Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) Lives!


A two-day symposium (actual & virtual) about the infamous disappearing Agrippa: A Book of the Dead will be held this month in London. The event addresses some of the many conceptual questions the project sparked, or at least brought into sharp relief: what is a book? What is a book in the digital age? 

The text of Agrippa, published in 1992, was a long free-verse poem by cyberpunk author William Gibson. It was to have been issued in two versions, both limited in number, presenting the same concept: a physical book whose printed text was essentially gibberish, with accompanying etchings by David Ashbaugh. Gibson’s poem was included on a 3.5 computer disc that would auto-encrypt itself after being read once. Similarly, the prints were supposed to have been photo-sensitive, so just opening the book would initiate a change the art. So, Agrippa would present a “reader” with a conundrum: opening the book would change its printed pages irrevocably. Booting the disc to see if Gibson’s text could be read would result in permanently encrypting the text (if it hadn’t already been).  

The symposium is being organized by a PhD candidate, Justine Provino, and most of the participants are scholars who have thought & written deeply about the broad questions Agrippa posed. I’ve been included  because (I think) I’m one of few people interested strictly in the physical aspects of its production, i.e. the most traditional and perhaps mundane aspects. But these mundane aspects posed a number of technical problems to the publisher, and I’m fascinated by the stories about the making of a book, particularly when things go wrong. (See here for a long post about Agrippa and an account of its production I wrote in 2015). 

How much of what was promised in Agrippa’s prospectus ended up happening was long a matter of debate, and answering some of these questions was the focus of my monograph. They couldn’t get the photo-sensitive concept to work, but someone came up with a clever alternative that achieved much the same result. I’ve never been clear on whether the self-encrypting program worked; the copies of Agrippa I’ve seen were issued without a disc. The whole endeavor became somewhat shambolic in the end, but its ambition and provocation inspired many broader discussions (and graduate degrees). 

wouldn’t be classified as fine press by the people who made it or people for whom that phrase means something specific: the production was not the finest. It’s more firmly in the artist’s book realm. Copies rarely come to market. When I wrote my monograph, I found two listed in recent years. One sold on Abebooks for about $5,000, from a bookseller who had it on commission and didn’t really know what it was. The other sold in a modern art auction, for a paltry $800, once again showing that books aren’t really considered art by the market.

If you’re interested in discussions around artists books, what constitutes a book, what is the role of physical books in the 21st century etc etc, this free symposium might be worth dialing in. 

ll print Barbara Hodgson’s Marbling Paper: Experiments to Show That Paper Really Does Matter this month. That’s the title page above: she’ll marble the sheet, then I'll print the text in the white areas. We’ll see how that goes...