'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
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