Mediamatic Magazine 3#1 Steven Bode 1 Jan 1988

Dal Ponte dei Sospiri to Eco Beach

Former scratch video makers, GEORGE BARBER and GEORGE SNOW have each made new tapes that travel from Venice to America and back again. STEVEN BODE looks at some recurring themes.

It's a trail that's been increasingly followed, since one or two spirits first blazed it: UMBERTO ECO in his Stateside Travels in Hyperreality. JEAN BAUDRILLARD cultivating the fictional personae of a 19th century Parisian (echoes of DE TOCQUEVILLE) and speed-loving drifter in his travelogue Amerique. Like many before them, both authors seem drawn to the glittering surfaces and infinite vistas of a country which invites description to the same extent that it defies analysis: ECO to the physical manifestations of America's cultural mix-up of fantasy and reality - its strange utopian projects, dioramas and wax museums, where the simulation is often both more forceful and authentic in its impression than the original on which it is based; on the other hand BAUDRILLARD, to the America of the freeway; an endless circulation, a lack of fixed co-ordinates that seem to make for a perpetual frontier; a harsh-lit, desert America, whose every rapid impression is swiftly replaced by the next. In both, though, there is the sense of the modern day intellectual abandoning some of the lofty yet moribund lookouts of contemporary cultural analysis in favour of immersing themselves in a quixotic freeplay of images that constitutes a new world of a quantum difference to the Europe they've left.

The Sinking Feeling

It's quite probable that the hero of GEORGE BARBER's new video could also flit quite happily along this post-modern slipstream. And furthermore, in this culture of endless simulacra and the much-announced Death of the Subject, he does have the added distinction of being, from the beginning, a bona fide ghost. The Venetian Ghost, like his previous Taxi Driver 2, follows on from BARBER's earlier scratch tapes like Absence of Satan/, Yes Frank, No Smoke and Tilt, in bringing a particularly European video art sensibility to the language and the lustre of Hollywood, yet, this time, with a minimum of fast-cut images and more of a concentration on the unfolding ironies of mixing narrative genres.

We are first introduced to the ghost of Doge LAUROVICO MANIN by way of an interior monologue. Formerly one of the 17th century rulers of Venice, he now haunts its piazzas and palaces, living in melancholy limbo. Time weighs heavily upon him, like it does over the city itself. That is until one day in the 1950s, when, with his sense of déjà vu becoming oppressive, he decides to shadow FRANK, an American tourist, whom he's overheard talking of a cool scene happening out at Venice Beach. This minor detour, however, turns out to have major repercussions, as the ghost finds himself far from his familiar shores, and instead miraculously transported to the surf and the sun of Venice, California. Here, in this bohemian beach-suburb of Los Angeles, in this typically American - part-bijou, part-brash - appropriation of its Italian namesake, he tries to make sense of his surrounds.

Death in Venice

Venice, Italy; Venice, California - it's an easy mistake to make, though not necessarily an easy transition to take in one's stride. At the beginning of the video, BARBER opts to exaggerate the contrast (between the old world of High Culture and the new of High Camp) by jumping abruptly from location to location, between stately classicism and loud pop-cultural style. From then on, though, using the figure of the ghost, keyed in cartoon-like against the American backdrops, BARBER draws out the resonance of this clash of two cultures with no small measure of humour and skill.

We next see the ghost haunting the apartment of FRANK's son CHARLIE, whose superficial outlook and shallow obsession with style and good times drives Doge LAUROVICO to despair. CHARLIE lives for today, thinks no further than tomorrow and often has difficulty remembering what went on last night. The ghost, on the other hand, is made up almost entirely of memories he can neither evade or placate. CHARLIE puffs up his body with weights and with drugs but lets his mind slide. Doge LAUROVICO, though he has no body to speak of, has the compensating intellect of an original Renaissance Man.

A fly-on-the-wall in CHARLIE's apartment, the ghost sees the pattern of CHARLIE's life being played out before him. Doge LAUROVICO sits in judgements and shrugs. What is it with CHARLIE? There's a ghost in his house but is there any spirit in his life? And, by extension, is there any spirit in the culture in which lives? In an elegiac, fractured time-lapse sequence of shopping-malls, fairgrounds and streets, Doge LAUROVICO declares: People today spend so much time thinking how life could be ... Everywhere you look there are pictures. Pictures telling you how to lead your life, what to do. But when I see them, I see death. I see death all around.

It is a similar predicament to that experienced by the jaded ad-man TIM WEST in BARBER's Taxi Driver 2; watching the car head-lights pass, one after the other, on the road out of town; brooding on how every day at the ad-agency 100, maybe 200, ideas are thought up ... but when I go home at night and lie down they all seem the same. If we are currently undergoing what amounts to a Death of Meaning, as he's so often told, it's a death of overload, of indifference, of ennui. (The video is subtitled not Decline but Recline of the West.) WEST's answer to all this is to go native: at first, to try and emulate the animal magic of ROBERT DE NIRO in SCORCESE and SCHRADER's movie original (every night after work, he attends ROBERT DE NIRO evening classes) then to slip away to the sanctuary of the English countryside in the company of childhood TV figure JOHNNY MORRIS. This collision of English and American myths is wonderfully parodied in the tape's closing shot: WEST driving along with a new Mohican haircut through the green fields of England, declaring Here was a man who stood up, here was a man who would not take it any more.

At the end of The Venetian Ghost, Doge LAUROVICO, with his 250 years of wisdom at his disposal, tries to get through to CHARLIE, decides that even he - a ghost - has a greater grip on reality than most of the people amongst whom he moves. It is a picture of a dying Venice, a parody plague scene, played out without pathos, without tragedy, but in amongst a bright-lit surfeit of consumer and television images. Unable, in any way, to intervene, the ghost makes his peace with this new-style Venice, sits with CHARLIE and his family on the beach, puts on a Walkman and watches the sun go down.

The Assignation

GEORGE SNOW's The Assignation also has its hero a former ruler of Venice, who, furthermore, comes back from the dead, to meet once more with his lover. The video is based - surprisingly faithfully - on an original short story by EDGAR ALLEN POE. More visually complex than BARBER's tape, SNOW fills out the dark Gothic atmosphere of the tale with strikingly colourised sequences of Venice and echoes the rococo aspect of its telling with deft, often comic, embellishments of his own: Pac-Man fishes seen swimming in the canals, incongruous up-to-date costumes, a computer graphic playing round the eyes of a sphinx. Much of this is along similar lines to SNOW's earlier Muybridge Revisited, which danced computer animated MUYBRIDGE figures spectacularly, if somewhat blankly, around a multi-layered, ornamental backdrop. Here, rather than relying solely on fast paced musical backing, the explicit content of POE's narrative provides a springboard and a context for some of these effects to fully hit home.

Tracking the prince, late one night, to his darkened palace, a young man is shown into his apartment and shown around his collection of art; what ECO, in Travels in Hyperreality, would call one of the Wunderkammer of the Renaissance (much of whose thinking now seems re-instated in the dioramas of many contemporary American museums): clashing styles of painting and sculpture from different countries and different centuries are placed side by side; fakes and originals can hardly be told apart; the Venus de Milo is reconstituted - with arms - as she would have been at the time of her creation. For the prince, it is a kind of opium-dream, a fantastic collage in which the properties of Space and Time that normally terrify mankind have at long last been broken apart. For the young man, however, it is over-stimulating chaos: In the architecture and embellishments of the chamber, the evident design had been to dazzle and astound. Little attention had been paid to the decora of what is called keeping ... The eye wandered from object to object and rested upon none. As an early nineteenth century approximation of a contemporary post-modern adage it could hardly be bettered.

In post-modern parlance, BARBER's approach might best be described as parody (even parable) and SNOW's as lavish pastiche: a visual POE-pourri that embellishes the already baroque style of the original story with modern-day video effects; owing much to SNOW's background as a pop-promo director for ART OF NOISE and, before that, as a collage artist in graphic design. In both tapes there is an apparent continuing emphasis on the literary nature of much UK video art. With their explicit textual allusions and self-conscious use of narrative, yet more at the level that allows them a way to keep reimporting ideas into the extemporized visual field that marked out their initial scratch -based tapes. Now that scratch video has lost much of it's original cutting edge and often gets read, at the surface, in a similar way to the seamless flow of televisual images it once did it's best to disrupt, BARBER and SNOW's fragmentary narratives go someway towards recapturing its early ability to startle, provoke and surprise in a less heady, less hectic but perhaps, in the end, more reflective form.

If you'd like to quote something: Bode, Steven. "Dal Ponte dei Sospiri to Eco Beach." Mediamatic Magazine vol. 3 # 1 (1988).