'Hypertext Journal - a journey to the Western Isles'

by Peter Ride, MUTE, issue 4

Amongst the preponderance of Internet art projects that are constructed around the notion of exploring digital space, it is unusual to find one which relates to a specific geographic and physical experience yet is designed to be presented - but not located - within a virtual world. A project in this form can create a tension between the actual and the projected; by being essentially both analogue and virtual it can challenge the cultural representation of travel.

Hypertext Journal -A Journey to the Western Isles is an Internet project by artists Nina Pope and Karen J. Guthrie, which records a journey they will take around Scotland. A Hypertext Journal records their progress and experience, but more pertinently, it explores the way that a text is created.

The preliminary web site for A Hypertext Journal has existed for the last twelve months, evolving in both in its structure and as an indication of the way in which it will operate as the document of Pope and Guthrie's travel. Their findings, notes from their journey and material in the form of text, video, still photography and sound recordings will be posted onto the Internet site. The web pages will contain a mixture of 'highly evolved' art pieces and more spontaneous material. The artists intend to upload information onto the site on a daily basis, using laptops and modems to enable them to work as directly as possible. They will also be correspond with their audience, by email, and at pre-designated locations with IRC sessions. The audience feedback and comments will contribute an important aspect of the project.

The 'document' that Pope and Guthrie will create will not just be a single progressive text, evolving as they move along, but an accumulation of material, overwriting, modifying and contextualising their initial pages, as they re-address issues or enter into a dialogue with their on-line audience and interact with other relevant web sites.

Pope and Guthrie's project is linked to a cultural predecessor, the journals of Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, who travelled round Scotland in 1773. Johnson and Boswell were a zealous and rather earnest pair of travellers for whom travel was not a rigorous exercise of the mind more than of the body. Setting down their experience in the form of a journal was to create a form of evidence: a definitive record of their movement, their observations, and above, all their insights. Their Journal was one of the early examples of what is now known as the travel writing genre.

For Pope and Guthrie, the Johnson and Boswell journey is used as a point of origin rather than as a post modern re-tracing of their steps. Their choice of material is apposite: apart from being two of the most influential writers on Scotland in the modern era, Johnson and Boswell were head and shoulders above most travellers of their period. Johnson used the journey to expand on his ideas of how knowledge is gained through comparison and association; that our understanding of a place or culture is founded on analogy and description which is assessed in the light of direct contact. While as one might expect, they recorded their journey in a linear fashion as a progression of achievements, but they were keenly aware of the process of decision making that formulates experience. To them it was often serendipitous.
"As the day advanced towards noon we entered a narrow valley not very flowery, but sufficiently verdant. Our guides told us that the horses could not travel all day without rest or meat, and entreated us to stop here, because no grass could be found in any other place. The request was reasonable and the argument cogent. We therefore willingly dismounted and diverted ourselves as the place gave us opportunity."
While lacking the horses, Pope and Guthrie's project will also reflect on how decisions are made and undergo the same process of discussion and deliberation to determine how they proceed - and the unexpected diversions will occur. Theirs will be between remote parties and in a sense, the project is a collaborative venture with their on-line audience, both metaphorically and literally. They could, for example, respond to a request to visit a place or person, and thereby embrace the private experience of someone whose grandmother lives on the Isle of Skye, within the public scope of their project. This is not only effective for on-going work, the creative isolation of the artist is challenged by the process: their opinions and documentation can be contested or debated by their audience.

There are many models of Internet projects in which the outcome is determined by the involvement of its on line audience, and the degree to which interactivity can work as a contributing factor within an art event is open to question. However, what Pope and Guthrie aim at is quite specific. Though, through their open dialogue with the artists, the audience become participants, there is no presumption that the audience is in a position to control the direction of the project. This process is more of a re-appraisal of the role of a 'reading' using on-line media than an exercise in group participatory projects. It also reminds us that our awareness of collective experience , present and historical, factual and anecdotal, contributes to our comprehension of cultures - which is represented and referenced by the multi-layering of information in an art project.

The prototype site indicates the beginnings of this through cross referencing: the home page shows scanned footnotes from the original journal which are slowly being obscured by more and more 'buttons' leading off to new parts of the site. A page which lists all of Johnson and Boswell's original stopping points creates hyper-text links to any related web-site carrying the same place name- and which can be located through search engines. (For example, the Dundee page contains links to sites for Dundee institutions, cakes, health centres and City of Dundee sites abroad.) As they develop contact with each location the number of links will increase and information can be more tangentially associated, personal and ambiguous.

Pope and Guthrie intend to return to many of Johnson and Boswell's original findings and explore the contradictions that they encompass. Pope points out that although Johnson was obsessed with definition and empirical evidence he also had a confirmed belief that the Scots were blessed with second sight, and used what opportunity he could to observe this. Pope and Guthrie intend to take this balance of the scientific and the mythological and explore textual and anecdotal references to second-sight within their web-site.

Through this project Pope and Guthrie illustrate we have broadened our understanding of a text as a fluid and changeable document. A Hypertext Journal demonstrates how hyper-text can provide a structure to illustrate how relativism is necessarily employed when reading a document. It provides an actual as well as symbolic reference point, it effectively insists on the viewer's ability to shuffle between the information that is provided within the document and other levels of information that the reader is directly or indirectly aware of.

Pope and Guthrie anticipate that their journey will take a four week period, starting mid March. As a finished piece of documentation their work will remain on line for a period afterwards. In this way, as both a live-arts work and a publishing project, it argues a case for hybridity of art forms that is often spoken of in Internet projects but rarely achieved.

Peter Ride is co-ordinator of Channel, the Internet Arts Network

'In the Digitised Footsteps of Boswell & Johnson'by Paul Welsh, the Herald, 15.3.96