The symbol formerly known as @

I feel compelled to mention a strange CBC interview I heard today, with Paola Antonelli, The Museum of Modern Art’s Senior Curator of Architecture and Design. The gist of the story is MoMA’s announcement that it “has acquired the @ symbol into its collection.” Seriously.

Many are dismissing this as a MoMA publicity stunt of dada-esque proportions, in which case I am playing into their hands by wondering aloud how any institution (even if it is a beloved art museum) can say they’ve “acquired” an element of typography with centuries of documented development, ubiquitous contemporary meaning, and global usage. There is no one to acquire @ from (or Everyone – did everyone give them permission?), and no price to negotiate, so it is a terrific bargain for MoMA.  They may decide to quit acquiring real art altogether, since it is so darn expensive, and focus on the rest of the keyboard.

My first thought, as I have been considering the demise of the hyphen, was that perhaps I should announce that I’ve “acquired” the hyphen!  I’ll just rewrite their press release slightly…  On second thought, perhaps I should acquire the question mark while I’m at it — ?????? —  since this issue raises so many of them.

After much head-scratching, I decided to look for MoMA’s announcement in print, and found this MoMA blog post by Ms. Antonelli. As in the CBC interview, Antonelli’s post briefly (and articulately) summarizes the history of that typographic mark we now refer to as @, or the “AT sign.” I am certainly fascinated by the history of “@” and would love to learn more about it.  Luckily, expect there will be a lovely @ coffee table book published soon. Or perhaps now it is the “@ symbol recently acquired by MoMA” (or will MoMA change it’s name to MoM@)?

Antonelli’s post contains several statements that I would like to quote here. First, after acknowledging that the symbol could not really be purchased, she states “We have acquired the design act in itself…” Wow! So not just the @ symbol, but the whole creative process, the “@ct of Design, brought to you by MoMA.” Statements like this really make me question their institutional hubris.  Antonelli also state “The @ symbol is now part of the very fabric of life all over the world.” I would say YES — and this is the very reason that any single institution cannot claim to “acquire” it. I am left to wonder whether the Catholic church will now announce that they’ve “acquired” the cross symbol. Wouldn’t their press releases say the very same thing? “The cross symbol is now part of the very fabric of life all over the world.”

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.

I am left remembering when Monsanto, back in 2005, announced they’d patented their newest genetic invention, the PIG.

MoMA | @ at MoMA.

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