A journey into hypertext

Two artists are recreating the Scottish travels of the celebrated literary duo James Boswell and Samuel Johnson.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Most art sites on the Internet are disappointing. The artists on display don't seem to bother with the implications of their medium and you wonder why they swapped canvases for computers at all.

In "A Hypertext Journal" (http://www.unity.co.uk/hypertext journal/), two artists, Nina Hope and Karen Guthrie, have created a Web site that is an artistic medium. They have taken James Boswell and Samuel Johnson's journals of a journey to the Western Isles as their point of departure. Retracing the 1773 route, Pope and Guthrie are visiting the same locations, but instead of publishing their journals in book form they aim to create a live interface between themselves, their environment, a Web site and its audience.

Net surfers can direct the artists to points of interest on their journey, so to a certain extent the contents of the site depends on the user. There are also weekly chatlines and mailboxes.

The month-long journey started on 18 March. Each night the artists upload photographs, video film and sound recordings via laptops. This kind of online artwork is the equivalent of an artist opening up a studio to show work in progress and inviting contributions from the audience. The danger is that the half-formed ideas that litter the site can go nowhere. But as nothing is deleted, the user has to trawl through them anyway. On the whole, it's worth the effort.

The homepage is Boswell and Johnson's "Journey to the Western Isles" opened flat on the screen with directions round the site pasted on to it. From here, you can open pages showing routemaster maps scanned in over 3D models (using Photoshop and Stratavision), with place names highlighted in hypertext. If you are interested in Scottish Web sites, this is a good way to access them. There are two prepared pieces of artwork. Although the images themselves seem inconsequential, the ideas behind them are put to good use. Karen Guthrie's "There are but two trees" shows a pair of pines sprouting from the passage in Johnson's journey lamenting Scotland's lack of trees. As you cross the text with your cursor, you will cross invisible hypertext "buttons". Press them and you will be diverted out of the Journal and into the World Wide Web. But the links are carefully arranged so that it is impossible to set off on your own journey - they keep directing you back to Guthrie's page.

Hypertext obviously intrigues both artists, for it is also the central theme of Nina Pope's piece, "and returned". Blinking place names allow you to click and go to a never-ending list of references that spiral outwards into the Web. Hypertext fosters the illusion of access to total knowledge, but Pope and Guthrie's pages undermine it. By planting non-linear links, the information misleads and derails the user. For Boswell and Johnson, travelling through the Highlands was a physical challenge. For Pope and Guthrie, the real challenge is the Internet user's journey through a mass of information.

Other parallels between the two journeys and their respective texts are less rewarding - unless you want to draw comparisons between the lexicographer/lens as "recorders of the truth" or, like Boswell, have Scottish ancestors you wish to trace. And when it comes to reading Pope and Guthrie's own diaries, the original need fear no rival.