Living

Visions in Vinyl

by

Gebhard Sengmüller has finally gotten his new invention ready for the market, but he’s the first to admit VinylVideo is a technology whose time has not only come—it has passed.

Now in its New York debut at Postmasters Gallery on West 19th street in Chelsea, VinylVideo allows people to watch images created by specially pressed albums on household televisions.

Viewers can fast-forward or rewind with a gentle flip of the turntable needle. They can skip tracks on the “picture disks” or scratch the record like a DJ, changing and mixing the image. They can also try listening to the picture disks, though that’s a less pleasant experience akin to searching for the devil’s message in the fuzz of a Beatles record spun backward. The invention is “totally useless of course,” says Sengmüller, a Vienna-based artist who regularly commutes to New York. “There’s no industrial value.”

To make Sengmüller’s product work, all you need is the old record player gathering dust in your apartment, a TV, customized picture disks, and the VinylVideo Home Kit (available for about $2000 from vinylvideo.com). The company’s tongue-in-cheek press material promises “picture quality that is truly extraordinary,” but the resolution of the black-and-white images that emerge is in fact much reduced from that of standard video.

At the Postmasters show, which runs through April 22, a pair of turntables hooked up to vintage TVs spin records created by digital artists. Filmmaker Vuk Vosic and computer musician Alexeij Shulgin turned text into fuzzy, tumbling graphics. New Yorker Kristin Lucas made a disk that plays a streaked image of her face revolving around and around as though it were printed on an album. Visitors can sit in the mod plastic furniture and watch, or pluck records of their choosing from a display case.

VinylVideo would have been useful technology if only someone had perfected it 60 years ago. TV was invented in the late 1920s, but until 1958 there was no easy way to record electronic images, and consumers couldn’t store moving pictures until the VCR hit the market in the early 1980s. Records might have been an obvious choice for saving images, but history remembers only one person—John Logie Baird of Scotland—who tried, soon after the advent of television. Baird managed to put visuals on vinyl, but couldn’t play them back.

That same problem stumped Sengmüller for two years, until techno-collaborators Günter Erhart and Martin Diamant helped him bridge the gap between analog and digital. To get images onto records, the threesome divided pictures into pixels, then assigned each pixel a sound volume and etched it into vinyl. The Home Kit, a small box invented by physicist Diamant, analyzes the volumes and shuffles them back into shades of gray.

The invention’s appeal lies not only in its strangeness but in the retro ambience Sengmüller creates in his gallery installations. VinylVideo latches onto the sense of nostalgia and loss that stems from innovation and obsolescence. “The road to the future is littered with stillborn, ill-conceived, ill-fated media,” says Julian Dibbell, who writes a column for Feed on technology fetishes. “All of these things take on a ‘gorgeousity.’ ”

VinylVideo gets strong competition from “useful” inventions funded by Silicon Valley. LAVA!, for example, produces real-time, spontaneous images from music. Metasynth takes scanned images and generates sound based on their lines and curves. Both programs are popular among electronic musicians, sound technicians, and MP3 sites looking for the next new thing.

What separates art from technology may no longer be utility but mass production and commercial acceptance. The VinylVideo records come from a pressing plant in the Czech Republic, one of the last three in Europe. There are only 10 copies each of the 22 disks made so far, and prices for a variety pack of 10 start at $6000. For Sengmüller, the invention’s value lies in the way its technology reaches back in time to synthesize programming, art, and commerce. “When I came up with it, people said, ‘That’s a stupid idea,’ ” he says. “It became a good idea because we actually do it.”