John Conomos

Night sky
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne

One of the more interesting trajectories of the digital threshold is its capacity to provoke increasingly fluid and unpredictable relations between images and language. As screens become multi-media sites for the interactive display of audiovisual data assembled from the most heterogeneous sources, the convergence between pictures, speech, and writing hastens our departure from the familiar shores of illustration. Instead of the traditional hermeneutic circle, in which words (as voice over or caption) serve to anchor the 'preferred' meaning of an image, while the self-evidence of the image functions to guarantee the truth of its text, we are witnessing a proliferation of works which test the collusion and the tension between eye and ear.

And yet, in many respects, this threshold is not new. One of the strengths of John Conomos' installation Night Sky is that it gathers together strands of an as yet unwritten history of 'interactive' media which would include oral story-telling and books as much as video and computer art. Perhaps this history will never be written in the traditional sense, for it necessarily occupies a zone which has always troubled theories of representation from linguistics to semiotics. Night Sky often turned words into images, interrogating their look and their sound, while weaving images from a variety of sources (experimental cinema, educational films, family photographs, video re-enactments) into a dense textual web.

The installation comprised three video monitors flanked by four cool blue neon signs whose deliberately 'misspelt' words hovered like a mantra over the scene of viewing. The three screens each displayed separate sequences which were rhythmically cross-referenced to form complex patterns of association and memory. While simultaneous screening of multiple image and sound tracks has become a common technique to disrupt the hold of linear narrative, in Night Sky Conomos (ably aided by editor Jason Gee) further accentuates this dispersion along two axes.

The first arises from the sheer diversity of audio-visual material assembled. Scenes from the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers play alongside contemporary footage shot on and around the Greek Island of Cythera; re-enactments of family dramas mythologised by distance in space and time are juxtaposed with 'authentic' family photographs which (through digital morphing) merge with one another like tears running down a tired face; surreal visions of migrant life in 1 950s' Australia collide with stark intertitles listing cultural icons, products and personalities from that period; a sequence from Busier Keaton's The General ( 1 926), in which the great stoneface sits contemplatively on the rising and falling piston of a moving locomotive, is overlayed with a close shot of Conomos reading a passage from the theorist Michel Serres.

What links this disparate material is the continual insertion of Conomos into the text and onto the screen as actor, confessor, poet and protagonist. However, this strategy is adopted less with the aim of securing meaning with reference to an apparently unified author, than as the means of testing the status and probing the limits of autobiography. What happens to the self when cultural and linguistic reference points are irretrievably scrambled by the passage of migration? While the solace offered by conventional fictions of centred identity are denied, this absence may also sharpen the capacity to think 'in-between'. With constant reference to the milk bar universe he inhabited as a child, Conomos excels in the practice of mixing 'this' with 'that' to evoke an identity which belongs neither entirely here nor there.

The need to create metaphors which join the experience of exile to semantic rupture focuses Night Sky's second axis of dispersion around the dispersion of language itself. For Conomos, the necessity for the migrant to juggle linguistic and behavioural codes carries multiple and often contradictory significances. In one scene, he appears transfixed against an expressionistic black and white jumble of the Greek and English alphabets, apparently condemned to occupy a paranoid-schizoid position in relation to each. At another point, walking in Cythera, he declares: "I am at home nowhere, in no house and no country".

But elsewhere the frictions of migrant discourse take a more productive turn, revealed in the consistent exploration of linguistic difference through puns, word plays, colloquialisms, malapropisms, and the like. it is from this perspective that Conomos' obvious affection for Chico Marx-the quintessential migrant who murders language to his own ends-can be understood. As can the luminous presence of the neon signs-substituting liberary for library, inevitible for inevitable, chocols for chocolate, and so on-which celebrate the difference that accent makes in the relation between a word and its sense.

The appearance of Night Sky at ACCA offered Melbourne audiences a welcome chance to see this important work, which has previously been shown in Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. It is to be hoped that we won't have to wait as long to see Conomos' current project, a more ambitious autobiographical/landscape video called Autumn Song.