Hypertext Journal - project information
Project Information


Due to popular demand for more information (and the amount of questions we've been receiving via email post "Horizon") we've decided to update this page with the paper we gave @ ISEA in Rotterdam this summer. It's pretty long so if you are here for research purposes you may want to print it out! - or you may want to see the original information written just before we began the journey.


'A Hypertext Journal' - the WWW as Live Interface
Nina Pope & Karen J Guthrie

SUMMARY

This paper describes the project 'A Hypertext Journal' by Nina Pope and Karen J Guthrie, and through this explores the potential of the Internet as a site for art production and interactivity.

SHORT PAPER

"... I love anecdotes. I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary or preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made..."
Boswell quotes Johnson in 'The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides'.


The WWW site 'A Hypertext Journal' is essentially a record of the 4 week journey through the Highlands of Scotland, which we made together earlier this year; equipped with laptops, modems a digital camera, video and audio equipment. The trip was geographically based on 'A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland' the route taken by the famous 18th century travellers James Boswell & Samuel Johnson. Whilst we were travelling we uploaded new web pages daily, documenting and interpreting our experiences visually, and with sound and text files. The web site as you see it now remains unedited, as it was on the last day of our journey.

A Hypertext Journal proved to be both a difficult and rewarding piece. We had set ourselves a number of criteria or problems that we wanted to examine through the production of the work. Now with the hindsight of 6 months we are beginning to digest what we produced and answer some of the initial questions that prompted the piece. However, these have inevitability opened up further areas of questioning into the actual suitability of the web as a site for art production. Being based on a personal journey we have the added difficulty of the rosy glow that surrounds anyone flicking through their holiday snaps when we try to look back over the work! We hope here to try and move through this, look at some of the successes and problems underlying the piece and put forward some of the questions it has raised for us.

We were inspired to make 'A Hypertext Journal' for many reasons, but a driving force was the dissatisfaction we felt (both as artists and viewers) at 'interactive' work being produced in digital media and specifically with the nature of work that was permeating the web in the category of 'art'. Much of this we felt was inappropriately rooted in traditional models of creative production and display which translated poorly onto the net - the 'virtual gallery' being the worst offender!

It may perhaps then seem ironic that we too chose to base our piece on another accepted genre that of the travelogue. However, we felt that by using this as a starting point and setting up a tension between the two approaches we would be able to move forward and away from accepted means of expression and towards something more pertinent to the media. We also felt that by attempting to add interaction with our audience, and to 'publish the experience more or less 'live' we would be immediately moving away from this old form of recording to something very different. The Boswell and Johnson link did however give us meaning to our chosen route - a link to those we met on the route and a structure through which, by contrast and comparison, we were able to think about our own journal.

In order to maximise the potential for interaction with a remote audience we did as much 'real world' publicity of the piece as possible as well as using all the normal channels available on the web itself. As well as mentions in the press and on radio, we printed 2000 postcards with the URL on which were distributed to Cyber Cafes throughout the UK. In addition the bare bones of the site, and our original proposal were placed on the web some months before the journey began. We wanted very much to 'open the studio door ' inviting people to email us with suggestions for our journey, people to meet etc. and we wanted this dialogue to grow as we travelled.

All this might suggest that the piece was a rather tortured experiment in on-line interactivity and the limits of friendship! In fact this was far from the case: it was as much about the experience of travel, the places we visited, our own histories, Boswell and Johnson, our own relationship and the whole damn thing. Perhaps at its foundation was our mutual trust as collaborators, both committed to turning our conventional art practice on its head (and hoping to engage a few viewers on the way!)

So how did it go once we were 'on the road'? Over time we evolved a system of working and the structure for the site really took care of itself, this was in part due to the extreme time pressures on our work schedule, but it grew organically and we went with this. The viewer was able to enter via a number of options - the diaries, a map, pieces, or at random. As the piece evolved the links between these sections and out into the net became one of the most important aspects for us. We spent an ever increasing amount of time (particularly late at night!) threading paths through the work and making links that were humorous subtle informative or downright surreal. Arguably there is a parallel between this and more traditional types of art-making, where a series of intuitively linked elements unite in an image or form. Here the links themselves become visible.

As artists who had both worked in traditional and digital media we had expected (even if subconsciously) to produce visual pieces, similar in form to our other work. In fact the opposite occurred - the production of purely visual pieces seemed somehow inappropriate, difficult and limited in its ability to articulate the complexity or our position between the journey our real and remote audiences. We made sound and text-based works for the first time, which had an immediacy that went beyond their documentary appeal. Daily we reconsidered what we were making in an effort to shape the site. Two weeks into the journey we even threw out the one 'rule' we had decided on before hand of keeping simultaneous but separate dairies. These were proving too time consuming at the cost of other pieces. Whilst they helped to give the site a time base and immediacy (as well as being entertaining) they failed in isolation to describe the journey in a way that was specific to us as visual artists.

The interactivity with our web audience also surprised us. Initially we worried about receiving a deluge of mail which would consume most of our time. This was not the case, in fact the quality of the mail, rather than the quantity was, fortunately, definitive.

One relationship in particular proved to be extremely rewarding and points to the possibilities for meaningful level of 'interactivity' via the net. This dialogue was between ourselves and Lachlan Brown (who lives in London but with whom we had no connection prior to the project)and rather strangely it began with a misunderstanding.

Lachlan requested we track down some family links for him when we reached Lochalsh, his ancestral home on the West Coast, and upload any 'evidence' onto the site. What made this even more intriguing was the mention of his ancestral name and home in the journals of our C18th predecessors.

"We came to a rich green valley, comparatively speaking and stopped a while to let our horses rest and eat grass. We soon afterwards came to Auchnasheal, a kind of rural village, a number of cottages being built together, as we saw all along in the Highlands. We passed many miles this day without seeing a house, but only little summer-huts, called shielings. Evan Campbell, servant to Mr Murchison, factor to the Laird of Macleod in Glenelg, ran along with us today. He was a very obliging fellow. At Auchnasheal, we sat down on a green turf-seat at the end of a house ; they brought us out two wooden dishes of milk, which we tasted. One of them was frothed like a syllabub."
Boswell in 'The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides'.
We duly collected audio and visual material from this quest, and posted it up for Lachlan (and of course anyone else who chose to download it). This created a tension between material for an individual passed through a global medium and potentially available to a global audience, it also lead to yet more dialogue and Lachlan becoming increasingly emotionally involved ...
Some odd coincidences...Anyway, you'll probably think this absurd, but I find >even textual descriptions of Lochalsh very emotionally moving. Even on bloody email.

He was clearly moved by our efforts and gradually involved and increasing circle of other family members. He then sent us more material he had gathered from his mum who was in turn following the journey 3rd hand via phone calls with Lachlan!

I asked my Mum Jemima Murchison (nee) for an anecdote and she has phoned a couple through: re: Second Sight. (we collected stories connected to this throughout the journey) An old woman (possibly her grandmother) told her when she was very young that >when the old woman was young she had a very sick child. She took the child to >see an old woman who had the second sight. She was to tell no one, and to take >the sick child at midnight over water between the living and the dead. The old >woman put a chord around the child's neck and told the young woman never to >remove it until it had rotted away. My Mum adds that the child recovered.

However, in terms of discursive involvement with our piece in its 4 week entirely, there were really only two 'die hard' contributors. Maybe this says something more broadly about interactivity, disregarding the question of whether it denotes some kind of failure on the part of the artists or viewers. We began from the assumption that 'interaction' is a meaningful two-way exchange between artist(s) and audience, and further to be an exchange that can in turn affect the course of the art work at the stage of creation rather than completion. So, in the case on Lachlan his request prompted us to visit and research parts of the original journal and route we may have otherwise missed.

Our piece demanded a high level of commitment from the viewer - it evolved over the course of the month alongside the actual journey (which could arguably be seen as a performance and the 'real' art work) further than this interaction rather than just following us required even further time. Is it then surprising that only a small handful of our huge number of 'hits' became participants in any real sense? Our experience with Lachlan confirmed that this kind of interaction is worth striving for but also that it is not 'easy' or common. To again return to the traditional model, does signing a gallery visitors book mean that you looked (and by extension interacted) with the work 'more' than the visitor who passed the book by. The level of interaction that we found to have any significance was perhaps equivalent to not only signing the book but jotting down a short essay! The sharp comparison between numbers of hits and numbers of email, messages in many ways underlines the futility of most types of scripted interaction by pointing up the extreme rarity with which this can spontaneously and meaningfully occur between two parties.

It was also notable that with the marked exception of Chris & Shirley Murry most of our comment came from this country - this raises the question as to whether using a global medium has to mean aiming at a global audience or whether those involved need to feel some 'real' contact no matter how obscure with the artists to want to participate.

Subject: "Demise of Diary"

Please...say it isn't so, "Demise of Diary".

Fortunately, or unfortunately, we have no soul-searching questions to ask of you, except that your journey continue. We so look forward to coming home after grueling day's employment in the land of the free and home of the brave (?), to find your bookmark and search out your day's adventures.

So, pray continue, and in health!

Chris & Shirley Murray Coupeville, Washington, USA

When we were about to begin travelling both of us at that time felt confused and excited by the net and that come what may at the end of this we would emerge with some kind of grasp on at least what it meant to us as artists. As we travelled this seemed to be become less rather than more tangible, slowly we worked out a method for our daily production and aided by hours of drive time discussion worked towards shaping the work live on the net. The comparison between early and later diary pages is marked indeed!

SO whilst we emerged feeling as if we could upload download, reply, resize link tag or anchor, in our sleep and work any phone system known to man did we have any kind of conceptual understanding of the web? or a clear picture of the projects strengths?

Making the Journal certainly confirmed our feelings that the following were important considerations:

  • That sites should have as their root emotive/meaningful content
  • That the net presents huge possibilities for relaying this type or 'performance' or time based work
  • Remaining open to interaction is a struggle but a worthwhile one
  • Sites must be in some way time based if an audience is to be engage in more than a once only 'quick flick'
  • That the basic building blocks of the net such as email, IRC and basic html are of huge interest and potential use to artists whether it is as a production or communication tool
  • That by using the net artists are able to contectualise their own work by linking to material they choose - this could of course be by themselves or others.

One of the successful aspects of the piece for us was the ability to open up to the audience at the stage of production - the web is of course traditionally used in this way, we went with the 'ethos' of publishing works in progress and inviting response common to science and research practice. The question arises, however, as to whether this is this suitable for art practice as it seems to be in direct opposition with the ethos of the complete gallery based work. It is also common for users in other disciplines to use the net purely to interact with others in their field - perhaps using the web in this way as an interface between individual or groups of artists is a more attainable goal than global audience interaction.

Undeniably we had difficulty in producing purely visual based work in this context, this was partly affected by very real practical considerations involving time and the need to eat. However perhaps this difficulty and the success of other areas of the site points to the fact that the WWW really is more suited to a multi media rather than a purely image based approach. Both of these points should be considered in relation to the current 'look & feel' of the web - Perhaps our sense of isolation reflects simply the small place currently inhabited on the WWW by experimental art sites and the sense of having no real 'model' to choose or react against.

This of course also affects the audience who unlike when they visit a gallery may, on the web, just brush up against art by accident or in a much less deliberate mind set (similar to happening apon a public art work). This may of course change and in many ways it is already happening - large corporate sites are become live publications designed by teams and the web is splitting into adverts and content - one over and one under 'designed'. This split will inevitably go further and clearer 'real' world categories will continue to emerge -recreation, sex sites, news sites, personal sites, medical, campaigning, academic etc. etc.. Will these splits push forward art on the net as a unique or will this in fact make art produced in this media more homogenous with other areas be this within Fine Art practice or documentary/broadcast media.

To conclude Home pages - still remain for us the most refreshing part of the net - in many ways our project can be seen as one huge home page. However, increasingly net users - especially artists are reluctant to write these - many web users reluctant to participate in the basic interactive on-line community choosing to visit passively rather than postup comment or pages. We still feel confused and excited by our journey, real and virtual, and extremely lucky to have made the work at this time - perhaps on the cusp of change to a different Internet. More tools may become available to us as on-line artists, but rather than constantly waiting for the next version or upgrade perhaps we should be trying to participate as fully as we can now - while we are still able to affect the development of this area and experience its strange and most fundamental tools first hand.
Nina Pope & Karen J Guthrie '96





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