The Flight of Ducks

Access: Exits, Screens and Combing

This is the text of the inaugural Masters Series lecture
given at the Radio Theatre at RMIT on the 7th March 1996.

The Flight of Ducks is a research project I am building on the internet. When explaining this project, the nature of its content often competes with my enthusiasm for the medium in which I am working. The two are so interwoven that I'm going to have to give you an idea about the content in order to explain some of the things I have discovered about the medium.


After my fathers death, I found among his papers a collection of photographs, journals and artifacts relating to an expedition on camels into the western desert of Central Australia in 1933. His companions were: artist - Arthur Murch, animal and skull collector - Stanley Larnach, an Aboriginal camel boy - Hezekiel, and T.E. Strehlow about whom there has been great controversy. This was the time of Lasseter and Kidman and there were still wild Aborigines who had never seen whitemen.

I typed up these journals for my family in the form of a short book. They were actually one journal - re-written over time. To my surprise I discovered that many of the stories I had grown up with had been extrapolated through time, almost to the point of being imaginary.

The more I read about Central Australia the more I came to realise this was typical of what is commonly known and written about the area. Explorers and writers have continuously projected their own needs onto this country and its inhabitants. From the outset you can see this process in the idea of an inland sea or the persistence of belief in Lasseter's reef of gold. Even today, there are New Age projections by writers such as Bruce Chatwin (Songlines) and by the Aborigines themselves who have always invested the centre with imaginative significance.

The book was inadequate. This material needed a medium where the footnotes could have a life of their own and the wealth of visual material could be adequately displayed. This is why I have been building this project on the World Wide Web.


Before I reveal some of the things I have discovered about this medium I must explain that the title of this work - The Flight of Ducks was taken from an entry in the journal. A tribe called the Ngalia (who had never seen white men) were having a corroboree. Most of the songs were of the type we generally associate with Central Australian rhythmic chants. There was one that was completely different. They were later told it was in an ancient language that had lost its meaning. Yet its richness and complexity of structure meant that it was clear to everyone what the song was about. It was about a group of ducks at rest on a water hole. Suddenly they are surprised. They take off clumsily then fly off and away but return with a swoop at terrific speed to disappear into freedom again and peace. A wonderful metaphor. Each man on this expedition spent the rest his life circling and returning to this desert country. It also refers to imaginative flight.


In addition to the journal extrapolations, my father wrote a whole series of Desert Sonnets some of them can be found in this work. He also taught himself ancient Greek and, returning to the centre in 1976, managed to climb Central Mount Olga in order to look back over where he had been and recite The Iliad which he had learnt by heart. At first you might think this an eccentric or bizarre feat. In fact, it was entirely appropriate to my fathers grasp of the country. The Iliad is no ordinary poem; it has an untraceable and enduring lineage more akin to Aboriginal song cycles than to anything found in European culture since the invention of print. More akin, in fact, to parts of the cannon of work now building on the web.

I mention this poetic link because it resonates with something that has profundly influenced the approach I have taken with this medium.


So, we must abandon the traditional conception of an art world populated by stable, enduring, finished works and replace it with one that recognizes continual mutation and proliferation of variants - such as with oral epic poetry.

The Reconfigured Eye - William Mitchell (p.52)

The key words here are continual mutation and proliferation of variants.

Continual mutation really means that the screens are changing all the time either because the information is being updated or the screens themselves are being refined.

Proliferation of variants. is usually understood by people to mean infringement of copyright.

Many people I talk to about this are not only uncomfortable that the medium itself is evolving but have trouble with the idea of continuous mutation and proliferation. It is anathema to this new medium to draw a line across the bottom of a work, write - the end- and expect it to have a long life. It is equally absurd to pursue copyright. In such a mutable medium a paradigm shift is required. Most film or video makers, libraries and universities simply cannot comprehend this because they want to own something with boundaries - at the very least it is tied up with notions of property both intellectual and physical. Issues outside the scope of this lecture.

What are the implications of such a paradigm shift to the handling of this material within a living breathing proliferating organism?

A(CC) reserved ESS:

The first and foremost implication of this paradigm shift is the need for accessibility. When the parts of a work can be easily accessed at any point, in any order and for reasons we probably can't envisage - to make access difficult or confusing will turn people away at the very least, it is mean spirited. This is a generous medium and those who want passwords or money at every turn will fail. My concern has been to make each element of The Flight of Ducks easy to find and easy to take away. Like it or not, in a networked digital domain, pieces of any work, no matter how secretive or convoluted; will be taken, circulated, recombined, transformed, processed and exhibited in new ways. No doubt - more interesting ways. As I build this work, I am circulating my own material all the time. I am its most frequent visitor because the method of work is to constantly refine each screen, engaging in a process I call combing .

I want to show you some of the devices I use to create accessibility ( combing is one of them):


To make it easy to get in, you have to make it easy to get out - on EVERY screen. On the top left corner of every screen you will see a duck. Press it and you're out. Usually to the main index. How do you know this? or in interactive speak: how is affordance achieved?

Overall, I try to keep links to a minimum. In my opinion the only excuse for more than 3 links on any screen would be that you are presenting choices of similar kind i.e. indexes. Showing more than 3 links is too confusing and asking for trouble.


Most screens (except those designed to be scrolled or printed) should be seen complete. By this I mean that you see the entire screen without having to scroll either up or down or sideways. As the web begins to sing and dance with the development of software such as Java and Shockwave, scrolling will only be found (if at all) on those screens designed to be printed. This throws up the Pandora's box of screen aspect ratio. I work to the smallest common screen size of 640 x 480. I have no idea where this will go.

There is a great deal of competition for screen space, not the least being the browsers own navigation aids. Additions such as frames compete for even more space.


The down side to having discrete screens means that file numbers multiply and quickly get out of hand. Without adequate combing screens you are creating a thousand headed monster. Because you have no effective way of managing and accessing the hundreds or even thousands of screens as they proliferate. Combing is a term I have coined to refer to the process of refining or even building sets of screens. Combing screens make use of the qualities inherent in hypertext markup language, in some ways they resemble numbered screen indexes in that they are three dimensional references to every screen and its links. They exist (like everything on the web) in two incarnations.

Probably, the most easy understood combing screen is the one I have used to assemble and manage the photographic data base.

Because this is not a lineal medium and (in any case) screens are unlikely to be constructed in sequence, the advantages of a combing screen index are as follows:

The process of building these screens and their links is unlike any other; primarily because of the mutability of these screens. Sometimes, when pressing the reload button, I think it is like being in a darkroom and watching that magic moment when photographs appear on the paper.In referring to these combing screens as management tools I do not want to ignore their role as a scripting mechanism. In some ways they so closely reflect the structure of the work that it is a short jump to automating them so they become the work itself I certainly could not work without them.

I expect The Flight of Ducks will be unrecognisable in a few months as I comb through its content - recombine - tranform and circulate the material in order to establish meaning. About this I have written a sonnet which I will now read:

The collection

Lamplit I work in the shoals of the night
collating sources with currents of facts,
pounding at keys to make surfeits of type
in turbulent folders around me in stacks.
Luminent ghost light emerges from screen
as digitized pixels wash out of date stains
from chemical imprints in sequence unseen;
the wreckage of memory diluted and changed.

What really happened? And who was this man?
Insights new-lived that are just out of reach.
elusive reminders of footprints on sand
removed by invention like wave-wipes on beach.
I pilot this story through the narrows of proof
as the wisdom of hindsight contaminates truth.

(CC) reserved S.Pockley Feb 1995 Flight of Ducks 341 mail talk back