Sure you can look at it right now, sitting there in front of you on your keyboard, but sometimes it takes a modern art museum to make you aware of its significance. So it is with the “@” symbol, which New York’s Museum of Modern Art has just acquired for its permanent collection. If your immediate reaction is, “How can you collect a symbol?!” then you have fallen right into Senior Curator Paola Antonelli‘s trap. She explains as such:
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.
That’s just the quick start, before Antonelli jumps in to explaining the history of the symbol, including how it became so ubiquitous (an increasingly more so over the past, say, twenty years). What’s more, Alice Rawsthorn doubles the efforts to explain the acquisition in her recent NY Times piece, “Why @ Is Held in Such High Design Esteem.”