'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 style ...

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 the world.


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 also continue.

"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 degree.

"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."