At the end of 2013, there was a full-on exhibition of emoji creativity (and self-described “examination of the emoji zeitgeist”) at Eyebeam, the art/tech nonprofit in New York. It featured a couple dozen examples of emoji artwork culled from hundreds of emojified submissions.
These ranged from Matthew Rothenberg’s dizzying online Emojitracker.com, which tracks emoji use on Twitter in real time, to a typewriter reimagined with emoji keys, by Maya Ben-Ezer, to emoji wallpaper designed by emoji-arts star Zoë Burnett.
Since then, the use of emoji in creative works has continued apace. Consider Game of Phones, a Game of Thrones Season 3 recap by Cara Rose DeFabio told entirely in cute little glyphs. Or Nastya Ptichek’s addition of emoji (and other digital signifiers) to classic paintings as part of a series called Emoji-nation — transforming, enhancing, and commenting on these familiar images all at once.
From Burnett’s Emoji-nation. (Behance)
Those are just some of the more recent examples of emoji artistry — creative applications of the form via GIFs, imagery, videos, tech experiments, and even physical objects.
So what is it about emoji? How did this curious creative movement come about?
For the uninitiated, emoji are “picture characters” — more fully realized descendants of emoticons, wordlessly expressing approval or despair or confusion — that are widely popular in the realm of texting, particularly in iOS.
The invention of emoji is widely traced to the late 1990s, at the Japanese company NTT Docomo. Specifically, the firm’s Shigetaka Kurita realized that communication through pagers and email could be enhanced with emotionally infused symbols — consider something as simple as a heart image, and start riffing.
Ben-Ezer’s emoji typewriter. (Emoji Art & Design Show)
Emoji wallpaper. (Emoji Art & Design Show)
Others picked up on the approach, and the number of emoji symbols metastasized, especially once the smartphone era kicked in. These days the nonprofit Unicode Consortium works with Apple and other firms on standardizing the form. Niki Selken, an emoji experimenter and co-founder of the World Translation Foundation at Emojifoundation.com, says this was a turning point, allowing Apple and Google to share the same set of characters.
“Another factor is that we have a culture which is changing in the way people communicate,” Selken says. With more digital (as opposed to face-to-face) communication, subtext can get lost. Emoji can “give us signals and visual cues that faces and live expressions once did,” she adds.
A richer emoji vocabulary led to a number of translation-oriented projects. There are plenty of examples at the Narratives in Emoji Tumblr, but the most famous feat of converting a story-in-words to a story-in-emoji is almost certainly Emoji Dick: a complete translation of Herman Melville’s similarly named novel that was ultimately acquired by the Library of Congress.
Such audacious displays of emoji fluency — almost as much a challenge for the “reader” as the “writer” — have continued, in both high- and mass-culture iterations. Consider Jesse Hill’s unofficial all-emoji video for Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love” or Selken’s in-progress translation of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Really getting these translations, and the emotional wrinkles emoji offer, holds all the satisfaction of speaking a new, and vaguely secret, language. Emoji can even be used to tell a new “story,” as in this video (nothing but music and emoji) directed by John Michael Boling.
At the same time, emoji have more overtly visual functions that can transcend the idea that they are word substitutes. Zoë Salditch, a curator of that Eyebeam show, has linked emoji to visual communication forms “from hieroglyphics to cave paintings to religious iconology.”
I asked another digital artist who frequently plays with emoji on his own pleasingly raucous Tumblr, Matthew Williamson, what’s so appealing about the form. His answer — stuffed with emoji that unfortunately can’t be reproduced here — touched on the idea that (apart from being “ridiculous” and “super cute”), emoji are simultaneously “specific and also amorphous. It’s fun to try to bend them out [of] shape and create new associations.”
The Eyebeam show nodded in one direction of future emoji arts: translations to physical things like Burnett’s wallpaper, or Liza Nelson’s photographs of real-life versions of emoji symbols, or the Edie Parker/Del Toro shoe collaboration, M’Oticons.
But Williamson’s comments suggest another direction: Emoji create, to put it mildly, a dynamic visual “language” that is very much a work in progress. Apple and the Unicode Consortium are working on making emoji more multicultural, and MyEmoji Creator promises to let you customize your own emoji.
“As a super compressed language,” Williamson points out, “emoji are like a catalogue of contemporary fixations, i.e. cats, dolphins, pizza, aliens, etc. — but also a kind of Rorschach test.”
Possibly I should respond to that with an emoji. Let’s say it looks to me like emoji art has a [big grin], [thumbs up] future.