vinyl

Blaugrau, Sydney
14 - 24 September 2000

It says something about technological development that a material as artificial as vinyl has attained the status of being almost organic. The vinyl record, admired for its warmth and versatility yet derided for its sensitivity and tendency to age quite badly, had no chance against the glamorous if brittle consistency of the compact disc. However, the CD has since proved to be not quite the durable format it was initially promoted to be (I remember first seeing them on TV being used as drinks' coasters to demonstrate their toughness), and looks like being overtaken by the superior DVD. Meanwhile, the vinyl record has steadily regained its profile. While it will never return as the format of choice for the average punter, it is still the primary medium for club-based dance music, a global phenomenon that shows no signs of abating. It has become specialist rather than mainstream, but this has only added to its allure. Vinyl was always a format that encouraged display, with gatefold sleeves, endless inserts, coloured and shaped records, even cryptic messages etched into the runoff grooves. The physicality of vinyl records, and the performative nature of their interaction with the record playing equipment and the listener, means that vinyl has also come into its own as a raw material for artists.

Marco Fusinato's various experiments with record making and playing, Mutlu Cerkez's turntables and imaginary bootlegs and Ricky Swallow's home-made Multistylus Programme are three recent projects that come to mind. Generation X's experience of vinyl being overtaken by CDs was a major shift in their perception of popular culture, with the more customised, D-1-Y process of making, packaging and playing records being replaced by the uniform aesthetic and the detached, invisible operation of the compact disc.

Vinyl, an exhibition put together by Blaugrau director Alex Gawronski, aimed to demonstrate the various aural, physical, and conceptual qualities of vinyl. In this it succeeded admirably: through the work of seven artists, represented by just one or two pieces each, a remarkably broad overview of vinyl's potential was presented. On one wall, a series of 7" and 12" records were pinned, displaying the material qualities of the vinyl, such as its size, shape, colour and packaging. As all records featured design and sound work by the artists themselves, they were far from arbitrary. These included Toydeath's purple vinyl 7", Michael Morley's exquisite cover art for his band Gate's The Lavender Head double 12", and Michael Graeve's various polycarbonate records (polycarbonate is a hard plastic also used in CD production, and the grooves are etched into the material rather than pressed, as in vinyl). On a table at the back of the room, a more conventional record rack featured further productions by the artists, including Ryszard Dabek, Dylan Krasevac, Morley, Graeve and Toydeath. These discs comprised part of the aural and interactive element, for the viewer was encouraged to play them on the turntable provided. Always a delicate operation, especially with someone else's records and equipment, it highlighted the deeply involved relationship that one had (or still has) with one's record collection: it was something to nurture, and to maintain with an array of brushes, velour pads, and-my favourite-the anti-static gun.

On the other side of the room was the dark (B?) side of this experience, with Vicky Browne's Untitled comprising a cheap turntable on which a selection of round blocks of wood could be played. As the stylus groaned in amplified agony over the grain, it nevertheless managed not to slip off.

Most of the artists included in Vinyl work in both sound and visual arts, and the music on the discs was primarily of the experimental, soundscape sort. Michael Morley is perhaps the most accomplished, and his music was certainly the most compelling. Based in New Zealand, Morley is internationally renowned for his droning lo-fi guitar work in outfits such as Dead C and Gate, and has collaborated (like Fusinato) with members of Sonic Youth. Dabek's music was dreamier, bringing in other instruments like xylophones, while Krasevac's was almost danceable. The most harrowing (and amusing) was the work of Toydeath, who make hardcore noise using nothing but toy instruments. Their Locked Grooves 12" consisted of numerous single groove tracks, each a different nursery nightmare. Other works included a video piece by Krasevac, which consisted of a loop of a record player in a mirrored box, as well as scenes of cassette tapes being smashed. Presented in negative, a simple yet still effective visual device, the refracted images became abstracted to the point of incomprehensibility. Graeve, who has previously filled galleries with turntables, speakers and stacks of monochrome paintings, pinned up photographs of his studio. Gawronski displayed a pie-chart record in a custommade box, each section (designated 'avant-gardelelectronic', 'pop', 'rock', 'classical', 'jazz' and 'folk') sliced and rejoined to create a physical diagram of the artist's listening habits.

What was apparent in most of these works was the decision to avoid a backwards viewpoint; the pieces are very much of the present. They evidence the continuation of a vibrant vinyl culture, through small, specialist pressing plants, independent labels, late-night radio programs and a global network of enthusiasts. The one nod towards nostalgia was provided by Dabek's selection of early '60s record covers, each a minor masterpiece of modernist graphic design. Dabek's link was the way that the word 'stereo' was featured on each cover, often in large black banners and elaborate fonts.

Stereo, so much a part of our aural landscape now, was a technological breakthrough and a major selling point at the time. It is jarring to see something that seems so natural, so organic, to be pointed out to us as special and new, but it is also good to be reminded now and again.