George Barber is best known for his pioneering ‘scratch video’ work in the 1980s, which tapped into the new MTV aesthetic of the time, with fast-moving video cut-ups of Hollywood films and TV advertising.

Born in Guyana and based in London, Barber has since developed a large and varied body of film-based work that includes performative monologues, narrative films and conceptual work such as Automotive Action Painting (2007) and Shouting Match (2004-2011).

The latter is typical of Barber’s at-a-tangent way of looking at the world and the people in it. Filmed in four locations – London, Tel Aviv, Bangalore and New Orleans – the piece explores different cultures through the medium of shouting. Noisy, chaotic and a bit bonkers, all four films are brought together for the first time in a large solo exhibition at Chapter, Cardiff, which forms part of this year’s Diffusion festival of photography.

One new piece showing in Cardiff, Fences Make Senses (2015), is also featured in a small show at Waterside Contemporary, London and touches a very topical nerve in its examination of the global refugee crisis. Says Barber: “The central theme is: ‘Imagine swimming to a place you’re not wanted’.”

Your new film, Fences Make Senses, deals with the refugee issue in a sometimes absurd and darkly humorous way. What prompted you to make it?
The work responded to a moment in 2014 when I’d been to a lot of film festivals and I kept seeing the same work; these appalling interviews with refugees talking about their terrible experience and losing everything. Art can’t really take on events of such immensity – in that sense it’s very difficult to make a work about, say, 9/11, which is still cascading on and its influence is still there. So I knew I couldn’t offer any solution but I wanted to bring it home. The idea was that I would get my friends or people I knew to actually rehearse some of the scenarios that these people faced, like buying a boat or having all your money taken off you or dealing with bureaucracy. There’s a lot of absurdity in these situations and the rehearsals point out the absurdity, but they’re also tragic as well. The trouble is that when people are in dire straits they’ll believe anything.

How important is humour in the work?
I didn’t start with the idea of being humorous. I saw all these films about this crisis and they shared a certain approach – in a way they aestheticise the issue, like Bob Geldof did with Live Aid, an endless stream of crying children with flies on their faces. It becomes so abstract that they just become images and then you get a credit card number to call. The films I was seeing seemed the same – they did make you feel terrible but again there was no sense of being inside it or thinking a bit more about it. In some ways they just add to the confusion. My piece was attempting to do something different.

When it comes to something like a world refugee crisis, what role can art play?
An artistic response is just as valid as a journalistic response, but let’s get it straight – art probably doesn’t affect anything. If you took Guernica, for example, we remember it because of that Picasso painting; if we hadn’t had the painting we probably wouldn’t know it so well. And there are various events historically that live on because of an art piece. But I don’t think any piece of art has ever changed a politician’s viewpoint. So I don’t think that artists have that much power to change the world or affect politics, but obviously they’re part of a stream and as viewpoints change they’re part of that. And secondly, as an artist one just has to follow one’s heart if you get an idea.

Your piece, The Freestone Drone (2013), also looks at a very topical subject by giving a voice and personality to a military drone.
You take from what you see around you, and with drones I noticed that what people were particularly fearful of, the thing that made them shudder, was this idea of a young man or woman who spends all day in Portacabin looking at screens, taking out people, and then gets into the same commuter flow as you and goes home. And what revolts people is that they’re not facing any danger themselves. Of course these arguments were used with aeroplanes, carpet bombing, tanks – there’s a long tradition of this kind of response [to new methods of war]. So the idea in the film is to make the drone a child that is just starting to realise what he does – in a way, it is gaining consciousness. Some of the lines, if you’re a little bit superficial, might seem silly, but in fact when the drone says “People don’t seem to like me, I’m a bit creepy, could I ever be a nice drone?” and then there’s this lush classical music – I think it’s quite moving.

So the piece isn’t so much a critique of this new means of destruction as a critique of our response to them?
It’s a response to drones – and artists like anyone else have a right to express how they feel about drones and of course it’s not going to come out like a classic text in The Economist. With me, it’s going to come out as trying to put connections and ideas that actually then represent it in a way that makes you think about it differently. I don’t think you any more understand it; I read the factual stuff and then it comes out in different ways. The feel of the film owes something to Chris Marker/Godard – I spent a lot of time as a student watching Godard films. The drone says at one point: “I can see images of the present, they’re in the past.” And actually the same things keep coming up in the news; war is much the same, it’s the same old thing, makes no sense – it’s really about human beings and territory.

The title of your show at Chapter, Cardiff – Akula Dream – is also the title of another rather absurdist recent film, this time set on a Russian nuclear submarine.
I don’t think I’ve exhausted this idea of using technology or a machine as a way into a subject. So when I finished The Freestone Drone it seemed to open up the whole possibility of other things, and I liked this idea that for a nuclear submarine to be a deterrent you have to hide and that means being quiet. So it’s I like this kind of monastery, all these men sitting around in the boat, but in Akula Dream (2015) the captain gets sick of it and he wants to start holding hands and having seances and trying to help the world with thought power and shamanic drumming. Again, it has a comedy to it, but it’s also quite profound. “The world is calling us, we need to answer it,” says the captain, and I like the idea that these people aren’t going anywhere they’re just sitting in silence, but in a sense they’re calling out and travelling the world in different plains, they’re reaching out, they’re thinking outside the box. It’s about a war machine that gets converted to a vehicle of love – it’s a bit like The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine! It’s my version.

George Barber: Fences Make Senses, continues at Waterside Contemporary, London until 12 December 2015.

George Barber: Akula Dream, continues at Chapter, Cardiff until 10 January 2016.

AKULA DREAM from George Barber on Vimeo.

More on

For more Q&As with artists, including Abraham CruzvillegasBridget RileyPhil CollinsWilliam Kentridge and Marianna Simnett, use the Q&A tag