Creative Writing at The New School

A visual communication design project started at Parsons goes transdisciplinary as it expands to include creative writing students. The first Writer In Residence, MFA 2020 candidate Pune Dracker, shares how the project came about and how others can get involved.

241 characters, 45 different symbols, gilt awhirl in wonky words— 

Can you grok this ancient tweet, and does it matter anyway?

Meet the Phaistos Disc, dating from the second millennium BC and unearthed on the island of Crete in 1908. Considered one of the first examples of movable type printing, today the disc provides inspiration to student designers who participate in The Phaistos Project, co-founded by Parsons Professor Pascal Glissmann, Director, AAS Communication Design. Since 2014, students from art & design schools all over the world have responded to an annual call to use research-driven design methodologies to translate their current experiences and concerns—political, economic, ecological, cultural—into their own collections of 45 symbols. 

The student projects are astonishing—more than 200 submitted by designers from 43 countries to date. A selected number are archived here.

There’s the 2019 winning collection Earports, in which Stefan Fitze & Maxim Staehelin explore the problem of noise pollution at airports. While researching airline floor plans, the visual communication students discovered that most airports have a visual similarity to firearms.

For her winning set of 45 symbols, Shaping Language, Andrea Sara Gallo recorded the motions that most of us make countless times a day when using a touch-screen keyboard, and turned them into line figures. How elegant—surprisingly!—this dance-y digital handwriting is.

I first became involved in the Phaistos Project as a Research Assistant in Spring 2019, writing and editing website content and completely thrilled because I’d seen the disc in person (it’s on display at the Heraklion Archeological Museum in Crete) while studying in Greece as an undergrad. When Professor Glissmann introduced the idea of a Writer In Residence project that would launch this fall, I was in. Just had to figure out how it would work.

Image, meet text

The Phaistos Project exists in a visual landscape, speaks a purely visual language…45 symbols, after all…so why (and how to) bring words into it? In 2018, when Glissmann was presenting The Phaistos Project at several conferences, he noticed that people of various disciplinary backgrounds were intrigued by the concept and the variety of visuals created by this global community. “That interest made me think about ways to open the project up to researchers of disciplines beyond art and design,” says Glissmann, “and I also had the feeling that we are creating a powerful archive representing current concerns of future generations, and that we should find ways to activate it.” 

And since the Phaistos Disc itself is an early, if not the earliest, document of “printed” text, Glissmann explains, “I thought it would be a nice twist to cycle back to it in its pure form, and see how it could be a creative research tool for a writer.”

As we decided on the shape the residency would take, we had a general idea that the writer would dig into the rich archive of projects for inspiration. Glissmann also shared the two rules I had to follow in my written responses to the 45 symbols:

1) The Writer in Residence will produce work that is solely textual, the only images involved being the symbols that the text interacts with; and 

2) The work must be short—“micro-publications” that will be shared on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

“Social media is an important aspect for our community, since we are distributed around the globe,” explains Glissmann. “So the idea to use the same channels to disseminate the outcome of the writer's residency seemed to make sense. I was also interested in creating a time-based publication that would be shared over several weeks.” 

In addition to these rules, I added some of my own to help define (okay, contain) my project: 

3.) I will write poems using poetic forms that somehow relate, i.e. culturally or geographically, to the subject of/objects depicted in the symbols.

And as research and process are important aspects for the designers when developing their sets of 45 symbols, 

4) my poems and their forms will be informed by research; and 

5) I will document my processes.

I also wanted to remain aware that I was exploring the balance, the word-world, between the time/thought it typically takes to write a tweet/FB status, and the time/thought it would take to write and polish, say, a sonnet. That seems like a lifetime, but still. I wanted to fall somewhere between fussing not too much and just enough.

The 2019 Residency kicked off in September and will consist of 15 micro-publications, one per week. Most recent is “Union Square, Near Best Buy,” a 3-line poem in conversation with designer Chloe Koo’s winning 2014 project, Hanbok, which takes its name and aesthetic from traditional Korean clothing. This was her symbol #23, which she named “Performance.” That made me think of one of my favorite street performers, an animal handler who reads Bible verses to his extremely well-behaved companions. I grabbed little bits of language directly from an article on him that I found online.

Noah exhibits two dogs, two cats and three guinea pigs on the streets
Some argue his altar-like menagerie is cruelty
but the guinea pigs sit so still and peacefully—are they real?!

In this sijo, a Korean poetic form older than haiku, the first line introduces the situation, the second develops the theme or introduces a turn in argument, and the third line presents a twist and conclusion. Each line is somewhere between 14-16 syllables.

I explored the silva for my Week 2 poem, “Gansitos,” written in response to Julio Aguirre’s extraordinary set of symbols that celebrate Mexico’s culture. 

This traditional Spanish form can be any number of lines and any number of couplets, but they must have 7 or 11 syllables each—a suitable container for this micro-publication that also incorporates found language (including phrases from a list of ingredients in Gansitos, popular Mexican crème-filled snack cakes).

Are you in the mood for something delicious?
Take your 8 million and your Twinkie defense

With all your dirty money
You can buy almost 1 million 10 thousand

Yummy artificially flavored crème-filled
chocolate-flavored snack cakes.

Build the walls of your arteries with guar gum,

Undear Mr. President

Following the poem you can see the simple template I created to document the process.

And the Next Writer In Residence Is…

The Phaistos Project will be looking to identify writers for the next residency in late spring/early summer 2020, with the aim of publishing a series of micro-publications in the fall. Definitely a dream project, especially if you enjoy collaborating and writing about art/design/culture. You’ll get free creative rein, yet the guidelines you do have are clear and measurable, and you’ll also be treated to a wonderful presence on the Phaistos Project website.

“We are really interested in writers of diverse backgrounds,” says Glissmann, “and will try to switch the writing approach for each residency—from poetry to fiction to journalism, for example.” If you will be a current student in the fall, are interested in exploring transdisciplinary work and are open to using social media as your platform, stay tuned to the Creative Writing Weekly Newsletter for an announcement of the call for the next resident. Start thinking micro!

You can always find us here:

The Phaistos Project/45 Symbols on Facebook

The Phaistos Project/45 Symbols on Instagram

The Phaistos Project/45 Symbols on Twitter

About The Author

Founded in Greenwich Village in 1931, Creative Writing at The New School continues to promote, engender, and shape innovative literature.