VinylVideo: The technology that lets you play records on your TV set

By in Features





Created as a medium for installation artists, and now available as home entertainment for tech-geeks and format enthusiasts, VinylVideo is a science-fiction rewind which works by disrupting the chronology of media history, enabling moving images stored on vinyl to be played on a TV set. Chris May talks to Gebhard Sengmüller, VinylVideo’s originator.

It is an amalgam of H.G. Wells’ novella The Time Machine, Heath Robinson’s fantastical mechanical contraptions and John Logie Baird’s Phonovision video prototype of the 1920s. But although visual artist and media archaeologist Gebhard Sengmüller calls it “fake” technology, VinylVideo – which he developed with fellow Vienna resident, scientist Martin Diamant – works.

Imperfectly, it is true. The visual resolution is poor and the audio quality is low and it only works in black & white. But it works. And as the eighteenth-century essayist Samuel Johnson wrote after witnessing what he considered to be a near impossible event, “[it] is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

The magic gizmo in the VinylVideo process is the Converter, a box of tricks which sits between a record player using a standard diamond stylus and a TV set. It translates the video output of the record player into something which can be displayed on the TV screen. In 2000, when the system was launched, each of Sengmüller and Diamant’s Converters cost around 4,000 Euros to make. In practice, only artists who received commissioning grants from art-funding organisations could afford to work with the system. But over 30 did so, including Julia Scher, Annika Eriksson and Laurie Anderson-collaborator Perry Hoberman.

In 2014, Supersense, an all-analogue concept store and direct-to-disc record manufactory in Vienna, had the idea of making VinylVideo available to a wider customer base. But first, a way had to be found of making the Converter affordable. The company hired Diamant, who, incorporating the recently launched Raspberry Pi [a cheap, single-board computer developed in Britain to teach basic computer-science in schools], produced a Converter that can be sold for 175 Euros.

In collaboration with Gregor Samsa of Hamburg-based record label Sounds of Subterrania, Supersense have also made available a set of “audiovisual phonograph records.” All you need to play them is a record player, a TV set and a Converter. Four titles are so far available – Motörhead’s “Get Back In Line,” The Courettes’ “Voodoo Doll,” Reverend Beat-Man’s “If I Knew” and Frankie Stubbs’ “Heart Is Home.” Using Supersense’s direct-to-disc cutting facilities, Martin Diamant can also turn a video of your own choice into a one-off VinylVideo disc.

Gebhard Sengmüller spoke to Vinyl Factory from his Vienna studio….

What sparked your invention of VinylVideo?

When I started on it in the mid 1990s, vinyl seemed to be a vanishing medium. DJs were still using it but the signs were it would not survive for long. There was absolutely no hint of a revival. And the other motivation, a sort of a dumb idea, was: let’s just try this, see if it might work. It was a step towards media archaeology, which was gathering momentum.

In what way is media archaeology different from media history?

Media history traces a linear development, where one thing leads to the next thing, and that in turn leads to another thing, until it reaches the present – one improvement after another up to the glorious present. As the word archaeology implies, media archaeology is about digging deeper and finding hidden or different historical paths, real or fictive. It deals with parallel, lost, little regarded, perhaps purely imagined strands in the development of today’s media apparatuses.

How does VinylVideo slot into that concept?

My idea was to create this kind of fake artefact that could have existed in the 1940s and 1950s, but didn’t. That’s why I call it fake. Because though it works, it didn’t exist until I went back in time as it were and invented it. I wanted to engage in a sort of fictitious time travel in which the course of technology is changed.

A sort of reverse chronology science-fiction adventure?

I was intrigued by the discontinuity in the development of electronic film technology. Even though the electronic transmission of moving images had been feasible since [John Logie] Baird’s work in the 1920s, storage of these images became possible only after the development of the video recorder in 1958. And recording images for private use did not become available until the mass introduction of the VCR in the 1980s. Before that, the average consumer was confined to use 8mm film, technology dating back to 1900, usually worked without sound.

In what way does VinylVideo differ from Baird’s Phonovision video machine?

VinylVideo is certainly not high resolution, but Baird’s prototype was really low, low, low resolution. Even at that time it was pretty much unusable. It was more a theoretical concept than something practical. He actually produced some video records – but only to show people how the signal sounded. He never had the means to play back the actual visual images. Then in the 1990s a British engineer at IBM found some old Baird records and restored them with computer technology. Around the same time, Martin [Diamant] and I tried to do something that did play back video and was at least on the verge of being usable.

Did you intend to give the playback a retro feel?

Not at all. We didn’t try to make it look retro in any way – what you see is our best effort. We actually spent four or five years trying to make it look better. It’s just not possible.

What particular role did Martin play in the development of VinylVideo?

I had the idea in 1994 but I didn’t have enough technical capability to make it happen. For two or three years I worked with a couple of computer engineers but we didn’t break through technically. I knew Martin from a sound engineering course I took in the early 1990s and thought maybe he could solve the problems. It was Martin who succeeded in getting the sound and video on the record and developing the Converter box so you could play the records back on a TV. He’s a genius. He came up with ideas and solutions that nobody had thought of before.

When did you arrive at a prototype that you were both happy with?

Around 2000. That was when we started producing records. We made 32 or 33 with visual artists. They were pressed in limited editions of ten copies for each title. I toured with some records on and off for about ten years. I did dozens of shows all over the world. There were some live shows but mostly it was installations, with booths where you could sit down and watch the records. In England there were shows in London, Liverpool and Hull.

How did the artists find working with VinylVideo?

Some were very enthusiastic. I pushed them not to use existing videos but to create something tailored to the technical capabilities of VinylVideo. They had to produce videos that would work with low visual resolution and low sound quality. And back then, before video got digital, you couldn’t chop up the visual timeline. So I also encouraged the artists to make videos that were not linear, to make their own timeline.

What about DJs/VJs? Was there much take-up there?

Not so much. It was disappointing for DJs because video doesn’t work the way sound works. They couldn’t scratch the video like a club DJ scratches an audio-only disc. When you scratch a regular vinyl record, the sound goes back and forth but the same thing doesn’t work for visual images on vinyl. You have to have a constant speed. You can go a bit slower or a bit faster but you can’t scratch in any real sense. All you can really do is pick up the needle and put it down somewhere else. So VinylVideo wasn’t something that appealed to DJs. That’s why me and Martin decided to be our own DJs and do some live shows. We were the only ones doing it really.

POSTCRIPT. In a follow-up phone conversation, Martin Diamant revealed an unexpected bonus of his work with Supersense:

“I have learnt from a dear colleague how to cut records,” says Diamant. “This has had an influence on how VinylVideo records are made. In the past, with the pressing plants, it was very hard for Gebhard and I to get across to them how loud to cut the records. That matters because if it’s too loud the picture quality will degrade. Now I have had the opportunity to do my own research and I know exactly where to fix the level. I can produce everything that is needed for VinylVideo myself, from building the Converter through to cutting the finished records.”