When emojis become art

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on December 13, 2013

From The News Desk

I'm fascinated by ways artists approach futuristic concepts and reconcile technological advances. Nothing dates a work of art, whether it's a painting, photograph TV show or movie, quite as much as a prediction of the future.

The original "Star Trek," with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the Starship Enterprise, had a decidedly 1960s point of view, its stories and plots told through the prism of NASA-age technology and geopolitics (that is, the Cold War.) The movie "Blade Runner" is oh so 1980s, with its dystopian perspective. There's also the less dystopic "The Jetsons," which placed the concept of a 1960s nuclear family into the Space Age. And, of course, the place from where "The Jetsons" was probably born: the early 20th century World's Fair, which had such now-dated, then-newfangled artistic representations like moving sidewalks.

This interest in art and technology brought me to the Emoji Show, which opened last night at the Eyebeam gallery in Chelsea, Manhattan. The exhibit aims to look at emojis -- the cartoonesque smiley faces and symbols that are now ubiquitously used in smartphone texting conversations -- and how they have become a common part of modern communication.

The show was segmented into two spaces: the formalized art pieces and an emoji marketplace. Fixed to the walls and standing in the middle of the room were various artistic representations and interpretations of emojis and non-verbal digital communication. In another section of the gallery were tables housing vendors hawking their various emoji-centric tchotchkes.

The non-marketplace pieces varied from the very literal to the maddeningly conceptual. One artist, Liza Nelson, made physical representations of the emojis -- be it with her face or with physical objects -- and then photographed them. A perfect example was the photo of a woman smiling in a fashion almost identical to the ever-popular yellow smile emoji. Artist Genie Alfonzo recreated well-known art masterpieces, but substituted faces and random objects with actual emojis. Alfonzo's re-imagined version of Dali's "The Persistence of Memory," which overlaid one-dimensional text-based clocks over Dali's melting watches, was a standout.

The pieces put together, however, lacked cohesion, and the ones that took chances and asked deeper questions about communicative technologies and new methods of emoting, generally missed the mark. For example, the piece "Transiconmorphosis." In the middle of the room sat a man gazing into a computer's webcam. Attached to his face were electrodes. A few feet away facing the opposite direction stood another computer where participants could sit down and digitally chat with the man. When a participant sends an emoji, electric pulses are then transmitted through the electrodes to contort the artists face into the shape of the implied emotion sent.

This piece, executed by Fito Segrera and Emilio Vavarella, is a reflection on how new forms of communication effect human beings. "Modern communication," the artist statement reads, "could have condemned human beings to a life without fundamental elements such as smiles or kisses, pushing towards a cold and multi-mediated form of communication." Technology, then, is taking away from the human aspects of communication and leaving only a cold, information-based residue. The implication is that emojis are complicit in this.

This piece highlights my ultimate reservation with this show: its attempt to ask the harder questions miss the mark and explode into an inaccessible science fiction netherworld. I have no problems with art that looks at technology, its consequences, and poses hard and forward-thinking questions. I especially like it when it takes a theoretical lens, and avoids concretized structures. But the questions should be illuminative, not just merely incendiary.

A great example of theoretical formulations of technology as conceived through art would be a piece I saw some time back by Andrew Norman Wilson. He created an installation that looked into the class structures in Google's employment hierarchy. While I won't go into great detail about it, the piece looked at a technological structure (how Google chooses and classifies its employees) and grafted it onto a more theoretical issue (what are these people's statuses in society). While this piece wouldn't fit within the emoji framework, it's a good example of ways to ask more abstract questions about technology using an artistic platform.

At the Emoji Show some of the pieces are fun to look at, and if you're looking for a nice gift, the marketplace has a slew of weird items that may strike your fancy.

But it just should have offered more.

[Image via Emojinal Art Gallery]