Pictograms, Signs of Life, Emojis: The Society of Signs

September 24, 2020 – April 22, 2021
Press conference: Tuesday, September 22, 2020, 11:00 a.m. Opening: Wednesday, September 23, 2020, 7:00 p.m.*

Every day, billions of emojis are sent from digital devices. Since their cross-platform standardization in 2009, emojis have developed into a digital mass communication phenomenon within just a few years. They have permanently changed daily interaction using pictograms, in other words information that is conveyed via a system of images. Today, more than 3,000 standardized emojis are constantly present on social networks. They reflect the desire for a unique expression of emotion in a highly functional globalized world. The “Pictograms, Signs of Life, Emojis: The Society of Signs” exhibition explores the questions: What considerations, objectives, and hopes are linked to the development of the modern language of images, including emojis? To which issues of their time are they each reacting to? Do they expand our possibilities of expression or do they limit them by defining stereotypes?

In 1925, during the “Red Vienna” period, national economist Otto Neurath founded the Social and Economics Museum of Vienna. It was intended to convey social scientific data and facts also to those people who could not read. For this purpose, Otto Neurath, his wife Marie Neurath, artist Gerd Arntz and their team developed a “pedagogy of images” – the Viennese method of image statistics (later called ISOTYPE – International System of Typographic Picture Education). Their designs reflect the field of tension that the project encompassed between the need for scientific objectivity on the one hand and free artistic expression on the other. This double approach is particularly clear in comparison to the work of Otl Aicher. His graphic system for the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich relied on strict rules of design and maximum functionality. He rejected emotionally charged imagery after the experience of National Socialism.

Artists like Warja Lavater, Pati Hill and Wolfgang Schmidt in turn react to Otl Aicher’s rational pictogram style with very playful and more intimate alternative concepts. Behind each of these approaches, there is an idea of how we can perceive our environment and how we can describe it through symbols. At the same time, the symbols also hold within them the ideal of social exchange and coexistence. Yukio Ota and Timothée Ingen-Housz don’t stop at pictographic systems, they instead construct a language of imagery with its own grammar and extendable character sets intended for use in global exchange thanks to its universal comprehensibility.

Playing with the possibilities and ambiguities of pictograms as well as the criticism and questioning thereof also determines how emojis are used, which are approved by the Unicode Consortium and used worldwide.

Worldwide users usually are not aware of the authors and designers of the emoji sets - for instance Shigetaka Kurita, author of the first emoji set from 1999. “Pictograms, Signs of Life, Emojis: The Society of Signs” introduces several of these pictogram authors who, like Gerd Arntz, decided to spend a large part of their lifetime not only to produce works of art, but also complex pictographic systems. Not all of them had the aspiration of developing their pictograms into universal communication aids. Others counted on more intimate spaces of communication as well as individual and modifiable forms of exchange from the start.

“Pictograms, Signs of Life, Emojis: The Society of Signs” is a collaborative project with the Freiburg Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition will be on display there from 27.03. to 12.09.2021. We would like to warmly thank director Christine Litz and curator Isabel Herda for the excellent collaboration. We would also like to thank the curators of the exhibition, Dr. Michaela Stoffels and Maxim Weirich, as well as graphic designer Eva-Maria Offermann who created the exhibition design together with Maxim Weirich. A big thank you also goes to the Museumsverein Düren and May + Spies GmbH, Düren, for supporting the exhibition, as well as the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation and the Landschaftsverband Rheinland without whose generous support it would not have been possible to implement the catalog that is published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König.

Designers and artists:

Otl Aicher, Moritz Appich / Jonas Grünwald / Bruno Jacoby, Gerd Arntz, Johannes Bergerhausen / Ilka Helmig, Karsten de Riese, Antje Ehmann / Harun Farocki, Juli Gudehus, Pati Hill, Heinrich Hoerle, Timothée Ingen-Housz, Shigetaka Kurita, Warja Lavater, Marie Neurath, Otto Neurath, Yukio Ota, Wolfgang Schmidt, Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, Lilian Stolk, Augustin Tschinkel, Edgar Walthert

Co-curated by:

Dr. Michaela Stoffels, Maxim Weirich, Anja Dorn