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March 16, 2000

Come On Over and We'll Watch Some Records

Never 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.

Some frames from artists' short films for the VinylVideo system. From top: Cut-Up/Geert Mul, and Monoscope.
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, which resembles a painting by the Op-Artist Bridget Riley.

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 there.

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. John 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."
Gebhard Sengmüller calls his project "fake media archaeology."
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.

"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 computer.

"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 system.

"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," Sengmüller said.


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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.


arts@large is published on Thursdays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.

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