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George Barber - Profile

By Gareth Evans

1. Some thoughts behind the image

"...unless you have unlimited funds and time, it's very difficult to say what you can offer the world that isn't directly linked to your personality. Okay, so you live this particular limited life but no two lives are ever the same; with little funding it seemed to me that the biggest space left is really a novelistic one, a place where you use your imagination and speak, confess, admit..."
George Barber, in From 'S'ap'nin' Man?' to 'What Blow, Blud?' (Filmwaves magazine

The general assumption made about the work of video artist George Barber is that it falls quite comfortably into two distinct arenas. The first centres on his pioneering and extremely influential Scratch video experiments with appropriated, re-sequenced and jump-edited footage (along with subsequent, more or less abstract / patterned pieces). The second includes his later performative, narrative micro-dramas (primarily in monologue form) and real-world physical 'experiments' - resolutely actual, unmediated events (from extreme shouting to inverted suspension on vehicles), which reveal the means of their making and are many strides away from the manipulated virtuality of his Scratch tapes' pop-cultural source material.

There's no denying, of course, a divergence of styles, technological application and subject matter in these reasonably accurate groupings. But what is far more interesting is what links them, beneath the single, pixellated surface of their also shared medium. It is there that one finds an extraordinary consistency of themes, attitudes and even motifs, regardless of the seeming irrelation on first encounter.

It is this sustained attention to his primary concerns - the condition, quality and physicality of communication; self-determination and resistance to control; the alienating effects of modern commercialised life, the unreliability of 'truth' and perception, the tension between image and experience; a certain eye for the fugitive beauty of the discarded and overlooked - as well as the emotional and intellectual driver, a philosophical, sometimes absurdist humour of observation, by which the pieces are propelled, which makes Barber's body of work to date very much of a part, prismatic shards of a coherent whole.

2. He wants to tell you a story

In an essay, From 'S'ap'nin' Man?' to 'What Blow, Blud?', published early in 2005 by the independent British magazine Filmwaves (issue 26, see their website, Barber sketches a remarkably candid picture of his development as an artist alongside an illuminating sense of the autobiographical roots of his work. This voluntary exposure of childhood details would seem to sanction a consideration of how those youthful experiences might have shaped his oeuvre, whether in a thematic, material/technical or even positional sense within the larger contemporary art and film/video scene.

On examination, the lines back seem remarkably fertile and compelling. Is it, for example, too much to suggest that his early years in Georgetown, Guyana (due to his parents' nomadic working lifestyle, escaping Britain's post-war gloom), able to wander the city alone aged six, in complete freedom, clear of risk and danger, sowed the seeds of the relaxed demeanour, independence and self-sufficiency that his work as a video artist demonstrates?

He speaks also of the colours, energy and light of the region, all of which are defining aspects of Scratch, along with the 'present-tense' sense of things that such a climate and lifestyle offers. Video as Barber deploys it is both intensely 'now' in its register and mood, while offering an extremely versatile path into the historic archive of the moving image as a result of the technology at work.

But the 'lessons' of his youth do not stop there. When his Caribbean idyll was abruptly curtailed with relocation to grim private schooling in England, it seems reasonable to assume that his resentment of (false) authority and imposed systems of control could well have been seeded then. Couple this with a quietly Ballardian take on England's endemic strangeness and obsessive social coding - insights granted perhaps, as is also the case with acclaimed writer JG Ballard, by the sudden immersion of an acute and open childhood into a constrained and class-bound hierarchy - and you have the makings of a creative subversion.

3. The magpie's life is a good life.

In light of this, and to consider the implications of and for such concerns in the medium of video, it's useful briefly to unpick the striking declaration made by Stephen Bode (writing in The Bracknell Video Magazine) that, with his Scratch work, Barber was the 'Henry Ford' of independent video.

Bode suggested that an independent, innovative maker had entered mainstream image-making with unprecedented impact. But the conjuring of Ford, of course, also suggests a technocratic delivery of uniform artefacts, somewhat dehumanising in both the making and reception. Actually, as Bode undoubtedly appreciates, Barber's approach is closer to that of a guild artisan than it is to the robotic arms of mass production. His inherent leaning towards the possibility of a provocative encounter with the majority world of image and technology begins with the way he deploys his tools in this most industry-shaped format.

Indeed, in the seemingly off-hand and relaxed tone of his persona, Barber comes across rather as a particularly convivial tour guide of detritus (and its attendant, surreptitious beauties) as well as an understated map-bearer of possible ways out of the socio-spiritual slum. Gleaning eagerly on the landfill sites of contemporary culture and overlooked, marginalised individual experience, he's in search of the shard - material, mental or metaphorical - that catches the sun on a brisk and bright day's outing. It might be the filmic or experiential equivalent of a tin can rusted almost completely to the colour of an old boot, but under the right gaze it becomes the snatch of gold dropped by a hightailing partisan after a rush run on the provincial vault. Either way, litter or loot, there is a moment of surprised glory in it. And that is what Barber is looking for.

4. Talking Head

His declared frustration, therefore, with much of what passes for current art practice and distaste at the machinery that surrounds it only enhances this subscription to the value of individual lives and stories, places where values can still be found, codes of meaning and worth. These lives might often seem defiantly mundane in packaging but, through closer scrutiny, Barber charges them with strong substance and emotion. This desire to honour and explore the incidents that might emerge from such territory finds creative form in his monologues, which take his opposition to structures of power into another formal realm. In his own words:

"Monologues therefore become a legitimate space. Bourgeois individualism aside, there is only one you; nobody can 'speak' you better than you. The viewer experiences a direct account of a creative person when as artist speaks in their own words. This doesn't necessarily follow on that individualism is the answer to everything but in a world of massive image making teams and corporations, the monologue is perhaps the equivalent of the hand-woven Persian rug. A welcome break in a sea of office grey carpet, the standard surface upon which 90% of all office workers tread...

"In a world filled with stainless steel, laminated glass and white, the monologue is a very British anti-IKEA attempt to bring back the tat. Those terrible untidy things that make a life and character quite unique: the ums and ahs, the strange facial expressions, the odd idiosyncratic voice, the curious preoccupations..."

This desire to soil the chrome and glass arcades of financial, media and political rule with messy, uncontainable human business, the unvoiced culmination perhaps of his semi-anarchic infant years wandering Georgetown (a neat and probably helpful synchronicity of names), reading the constant signs of the street as, later, he would scrutinise the smallest details of feature films for possible appropriation, is his take against restriction. Against the single narrative. Against the predicted outcome. Rather, he stands for the right to look askance and realign. For the free movement of images and individuals through the mediated world. For working beyond the market, but with its knockdown stock.

5. Everything Must Go

Not least, there's the copyright impossibility of marketing his Scratch work, challenging the emergent market-led Brit-art scene that now seems a model expansion of the Thatcherite project directly into culture, vanguarded of course by her ad-man Saatchi.

In such a climate, presenting one's work as a direct index of one's financial vulnerability would seem to most to be deliriously off-message. But Scratch was never motivated by that. The philosophical core seems to be closer to the ebbs and flows of wider contemporary historical and political thought. The undermining of grand narratives - here represented by the story arcs of Hollywood product - in favour of personal micro-fables, hymns to detail that redirect possibility or, explicitly oppositional now, highlight, via the tic-gesturing of characters trapped in manipulated trajectories they are fated never to escape, that modern life is a more or less controlled environment ripe for rupture or, worse(!) even recording over, seems a central, if surfacely undeclared objective.

Here, Barber's childhood poles of experience unite to manifest as one in his output. Scratch offers a Carnival parade of images, where the holding of power briefly changes, becomes democratised and diverse. Rhythmic, electric-hued, passing from the street to onward gaze, the Carnival becomes resistance, first by simply being and only then, once it has been experienced, by how it can be read. Scratch is about reclaiming lost control - individually, collectively, artistically, ethically. About taking the means of production to change what the production means. About the reprioritisation of forces. In this sense, Scratch makes a utopian proposal.

5. Clearing the Decks

This is an attitude, a position of both the interstices and the busy thoroughfare.

Just as with Walter Benjamin's colonnades, where the plethora of signals makes for revitalised, if saturating, passage, so the generation of an image realm like this can only be fully appreciated by one whose tone of approach retains its own tangential will, its sideways gaze. Preferring the spaces in between from which to view the throng. Thus it is with Barber. In all his impulses towards excess - the rich palette saturations of '1001 Colours Andy Never Thought Of' or the slipping, sliding, fractalised music pieces; even the high volume roar of 'Shouting Match' - there is at the heart of the project a still point. A modest, understated, riddle-enjoying zen-like quietude that seeks a clear space, an ultima thule beyond the map's ragged edge, where all the 'stuff' of the world, all the visual and verbal and material noise doing its thing 24/7 in our shops, streets, beds and heads, might kind of cease for a while.

And, in this 'Withdrawal', all we would have, or be, is a boy on a stretch of grass, on his own yes (as Barber often was in his infancy and schooldays), but somehow it doesn't feel overwhelmingly bleak, sad or even mortality-provoking. Sure, the other people have gone, the summer buzz of family and friends, the hands held and the picnic conversations on the green and turning earth. But so has all the 'stuff', all the barriers between boy and complex, not consumer, being. Just a boy on a stretch of grass. Real grass. A field, maybe even, if he and we are lucky, a meadow. Soft. Not LA grass, not, to quote from Barber's Summer 2004 essay 'The Signs of Los Angeles' (for Filmwaves magazine), 'grass going through the motions... nominal grass, not representative of a particular individual or home, but corporate grass that has crept over the border and colonised domestic space.'

The creative tension here, the dynamic that underpins all of Barber's work - is between the unframed beneficence and fecundity of genuine human conduct - evidenced in the touching signs of family pride and messaging that sprout across the manufactured LA lawn, or the warm chatter of 'Withdrawal' - and a certain arrival at a certain kind of threshold - whether it be the shoreline ('Walking off Court'), the treetops ('Upside Down Minutiae') or the hoarse limits of the vocal ('Shouting Match'), where might gleam the promise of brief rest from the workings of the world and all its images.

Gareth Evans

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