Portapak

Video Art & Machine Obsolescence

multiple stills from BBC documentary showing Jim Moir and Greatbear video equipment in a mock-up studio

Stills from BBC4's "Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s Weird World of Video Art", showing vintage video equipment from the Greatbear studio with researcher Adam Lockhart and artists Catherine Elwes and George Barber © Academy 7 Productions 2019.

At Greatbear we have many, many machines. A small selection of our analogue video players, CRT monitors, cameras, cables and tapes recently found work as props (both functional and decorative) in the BBC documentary “Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s Weird World of Video Art”, on BBC iPlayer here.

From the BBC website: “Jim Moir, aka Vic Reeves, explores video art, revealing how different generations hacked the tools of television to pioneer new ways of creating art."

Our obsession with collecting and restoring rare video equipment is vital for our work. As technology developed through the latter half of the 20th century, dozens of different formats of video tape were created - each requiring specialist equipment to play it back: equipment which is now obsolete. The machines have not been manufactured for decades and the vast majority of them have been scrapped.

Those that remain are wearing out - the rotating head drums that read video tape have a finite number of working hours before they need replacement. Wear to the head drum tips is irrevocable, and the remaining few in existence are highly sought-after.

Even TV companies, where U-matic, Betacam and countless other formats of VTR machine were once ubiquitous, no longer have access to the machines and monitors we provided for “Kill Your TV”.

It is a similar conundrum for the artists who produced work with older video technology, and for the galleries and museums who hold collections of their work. We have recently been working on a fascinating project with specialist art conservator for time-based media, Brian Castriota and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, transferring important video artworks produced between 1972 - 2013 from multiple video tape formats, by artists including Isaac Julien, Gillian Wearing and Willie Doherty - more on this in a future blog post!

conceptual immateriality & the material device

In "Kill Your TV", Jim Moir describes a demonstration of David Hall’s "Vidicon Inscriptions" (1973) as “an electronic image that doesn’t really exist in a physical space” which nevertheless relies on the quirks of (very physical) vintage video equipment for its enactment.

Artist Peter Donebauer refers specifically to immateriality inherent to his 1974 video art piece “Entering” (broadcast via the BBC’s arts programme “2nd House”). PD: "Technically, the real core of this is the signal. It made me think about what this medium was, because it’s not material in the same way as painting, sculpture or even performance, dance, film - almost anything that has physicality.”

But for a signal to be perceived, it needs to be reproduced by a physical device capable of reading it. The dangers facing video artwork preservation lie not only in the fragility of the tape itself, but in the disappearance of rare playback machines and the specialist tools for their maintenance and repair; of the service manuals, calibration tapes and the expertise needed to set them up.

The 'tools of television' relished in "Kill Your TV" are the material devices we are striving to save, repair and maintain.

links & further reading:

Read about our facilities to transfer video made with the Sony Portapak system featured in the documentary: Sony 1/2 inch Portapak (EIAJ) / CV2100 / CV2000 open reel video tape

Our work with Videokunstarkivet, an exciting archival project mapping all the works of video art that have been made in Norway since the mid-1960s, funded by the Norwegian Arts Council.

“Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s Weird World of Video Art” was made for BBC4 by Academy 7 Productions

 

Posted by melanie in video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments

Deaf School ½” open reel video tape transfer

At the end of 2015 Steve Lindsey, founding member of Liverpool art rock trailblazers Deaf School, stumbled upon two 1/2″ open reel video tape recordings of the band, tucked away in a previously unknown nook of his Dublin home.

Deaf-School-Screenshot2016 is the 40th anniversary of Deaf School’s first album 2nd Honeymoon.

With the landmark approaching, Steve felt it was an ideal time to get the tapes digitised. The video transfers done in the Great Bear studio will contribute to the growing amount of documentation online celebrating the band’s antics.

Betwen 1976-1978 Deaf School were signed to Warner Brothers, releasing three albums.

Deaf School are described by music journalist Dave Simpson as ‘a catalyst band‘ ‘whose influence was great – who might even have changed pop history in their own way – but who never made the leap into the music history books.’

Deaf School nonetheless remain legendary figures to the people who loved, and were profoundly transformed by, their music.

Holly Johnson, who went on the achieve great success with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, described Deaf School as ‘the benchmark that had to be transcended. Someone had to make a bigger splash. After the “big bang” of the 1960s, they were the touchstone that inspired a wave of creative rebellion and musical ambition that revived Liverpool’s music scene for a generation.’

deaf-school-screenshotCamp and Chaotic

Deaf School’s performances were a celebratory spectacle of the camp and chaotic.

The band took their lead from art music projects such as the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra comprised of non musicians which anyone could join, regardless of ability, knowledge or experience.

‘Everyone who wanted to be part of Deaf School was welcomed and no one turned away. The music was diverse and varied, drawing on rock and roll, Brecht and cabaret,’ Steve told us.

Rare Footage

The ½” porta-pak video tapes feature rare footage of Deaf School performing on 1st December 1975 at the Everyman Theatre, one of Liverpool’s many iconic venues.*

The show was organised for Warner Brothers employees who had taken the train from London to Liverpool to see Deaf School perform.

Porta-pak open reel video was revolutionary for its time: It was the first format to enable people outside the professional broadcast industry to make (often documentary) moving images.

deaf-school-screenshotFor this reason material captured on ½” videotape is often fairly eclectic and its edgy, glitchy aesthetic celebrated by contemporary documentary makers.

The Greatbear studio has certainly received many interesting ½” video tapes from artists and performers active in the 1970s. We also did an interview with researcher Peter Sachs Collopy who discusses how porta-pak video technology was perceived by artists of that era as a ‘technology of consciousness’.

Non-professional video tape recordings made in the 1970s are, nevertheless, fairly rare. At that time it was still expensive to acquire equipment. Even if videos were made, once they had served their purpose there is a strong possibility the tape would be re-used, wiping whatever was recorded on there.

With this in mind, we are in a lucky position to be able to watch the Deaf School videos, which have managed to survive the rough cuts of history.

Preserving 1/2 ” open reel video tape

The video of the Everyman Theatre performance was cleaned prior to transfer because it was emitting a small amount of loose binder. It was recorded onto Scotch-branded ½” video tape which, in our experience, pose very few problems in the transfer process.

The other tape Steve sent us was recorded onto a SONY-branded ½” video tape. In comparison, these tapes always need to be ‘baked’ in a customised-incubator in order to temporarily restore them to playable condition.

The preservation message to take away here is this: if you have ½” video tape on SONY branded stock, make them your digitisation priority!

Deaf School NowDeaf-School-transfer-screenshot

Steve told me that members of Deaf School ‘always kept in touch and remained friends’.

Over the past 10 years they have reformed and performed a number of gigs in the UK and Tokyo.

In 2015 they released a new album, Launderette, on Japanese label Hayabusa Landings.

In 2016 they are planning to go to the U.S., reaching out to ‘the pockets of people all over the world who know about Deaf School.’

Ultimately though Liverpool will always be the band’s ‘spiritual home.’

When they return to Liverpool the gigs are always sold out and they have great fun, which is surely what being in a band is all about.

* The Everyman archive is stored in Special Collections at Liverpool John Moores University. This archive listing describes how the Everyman ‘is widely recognised as a pivotal influence and innovative key player in regional theatre. A model of innovative practice and a centre of experimental theatre and new writing, it has thrived as a nurturing ground for a new breed of directors, actors, writers and designers, and a leading force in young people’s theatre.’

Many thanks to Steve Lindsey for talking to us about his tapes!

Posted by debra in video tape, 0 comments

Video and Technologies of Consciousness: An Interview with Peter Sachs Collopy

We first encountered the work of Media Historian Peter Sachs Collopy during research for a previous blog article about video synthesizers.

His work was so interesting we invited Peter to do a short interview for the blog. Thanks Peter for taking time to respond, you can read the answers below!

We were really struck by your description of early video as a technology of consciousness. Can you tell us a bit more about this idea? Did early users of portable video technology use video in order to witness events?

Absolutely! Technology of consciousness is a term I found in communications scholar Fred Turner’s work, particularly his essay on the composer Paul DeMarinis (“The Pygmy Gamelan as Technology of Consciousness,” in Paul DeMarinis: Buried in Noise, ed. Ingrid Beirer, Sabine Himmelsbach, and Carsten Seiffarth [Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 2010], 23–27). Every technology affects how we think and experience the world, but I use this phrase specifically to refer to technologies whose users understood that they were doing so. The quintessential examples are psychedelic drugs, which people use specifically in order to alter their consciousness. For many videographers in the 1960s and 1970, video was like a drug in that it helped a person see the world in new ways; a cartoon in the magazine Radical Software proclaimed, for example, that “Video is as powerful as LSD” (Edwin Varney, Radical Software 1, no. 3 [Spring 1971]: 6). Part of all of this was that following Aldous Huxley, people believed that psychedelics made it possible to break down the barriers of the individual and share consciousness, and following media theorist Marshall McLuhan and theologian/paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, they believed that new electronic media had the same effects. In my research, I trace these ways of thinking about technologies of consciousness back to the influence of philosopher Henri Bergson at the turn of the century. So yes, people were using video to witness events, but just as importantly they were using video to witness—and to reinterpret, and even to constitute—themselves and their communities.

Video is powerful as LSDAs specialists in the transfer of video tapes we often notice the different aesthetic qualities of porta-pak videouMatic, VHS and DVCAM, to name a few examples. How does ‘the look’ of a video image shape its role as a technology of consciousness? Is it more important how these technologies were used?

It’s striking how little discussion of aesthetics and the visual there was in venues like Radical Software, though of course art critics started writing about video in these terms in the late 1960s. People were often more interested in what differentiated the process of shooting video from film and other media, in its ability to be played back immediately or in its continuity as an electronic technology with the powerful media of television and computing. Sony’s first half-inch videotape recorders, using the CV format, had only half the vertical resolution of conventional television. CV decks could still be hooked up to ordinary television sets for playback, though, so they still became a way for users to make their own TV.

What’s your favourite piece of video equipment you have encountered in your research and why?

I have several Sony AV-3400 portapaks that I’ve bought on eBay, none of them quite in working order. Those were the standard tool for people experimenting with video in the early 1970s, so I’ve learned a lot from the tactile experience of using them. I also have a Sony CMA-4 camera adaptor which provides video out from an AVC-3400 portapak camera without using a deck at all; I’ve used that, along with digital equipment, to make my own brief video about some of my research, “The Revolution Will Be Videotaped: Making a Technology of Consciousness in the Long 1960s (see below).”

In your research you discuss how there has been a continuity of hybrid analogue/ digital systems in video art since the 1970s. Given that so much of contemporary society is organised via digital infrastructures, do you think analogue technologies will be reclaimed more widely as a tool for variability in the future, i.e., that there will be a backlash against what can be perceived as the calculating properties of the digital?

I’m not sure a reclaiming of analog technologies will ever take the form of an explicit social movement, but I think this process is already happening in more subtle ways. It’s most apparent in music, where vinyl records and analog synthesizers have both become markers of authenticity and a kind of retro cool. In the process, though, analog has shifted from a description of machines that worked by analogy—usually between a natural phenomenon such as luminance and an electrical voltage—to an umbrella term for everything that isn’t digital. In the context of moving images, this means that film has become an analog technology as the definition of analog has shifted—even though analog and digital video are still more technically similar, and have at times been more culturally related, than film and analog video. So yes, I think there’s a backlash against precision, particularly among some artistic communities, but I think it’s embedded in a more complex reclassification of technologies into these now dominant categories of analog and digital.

Posted by debra in video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments

Re-animating archives: Action Space’s V30H / V60H EIAJ 1/2″ video tapes

One of the most interesting aspects of digitising magnetic tapes is what happens to them after they leave the Greatbear studio. Often transfers are done for private or personal interest, such as listening to the recording of loved ones, or for straightforward archival reasons. Yet in some cases material is re-used in a new creative project, thereby translating recordings within a different technical and historical context.

Walter Benjamin described such acts as the ‘afterlife’ of translation: ‘a translation issues from the original not so much for its life as from its afterlife […] translation marks their stage of continued life.’ [1]

A child stands on top of an inflatable structure, black and white image.

Stills from the Action Space tapes

So it was with a collection of ½ inch EIAJ SONY V30H and V60H video tapes that recently landed in the Greatbear studio which documented the antics of Action Space.

Part of the vanguard movement of radical arts organisations that emerged in the late 1960s, Action Space described themselves as ‘necessarily experimental, devious, ambiguous, and always changing in order to find a new situation. In the short term the objectives are to continually question and demonstrate through the actions of all kinds new relationships between artists and public, teachers and taught, drop-outs and society, performers and audiences, and to question current attitudes of the possibility of creativity for everyone.’ [2]

Such creative shape-shifting, which took its impulsive artistic action in a range of public spaces can so often be the enemy of documentation.

Yet Ken Turner, who founded Action Space alongside Mary Turner and Alan Nisbet, told me that ‘Super Eight film and transparency slides were our main documentation tools, so we were aware of recording events and their importance.’

Introduced in 1969, EIAJ 1/2″ was the first format to make video tape recording accessible to people outside the professional broadcast industry.

Action Space were part of this wave of audiovisual adoption (minor of course by today’s standards!)

After ‘accidentally’ inheriting a Portapak recorder from the Marquis of Bath, Ken explained, Action Space ‘took the Portapak in our stride into events and dramas of the community festivals and neighbourhood gatherings, and adventure playgrounds. We did not have an editing deck; as far as I can remember played back footage through a TV, but even then it had white noise, if that’s the term, probably it was dirty recording heads. We were not to know.’

Preservation issues

Yes those dirty recording heads make things more difficult when it comes to re-formatting the material.

While some of the recordings replay almost perfectly, some have odd tracking problems and emit noise, which are evidence of a faulty recorder and/or dirty tape path or heads. Because such imperfections were embedded at the time of recording, there is little that can be done to ‘clean up’ the signal.

Other problems with the Action Space collection arise from the chemical composition of the tapes. The recordings are mainly on Sony branded V30H and high density V60H tape which always suffer from binder hydrolysis. The tapes therefore needed ‘baking’ treatment prior to transfer usually (we have found) in a more controlled and longer way from Ampex branded tapes.

And that old foe of magnetic tape strikes again: mould. Due to being stored in an inappropriate environment over a prolonged period, many of the tapes have mould growth that has damaged the binder.

Despite these imperfections, or even because of them, Ken appreciates the unique value of these recordings: ‘the footage I have now of the community use reminds me of the rawness of the events, the people and the atmosphere of noise and constant movement. I am extremely glad to have these tapes transposed into digital footage as they vividly remind me of earlier times. I think this is essential to understanding the history and past experiences that might otherwise escape the memories of events.’

People sliding down an inflatable structure, joyful expressions on their faces.Historical translation

While the footage of Action Space is in itself a valuable historical document, the recordings will be subject a further act of translation, courtesy of Ken’s film maker son, Huw Wahl.

Fresh from the success of his film about anarchist art critic and poet Herbert Read, Huw is using the digitised tapes as inspiration for a new work.

This new film will reflect on the legacies of Action Space, examing how the group’s interventions can speak to our current historical context.

Huw told me he wants to re-animate Action Space’s ethos of free play, education and art in order ‘to question what actions could shape a democratic and creative society. In terms of the rhetoric of creativity we hear now from the arts council and artistic institutions, it’s important to look at where that developed from. Once we see how radical those beginnings really were, maybe we will see more clearly where we are heading if we continue to look at creativity as a commodity, rather than a potent force for a different kind of society.’

Inflatable action

Part of such re-animation will entail re-visiting Action Space’s work with large inflatable structures, or what Ken prefers to call ‘air or pneumatic structures.’

Huw intends to make a new inflatable structure that will act as the container for a range of artistic, academic, musical and nostalgic responses to Action Space’s history. The finished film will then be screened inside the inflatable, creating what promises to be an unruly and unpredictable spectacle.

Ken spoke fondly about the video footage which recorded ‘the urgency of “performance” of the people who are responding to the inflatables. Today inflatable making and use is more controlled, in the 60s control was only minimally observed, to prevent injuries. But in all our activities over 10 years of air structure events, we had only one fractured limb.’Young people sliding down the side of an inflatable structure - Action Space archive

Greatbear cameo!

Another great thing about the film is that the Greatbear Studio will have an important cameo role.

Huw came to visit us to shoot footage of the transfers. He explains his reasons:

‘I’d like viewers to see the set up for the capturing of the footage used in the film. Personally it’s very different seeing the reel played on a deck rather than scanning through a quicktime file. You pay a different kind of attention to it. I don’t want to be too nostalgic about a format I have never shot with, yet there seems to be an amateur quality inherent to the portapak which I assume is because the reels could be re-recorded over. Seeing material shot by children is something the super 8mm footage just doesn’t have, it would have been too expensive. Whereas watching children grabbing a portapack camera and running about with it is pretty exciting. Seeing the reels and machines for playing it all brings me closer to the experience of using the actual portapak cameras. Hopefully this will inform the filming and editing process of this film.’

We wish Huw the very best for his work on this project and look forward to seeing the results!

***Big thanks to Ken Turner and Huw Wahl for answering questions for this article.***

Notes

[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator,’ Selected Writings: 1913-1926, Volume 1, Harvard University Press, 2006, 253-264, 254.

[2] Action Space Annual Report, 1972, accessed http://www.unfinishedhistories.com/history/companies/action-space/action-space-annual-report-extract/.

Posted by debra in audio / video heritage, video tape, 1 comment