Rich in cultural symbolism, vinyl records have shown the unique capacity to be at once archive, artifact, metaphor and icon – also in the context of art. Artists like Allen Ruppersberg and Rashid Johnson use records as found objects, investigating the ways in which sleeve art can trigger memories, convey styles, evoke contexts and shape attitudes, while others, such as Angela Bulloch, see something sculptural in the materiality of grooves on vinyl. Over the past years, ‘art vinyl’ has developed into a genre in itself, with a handsome niche market (editions of the 7-inch Tri-Star, a 1979 release by Isa Genzken with Gerhard Richter, fetch five-digit prices today). The Vinyl Factory, founded in London in 2001, is an independent enterprise complete with label, pressing plant, venue and magazine and releases artist editions by, among others, Martin Creed, Dinos Chapman, Ed Atkins, and Jeremy Deller. In Germany, however, small operations that specialize in the genre abound. Perhaps it’s to do with Joseph Beuys’ expanded definition of art (he released his Sonne statt Reagan LP in 1982 on Musikant, a sub-label of EMI). And though their takes on artist releases differ, these labels regard such releases as natural offshoots of a medium whose popularity is making a return.
EN/OF Editions, based in the German town of Kleve, pairs musicians and artists for editions of 100 records that sell mostly for 129 Euros. Launched by Robert Meijer in 2001, the label boasts dozens of sold-out editions by well-established names, though they appear sporadically. Essentially a one-man operation, Meijer considers his a curatorial role, driven intuitively by his own taste and opting for unexpected matches: ‘Pairing is one of the most pleasurable parts of doing this. I try to match things which don’t make sense immediately.’ Which is not to say there’s no logic to his selections. Edition 047 saw Mark Fell’s software-driven experimental dance-music deconstructions ironically paired with Ian Wallace’s photograph of rock band equipment. Edition 045 matched Berlin-based Steven Warwick, aka Heatsick, with Richard Hawkins. While carefully orchestrating chance encounters to avoid direct collaborations, personal contacts are not unimportant. The fiftieth EN/OF edition, out in February 2015, is a set of four LPs featuring music by Luke Fowler and Richard Youngs, and a previously unseen Fischli/Weiss artwork. The edition came about because Fowler and Peter Fischli are friends. ‘Unfortunately, some see EN/OF as part of a vinyl fetish, or some sort of boutique label’, says Meijer, who is sometimes accused of making ‘luxury products’. ‘Then again’, he argues, ‘records and art editions are luxury products, I’m just crossing the two into something else.’
The combination of limited stock and extensive contacts is also instrumental for Berlin-based label Flipping the Coin (FtC). Founded in 2011 by Moritz Stumm and Cyrill Lachauer, FtC later expanded to publishing books and releasing films. Stumm and Lachauer met in Lothar Baumgarten’s class at Berlin’s Universität der Künste (UdK), and the label’s focus reflects their multidisciplinary, multi-genre approach to art. Accordingly, FtC releases work by artists who utilize sound, such as Saâdane Afif or Nik Nowak. Unlike other art labels however, FtC releases dubplates as opposed to vinyl – a less durable type of acetate disc that perishes the more it’s played. Paradoxically, as each listening shortens the dubplate’s lifespan, the rarity of the experience is increased. This is reflected in its market positioning: editions are of 30, and sell for 350 Euros.
Even less traditional is the approach of Volker Zander, founder of Cologne-based label Apparent Extent (AE). Working exclusively with art societies (Kunstvereine), the label specializes in releases for artists who prefer to use allocated catalogue budgets to produce a record instead. This model allows for larger pressings of 500 copies, priced and sold like standard music releases. Zander, a former bass player for the indie-noir band Calexico, founded AE in 2005, following formative encounters with artist records, such as Cosima von Bonin’s 1. Grazer Fächerfest (1995) and Rodney Graham’s Getting it Together in the Country (2000). ‘I’m interested in the tools of conviviality, but also in all the in-between things an art record can be’, Zander says, which is apparent in the wide array of his releases, including work by Johanna Billing, Karl Holmqvist, and Christian Jendreiko, and an upcoming release by Finnish filmmaker Mika Taanila. Also based in Cologne is Edition Fieber, co-founded by Thomas Venker, a former editor-in-chief of Intro magazine, who alternates between smaller and larger press runs. Each of the label’s five releases to date ranged from 300 copies of a double 7-inch by Doctorella and Justus Köhncke, with artworks by Cosima von Bonin, to an edition of only 16 for a pair of 7-inch vinyls by Terence Koh and Jack Donoghue, set in a hand-engraved acrylic box and priced at 1,880 Euros.
In art, vinyl never reappeared because it never disappeared. Artist records, unlike ‘normal’ records, have not only maintained their status as a medium of expression and field for exploration since the advent of CDs and MP3s, but also, perhaps, have been enhanced by this changing media landscape – despite the increasing immateriality of art-music exploration, such as the streaming ‘DISco’ mixes by DIS Magazine, which pair music with art for releases that only exist online. ‘The play time of a record is easy for the mind to grasp,’ Zander offers on the medium’s appeal. The format, of course, also lends records their desirability: ‘People are materialists, they like to collect objects’, he adds. And that which can be amassed can also be displayed: AE will have a residency at MuHKA, Antwerp, from August to October this year. Meanwhile, EN/OF releases have been exhibited in museums such as Vienna’s Secession, and in numerous galleries. The genre reinforces art’s fascination with vinyl as a particularly evocative medium. Records literally spin with references: from analogue mechanical decoding to the images that frame it all. Hili Perlson is a writer, art critic and fashion journalist based in Berlin.