Hypermedia at the Finnish Institute:
HYPERKALEVALA, LOCAL IRELAND AND MY BRIGHTON
By Marek Kohn
On the Net, there's no such thing as a periphery, and Netizens tend to associate smallness with dynamism rather than stagnation. So the Finnish Institute in London offered a setting for the presentation of three hypermedia essays on different locations in Europe: Karelia, Fermanagh and Brighton. Introduced by Jeff Taylor of the University of Lapland, the most northerly professor of media studies in the world, their concerns were with community and national identity. These are issues dear to the Institute, which devotes itself to the exploration of themes like myth, sovereignty, citizenship and civil society.
From Finland itself came Hyperkalevala, a CD-Rom edition of the Kalevala, Finland's national epic. The original edition appeared in 1835, while Finland was under Russian rule, and it became the nucleus of Finnish national culture and a tool for nation-building: the work of Elias Lönnrot, who collected a body of traditional poems and organised them into a unified text, just as nation-builders gather communities and unify them. In each case, the process entails invention as well as collation.
Lönnrot translated the poems from the oral tradition to print, and from folk to literary culture. In the 19th century, these were modernisations that a nation struggling to forge itself needed to accomplish. On the eve of the 21st century, social bodies of all sorts feel the need to translate themselves into hypermedia. The pressures on Finland are, happily, less grand or urgent than they were at the end of the last century. Nevertheless, the £100,000 that Hyperkalevala cost the Ministry of Education was money well spent. Hypermedia extends the epic back in time to prehistoric rock art which appears to use symbols found in the poems, forward to a modern rock band with "shamanic" leanings, and out onto the Web. For those of you who have Internet access and can read Finnish, it's at http://www.edita.fi/kalevala.
There it is linked to the village of Roslea, County Fermanagh, thanks to the vision of Gerry McGovern and his colleagues in a company called Nua, or New (http://www.nua.ie.). This is the first step in a project called Local Ireland; McGovern, himself from a village of eight houses or so, believes fervently in the power of electronics to revitalise rural Ireland. One of Nua's aims is to market Irish culture on the Net, though McGovern admitted that his prototype text, a travel piece narrated by the Dagda, an Irish mythical entity, had drifted too far in the direction of folksiness. Virtual heritage faces the same pitfalls as its material counterpart does in souvenir shops.
Like Lönnrot, McGovern is interested in translating stories from speech to hypermedia; and he is likewise in the business of nation-building, though his emphasis is on oral history and economic regeneration. But his project rests on the idea of community, as does My Brighton. This project was executed as a multimedia installation for Brighton Museum, but its producer, Jack Lattimore, demonstrated a CD-Rom version which is under development. Typical Brightonians, such as a schoolchild, a taxi driver and a lesbian activist, describe their personal Brightons; hyperlinks reveal more about the places on which they focus. On the face of it, My Brighton is a long way from Kalevala. But if you take the hyper-route, via Roslea, it's no distance at all.
© Marek Kohn (This is a slightly edited version of the Technofile column which originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday, October 6, 1996)
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