talking about the nature of art! I fell in to your delicious trap, MoMA!

In spanish you don’t say ”Hola l@s viej@s amig@s y l@s nuev@s amig@s!”, there’s a big gramatical error on it, and not just for the @ but for the syntaxis of it. You either say ”¡Hola a los viejos amigos y a los nuevos amigos!” or ”¡Hola, viejos amigos y nuevos amigos!”.
It is true that in popular culture people use @, X, or both masculine and feminine. Wich is a huge mistake in any formal ambit. Last year there was a big debate on this because the RAE (The Royal Academy of Spanish Language) criticized how the Constitution of Venezuela was written naming every public charge in both its masculine and feminine form, for example ”el presidente o la presidente” (the president).

The artistic value an item must hold to be part of a collection is for the curators and, ultimately, the museum to decide. Criticism is, I’m sure, more than welcome; both for the intelectual value of the discussion and, mostly, the advertising power it unleashes (and Ms. Antonelli noticeably celebrates). However, beyond the art at @, and beyond even the (arguably fair) semantic discussion on the “acquisition” term, the act at MoMA is unfair.

I couldn’t help smiling when I first heard about the acquisition. I was sincerely pleased by the act, that I though revealed the intelligence of the curators, and celebrated the transcendent purpose of the museums. How disappointed I found myself after reading the accompanying release of the acquisition. Instead of finding the display of the curator’s intelligence, I found a curator desperately trying to show intelligence. Sloppy linguistic references attempted erudition, shallow design “discussion” attempted intelectual enlightenment, and (most regrettably) attempted historic familiarity undermined the value of the very object acquired. The former is a fact already observed in an earlier post by Nick Shinn: Tomlinson’s design attributed to serendipity, demeaned as “unintended”. More, he also notes the unattributed use of the beautiful American Typewriter. Ironically, it is here were curation can be more directly eloquent and the public can more immediately perceive the value of the curator’s work: The medium, the display, the accompanying material, and it’s precisely here where this acquisition lacks the most. @ is a piece of design to be displayed, explained, discussed, replicated, preserved, studied. In other words, @ is a piece of design to be celebrated (by the MoMA, also, why not?), not a piece of design to celebrate MoMA’s curator.

I, for one, celebrate the selection of @ for acquisition at MoMA (although more purist commenters may prefer other terms). I regret, however, it’s poor acquisition.

It’s a bit of irony that so many people are put out by the literal interpretation of “acquiring” something that’s public property, but I – as an engineer – don’t have any objection to the notion at all.

I see MoMA simply identifying the result of the design decision to use @ in an email address as something they honor for it’s elegance and impact, and in so acknowledging that AND putting it into a collection of other designs they admire have laid claim to it.

If another museum chose to do the same thing, they’d be a copy cat and there’d be an outcry. Am I right?

And MoMA can get away with it, because they’ve established themselves as among the best at honoring the beauty of design by humans. If you, dear reader, wish to “get away” with acquiring the question mark, you’ll have to first spend a very long time establishing yourself as a curator of an impressive, cohesive collection, and then you’ll have to come up with a plausible explanation as to why the curious question mark belongs in your collection and get people to engage with your collection.

And when you do that, we’ll all be better for it.

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