Will emojis, those enigmatic hieroglyphics ubiquitous on the Internet, replace language as we know it? That’s one of the questions raised by an expert interviewed in Ian Cheney and Martha Shane’s whimsical but thoughtful documentary, “The Emoji Story” (the expert says no). At any rate. the cute and sometimes scatological pictographs (the smiling ordure emoji is one of the most popular) have made an impact on how we communicate.
As Cheney and Shane point out, the cipher system has evolved rapidly enough to stir a conflict between “official” meanings and those emerging from the mass of users. Some examples of this appropriation include off-color interpretations of emojis, like the eggplant and peach. Another development, perhaps endemic to digital systems in general (see the recent documentary “Code Bias”), is the failure of the dominantly white overseers of all things digital to acknowledge diversity in the images that have proliferated.
So who decides what emojis get used and which are rejected? Every year an organization with the daunting name Unicode Consortium, made up of some of the world’s major tech companies, considers hundreds of applications for new emojis and chooses 60 to encode. These changes often reflect advances in diversity, such as the successful proposal to include five different skin tones. Cheney and Shane follow the progress of applicants seeking to approve three new emojis: a woman wearing a hijab; a cup of maté, the traditional Argentine herbal tea; and a problematic symbol for menstruation.
When they were introduced 20 years ago as crude images by the Japanese interface designer Shigetaka Kurita, there were 176 emojis. Now there are 2,823. Too many? Not enough? Given how users combine emojis to create new meanings and even primitive sentences, perhaps this is the beginning of a new language after all.
“The Emoji Story” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room, beginning Dec. 18 and on major video platforms.
Go to coolidge.org.
A hit from last year’s GlobeDocs Festival, Jennifer Trainer’s “Museum Town” (2019) shows how visionaries transformed the enormous, abandoned Sprague Electric Company factory in North Adams into the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), the largest such museum in the world, and by so doing revitalized the city’s failing economy.
Not all residents are convinced. Some scratch their heads at the challenging works of such featured artists as Sol LeWitt, Anselm Kiefer, and Jenny Holzer and question whether the museum benefits arty and well-heeled outsiders more than those who live there. But others, like the former Sprague employee who now volunteers at the museum, see it as a boon both economically and culturally.
Trainer, who for three decades was part of the museum staff, intercuts her history of the project and its impact on the community with the installation of “Until,” a 2016 show by Nick Cave (the American artist, not the Australian rock musician). A vast, factory-filling chandelier-like construction of countless found objects such as costume jewelry, porcelain animals, lawn jockeys, and miscellaneous treasures gathered in antique stores and junk yards, “Until” is a baroque statement on the state of race relations in America. As such it embodies the museum’s goal of uniting high art, pop culture, and social consciousness.
“Museum Town” can be streamed via the Institute of Contemporary Art beginning Dec.18.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.