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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.
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
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.
These sites are not part of The New York Times on the
Web, and The Times has no control over their content or availability.
Matthew Mirapaul at firstname.lastname@example.org
welcomes your comments and suggestions.