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tram-overheard tram-otherwise tram-overboard  

of communication

tramtactic: the action by tram.
Tramjatra: the journey by tram.
W-11 tram: the mixing up and making up.

What follows is a reflective conversation about the W-11 tram project inititated by Neal Haslem.

It is sometimes hard to know where (and when) one project starts and another one finishes; this W-11 tram project is an example of that difficulty. Without trying to simplify it into a 'product' here is an overview:

W-11 follows the line from tramtactic, tramjatra and the shared lung project. It is a project by Mick Douglas. Tramtactic and the projects under it's banner are his initiations in culture. It uses trams as a vehicle to communicate, create and express communities, it creates a platform for communication between diverse communities.

This old tram has been decorated by bus decorators from Karachi, Pakistan. Professional bus decorators. Led by Iqbal, the owner of the bus decorating company and the master decorator. The tram follows the free city circle tram around Melbourne every Friday evening during the summer of 2006/2007, people get on and off. The city circle line is generally used for transport for tourists, sometimes locals use it to do shopping or get to the other end of town.

I am a communication designer. I have worked with Mick on the Tramtactic work since November 2001. For me it is the best work I can do as a communication designer. The work is not about me, it is about how I might be able to facilitate the projects communicative aims.

I want to write a little about the form of some of the work for W-11, I want to use the work as a way to tease out some of the issues and ideas I have been developing during my post-graduate study at RMIT. All the work for Tramtactic is done on a tight budget and with little time. During these hectic production times there is often little time for on-going discussion about what is going on in the design process, ideas come up, quick asides and 2 minute conversations happen and often don't go much further. This conversation is an opportunity for those conversations to be developed.

When one steps aboard the W-11 tram for the first time the decoration hits you in the chest like a physical force. I don't get this effect anymore but it is fun to watch people board, expecting a normal z-class old 70s tram and be confronted with the plethora of pattern and colour. More often than not they are also confronted by pulsating bangra music and an alice-in-wonderland tram conductor reversing roles and offering them a colourful ticket when they board rather than asking them to check whether they have theirs.

This writing might end up in a typographic magazine, so I want to start with some discussion of the typographic character of the W-11 work. Iqbal and his co-workers use a free flowing hand-cut typographic style. It is ebullient. It is hectic. It is constrained by the ability to cut through the reflective vinyl but takes every opportunity to praise it's own form and revel in its own materiality. It is celebratory and highly personal. There is an established form but the individual letterforms flow around this standard. The standard doesn't actually exist, it is like saying that there is a standard human face. We can however imagine a standard. It is an average. You might imagine an Iqbal "a". You could even, given enough time, construct an Iqbal "a" on the computer and, given enough time, go on to construct a typeface "based" on these typeforms. If one did this however, I would argue that the point of the typeforms would be lost. They exist in their non-reproduced nature, they are originals, they are all different. In this way the work of Iqbal and his team might be referred to more accurately as 'craft' or 'art' than 'design'. To take these letterforms and make them reproducible is to turn them into something else. It is to turn them into a sign for what they once were, turn them into a simulation of their originals (simulacrum Barthes might call it).

The Pakistani bus decorators come to Melbourne, Australia. They decorate a tram. I use elements of their hand-cut vinyl work to make printed and electronic material to promote and explain the project. I take one-off, non reproducible patterns and images, type and colours, scan them and reconstruct them to be printed off in thousands. Handed out to every passenger, a take home, a souvenir of their journey. I make a website which uses the same elements. I use their type and it is reproduced 10,000 times in print, countless times on computer screens. The flyer opens out, like tram doors, it references the tram, it references the hand-cut vinyl. It is the most highly decorative object I have ever designed. It feels out of control and slippery in my 'design hands' The type inside is set in columns in a computer program called inDesign. Everything is absolutely straight, every 'a' is exactly the same to the human eye. The imposed grid and the visual explosion of pattern. Control and wild exuberance. The severely rationalist and the human. The construction of Western visual narrative using Eastern forms. The visual design material reflects the themes which coil through the project. To digitise and reproduce is reductive, it simplifies and cleans, references and sanitizes. My favourite part of the flyer is where one can still see a crease in the scanned object. It becomes a reproduced fault. It carries the beauty and richness of the original, it signals the hand of the maker and the beautiful frailty of human material production. It has not been totally ironed out. It is not seamless.

A grid of numbers on the flyer marks out the timetable for the tram, the city circle line goes around the CBD in about 40 minutes, but never exactly. I doubt that the tram has ever been where the timetable says that it is going to be; it is only a rough guide. Though it is presented with the authority of print and its grid implies order and regularity, this is not a Swiss tram, it is irregular, highly irregular, and once you board, time itself seems to change flow and it is hard to know where you are.

The sponsors brandmarks sit in the bottom right corner inside the flyer. They are hard-edged. One of them references the handwritten with a perfect 'script' to bring the 'human' back into arts funding. There is an ideological battle going on here in the flyer. This visual material is like a market on the border between two different empires, a mixing pot of influences and references. There are so many levels to this 'text' it might be impossible to untangle them all.

I felt the same way when I stepped off the plane in Kolkata, I had my recently completed, freshly printed Tramjatra book in my bag, suddenly that project, and the design of that book, didn't make any sense at all. I had spent 2 years trying to get that project to make some sort of (graphic) sense and then suddenly I realised that I didn't understand the project at all. How could I understand the project looking at photos and reading texts in a studio in North Fitzroy, Melbourne? I had imposed an
order onto the material which suddenly seemed a crude imposition, I wanted to get straight back on that plane. My reaction was not the truth, it was only my response to suddenly seeing the other side. My reaction to being taken to the fish market with Apana Das; here was the missing part of Tramjatra. My work had reduced it to another Swiss grid, squeezing the humanity into a 57mm column width.

This is not actually a story of East versus West, though it has some of that. It is a story of graphic reduction and visual story-telling. It fits in with another project which involved the reproduction of one-off contemporary jewellery. One can't be happy with the finished printed work, it appears thin and mediocre beside the actual object. It seems like an insult to the very object-ness which has been summoned into being by the maker. Like the theatre which wont allow filming. Like the Diva who wont allow herself to be recorded. Is this the lot of the designer for reproduction?


Post to discussion


I do see my work as a translator and as a mediator or medium. A medium through which a communicative or expressive desire might be realised and pursued. The process is the conversation, negotiation and interplay between the involved parties (you and I, the photographers, coders, decorators, printers, server-space owners, viewers, travellers, users) and the circumstance they find themselves in. The work, the outcome, the artefact, is an important part of that process. To me the artefact is a mnemonic, we materialise our conversation in it, it is the combined creation. We might look back at the final artefact and see it reveal a dialogue we were not aware we were having. It is the fulcrum perhaps, around which we swing... or to use your bush-walking analogy it is the mountain we negotiate. It brings conversation which we did not know was within us. It challenges us and our relationship. It is there as a steadying "task", allowing us to work materially, pragmatically, freeing our minds to explore other territories and embark on new conversations. As it recedes into history it remains with us, it is not its surface, it marks a time, process and event and triggers the memory of that "conversation".

You are right about that "attunement". It is a great thing in collaborative work, and a pleasure. It takes time to get to that point. I think that there might be a sense of this "getting in tune" in all my work, it is something I try to reach for, it is the pleasure I find in my work. We know that there are no perfect solutions; one can, as an "employed designer", work in isolation; effect ones will, work with knowledge that one knows, materialise designs, "make it happen". I suppose I think that by acting in this way a lot of opportunities can be lost; the conversation, the education, the interdependence and interplay. I'm not sure if it is that thing about finding the great collaborative partner - the person who knows without asking - or if it is about finding some aspect of that in all of my work. Getting in tune, adding ones own tune; augmenting, reflecting, amplifying, clarifying, layering, returning.

You mention the "slow scoping" - the tentative initiation of projects, the feeling ones way in, the negotiation, conversation and re-negotiation. These ways allow connections to be made and material directions to become apparent. The conversation allows us to go to where we don't already know; places in which we are uncertain and unknowing. We can absorb from the external; internalise, process and materialise. There doesn't seem to be too short or too long a time. The work happens in the time. Perhaps as a practice in the design disciplines it is slightly different, it is not about applying what I know to a situation, but more about becoming part of that situation and allowing for the expression of that situation.

Perhaps similar to the sense that I didn't know this conversation was going to be about "ways" but it is and that's good.

Friday February 23

As we embark on this conversation in written word Neal, I'm drawn to remember the rhythm of our face-to-face discussions whilst working through projects. I feel the beginning words of slow scoping; then a doubling-back; an impulse to take a suddenly revealed side route; a errant aside unfurls as something to swing from; and a little field of forces seems to be emerging that gain, retain or dissolve their power to draw us in. There's a kind of shared rhythmic understanding to these exchanges we've had together, like one develops with a bushwalking partner, a fellow traveler, a kitchen colleague or a music-making friend (all of which I think we've also done together in varying degrees.)

Perhaps our experience in each moment of project work is akin to a creek crossing. We reach the other side with an effect: most tangibly the crossing is evidenced by a 'thing' of communicative function (tickets, a program, a book, a website), yet it is the flow of the waters we've been engaged in that is of concern, that pre-existed and that continue to flow despite our intervention, but perhaps somehow differently, for a moment or more.

I value that in your practice you take the time to feel out the forces at play in the situation that you enter. Throughout this work I've privileged what I've called a 'tram-way of knowing' as an organising allegorical structure, and there's now an attunement that we have with each other's judgements that has come from collaborative experience.

I'm curious to hear about what you have noted as organising or characterising the qualities of this collaborative work we've been doing. It seems to me that in addition to this work being an encounter with the material nature of the projects at hand (for instance the work of others' crafting - like that of a Pakistani vehicle decorator or a Bengali scroll painter - or photographic representations of an installation, or traces of an event), it also has involved the encounter between the two of us. And by extension, we know that other 'forces' of influence have played roles in different aspects of these projects. In this sense I see that there is something akin to a process of translation taking place in the work you've been involved in.

Thursday February 15