@ at MoMA
How do you “acquire” a symbol that’s been around for hundreds of years? In 2010 MoMA attempted to answer that question by adding the “@” symbol to the design collection.
Jan 19, 2023
This article, presented on the occasion of the exhibition Never Alone: Video Games and Other Interactive Design, reprints a post that originally appeared on Inside/Out: A MoMA/MoMA PS1 Blog on March 22, 2010.
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.
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.
Never Alone: Video Games and Other Interactive Design, organized by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Paul Galloway, Collection Specialist, and Anna Burckhardt and Amanda Forment, Curatorial Assistants, Department of Architecture and Design, is on view at MoMA September 10, 2022–July 16, 2023.
Never Alone and Interactive Design at The Museum of Modern Art
This exclusive excerpt from the exhibition catalogue traces interactive design in MoMA’s collection, from interfaces and emoji to video games.
Paola Antonelli, Anna Burckhardt, Paul Galloway
Dec 5, 2022
When Video Games Came to the Museum
A decade ago, MoMA acquired 14 video games—and kicked off a new era for the collection. Today there are 36, and many are in the exhibition Never Alone.
Paola Antonelli, Paul Galloway
Nov 3, 2022