By the Way is the first solo show by George Barber in the United States. With a wide range of work, deploying both humour and lyricism, the London-based Barber has been long recognized as one of the more influential video artists in the UK. His practice straddles many forms but has always combined a strong writerly aspect, humour and a devout iconoclasm. “Nodding equally to Jack Goldstein and Afrika Bambaataa,” writes critic Martin Herbert, “[Barber’s work] is smartest in its accessibility: it’s textbook Postmodernism, but with a groove.”
Barber gained considerable attention for his "scratch videos" of the 1980s, many of which were later copied by advertisers and promo makers (and used by bands such as U2). He has been celebrated by a younger generation of British contemporary artists including Hannah Perry and James Richards. Over his career Barber has produced an impressive range of work and does not sit easily in one box. He includes elements in his work as disparate as performance, improvisers, computer graphics, music, image manipulation, appropriation, professional actors and written narratives. He moves between the registers of conceptual art and political observation, especially in some of his most recent film work such as Akula Dream and The Freestone Drone.
For his wide-ranging exhibition at Young Projects, Barber will present a cross-section of works including the aforementioned Akula Dream and The Freestone Drone, as well as Upside Down Minutiae, River Sky, Garden Centre, Automotive Action Painting. The show will also include his well-known Shouting Match Series and many of his 'scratch videos'.
George Barber’s numerous solo screenings have included the Tate, the ICA, The Victoria & Albert Museum, The Royal Academy, New York Film & Video Festival, Art Belgium, Miami Basel, South London Gallery, and at La Rochelle Festival, France. Many of his works reside in key collections around the world including Paris’s Marc Fassiaty collection. Barber has also been the subject of many articles by such authors as Sukdev Sandhu, Sam Thorne, Christy Lange, Omar Kholief, Sean Cubitt, Mike O’Pray, Paul Morley and Gareth Evans, Ed Halter, Martin Herbert, Victor Lewis Smith & Maria Walsh.
Barber’s first collection of short fiction, Reality Check, is also being released to coincide with the exhibition.
The lobby area contains a handful of works that explore some of Barber’s psychedelic experiments with video synthesizers in the 1990s (works such as “Arizona” and “2001 Colours Andy Never thought of”. As Garth Evans has noted, these works “provide the clearest examples of Barber’s desire to be immersed in the abstracting potential of technology, a dream of the shifting surface that suggests the ephemerality of both subject and signal.”
This section of the exhibition also features two performance-based works, “Upside Down Minutiae” and “River Sky.” Each presents a scenario from daily life where the participants are asked to hang upside-down on the back of a moving vehicle as it travels around London or a speedboat on the River Thames. As they hang upside down, Barber asks them questions about their lives, feelings and childhoods. The result is a kind of public confessional that trades on the topsy-turvy ethos of contemporary art practices.
The first gallery contains Barber’s ‘Shouting Match’ series, which were created over the course of seven years on four different continents. Inspired by ‘Reality TV’ programming, each “match” was conducted at a public location and always with local volunteers. Each pair of contestants were asked to sit in chairs that were nailed to dollies running on DiY-style rails (each propelled by volunteers). Over the course of one to two minutes, the contestants would see if they could “out shout” the other—always at the risk of losing their voice. The result is both comical and disturbing—an absurdist take on daytime tv that also somehow hints at Bruce Nauman and Chris Burden. As Evans writes in “The Boy From Georgetown”: “As the clock ticks from day to dusk and beyond, in a low-rent nod to the durational aspect of ‘reality’ machinations, the scenario becomes both a perfect metaphor for the underlying nature of much archetypal human behavior and a deceptively simple incarnation of the forward impulse of contemporary cultural, social and political exchange.”
‘Following Your Heart’, ‘Welcome’, ‘Losing Faith’, ‘Reality Check’ and ‘Autumn’ all use off-air adverts and minor films. All can be found on a flatscreen in the main area of the gallery. The central conceit here is to take found footage and manipulate it into a new artistic experience. The adverts all play with the capitalistic theme of constantly asking people to consume by appealing to their emotions. A variety of adverts are used, ranging from the mobile campaigns, credit cards, bread, new DVDs, to ‘Fantastic Voyage’, the classic film about a miniature craft inserted into a man’s blood stream. The messages start to collide and contradict and many of the adverts have been re-mixed to fit together perfectly, to be in tune and maintain the same timing. Some become sad, depressing or troubling, and often reveal something quite opposite of the advert itself, such as a desire for death or the absolute insignificance of each one of us.
Two screens in another area of the exhibition offer another selection of works that suggest a second, parallel strand that can be found in Barber’s work. As Evans points out, Barber moved away from the heavy-editing of his scratch videos of the past and began moving toward micro-dramas and/or monologues in the 2000s, which often focused on word-play and scripted scenarios. Many are based on Barber’s daily life, where he goes to great lengths to describe what can only be described as mundane or trivial. Yet each tends to reveal something about “larger” writes Evans, “about the nature and challenge of being human.” Much of that has to do with the subtle detail and intimacy that Barber brings to these works. (The human “voice” is crucial to many of these works). At the same time, they’re also distinguished by an almost tangible tension between Barber’s construction of the event and the “reality” of that scenario itself and thus they achieve their own formal investigation as well.
A large 4:3 projection screen contains a number of Barber’s extremely influential ‘scratch videos’ from the 1980s and 90s (such as Absence of Satan, Tilt and Yes Frank, No Smoke) for which he received considerable attention (The pop video and advertising industry rapidly adopted some of Barber’s “visual tricks” as he says.) These works exhibit a bravura montage style that uses appropriated found-footage (mostly from VHS tapes of television shows and movies) to not only create vivid, often humorous short films, but also highly musical compositions that play with structuralist ideas of repetition and verse. As Garth Evans writes in ‘The Boy from Georgetown,’ “Scratch, this re-ordering of popular artefacts, of thin images, into something stranger and more ambiguous, was, and in many ways still is, the perfect tool for the times. It both satirizes and salvages, pleases and provokes. It offers a carnival parade of icons and 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.”
The last two areas of the gallery present two of the artist’s most recent works, both of which are based on original scenarios by the artist. Here the cinematic becomes central to each work’s meaning. Regarding The Freestone Drone, Sight & Sound remarked that, “like such early works of Barber's as Yes Frank No Smoke, this film ransacks the datastream for images - in this case footage of Al-Qaeda suspects, a missile tumbling, and so much more. The drone itself symbolizes US power but here it takes on a querulous and meditative personality to create an eerie collage of the visual cultures of militarized modernity. This is supplemented by the director's trademark wit: ''I'm a bit like Thomas the Tank Engine," claims the drone, "he was a machine that could talk and he was small and hard-working.”
Akula Dream is Barber’s latest and most ambitious work to date. The scenario involves an old Russian Akula submarine which is armed with ballistic nuclear missiles. It spends months at a time in the mid-Atlantic remaining motionless and often resting on the bottom of the sea to avoid detection. The ship’s Captain Pavel seems to care very little for practical matters or protocol. According to him his concerns are much larger than that, preferring instead to lead discussions about spiritual matters and the power of good. At night he sends out messages of peace and love to the universe at night and insists to everyone on board that a sailor's job is to promote ‘world harmony and love.’ Not surprisingly many of the sailors feel otherwise and question his devotion to Russia and a ‘true sailor’s duty.’
Like many of Barber’s works Akula Dream questions the idea of surface both literally and figuratively, while creating a narrative that features two opposing systems butting into one another. At the same time, it also uses the notion of the “submerged” to let Barber do what he often does so well: indulge in extraordinary moments of sheer, luscious psychedelia.
By The Way
An Exhibition by George Barber
September 17th - November 1st 2015