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W Y O R K, Nov. 1— Gebhard
Sengmüller’s head was spinning. He wanted to create a work of art that
could visualize the gap between the first television broadcasts, circa 1930,
and the advent of video recorders in 1958.
Maybe the evolution could
Gallery director Magdelana Sawon plays some VinylVideo clips.
His brainstorm spawned the revolutionary
VinylVideo, “something that could have recorded television back then with
the technology that had been available then,” says Sengmüller.
Picture a TV sitting next to a turntable.
Then imagine placing the needle on a record, but rather than just hearing
sounds, you see an image on the screen. Lift the needle, and the monitor
goes blank. Place the needle anywhere on the record, and it picks up the
video at that point. It was a wedding of art and technology.
Once Sengmüller had the concept, the next step was
bringing it to life. The main challenge was how to fit a large, complex
video signal, which has a very high bandwidth, into such a narrow bandwidth
medium. In plain English, this means that the artist and his technical
collaborators Martin Diamant and Günter Erhart had to shrink the
video so it could fit onto a record.
They started by sizing down the
frame rate, turning standard 30 frames-per-second, American video into
8 fps. Then they switched from the more robust frequency modulation (fm)
to the amplitude modulation (am). And finally, they translated pixels,
the smallest units of a video image, into sound.
“It’s very similar to what a fax
machine does,” said Sengmüller. Each pixel, a word that comes from
the phrase “picture element,” is assigned a number from 0 to 256, according
to its shade of gray. Each gray level is assigned a sound level. For black,
the sound is low, and for white, the sound is high.
Once the image and its many parts
are translated into sounds, they can be pressed onto a vinyl long-playing
record like ordinary audio. The playback, though, is anything but ordinary.
Yes, it’s blurry and low-tech, but the images are actually generated by
a standard LP. All you need is a black and white TV set, a turntable,
and Sengmüller’s specially designed electronic black box that converts
the audio signals back to video. Dubbed the VinylVideo Home Kit, it’s
certainly an eye-catcher, but you probably won’t find it in living rooms
across the country any time soon.
To compare it to a DVD or even a VHS wouldn’t be fair and
would be entirely missing the point. Finding a “missing link in media history”
was Sengmüller’s goal — not capturing and displaying high-resolution,
crystal-clear images. After all, the system was invented in the pursuit
is the essential component of the VinylVideo Home Kit. Connected to
your standard turntable and television set, it can translate Sengmüller’s
records to play images as well as sound. (ABCNEWS.com)
“Through the decades and millenniums
I have the feeling that art has always been interested in new, emerging
technologies,” said Sengmüller. “Like 12,000 years ago people found
out that they could draw on cave walls, and 150 years ago people found out
Here, though, it’s a clash between the old world and the
new, and for some this mix of high-tech and low-tech doesn’t quite gel
During VinylVideo’s run at Postmasters
Gallery, a cutting-edge art museum in New York, gallery director Magdelana
Sawon says people were intrigued by the exhibit but doubted the technology’s
authenticity. They thought it was a gimmick.
“We had people here digging under
and trying to see if there was a little man or somebody trying to manipulate
it,” says Sawon. “They couldn’t believe that the image actually could
come from the record. … Vinyl is for sound — that’s what you can and ought
to get, and that’s what’s only possible.”
Preconceptions aside, Sengmüller
does admit working a bit of artifice into his creation.
For its 1998 debut at San Francisco’s
experimental gallery, the Lab, Sengmüller and his team were so consumed
with getting the installation up and running for the show that there was
no time to commission content for it, so he created his own. What he came
up with is a hilarious faux advertisement for VinylVideo.
“We’re going to present to you
a revolutionary new home entertainment system,” the infomercial boasts.
“With VinylVideo, you can now enjoy your favorite films at home, on-demand,
any time you like, in a convenient, easy-to-use format, and at only a
fraction of the price of comparable home entertainment systems.” It goes
on to include customer testimonials that marvel at how the product can
“do so many different things.”
It’s a perfect fit for the medium
— a could-be ad for a could-be product, offering a satirical look at consumerism.
“My part in the project is to build
a whole marketing environment around it which is informational but has
a lot of fake stuff in it, too,” says Sengmüller.
Sometimes exhibitions even incorporate a sales pitch by
featuring “an actor [who tries] to sell stuff to an audience” as part
of a live stage show. Other times, the installation is built into a lounge
or living-room set, offering a hands-on approach where people can pick
out records for themselves and then sit back and watch them. Experimenting
with presentation is an essential part of the exhibit — both the setting
and the records themselves.
The videos, produced specifically
for VinylVideo, offer up the artists’ own visions of the retrofitted medium,
which they welcomed as an interesting challenge as opposed to a handicap.
The disc by American artist Kristin
Lucas features her image rotating around the screen as if it had actually
been pressed on top of the record. French artist and musician Cecile Babiole
sets in motion a sort of animated humanoid strutting across the screen
scored to a bare, jew’s-harp-like melody. And Austrian artist Harry Hund,
as if taking a page out of television history and reworking the script
for the format, offers up the “Guinea Pig massacre” in the style of a
So far, 20 artists have produced
22 records for the project, including the VinylVideo creator himself.
Sengmüller, whose latest work involves a series of photographs of
bulk tape erasers, hopes to produce new records with new artists.
“Since audio CDs came into the
market around 1980, it looked like vinyl audio records would disappear,”
says Sengmüller. “Then there was a big movement … to print records
again. So it fits into that scene.”
With some 25 showings to date,
the VinylVideo exhibit continues to make the rounds at art galleries and
museums around the world. Currently, it is part of the inaugural S.O.S.:
Scenes of Sounds exhibit at Skidmore College’s Tang museum in Saratoga
Springs, N.Y., which opened last week.
had people here digging under and trying to see if there was a little
man or somebody trying to manipulate it. They couldn't believe that the
image actually could come from the record.”
Sawon, Postmasters Gallery director
E B L I N K S
the decades and millenniums I have the feeling that art has always been
interested in new, emerging technologies.”
Sengmüller, VinylVideo inventor