Articles

Why Do Emoji Fascinate Us?

by Hrag Vartanian on December 13, 2013

Genie Alfonzo, “Emojinal Art” (2013)

Genie Alfonzo’s “Emojinal Art” (2013) is part of the “Emoji Art and Design Show.” (via Emoji Art and Design Show)

Last night’s opening of the Emoji Art and Design Show was a light-hearted celebration of those pictograms that have crept into our conversations and lives in every which way. The exhibition felt more design than art, and the pop-up marketplace featured a number of — you guessed it — emoji-related products, including vaginal emoji, emoji-related smartphone cases, not to mention a whole array of emoji pins, jewelry, and nail art.

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 5.31.00 PMIn addition to the exhibition and marketplace, the event launched a special edition of the Womanzine, which curiously describes itself as “about/for/not for women.” The publication produced a special print edition for the occasion, which features an exhibition checklist and essays on the prehistory of emoji, the whiteness of emoji, the tempura shrimp emoji, and even a poem … about emojis.

Emoji nail art, check … special emoji edition of Womanzine, check …

Emoji nail art, check … special emoji edition of Womanzine, check … (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Jenna Wortham, who’s best known as a tech reporter at the New York Times, cuts to the heart of our absurd love of these colorful Japanese Wingdings 2.0 when she writes, “Emoji don’t … make communication any clearer … [they] add a much-needed element of joy to the tedium of digital communication, which never has a clear end or beginning but just runs constantly like a lazy river or an extended, half-distracted chat over brunch.”

“I didn’t quite realize the resonance of emoji as a cultural subject until I was putting the Womanzine emoji issue together. The issue itself was by far our most popular ever,” Mercedes Kraus, editor of Womanzine, told me. ”Emoji are just the latest in a long line of pictorial representation, but I think what we’ve proven with this show is how powerful and established they are now.”

When I asked Julia Kaganskiy, one of the event co-organizers, about her thoughts on emojis, she emphasized their universality. “Since they are a pictographic language, emoji are a universal communication medium that transcends cultures and social groups,” she said. “They may have specific meanings that sprout from a particular culture (as is the case with many of the traditional Japanese characters), but their ambiguity allows for easy appropriation and reinterpretation.”

Antwaun Sargent  and Fahad Al-Hunaif rocking their KTHANKSBYE tshirts at the Emoji Art Show (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Antwaun Sargent and Fahad Al-Hunaif rocking their KTHANKSBYE emoji T-shirts at the “Emoji Art and Design Show”

One of the marketplace participants, Nick Dangerfield of to.be, suggested that a personal connection feeds our interest in the digital critters. “Only thing that comes to mind is that emojis are transparent beings like no other — every time someone texts using an emoji face, they imagine that the little face is a piece of themselves,” he said. “With this level of personal identification, it becomes absolutely impossible to abhor them. So the conclusion is that everyone loves them because everyone can see a bit of themselves in those little familiar faces.”

So, does that mean by looking at emoji we are really looking at ourselves?

Carla Gannis's “The Garden of Emoji” (2013) was one of the works featured at the Emoji Art & Design Show.

Carla Gannis’s “The Garden of Emoji” (2013) is one of the works featured at the Emoji Art & Design Show.

The Emoji Art and Design Show exhibition continues through tomorrow, December 14, when there will also be a panel discussion, “I Have No Words: Emoji and the New Visual Vernacular,” featuring Fred Benenson, creator of Emoji Dick; Ramsey Nasser, computer scientist and artist; Zoë Salditch, communications director at Eyebeam; and Jenna Wortham, technology reporter for the New York Times. The conversation will be moderated by Lindsey Weber, co-founder of Forced Meme Productions and editor at New York Magazine’s Vulture.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • punktoad

    Appropriated by the Emoji!

  • Fiftyseven

    Those T-Shirts look like pajamas.

Previous post:

Next post: