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RCA Queer Society Exhibition Brings Switchboard’s Archive to Life

Members of the RCA Queer Society have created an exhibition of new works in response to LGBT+ support organisation Switchboard's rich archive, covering the 41 years they have been in operation. The exhibited work was installed at a gala night at the Waldorf Hotel, to celebrate the re-launch of Switchboard's helpline service for the LGBT+ community, and has since been commissioned as a permanent installation at Switchboard's HQ. 

Switchboard is one of the oldest and most respected organisations offering support to the LGBT+ community. Founded in 1974, their focus has not been political or legislative, rather they offer a listening ear to those needing support; whether that be in coming out, coping with bereavement or accessing social events and local community groups. The helpline has taken over 3 million calls and been witness to important events and changes for the LGBT+ community, from the decriminalisation of homosexuality to the onset of HIV, and from the Soho bombing to the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

A selection of 15 boxes from the archive, containing the most interesting and inspiring material, were chosen by Switchboard for the students to explore. This archival material included paper records, posters, magazines, first-hand testimonies and logbooks owned by volunteers recording anecdotal details – such as requests for more coffee to fuel night shifts – alongside legal advice for callers suffering harassment from the police. Over six months the students studied this material and created individual, diverse responses to the archive. The resulting exhibition, Three Rings, featured work from seven students and was organised by Curating Contemporary Art students Georgia Muenster and Laura Prime.

For the exhibition, Sculpture PhD candidate Peter Le Couteur created Put You Through, an interconnected web of 200 photographs of items from the archive printed on transparencies. On display at the Waldorf this formed a canopy under which guests, many of whom were former volunteers, could discuss and reminisce. The installation made connection points between different items in the archive, re-contextualising them and weaving new narratives. The work relates to Le Couteur's PhD research into the role fiction can play in the interpretation of museums, archives and their display.

Many of the artworks explore the impact Switchboard has on the people at both ends of the telephone line. Alexander Christie, who graduated from MA Photography in 2015, created a series of portraits of volunteers currently answering calls for Switchboard. These were placed alongside another series of photographs depicting the files and folders of the archive in its raw state. Displayed next to this was Natural Acts, a fragmentary audio work created form call logs, letters and press clippings, by Hollie Miller and Sam Williams. Paul Coombs, who starts an MA in Sculpture next year at the RCA, recreated a rubber stamp with Switchboard’s telephone number on it that was made by a member of the public. Originally, this was used to illicitly stamp the number on to bank notes, and Coombs' work was made in response to correspondence held within the archive requesting the individual stop this illegal act.

After the success of the exhibition at the Waldorf, the students were invited to reinstall their work at the Trafalgar Hotel, during Pride in London. The works were displayed on folding screens, designed for the temporary nature of the exhibition, ornamented with black and white reproductions of documents from the archive. At the Trafalgar Hotel, these were positioned in the windows and lobby, for passers-by as well as guests to view.

Impressed with the students’ work and the responses it received, Switchboard have decided to permanently install it in their offices. Here, current volunteers will be able to view it, and this interpretation of the archive will eventually become a new part of it. From what was initially a one-off event, the Queer Society hope the exhibition will mark the beginning of a relationship with Switchboard, with events at the College already being planned for the autumn term.


More information about Switchboard can be found here.

Details on the RCA Queer Society can be found here.