Emojitracker.com, which updates the number of emoji being used on Twitter in real-time, projected on a gallery wall.

Back in the ‘90s, when a young employee at the Japanese mobile company NTT Docomo scratched out a series of 12-pixel-square faces and created the template for what would become “the body language of the internet,” he could have never in his wildest dreams imagined something like the Emoji Art and Design Show, an event in which almost 30 artists gathered to pay tribute to the tiny, text-sized animations.

Since the Unicode standardization of the adorable pictographs and their subsequent inclusion on iOS keyboards, emoji have become a crucial part of the way we communicate. The symbols, which NYT technology reporter Jenna Wortham calls “an ever-changing communal form of cryptography,” were used 1.7 billion times on Twitter between July and November of 2013 alone. And their popularity — as sly communication aides, flirtatious additions to texts, and fodder for weird remixed art Tumblrs — is only growing.

Spanning mediums from video to composite posters, the works in the Emoji Art and Design Show treated our favorite smiling piles of poo and flying rocket ships with all the ambiguity they deserve. Some artists interpreted them literally: Ramsey Nasser, who recently finishing building a programming language in Arabic, created what he calls a “universal programming language” based on the symbols, which he says are far more intuitive for use by an international community. And Emoji Dick, a translation of Moby Dick, enlisted the crowdsourced labor of Mechanical Turk to transpose each of the classic book’s 10,000 sentences. Others took a more sinister route. In one set-up, a collaboration between Emilio Vavarella and Fito Segrera, Segrera contorted his face into facsimiles of popular emoji, muscle stimulators attached to his face.

Emilio Vavarella

Photography by Michael Shane