The Agrippa Files
Last autumn, the Bodleian Library’s Special Collections Department faced an intriguing dilemma when it acquired a rare copy of Agrippa, a Book of the Dead, a hybrid print-digital work featuring a digitally encrypted poem by William Gibson that can only be read once before the data destroys itself. With artwork from noted American artist Dennis Ashbaugh, and referencing everything from genetic code to the Gutenberg Bible and Kodak scrapbook nostalgia, the book’s digital element was designed to self-efface after a single “transmission”. Chris Fletcher, head curator at the Special Collections, asked, “Do we conserve the book and vandalise the poem, or read the poem and lose the book?”
This Schrödinger’s cat-style problem is exactly what publisher Kevin Begos, Jr envisioned when he, Ashbaugh, and Gibson conceived the project in the late 1980s, a time when prophecies of digital formats supplanting print were just beginning to stir. The Bodleian is still grappling with the question of what to do with the archive and has yet to stage any happenings around the book’s self-effacing poem. But the acquisition of the Agrippa archive has generated justifiable excitement: after years of being virtually forgotten, the book has seen a major revival of interest thanks, notably, to an extensive digital online project, The Agrippa Files , launched by the University of California, Santa Barbara. And scholars are starting to recognize that the book is much more than the gimmick mainstream media painted it to be when it was printed.
I caught up with Agrippa’s publisher Kevin Begos recently to talk about why he chose to entrust the archive to the Bodleian, cultural memory in the digital age, and how critics have too often failed to approach Agrippa in a holistic way, with Gibson’s celebrity largely occluding interest in the book as a cross-genre, intensively collaborative work of literature and art. While press coverage at the time of release painted Gibson as the book’s main author, Begos and Ashbaugh were the project’s initial and primary architects—with some help from French poet Stéphane Mallarmé and Maurice Blanchot. Now that the archive is deposited at the Bodleian, Begos told me, he hopes scholars will approach and play with Agrippa in the way he and his co-authors intended: as a work of art and literature which stages complex intersections between genres and form, and attempts to articulate how meaning and memory are constantly evolving.
Could you talk a bit about the genesis of your ideas? Who were your influences in the art and bookmaking realms, and what led you to undertake such an experimental project?
For me it started out as a very conscious attempt to integrate several things that I’d either been working on for years or seen other people working on who were close to me, in particular artists who were also bookmakers, or who made books works of art. Richard Minsky gave me my first bookbinding lessons around 1981. He’s the founder of the Center for Book Arts in New York. Then I worked with Clifton Meador and Philip Zimmerman, and they were at the centre of a whole group of artist bookmakers. We had a printing company and we’d often print for artists and poets and do all sorts of experimental books. That was from roughly 1981 to ’85. And I was the odd guy out because I was from the literary tradition. I had a small book publishing company right out of college and mostly published poetry and fiction.
In some cases I printed books by these artists—I guess the best known of them is Keith Smith. If you look under the Library of Congress, one acquisition they’re very proud of is a book that’s all strung together like a cat’s cradle. I didn’t publish that but I was influenced by Keith, and all these people who were pushing the boundaries of the book in the early 1980s.
But to me there was always one flaw: most people were completely uninterested in the story. To me, the story, whether it’s traditional or more avant-garde, is important. I wanted to do a project in which both the narrative and the artwork are important. I didn’t want to do something in which the artwork was just a sort of appendage to the bookmaking.
At your presentation in November, you described the content of Agrippa as “a meditation on memory and how we come to grips with that memory.” Can you expound on this? Do you think we come to grips with cultural and personal memory differently than previous generations did? Is there something even more delicate and ephemeral about memory in the digital age?
I think the main point to make here is that the project evolved in stages. I had the original idea for the self-destructing computer disk but there wasn’t even a story attached to it at that point. Dennis Ashbaugh asked me to come up with an idea for him and Gibson. One point that some of the [new media] critics have missed—even some of the really good ones like Matt Kirschenbaum and Alan Liu—is that it was really almost a never-ending stage of evolution. Eventually there was Gibson and Ashbaugh being friends but they didn’t know what to do together. Originally we thought it would be a short story by Gibson. Then he wrote the poem, and there was the title, and Ashbaugh had the idea for images which mutate [and self-efface with disappearing ink]. And those images weren’t quite technically possible; then there was the idea for the transmission, but the transmission was hacked by a video team, and [the poem] migrated out to the web. So it’s been an ongoing [work.] I don’t think it’s ever been completely finished.
What does it mean for you to have these archives and this copy of Agrippa at the Bodleian? What motivated your choice to hand the archives over to Oxford? Were there other interested curators?
Over the last year and a half, I found the Bodleian to be very committed intellectually to the concept and in all sorts of ways. So it just seemed like the best home for it in terms of the tradition of bookmaking and literature, but also the attention they were devoting to it.
When Matt Kirschenbaum and Alan Liu first saw copies, they were fascinated and started asking all sorts of questions. And The Agrippa Files team [at UC Santa Barbara] started asking all sorts of questions, and I was really impressed by the interest they had in various parts of the project and the way The Agrippa Files recreated various parts of Ashbaugh’s disappearing image, the way he intended to pull it off. So that’s the last five or six years—I started to think that maybe a few copies do need to be made more available to scholars.
That was also part of my decision to give it to the Bodleian—I wanted it to be safe and respected, but also prominent enough that it wouldn’t just be buried off in some obscure corner. But I think that’ll give people the opportunity [to interact with it]. The Bodleian’s at the forefront of making things available digitally. Maybe in five or ten years. I think Gibson will always be the focus, but hopefully this makes the project more available for study.
What sort of decision do you think that the curators at the Bodleian will make in terms of what to do with the copy of Agrippa? I know that was a kind of humorous point of discussion at the presentation you gave at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers museum in November.
I’m just glad that they’re having that debate. I think whatever they do or don’t do will be interesting. The only thing I’d say is that institutions in America around the publication 20 years ago really weren’t able to “get” the concept. Some of them thought that they’d be granted some special exemption and wouldn’t have the disk that destroyed itself or the disappearing images. The Bodleian seems more engaged with the artistic and curatorial questions around those issues, and is actually discussing them. Ironically, there really aren’t many US institutions that have collected the book.
If you had the opportunity to get involved in another experimental book project, would you take it up? I know you’re not particularly interested in getting back into publishing, but how about collaborating on the ideas?
I’d be interested if it were with the right group. I think Oxford’s doing interesting things. There were a number of experimental electronic book publishers in the early 90s I’d talk to, but I just felt it was too early then. I would be interested if there was the right team of people. I doubt that there would be any publisher ready to experiment with such innovation, which tends to be driven by artists and designers rather than the companies themselves.
I would contrast this to the enormous investment that online game makers have made. It’s come out of virtually nowhere to become this multibillion-dollar world market. Hypercompetitive but constantly evolving—there’s this incredible competition to make games more realistic and more experimental, and it’s attracting a lot of creative people.
I think many people might argue that much of the true narrative experimentation is taking place in the games realm. The experimentation people thought would be happening with books is going on more in gaming.
I think that’s completely true. That’s where the real developments are taking place and legitimate breakthroughs in terms of how people interact with artwork and with each other. They’ve built platforms that will evolve.
Yet in a digital age, there’s this huge concern—because of the way technology is developing so exponentially and the ways that formats change so abruptly—that data is dangerously ephemeral. I’m wondering, in terms of the prediction that print was in danger of disappearing, which was current when the book was first conceived, has your idea about what Agrippa’s legacy might mean changed?
I was certain there was going to be a decline in print. But even Gibson had written in his books about a future age in which hand-made objects would still be the most incredibly valued things. Even if computer networks got incredibly powerful and able to re-create reality, an actual hand-made object, whether it was a book or a sculpture or piece of jewelry, would still be incredibly special. So I think we’re moving toward that with books that you’ve seen in print recently—coffee table books, or books that are just beautiful objects with good content too. Books that are just content—textbooks and some straightforward novels—are moving much more toward being exclusively digital. All I really knew 20 years ago was that we were at a turning point.
Courtney Traub is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Linacre College, Oxford.