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Stories & Ideas

Sun 02 Feb 2020

In praise of the Portapak

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Julia Murphy

Assistant Curator, ACMI

We look at an innovation in portable video technology that spawned new avant-garde art movements, provided a tool for social activism and paved the way for smartphones and YouTube.

In 1967, Sony released the first version of a handheld camera and separate reel-to-reel recorder that signalled a shift towards greater portability. The Portapak, a two-unit system, was relatively affordable and usable by a single operator. It allowed for immediate playback capability, meaning that footage could be captured and viewed almost instantaneously. Though earlier film cameras were portable, film had to be developed before it could be viewed or broadcast. The adoption of Portapaks by video artists and alternative media collectives ushered in new approaches to moving image practice, video art and experimental media.

Emerging video art

Artists were among the first to see the potential of the Portapak. In the US, Shigeko Kubota, Dara Birnbaum and Joan Jonas used Portapaks to create video works that incorporated sculpture and installation, reinterpretation of broadcast television and documentation of performance art.

Shigeko Kubota in her studio, 1972 (photograph by Tom Haar, via Wikimedia Commons)

Shigeko Kubota in her studio, 1972 (photograph by Tom Haar, via Wikimedia Commons)

In late 1971, Australian artists Mike Parr and Peter Kennedy held two screenings at Inhibodress, the experimental artist-run space they had founded with Tim Johnson in Woolloomooloo, of videotapes made over the previous few months with an Akai ¼ inch Portapak. This included Parr’s Pushing a Camera Over a Hill, in which the camera was held at ground level while the artist crawled up a hill, until the camera’s frame revealed the valley below. Documentation of performance was an important part of early video work, as was the use of television sets, the manipulation of electronic frequencies, and the introduction of video documentation as a live part of the installation.

Over the following years, exhibitions and screenings of videotapes were held at galleries such as the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane and the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide. Under the direction of influential curator Kiffy Rubbo, the George Paton Gallery in Melbourne exhibited video works throughout their program, including touring exhibitions such as Videotapes by Women from the Los Angeles Women’s Video Centre in 1977. Following on from earlier exhibitions of both American and Australian videotapes, in 1978 the National Gallery of Victoria’s education department held a three-week season of screenings and workshops entitled Plug In and Switch On.

Guerilla television

Just as artists were harnessing the potential of the Portapak, alternative media collectives in developed Western nations, including Videofreex, the Raindance Corporation, TVTV and Videographe, were forming to interrogate the influence of broadcast television. Portapaks were used to create social documentaries, produce educational videos, capture community events and establish alternative forms of television broadcasting. Many of these groups were influenced by critiques of television as a form of mass communication, and sought to create their own methods of broadcast, or “guerilla television”.

Inspired by the British group TVX, Australian artist collective Bush Video set up a media centre at the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin in 1973 and distributed Portapaks – purchased with the aid of the Australian Council for the Arts – to festival goers. The collective encouraged them to capture the events of the day, which were then directly relayed on TVs installed in cafes and other communal spaces around the town. Following this event, video access centres were established in cities across Australia, including Open Channel (formerly Public Access Video) in Melbourne and the Paddington Video Access Centre (later Metro Screen) in Sydney. These collectives were equipped with studio spaces and Portapak equipment, and ran training programs, workshops and screenings of educational videos, and led to the establishment of community television station Channel 31.

The portability and immediacy of the Portapak enabled activists and emerging media collectives to capture events as they happened. Paving the way for the possibilities of the camcorder, smartphone and platforms such as YouTube, the Portapak was an important innovation that changed the way media has been produced, distributed and viewed.

When we reopen the doors to our museum in mid-2020 we will be showcasing a range of culturally significantly moving image objects, including an original National Panasonic Portable Video Camera and Recorder. Learn more about our renewal.

Julia Murphy is an assistant curator at ACMI. Independent exhibitions she has worked on include Falling blue at Long Division Gallery (2018) and everything spring at The Honeymoon Suite (2017). Her writing has been published by Island Island, Bus Projects, un Projects and West Space.