MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design has acquired the @ symbol into its collection. It is a momentous, elating acquisition that makes us all proud. But what does it mean, both in conceptual and in practical terms?
Contemporary art, architecture, and design can take on unexpected manifestations, from digital codes to Internet addresses and sets of instructions that can be transmitted only by the artist. The process by which such unconventional works are selected and acquired for our collection can take surprising turns as well, as can the mode in which they’re eventually appreciated by our audiences. While installations have for decades provided museums with interesting challenges involving acquisition, storage, reproducibility, authorship, maintenance, manufacture, context—even questions about the essence of a work of art in itself—MoMA curators have recently ventured further; a good example is the recent acquisition by the Department of Media and Performance Art of Tino Sehgal’s performance Kiss.
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. The same criteria of quality, relevance, and overall excellence shared by all objects in MoMA’s collection also apply to these entities.
In order to understand why we have chosen to acquire the @ symbol, and how it will exist in our collection, it is necessary to understand where @ comes from, and why it’s become so ubiquitous in our world.
A Little History
Some linguists believe that @ dates back to the sixth or seventh century, a ligature meant to fuse the Latin preposition ad—meaning “at”, “to,” or “toward”—into a unique pen stroke. The symbol persisted in sixteenth-century Venetian trade, where it was used to mean amphora, a standard-size terracotta vessel employed by merchants, which had become a unit of measure. Interestingly, the current Spanish word for @, arroba, also indicates a unit of measure.
The @ symbol was known as the ‘”commercial ‘a’” when it appeared on the keyboard of the American Underwood typewriter in 1885, and it was defined as such, for the first time, in the American Dictionary of Printing & Bookmaking in 1894. From this point on the symbol itself was standardized both stylistically and in its application, and it appeared in the original 1963 ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) list of computer codes. At the time @ was explained as an abbreviation for the word “at” or for the phrase “at the rate of,” mainly used in accounting and commercial invoices. Sigue leyendo