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Melbourne Festival: Joining Forces are coming to a stop near you

The sight of a tram lurching up Swanston Street is an iconic sight in Melbourne but there’s something different about no. 295, enough to make several commuters swing their heads to the side as it comes to a screeching standstill.

From a distance it looks like it’s covered in graffiti, as though a wall chiselled from one of Melbourne’s iconic laneways is making a slow, rolling getaway across the CBD. But look closer and the tram becomes a minefield of surrealist creatures, a world of space weasels and slug men, set against a backdrop of vibrant orange. With every glimpse something new will inevitably catch your eye.
Jeffrey Phillips, a member of artist collective Joining Forces, says that’s the beauty of the work.

“There’s still things in there that I haven’t seen, with six people working on it you don’t know what marks other people have made,” he says.

This art tram, designed by Joining Forces, makes up one of eight trams hitting the tracks around the city as part of the Melbourne Festival’s Art Trams initiative, transforming Melbourne’s iconic tram network into a mobile public gallery showcasing local Victorian artists. It’s a new take on the Victorian Government’s Transporting Art program that saw artist-designed trams, including those by Howard Arkley and Michael Leuing, take over Melbourne’s network from 1978 to 1993.

Presented by the Melbourne Festival, Arts Victoria and Yarra Trams, the Art Trams project, set to run from this October through to April next year, places emerging talent Joining Forces and Freya Pitt alongside more established artists like Bindi Cole and Jon Campbell.

It makes for an eclectic mix of suburban portraits, a rhino and a lot of orange paint.

Phillips says it’s surreal to think Joining Forces’ design proposal was selected for the Art Trams initiative.

“We put it through and hoped for the best but really didn’t expect to get it. It took a while to sink in, to be honest,” he says.

While most of the artists selected to work on the Art Trams project are in their 40’s and 50’s with a stack of awards and a slew of representative galleries behind them, Joining Forces only had its first exhibition at Top Shelf Gallery in May this year.

After that, everything fell into place very quickly. The group adopted their earlier exhibition title as the collective’s official name and likewise, the competition’s proposal took just one evening to materialise, draft and submit – the day before entries closed.

But fellow Joining Forces member Zahra Zainal doesn’t let that faze her. She says as individual artists the collective has enough experience to draw from.

“While we were the youngest out of the eight artists, most of us have been working in the creative field for quite a few years,” she says.

Jeffrey Phillips and Zahra Zainal, as well as Brendan Ninness, Gemma Flack, Rhiannon Thomas and Sebastian Berto comprise the collective of artists who make up Joining Forces.

Thomas, Zainal, Flack and Berto met while studying Animation and Interactive Media at RMIT University. Being housemates, Berto and Zainal quickly developed a taste for collaboration.

“We became very interested in the process [of collaboration], the results were not like anything either one of us could have produced on our own, so we wanted to see what would happen if we got more people involved,” she says.

Ninness and Phillips moved from Perth and the six met through mutual friends at a life drawing class.

“We’d just all catch up for drinks and coffee. Because we’re artists we’d all have our sketchbooks and pens on hand and we’d start doodling,” Phillips says.

But Joining Forces quickly evolved from idle doodles on six separate sketchbooks. The tram design itself reads like a tribute to the collective’s own evolving narrative, interweaving species and experimentation through a united creative imagination.

Phillips says it wasn’t always this way.

“When we started it might have been ‘well, you’re doing this and I’m doing that’ and after a while we realized how much more exciting and interesting it was to leave things half done and see how the other person interpreted it. I really enjoy seeing how a mark on that paper evolves and becomes something I did not see turning out that way. Nine times out of 10 it turns out way better than anything I could have imagined,” he says.

The collaborative nature of Joining Forces fits seamlessly with the tram’s narrative of evolution, which, at its core, is a striking celebration of what many hands can achieve.

“Having friends to work on it with is so much more fun. Filling a blank canvas by yourself is so intimidating, but it just flowed. As we progressed and unrolled the white canvas a little bit more and a little bit more we kept marveling at how much we had done,” Zainal says.

Made up of five stages, the design, based on a five metre long hand-painted canvas, imagines Earth’s evolution through playful and grotesque characters who invite Melburnian commuters into their surrealist orange universe. Sweet moon babies are propped up against slimy slug men with crazed eyes and sunhats.

It would take a Philosophy professor to analyze the significance of this colourful array of critters who have taken up residence on tram no. 295, but that’s part of removing art from the traditional confinements of a gallery space and incorporating it into the everyday – everything is up for interpretation.

That Doctor Who’s tardis is riding atop a giant sea squid in the middle of space makes for an unsettling image to haunt the commute home. In our current climate, thinking too much is a dangerous activity, but Phillips says the process reads like a stream of collective consciousness.

“In about five minutes we came up with this idea that we’d start drawing plant life at one end, then bugs and the bugs would evolve into animals, animals into people, and the people would end up in a futuristic space age. It was really loose and really simple, we marked off where one stage would start merging into the next and it worked out really well,” Phillips says.

No matter how people interpret Joining Forces’ army of critters, Zainal says it’s priceless to overhear what her fellow commuters think of the tram.

“I’ve actually just been on the tram and overheard some people laughing about the creatures, they were very amused and said it was the best tram they had ever been on. That was pretty nice,” she says.

Their optimism is part of what keeps Joining Forces’ creativity humming. There’s always something new to imagine and, on a canvas alongside five other people, Phillips says the possibilities are limitless.

“You just don’t know what’s going to come out of it. You draw a fish and then it turns into a bear and then the bear’s knitting and it just keeps going, it evolves. At the end of it there’s nothing that’s 100 per cent mine,” he says.

Perhaps that’s the real story behind Joining Forces’ tram. Humankind is a collaborative venture of evolution, an infinite line of inheriting someone else’s drawings – or laws, homes and job descriptions – to interpret and craft into something altogether unfamiliar and new.

So you can never be sure if you’ll be left with a squid or a moon baby.

You can catch Joining Forces next month at the Hawthorn Arts Festival, or check out their tram by searching no. 295 on the tram tracker app

Image: Artist’s own, reproduced with permission.

Emma Nobel

The author Emma Nobel

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