FORTY FIVE SYMBOLS
Ethnographic Visual Anecdotes

FORTY FIVE SYMBOLS is a collaborative exploration of visual language that unites students, teachers, scholars, and ideas from 6 cities across 4 continents. All participating academic partners come from design or art schools and share the thrive to teach visual literacy, which is based on the idea that pictures, in the broadest sense, can be read and communicate meaning through the process of reading. Students enter their studies with a prior knowledge of visual systems because, at this point, icons have become ubiquitous. We use them to visually convey a vital piece of information, to warn, to guide, to protect us in our urban environments. They are also essential in computer-human interfaces. We are conditioned to follow and obey these signs and instinctively navigate through physical and virtual worlds which both tend to create streamlined international languages to serve the global citizen.

Educating the future generation of creative experts involves teaching them the necessary skills to create effective communication that can function in this global context. More importantly, however, students must learn to excel in finding and applying their own visual language, embrace diversity, and propel their identity in order to vigorously influence their own creative practice. This can be achieved through using open environments to better invite students to explore ethnographic backgrounds, and to initiate critical thinking through encountering the unknown, which can range from utopian visions of our future living to the unanswered phenomena of our past.

A prominent example of unresolved visual code—and a milestone in the history of visual language and typography—is the Phaistos Disc. Even though its purpose and authenticity is still discussed it is considered to potentially be an early, if not the earliest, document of movable type printing. The clay-impressed notation is assumed to be a textual representation and comprises 45 unique and recurrent symbols. Participating students explored this ancient disc, its visual principles and symbolic forms. Inspired by its cryptic yet powerful character, they developed collections of 45 unique symbols to represent the essence of their identity, or the spirit of a culture that is relevant to them. Their mission is not to create additions to the endless repertoire of functional pictograms. Instead, they are driven by personal storytelling and creating ethnographic visual anecdotes that are subjective, stimulating and inviting.

These visual narratives are shaped equally through approaches and practices shared with all international participants to guide them through the domains of visualization: data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. Following a general examination of identity and its various expressions, students dissect a specific culture and gather all its discrete elements and descriptive facts. The data is this: All things that we can perceive with our senses and, subsequently, process with our brain. Consider: What are unique singular elements featured in the visual identity of Guatemalan tribes? Which consecutive moments shape the experience of growing up in US military installations? Linking these individual elements and understanding their meaningful relations permits the description of a collective visual treasure that can be presented as information. This new combination of data and information allows students to recognize patterns and add value through opinions, skills, and experiences based on their history, family, and cultural rituals. These storytelling moments are shared as knowledge globally amongst peers to open a dialog, to learn from each other, and to collectively create a rich and diverse archive of our unique habitats. Eventually, this chronicle of visual anecdotes might lead to future wisdom.

After two years of collaboration and creation, FORTY FIVE SYMBOLS has become more than an assignment for art and design students. It has grown into an initiative that creates local and global communities and fosters cross-disciplinary liaisons to generate communication between diverse cultures. The exhibition at Kunststation Sankt Peter brings the project into full circle, almost like a capstone experience in an academic setting that does not signify the end but a moment of reflection, of celebration, and a path to the new unknown.

Pascal Glissmann




Participating Partner during the first phase in 2012/13

The New School New York
PARSONS School For Design
Pascal Glissmann | Assistant Professor Art, Media & Technology

Academy of Media Arts Cologne
Academy of Media Arts
Andreas Henrich | Professor
Olivier Arcioli | Lecturer and Researcher

Hong Kong Baptist University
Academy of Visual Arts
Dr. Mariko  Takagi | Assistant Professor

Lebanese American University Beirut
School of Architecture & Design
Randa Abdel Baki | Associate Professor

Falmouth University UK
Graphic Design Department
Randa Abdel Baki
Visiting Senior Lecturer

Universidad de los Andes
School of Architecture and Design
Annelie Franke | Associate Professor