[iDC] The Premature Birth of Video Art

twsherma at mailbox.syr.edu twsherma at mailbox.syr.edu
Mon Jan 8 22:40:56 EST 2007

The Premature Birth of Video Art

by Tom Sherman

It is said that the late Nam June Paik was the George Washington of video
art. Paik, a Korean-born artist, educated in Japan and Germany, is given
credit for recording and exhibiting the very first work of video art in
New York, NY, in 1965. As the familiar story goes, Paik purchased the
first Sony Portapak delivered to the U.S. on October 4th, 1965. That
afternoon he charged the battery and got the Portapak working at a Sony
dealership, jumped in a taxi and got stuck in a traffic jam caused by a
visit from Pope Paul VI, shot twenty minutes of video out the window of
the taxi, and then showed the recording to his friends at the Cafe a Go-Go
in Greenwich Village that evening. That, according to the myth, was the
birth of video art.

Nam June Paik was a brilliant, creative force and his work in performance,
video, television, sculpture and installation is legendary. Paik was a
huge figure in 20th century art, arguably ranking with artists the stature
of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, Michael Snow, Stan
Brakhage, and Carolee Schneemann. But with all respect to Paik, this
mythic version of the birth of video art doesn't ring true.

The date of Pope Paul VI's visit to New York is correct. The Pope was
addressing the United Nations on birth control and the evils of war on
October 4th, 1965. It was Paul VI's first visit to New York, and in fact
the first visit by a Pope to the Western Hemisphere. Nam June Paik could
have shot video of the Pope's motorcade, but he would have had to have
done it from the window of a building, as the first battery-powered Sony
Portapak, the CV-2400, wasn't released until 1967. Sony had released the
Model CV-2000, "the most portable video tape recorder ever designed," in
October of 1965, but the CV-2000 weighed 49 pounds and operated off
standard 110AC power.(1) In other words, the CV-2000 was relatively
compact and portable (it could be thrown in the trunk of a car for
transportation), but it did not run off batteries and was not truly
portable. The CV-2000 needed to be plugged into a wall socket and could
not have been adapted to run off batteries. Paik could have shot the
traffic jam out of the open-window of a building (the tape is lost, so
camera angles cannot be analyzed) and then transported a CV-2000 by taxi
to the Cafe a Go-Go for his screening, but this isn't how the story is

Some have speculated that Paik had access to an earlier version of the
Sony Portapak (the CV-2400), sent to him from Japan... Shigeko Kubota,
Paik's wife, told Skip Blumberg she thinks that Nam June's older brother
sent him a CV-2400 from Japan in 1965. This does not appear to be a
possibility, as Shuya Abe, Paik's long-time friend and Tokyo-based
engineer-collaborator on the Paik-Abe synthesizer, told Blumberg that the
CV-2400 Portapak (2) was released in the U.S. first, not Japan, in
1967.(3) Sony's product archives back this up. There were no
battery-powered Sony Portapaks available in 1965.

So the myth of Paik's first work of video art appears to pre-date its own
possibility. While Paik undoubtedly was a pioneer user of portable video
equipment, he probably shared the original moments of video art with other
artists, including Frank Gillette, Ira Schneider, Les Levine, and Juan
Downey. The mythic story of Nam June Paik shooting the first
Portapak-generated video art out of the back of a taxi in 1965 is
apparently just that, a myth.


1. The Sony CV-2000 was listed on the Sony product sheet in 1965. This was
a console model, a studio recorder/player, advertised as having true
portability, weighing only 49 pounds.

2. Sony introduced the CV-2400, the first generation of 1/2",
reel-to-reel, truly portable videotape recorders in the U.S. in 1967. The
DVK-2400/VCK02400 was the first CV-series portable, battery operated
system. (source: Sony product literature, dated 11/1967)

3. Skip Blumberg spoke with Shigeko Kubota and Shuya Abe about these
matters at memorial services for Paik in 2006, while shooting "Nam June
Paik: #1 Video Artist," his recent video tribute to Paik.

Thanks to Skip Blumberg and Sherry Miller Hocking for their correspondence
regarding some of the details at the heart of this historical query. I am
solely responsible for questioning the factuality of this story, and
welcome information that supports or undermines this challenge of the myth
of the birth of video art.

-- T.S.  January 2, 2007

Professor Tom Sherman
Syracuse University
Department of Transmedia
102 Shaffer Art Building
Syracuse, New York 13244-1210

Tel) 315-443-1202
Fax) 315-443-1303

twsherma at mailbox.syr.edu

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