With the renewed interest in the British video art of the 1980s, the position occupied by George Barber, one of the pioneers of scratch video, continues to define his career just as the media itself reaches obsolescence. ‘The Long Commute’, a retrospective look at a fraction of the works he made between 1983 and 2010, highlighted the shifts in his practice over nearly 30 years, as well as outlining the developing technologies that supported it. Although Barber is best known for cut-up videos that re-use footage from music videos and television, Dundee Contemporary Arts’ survey considered his work from a wider perspective, taking in a variety of contrasting pieces.
The noisiest, most dominant of these was India Shout Match (2010), a revision of the earlier Shouting Match (2004), shot in Bangalore, in which various couples seated on wheeled platforms shout at each other while being pushed and pulled along a makeshift track. The volume of their screams equates to how much screen-time they get, so the louder they are the more they appear in-frame. The six-minute film is at once ridiculous, irritating and unnerving; the collision of joy, competitiveness and an act most commonly associated with distress or anger positions it in uncertain territory, asking questions about aggression and social codes while providing few resolutions. The work shares a similar phonetic focus with Barber’s early video Branson (1984) – which takes the ums, ahs and ehs of everyday speech from myriad interviews and re-edits them into a beatboxer-ish rhythm – and ‘The Long Commute’ was appropriately bookended by the two videos.
The re-editing of pre-existing footage is a staple of scratch video in works by Barber and his contemporaries, such as Gorilla Tapes and the Duvet Brothers. The approach is also important for a new Internet generation, such as Ryan Trecartin or James Richards, who use similar techniques to create videos. While a lot of Barber’s recent work has strayed from the motifs that first brought him recognition, Following Your Heart Can Lead to Wonderful Things (2008) stays true to some of the movement’s defining characteristics: Barber’s re-edit of various hammy television commercials makes up a disjointed narrative that resembles a five-minute session of channel surfing. The exhibition title, which is an obvious reference to the 2007 work of the same name and to Automotive Action Painting (2006), nods to Barber’s unusual preoccupation with cars as well as framing the exhibition with a sense of transience. In The Long Commute (2010), an aerial view of a car caught in the limbo of a looping racetrack parallels the looped structure of the video itself. Also shot from an aerial perspective, Automotive Action Painting is more elaborate: a staged ‘action painting’ is made by cars as they drive through different coloured puddles of paint poured onto the road. While these two works, as well as India Shout Match, touch on conceptual inflections, the show’s successes lay with works such as 1001 Colours Andy Never Thought Of (1989), and the later revisit to the same subject, 2001 Colours Andy Never Thought Of (1996). These videos feature a Warholian image of Marilyn Monroe that transitions through planes of saturated colour, exploring the straightforward narratives possible through combination and association of visual imagery.
Barber’s influence on video art in the UK is undeniable and, although the continued screening of his Scratch works push them further from art works and closer to artefacts defining a unique period of UK video art, their experimental essence still remains. In both the Scratch and recent works this experimentation continually reaches out to new and undefined territory and justifies his varied and inspired practice.