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.
In 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.
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.”
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?
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.