'In the Digitised Footsteps of Boswell & Johnson',
by Paul Welsh, The Herald, 15.3.96
Sitting in Cyberia, the Edinburgh internet cafe, I cannot see the person
I am talking to. I cannot hear any voice. I just type my question, then
wait .... In London, Nina Pope keys in an answer before I ask another ....
The interaction continues and together, we manage to communicate on Internet
Relay Chat (IRC). Doing this, I have become part of an interactive work
of art. Without physically moving, I am now on a journey which stretches
the concept of publishing and will eventually take me to the Western Isles.
I am following in the footsteps of Boswell and Johnson, but doing it nineties
In the autumn of 1773, Samuel Johnson, the famed London essayist, finally
indulged his desire to visit the Scottish Hebrides via the country's eastern
seaboard. Opinionated, sharp witted and literate, he left Edinburgh - 'a
city too well known to admit description' - on the 18th of August, travelled
north to Inverness before turning West, through the Great Glen, towards
Skye. His companion was James Boswell, a great man's biographer or sycophant
depending on your politics and sensitivity to Johnson's style.
Together, these men walked, rode and sailed into the wild places of Western
Scotland, a land and culture undergoing massive change following the failed
revolt of '45. Two years later, Johnson published a journal recounting these
travels and peppered with his own observations. He presented a personal
vision of that besieged Gaelic world of clan and custom to English speaking
nations, and for good or bad, his word informed and influenced people throughout
Such was the power of publishing in those days, and so it has remained.
Over 200 years later, however, the fundamental dynamics of the printed page
are undergoing a concerted challenge. The distinctions between a text, its
author and the audience are being increasingly blurred, and new media -
including the Internet - is proving the best place to get a handle on post-modern
philosophy, the font of this new thinking.
Testing some of these influential ideas, Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie, graduates
of Edinburgh College of Art, are due to leave Edinburgh by car in March
and, as close as possible, follow Boswell and Johnson's original route round
Scotland. That all sounds fairly predictable, but working in collaboration,
Pope and Guthrie have already spent a year writing, designing and developing
their Hypertext Journal: An Interactive Scottish Journey for the Internet.
This virtual publication has backing from the English Arts Council, and
although it may just sound like a high-tech re-run of that extremely famous
sortie, this version boasts a number of significant differences.
For some time, net-surfers have been able to access the artists' Web-Site
and flick through the first pages of the journal, detailing the project
and its goals. They have also been able to peruse early digitised art inspired
by the source material but hinting of Disney, an modern aesthetic both artists
are 'obsessed' with. "Karen lived in Paris and has done a lot of work
based on Euro Disney and I am very interested in 'artificial landscapes'."
responded Pope via fibre-optics. "A lot of my work is photo-manipulation,
with real images and computer generated images mixed together. I hope to
draw on aspects of both during this journey."
More significantly, though, journal browsers are being actively encouraged
to participate in the journey by contributing ideas and historical information,
and also making specific requests to the authors .. Where exactly should
Pope and Guthrie go? Which ruin? Community Centre? Factory? Home? Who should
they speak to en-route? What should they record? What are your perceptions
of Coll or any other place they intend to visit? Multiple answers to all
these questions are now welcomed by both and for the duration of the month
long tour starting next month.
"I was unfamiliar with the journals at the start," responds Pope
via fibre-optic, "but as this idea developed, I became aware of my
own memories of a place and how they tied up with Johnson's account. Different
layers of meaning - different people's perceptions of the same place - different
audiences, are all central to this project."
Using video, photography and new art created en-route, the traveller's narrative
- their physical journey - will be broadcast 'live' on the internet, using
lap-top computers and modems to update journal pages on a daily basis. Communication
(through IRC and electronic-mail) with net-surfers at remote sites will
"The original journal was published well after the journey, but ours
will be instant by comparison. Normally when I travel my opinion of a country
shifts dramatically, even in short periods of time, and the site will be
able to document these changes. The journal allows us to convey our 'experience'
and an 'original' concurrently, and the medium's immediacy prevents hindsight
from interfering. Day to day, comments made with hindsight will be published,
though, but this process should be transparent. Using new media, the project
inevitably becomes a critique of the way Boswell and Johnson approached
and recorded their experiences, as well."
Pope and Guthrie hope to organise workshops and lectures en-route for any
groups interested in learning more about the project and the technology
underpinning their real, virtual and philosophical travels. Information,
ideas and contributions gleaned on the ground alongwith a flow of suggestions
from net-surfers should help establish a three-way dynamic for creating
the Hypertext Journal. This change of emphasis could see previously important
distinctions melt away. The inspiration for the 'text' is no longer the
sole responsibility of Pope and Guthrie. It will reflect the 'on-line' internet
community and, once the journey is underway, the 'off-line' community of
the Western Isles. As a result of the technology, the journal's audience
can also be its author, if not entirely, then certainly to a significant
"We will still be in the middle effectively," says Pope, "and
the success of the project depends on how well we are able to convey the
'on-line' and 'off-line' communities to each other. We are going to make
every effort for communication to go both ways. Most cyber-culture is homogeneous,
but hopefully the everyday things we choose will convey something special
about where we are."
"We have a chance to let the people we meet control to an extent how
they are represented. We would like to find out how this new technology
influences remote communities, and hopefully people will already be familiar
with it and that will give us a common starting point."
Typing away, the journal's potential became apparent as the journey changed
and developed through our discussion. When they set off, Boswell and Johnson
were beyond the influence of the outside world and the local people who
spoke a very different language to either man. Alone those travellers cast
their eyes on a silent, barren Hebrides, but this time, things could be
different. "Boswell and Johnson could only make contact by sending
a 'boy on ahead'. The Web-Site is open now .. in effect people can see us
coming and change our path."