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Dis-connect: Communication in the Age of Isolation

screenshot of website
Dis-connect: Communication in the Age of Isolation
screenshot of Book Test Unit website
Working in partnership with the BT Archives, MRes RCA: Communication Design students have created an online publication exploring the future of telecommunication in the age of the pandemic. It is available online and will be launched with a series of live conversations on the MRes RCA Communication Design Instagram account led by the students on 2 and 3 June.

website screen shot
Dis-connect: Communication in the Age of Isolation
screenshot of Book Test Unit website
Book Test Unit is a long-running experimental platform in the School of Communication, which brings together RCA students, alumni and external partners to explore multiple critical perspectives on the future of the book and publishing. This year, the students were tasked with considering the future of telecommunication using items from the BT Archives as starting points, working with Anne Archer, Head of Heritage & Archives at BT. The disruptions of Covid-19 have inevitably shaped their research and the project has developed to incorporate reflections on the impact of the global pandemic on telecommunication.

June Huebner
June Huebner explored her relationship with technology and the everyday objects around her during lockdown as part of her study of the mundane in the future of telecommunication.

Dr Emily Candela, MRes RCA Communication Design Pathway Leader, explained: ‘Each student focused on a different aspect of the theme, inspired by material from the BT Archives, ranging from the future of live streaming, to the digital funeral, to how we will eat in the near future of social distancing. These projects come together in a publication that is part speculative future, part record of the shifting experience of our lives mediated through telecommunication as the pandemic took hold this spring.’

The BT Archives preserve the historical information of BT Plc and its predecessors from the early part of the nineteenth century up to the present day, effectively representing the history of telecommunications services in the United Kingdom and from the UK to overseas. 

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, students visited the archive at Holborn Telephone Exchange. Roxanne Bottomley, described this experience. ‘The archive rooms were up four or five flights of stairs and the smell of preserved paper grew stronger with each flight. The main collection room is kept cold to preserve the documents. We got to hear sounds of pre-recorded speaking clocks, see and use old telephones and feel the vibrations emitting from the cogs of old machinery. All of this contributed to a very exciting and immersive archive experience.’

For Roxanne, the archive has offered a way to reflect on her research. ‘It has been an unbiased observer, offering its alternate opinion on existing topics’ she explained. ‘It has clarified the rationale and purpose of my work and given me confidence that I am working in the right area for me.’

drawing of a flower and a woman
Clara Searle
Clara Searle, who had previously worked in design and publishing archives, was new to the experience of looking through a telecommunications archive. ‘The expanse of the types and formats of materials was incredible, but what I found really fascinating was seeing how these objects related to the public’ she commented. ‘Whether it was publicity material, recordings, devices for direct communication, or even correspondence and consumer feedback, I felt it broadened an understanding of what communication design can entail.’

woman using a Trimphone
Photograph of a woman using the ‘Trimphone’, 1972, TCB 473/P 11212
© BT Archives
Based on publicity images for the “trimphone” dating from the 1960-70s, Clara’s self-reflective writing and illustrations for the publication consider how the use of mobile phones as social signifiers has shifted during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Visiting the BT Archives has broadened Melissa Lu’s perspective on everyday technologies. She explained: ‘To see the amount of research, documentation, and design that goes into things we take for granted, like fibre cables and telephone poles, has been inspiring towards the work we are doing in the Book Test Unit.’ For the project, Melissa has developed a visual language for recording experiences of the pandemic for electronic transmission to readers in the future, based on the design of a “telemessaging” system in the BT Archives.

Melissa Lu
Melissa Lu

poster for BT telemessage
‘Telemessage–How it works’ poster, 1983, BT1-EMP9/9/1
© BT Archives

The students have had to adapt their ideas to work for an online format during lockdown, with plans for a DIY physical second edition set for when the group can physically be reunited in the future . Melissa, who has contributed towards the design of the publication, outlined this process: ‘through edits and discussions with fellow peers and tutors, we decided to focus on depicting the publication as a website, incorporating the traditional elements of a book into the new medium. This opens up the possibility of video and sound pieces to be presented more fully.’

With special thanks to Anne Archer, BT Heritage and Archives.

Two days of launch events for Dis/connect: Communication in the Age of Isolation start at 11am on 2 June on the MRes RCA: Communication Design pathway Instagram account.

Find out more about MRes RCA and how to apply.