The Retro-Future of Television Today - VinylVideo™

By Daniel Janoff

As might have been expected, we were underwhelmed by the new millennium before it even started. Perhaps this is because the core component of the millennium hype related to our computers: There's this bug. It's in all the computers. It's always been there, but we didn't know it until now. No, it's not messing anything up yet. But in the year 2000...well, all of the planes might crash...and your computer that can make hundreds of millions of calculations in a second and sign all of your checks for you...well, it won't do that anymore, because it'll think it's a time machine. Yeah, it's this frickin' bug. We didn't know about it.

If God created the bug to impress the significance of the new millennium upon us, it was an ill-conceived sign. Upon getting the news, more than one computer owner simply shrugged and said, "Screw it. I'm about 75 megs of RAM and 200 megahertz of some other crap short of doing anything interesting with my computer anyway. This Y2K deal is probably just the thing I need to get me off my ass and finally get an iMac. I'm thinking either grape or lime."

Indeed, this millennial scenario hasn't turned out to be half as apocalyptic as anyone had hoped. But that's because we were expecting the fireworks on the wrong day. All hell is going to break loose, but it won't be in the year 2000.

It'll be in the year 2006.

Six years from now all television transmissions must be fully digital, according to a recent FCC mandate. If you haven't bought a Digital Television (DTV) set—currently priced at around $3,000 — or an adapter box by the big day, you'll turn on your TV to find nothing but channel after channel of snow — an image that has previously served as both gateway to the outer limits and message from the poltergeists that we've really, really screwed up.

The exact date by which the changeover will be complete has not been finalized. But expect more than a few sparks to fly on DTV day. Expect outrage regarding DTVs likely socioeconomic ramifications: it will further increase the chasm between the technological haves and have nots, and supercharge the consumerist choke-hold over our youth to near neck-snapping intensity. Expect gut-grooming football fans everywhere to pass out with euphoria, drooling over their digital widescreens. But also expect a good portion of the viewing public to be simply upset.

You can't just change TV without asking us.

Such an immense and abrupt retechnologizing of the American electronics market is without precedent. Of course, new computer and telecommunications products improve upon the advances of their parent products on a seemingly daily basis. But the core technology that drives the medium of television has remained virtually unchanged since the National Television System Committee (NTSC) approved RCA's color television system in 1953. It's important to keep in mind, too, that the NTSC rejected numerous color technologies before it chose RCA's. None of the other systems would have been compatible with the millions of black and white sets consumers had already purchased. RCA's system won out because it didn't make all the world's TV sets obsolete — a development that would have forced us to admit that our TVs are as soulless as toasters. The gentler hardware shift allowed for the undisturbed deepening of our love/hate relationship with the tube; it let us go on dealing with television as we would a family member, to be alternately praised and criticized but ultimately accepted and loved as one of our own.

There will be no similar consumer handholding when the DTV bomb drops. Unless you'd like to forsake all television broadcasts and go full-on Luddite, you either buy the new set — with its theater-quality picture, five-channel sound, and simultaneous transmission of ancillary video, still-images, and text into your personal computer — or you get the adapter box, watch new shows on the old technology, and continue running in place.

One other option has materialized, however, called VinylVideo™. And although VinylVideo is technically an art project, the ™ is not included for irony. Just look at all that you get.

Installation of the VinylVideo homekit enables you, in imitation of your Y2K-deranged computer, to become a time traveler. This time you speed back to 1923, when a Soviet-born scientist working for RCA was turning out interesting but hopelessly uncommercial gadgets with Buck Rogers-esque names like "kinescope" and "iconoscope". VinylVideo is a collaboration currently taking place in Austria between engineers Günter Erhart and Martin Diamant, artist Gebhard Sengmüller, and the curatorial duo of Rike Frank and Stefan Gyoengoesi, who answer to the name Best Before. The process they've invented is fairly simple. First, both an audio and a video track are converted to the same "language" of frequency and amplitude, and combined into one signal. The information is then pressed onto a conventional long-playing record. When played on a turntable that's connected to a television by the homekit's "black box" (driven by VinylVideo's exclusive "Trashpeg" technology), the record will play back both the original video image and its accompanying sound.

Just as VinylVideo technology is a cleverly conceived aberration of the state-of-the-art digitalisms that drive our home entertainment "needs," so too is the image it plays back. The image, whether or not it was recorded from its source in color, is rendered in black and white. Information depth limitations native to the LP format also greatly reduce the number of frames per second, and the image kicks and flickers with each imperfection of the vinyl grooves. The sound comes through with a fidelity something like that of your telephone receiver. With sound and image synchronized, the VinylVideo viewing experience is like watching a program from the dawn of television — transmitted from Mars.

VinylVideo's strength as a cultural artifact is that, by design, it exists outside the currency of the culture that spawned it. It is an electronic gadget, and we use electronics to make things easier, faster, more real. VinylVideo is most certainly a gadget. Yet no electronics conglomeration would ever stock it, no "right-minded" consumer would ever buy it, and no one trying to reach a wide audience would send their message through it. For most consumers, the only way to experience VinylVideo is through its website, and this is where the project's real relevance can be found.

A RealAudio infomercial (recorded using the VinylVideo process) greets visitors to the www.vinylvideo.com site. A curiously accented spokeswoman boasts that VinylVideo is a "revolutionary new home entertainment system. With it, you can now enjoy your favorite films at home, on demand, any time you like, in a convenient and easy-to-use format, and at only a fraction of the price of comparable home entertainment systems."

The roughly six-minute infomercial goes on to lavish similar tongue-in-cheek sellspeak onto VinylVideo, recasting each shortcoming as a selling point, thus relating numerous artistic goals — mostly parodies of our obsession with the sell, with the planned obsolescence of nearly all products, and with our burning need for perpetual electronic accessorizing. More importantly, the site sells the product quite well, making VinylVideo far more than simply a parody project. A web-browsing gadgeteer may very well be turned on by VinylVideo's audiovisual take on the "vinyl renaissance" that has swept through contemporary musical subcultures. When VinylVideo was first conceived, the ability to play along at home was simply a pitch in the infomercial, with the VinylVideo homekit only existent as a display piece in exhibitions. That will soon no longer be the case, as overwhelming response to the project has led to a new phase: homekits will be available for purchase sometime this spring.

By making VinylVideo a product for sale, its designers allow the project to realize a loftier goal — the creation of an entirely new medium, with its own technology, content, and viewing audience. With the exception of the infomercial, VinylVideo's creators do not produce sounds or images to manufacture. Instead, the website delivers an open invitation to audiovisual artists to offer up their works for transformation by the medium of VinylVideo. The resulting output is then pressed onto ten records — "a limited edition," in the language of the infomercial, "presenting a valuable investment [opportunity]"— with the artist and the VinylVideo consortium splitting the profits down the middle.

In this vertical monopoly (could FCC regulation be far away?) VinylVideo becomes both RCA, providing the medium's technology, and NBC, brokering the creative deals with artists. It's a deal some artists are looking to make. During the two years that VinylVideo has been in existence, over 30 editions have been produced.

But the truest indicator of VinylVideo's relevance as a new medium is that it's already being used in ways its creators hadn't thought of. TV was simply fun when Milton Berle was doing comedy on shows like Texaco Star Theater in the 1940s and 50s. It wasn't until a televised political debate nearly singlehandedly elected John F. Kennedy president in 1960 that we began to see what we could really do with the medium. VinylVideo is experiencing its own adaptations. Initial offerings on the disks were what you'd expect: art reels that only employed the particularities of VinylVideo as an added effect. More
recent editions, however, are doing more with the medium. Slovenian internet artist Vuk Cosic produced VinylVideo picture disk vv rec.no. 09 in 1998. Rather than starting with video images, Cosic programmed lines of computer code that were converted directly and used as the video track. The final product is a collection of music videos with watery images reminiscent of Pong-era video games, accompanied by computer-generated vocals in renditions of rock classics such as "Purple Haze" and "California Dreaming." In  another  adaptation  now  endorsed  by the  consortium,  DJs  have  gotten  hold  of
VinylVideo kits and are already experimenting with "video-scratching" as a new component of club DJ performance.

Whether intentionally or not, VinylVideo out-DTVs DTV. Although digital television makes hefty promises, when 2006 rolls around we may find that it's little more than a sharper screen with louder sound. VinylVideo, however, is already delivering the new era in programming that DTV's inventors can only hope for. By first creating an ironic, emotive art gadget, then experimentally pitching it as something we need, and finally selling it to the audience that has developed around it, the good folks at VinylVideo not only blaze new media territory — they begin to retell our media history.

(copyright 2000 Daniel Janoff / Ten By Ten Magazine)