March 16, 2000
By MATTHEW MIRAPAUL
Come On Over and We'll Watch Some Records
let it be said that Gebhard Sengmüller's artistic sensibilities are
in any way warped.
Sengmüller is the creator of VinylVideo, a truly
revolutionary system for screening short artist-made films on a television
set. Each film is stored on a 12-inch vinyl record that spins at 45 r.p.m.
on a standard audio turntable. An electronic box connects the turntable
to a TV and converts the audio signal for video playback.
To date, there are 23 black-and-white "picture
disks" for the system, ranging from Sengmüller's hilarious 12-minute
infomercial for VinylVideo to a scintillating exercise in animated geometry
by the Web-art duo Jodi.org, which resembles a painting
by the Op-Artist Bridget Riley.
|Some frames from artists' short films for
the VinylVideo system. From top: Cut-Up/Geert Mul, Jodi.org and Monoscope.
Although the full infomercial and excerpts from the other films can
be viewed on the VinylVideo Web site, the original works will have their
New York debut on April 1 as part of the "Behind the Firewall" exhibit
at the Postmasters Gallery in New York. Sengmüller's
curatorial collaborators, Stefan Gyöngyösi and Rike Frank, have
designed a small "shop" for the gallery with a viewing station inside.
VinylVideo's commercial prospects may be as limited as its low-resolution
images. But as corporations rush to digitize the universe, Sengmüller
supplies a pointed reminder that there is still a big analog world out
VinylVideo is also an ingenious exploration of the interrelationship
between old and new technologies. In fact, Sengmüller and his technical
collaborators, Martin Diamant and Günter Erhart, were inspired by
the decades-long gap between the first television broadcasts, circa 1935,
and the first video recordings, which were not made until 1958.
"We had the idea to create this missing link in media history," Sengmüller
said in a phone interview from his studio in Vienna. "We also call it a
piece of fake media archaeology. Our vision was to record television with
a technology that was already available back in those times."
As it turns out, the approach does have a real historical precedent.
Logie Baird, an electrical engineer in Scotland, tried something similar
in the 1920's by recording experimental video signals onto audio discs.
Baird could never get his "Phonovision" discs to play, but modern engineers
have recently succeeded in retrieving the images.
Sengmüller and his team were unaware of Baird's pioneering efforts
when they started working on VinylVideo in 1994.
First, the group developed a digital-processing technique that would
allow them to transform the video signal into audio. They degraded the
image quality so they could squeeze as much information as possible into
the grooves of a long-playing record, dubbing the new file format ".trashpeg."
Sengmüller said the Eisenhower-era quality of the video is "not
an aesthetic effect."
"We don't try to make it look old," he said. "The video looks as good
as it can look being played back from a record. The difference between
VinylVideo and normal television is like the difference between short-wave
radio and FM radio."
The team also had to build an electronic box that would convert the
audio signal back into video for television playback. This VinylVideo Home
Kit, as it is called, will be on sale for the first time at Postmasters,
along with the limited-edition picture disks.
Converting the films into sound and back into video is "a strange mix
of analog and digital" processes, Sengmüller said. Fax machines work
in a similar manner, turning images into a stream of analog electrical
impulses that get sent over a telephone line so another fax machine can
restore them as a grid of "pixels."
The initial picture disk was the VinylVideo
infomercial, first show in 1998. Its irony-laced sales pitch is heightened
by the visual ambience of a 1950's television show.
|Gebhard Sengmüller calls his project
"fake media archaeology."
"The antiquated electronics and tongue-in-cheek sales pitches may be
inspired by broadcast TV of the 1950's, but I think VinylVideo is a lot
more indebted artistically to [the video artist] Nam June Paik," said Jon
Ippolito, assistant curator of media arts at the Guggenheim Museum in New
York. "His transgressions against broadcast TV a decade later spawned the
entire medium of video art." (The Guggenheim is home to a dazzling Paik
retrospective until April 26.)
In a New York performance in 1965, Paik used a reel-to-reel audio deck
to play a video recording he had made using one of the first Sony video
cameras. "For an audience in 1965, the sensation must have been similar
to what we now feel watching TV images spin magically from a VinylVideo
LP," Ippolito said.
Indeed, Paik makes a guest appearance in the infomercial. Sengmüller
added a new soundtrack to some vintage footage of the artist, making it
seem as if Paik is endorsing the VinylVideo system.
But the infomercial will be the last picture disk that Sengmüller
produces for the system. He conceived VinylVideo in part because he wanted
artists to have an alternative to fiddling with Photoshop software on a
"The whole idea of art is [artists] creating their own tools or inventing
their own world in some way," Sengmüller said. Now it is up to others
to capitalize on the opportunities -- and conquer the quirks -- of the
"It's important that the artists are willing to deal with what we call
new possibilities, which are much limitations in reality. We have this
very reduced image and sound quality, and the artists are really challenged
to work with that. If you use a wide angle shot, you cannot see anything,"
Kristin Lucas, a New York
artist, produced nine short videos for her picture disk, adding a soundtrack
created with the "Music Generator" cartridge for the Sony PlayStation.
Lucas, who often uses analog techniques in her video work, said Sengmüller's
system had "revitalized a fading format, the vinyl record." She has occasionally
worked as a video DJ, and hopes that others will someday scratch and mix
with her picture disk, much as audio DJs excerpt and blend sounds from
an audio recording.
Tamas Banovich, the media curator at Postmasters, said Vinyl Video "is
very attractive, with all its imperfections. It fascinates people. Very
often, technological work repels people. This seems to pull people in."
Banovich explained part of the appeal: "It's such a strange feeling
just to pick up an LP again."
Some might even say groovy.
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Matthew Mirapaul at email@example.com
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