Ephemeral Communiqué: Art Gallery Exhibits QSL Cards

Posted on August 13, 2011

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The Chesapeake Gallery at Harford Community College is currently displaying over 550 amateur radio QSL cards that were issued between 1920 and 1980.

The exhibit, HPE 2 WRK U AGN SN – a survey of ephemeral communiqué 1920-1980, is being curated by Associate Professor of Art, Ken Jones.

According to the gallery’s website, Jones picked the cards from over ten thousand that he has amassed from radio amateurs all over the world.

They are “presented and arranged by style,” the site says.

Q signals or Q codes were established early in telegraphy – along with other shorthand like the exhibit’s title – to abbreviate information being transmitted via Morse code. The characters “QSL” transmitted as a statement confirms reception of a fellow operator’s transmission; transmitted as a question it seeks confirmation that one’s transmission has been received.

QSL cards are ephemeral documents that confirm reception between two stations. Unique and usually postcard sized, operators transfer their logbook details of a radio contact including date, time, frequency, reception quality, a brief description of the QSO (conversation) and any additional personal comments onto the card before sending it via mail to the other operator.

“Sending QSLs is a tradition in ham radio,” the American Radio Relay League’s book “Operating an Amateur Radio Station” says. It’s a tradition that lives on, amongst many amateur operators, even in the information age.

QSL cards are one of the most enduring and identifiable artifacts of amateur radio and represent one of the most unintentionally artistic aspects of radio hobbyism, something the curator seems to recognize.

“Operators created and exchanged their designs to represent themselves, express individual identities–and sometimes fantasies–while capturing and sharing distinctive technical information about their communication,” the site says.

Cards are still collected for their unique designs and as documentary evidence necessary for awarding amateur radio achievement certificates.

Harford Community College and the Chesapeake Gallery are located in Bel Air, Maryland.

The exhibit runs until the 15th of September.

Editors Note: My article on Transmission Art explored Max Goldfarb’s fictional art project “QSL Serial” – which is unrelated to the Chesapeake Gallery’s current show.

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