Hypertext Journal: A journey to the Western Isles

By Peter Ride, 10 March 1996

A review of Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie's hypertext journal of a tour around Scotland

A journey can be many things and the form in which it is recorded reveals the intentions of those who undertake it and their anticipation of the role of their audience.

"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."

This passage is from the journal of Samuel Johnson's which records a journey he and Samuel Boswell made across Scotland in 1773. Johnson and Boswell's journal reveals their concept of a journey to be not just an exercise of the body but a rigorous exercise of the mind. Johnson and Boswell set out to conquer - in one way at least - the imagination. For as Johnson pointed out, an understanding of a place comes from received information, description and analogy. But it is only in comparison with "realities" that the accuracy of our understanding can be challenged and expanded upon. Therefore a journey, in these terms, is only of any merit if it can "impregnate the imagination [and] enlarge the understanding".

For this rather diligent and Protestant pair of travellers, 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. The publication of their double work, A journey to the Western Isles of Scotland and The Journal of a tour to the Hebrides, was one of the early examples of what is now known as the travel writing genre.

Like most journals of its sort, and laudable within its context, it treats the process of journeying as a progressive series of achievements, as though the experience had been inflexible and inevitable. Though, as one might expect from a writer with as philosophic a bent as Johnson, it is layered with a the unspoken experience of previous journeys and anticipated future one. This is a fine point for a beginning...

Johnson and Boswell's journey has been taken as the starting point for an Internet project by artists Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie. Their project, A Hypertext journal of a tour to Scotland explores the way that a text is created, and that our experience of the fixed text can be challenged, as much as it records their geographic exploration.

The Hypertext journal has existed as a preliminary web site for the last twelve months, evolving in both in its structure and as an indication of the way in which it will operate. Pope and Guthrie will journey around Scotland in Spring of this year. Their findings, notes from their journey and documents in the form of text, video, still photography and sound recordings will be posted onto the web site. The web pages will contain a mixture of 'worked' art pieces and more spontaneous material. They 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 able to correspond with their audience, whose feedback comments and direction will form an important part of the journey.

The 'document' that they 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.

The prototype site indicates the beginnings of this: pages from the journal by Johnson and Boswell are gradually covered over by contemporary references (placed as transparent giff graphics over an image map). 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 name which currently exists (and can be located through search engines). As they develop contact with each place the links number of links will increase.

Through this project Pope and Guthrie illustrate how far our understanding of the text as a fluid and changeable document has become. They creatively demonstrate how hyper-text can provide the a structure that illustrates the relativism and devices of association that are employed in reading a document. The hyper-text structure provides an actual as well as symbolic reference.

Pope and Guthrie make it very clear that Johnson and Boswell's journey is taken as a point of origin and a cultural signpost, rather than as the factor that determines their journey or a Po-Mo re-working of their travels. In a sense, their journey is a collaborative venture with their on-line audience, shaped in part by the access of communication that the Internet has to offer. On-line interaction will shape the direction that their journey will take, both metaphorically and literally. They could, for example, respond to a request to visit a place or person, and embrace the person experience of someone whose gran lives on the Isle of Skye within their more public experience. Furthermore, their documentation can be challenged or debated upon by their audience.

There are many models of Internet project in which the outcome is determined by the participation of its on line audience. However, what Pope and Guthrie are attempting differs from that. The dialogue they will maintain with their audience has a heightened degree of interactivity in that they become literal collaborators. Rather than the audience being in a position to control the direction of the project, which they are not, the layering of information references their collective experience as an essential formulation of a journey, and of our comprehension of its process.

As Johnson indicates, in the above quote, the process of decision making on a journey is not confined to a sole act of intelligence: horses get hungry, opinions are proffered and so an unpremeditated opportunity arises for observation and contemplation. While lacking the horses, Pope and Guthrie will undergo the same process of discussion and deliberation between remote parties and the unexpected diversions will occur.

Given the preponderance of Internet art projects that are constructed around notions of space, it is unusual to have one which relates to a specific geographic and physical experience and is not located within a virtual world. Similarly the identities of the artists are not presented as ambiguous constructions but are open to interrogation. The on-line audience is involved in the physical reality of the experience, as represented by the artists. There can be a direct personal and knowing relationship between both parties which is open for examination as much as Johnson and Boswell's original text will be.

Conscious of the way in which their document will embody contradictions - between the disembodied self and the 'actual' experience, the fixed text and the shifting reference points - 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 site, 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-sightedness within their web-site.

Pope and Guthrie anticipate that their journey will take a four week period, and that as a finished piece of documentation their work will remain on line for a period afterwards. In this way, as both a live arts piece and a artists publishing project, its creation 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 at Artec, which is supporting the project.

Nina Pope ad Karen Guthrie would like to be contacted via their Web site at [] or by email to <ucft708 AT> A Hypertext journal is financially assisted by the Arts Council of England