Starting from Scratch

Ed Halter on George Barber

Left: George Barber, Schweppes Ad, 1993, still from a color video, 4 minutes. Right: George Barber, Tilt, 1983, still from a color video, 5 minutes.

IT’S FITTING THAT the first video artist released on Lux’s DVD label would be George Barber, whose early efforts screened widely on home televisions. Barber became known in the mid-1980s through his participation in Britain’s short-lived but influential Scratch Video movement, which transformed appropriated images from popular film and television through fast edits, vivid graphics, audio samples, and industrial-synth beats; he distributed his colleagues’ work beyond both galleries and broadcast TV via a VHS tape called The Greatest Hits of Scratch Video, sold in record shops.

Several of Barber’s fantastic Scratch-era pieces appear on Beyond Language: Selected Video Works 1983–2008, many of which betray the influence of earlier video artists like Dara Birnbaum and Nam June Paik, filtered through a sharp post-punk sensibility. For Tilt (1983), Barber employed an old video mixer found at Goldsmiths to layer pastel 2-D shapes and other image-processing patterns over footage from American television shows and commercials. On his commentary track, Barber says that at the time he was interested in “disrespecting the rectangle”—breaking up the TV image with abstract compositional elements—and finding ways to place “a very kind of hippie, drug-induced machine” in the service of a more angular, ironic aesthetic. For Absence of Satan and Yes Frank No Smoke (both 1985), two of his finest videos, Barber reedited one-inch masters of movies from Columbia Pictures, given to him by a studio rep interested in having the material promoted to a younger generation. Whether Barber’s fantastic, dreamlike, and color-laden collages of scenes with Sally Field, Paul Newman, and Brooke Shields ever boosted UK ticket sales remains unknown; the film’s source materials become nearly unreadable beneath his dense and rhythmic montage.

Barber’s later work retains his outsider wit, exploring video as a medium for the slacker raconteur: taking the piss out of adverts by adding new verbal sound tracks in Schweppes Ad (1993) and Hovis Ad (1994) or spinning enigmatic art-world allegories in Waiting for Dave (1993) and I Was Once Involved in a Shit Show (2003). He returns to the palette of colors from his Scratch period for Automotive Action Painting (2007), a prankish one-shot in which paint is poured in blobs onto a motorway, turning passing vehicles into unwitting artists as the pigments streak patterns across the road: evidence that Barber is still finding new ways to disrespect the rectangle.

Beyond Language: Selected Video Works 1983–2008, a compilation of videos by the artist George Barber, is now available through Lux. For more details, click here.