The morning of Monday, March 22, Paola Antonelli published a post on the Museum of Modern Art’s blog about a new acquisition to the museum’s design department. Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the museum, then alerted one reporter and 43 other bloggers to the news and headed to the airport to catch a plane to San Francisco.
“By the time I landed, it was like a volcano eruption,” says Antonelli. Commentators were in a lather on account of the unusual nature of the acquisition: the @ symbol, the tiny “pig’s tail” that resides above the number two on the QWERTY keyboard. The acquisition cost nothing, was freely available to everyone, and didn’t add anything material to the museum’s collection. Inserting @ into MoMA’s collection, Antonelli wrote, “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.”
Online comments at MoMA’s site were fast and curious, ranging from “neat” and “cool” to “intellectual garbage,” “I’m mystified,” “pretentious nonsense,” and suspicions that the announcement was an early April Fools’ joke. Some of those in the “neat” and “cool” camp even proposed acquiring “e” and “ñ,” while the art blog Hyperallergic reported that the Chinese government had taken possession of the rest of the keyboard.
The acquisition was genuine, though. Antonelli took the @ symbol through the standard acquisitions process within the museum. She researched the symbol’s history as shorthand both for the Latin ad written by monks in the seventh century and for “amphora,” a unit of measurement used in 16th-century Venice. The symbol languished as an obscure accounting mark until 1971, when an electrical engineer named Ray Tomlinson used it to send information between computers to a particular person or location, establishing the standard form for e-mail addresses. The curator presented her findings to the acquisitions committee in March. “There was so much that made it a pregnant testimony of what design should be today,” says Antonelli, who says it is emblematic of “the public domain, reusing and recycling, tradition updated for modernity.” The @ sign is now displayed in the collection as a silk screen on the wall.
The ongoing jokes about the museum’s acquisition arise from the logical impossibility of owning something that is not only free and abundant, but also physically nonexistent. Yet thanks to the rise, since the ’70s, of performance and digital art, museum art departments have already had to work through the problem of owning something immaterial. In her March 22 blog post, Antonelli compares the museum’s acquisition of the @ symbol to that of Tino Sehgal’s performance piece The Kiss. But The Kiss did cost something (reportedly in the high five-figure range) and its “use,” or performance, is regulated by contract, so it is neither free nor abundant.
A more apt comparison might be to Internet art—works online are immaterial, freely accessible, and challenging for museums to present—or, even better, to the mass-produced objects in MoMA’s design collection. The desire to showcase the flexible, inadvertent beauty of functional, everyday objects stretches back to MoMA’s 1934 “Machine Art” show, organized by Philip Johnson, which highlighted the elegance of a self-aligning ball bearing, a toaster, and petri dishes. In her 2004 exhibition “Humble Masterpieces,” Antonelli featured the Post-it note and paper clip.
The @ sign represents more than simply an interesting typographic mark. “It’s indicative of a direction in which MoMA is heading and responding actually to a larger shift in design discourse,” says Alice Twemlow, chair of the M.F.A. design criticism department at the School of Visual Arts. “The discussion has moved on beyond the object. The reality of design exists within a system of use. It acknowledges we are in a postindustrial communications age, and the @ sign is the pivot of that, at the center of e-mail, which is at the center of communication.”
But some graphic designers are conflicted over whether the mostly symbolic gesture of acquiring @ was necessary, and even whether @ represents excellent design. What about the elegant period or ampersand, for instance? According to Michael Bierut, a noted graphic designer and partner at Pentagram in New York, the acquisition is “more important for MoMA” than it is for the @ symbol or the public at large. “I think it’s meant to be sort of a provocation to get a conversation going about the new role communication plays in the world of museums,” he says.
Acquiring @ is just one part of Antonelli’s push to address communication design in the museum. She is currently working on “Talk to Me,” a broad exhibition looking at communication between people and objects, which is scheduled to open on July 24, 2011. The curatorial process for that show is being aired openly on a MoMA blog, Talk to Me: On the Way to the Exhibition, on which curators post ideas for things and concepts to include in the show, such as virtual pets, a blog featuring designer Christoph Niemann’s collection of fanciful maps, and odd interactive Web sites like the map of every bodega in New York City. Perhaps the @ acquisition is a step in the process of figuring out how to sort through the new artifacts of the digital age. “It’s like a curatorial manifesto more than anything,” says Antonelli. “Curators around the world, let’s feel free and liberated!”
Carly Berwick is a contributing editor of ARTnews.