Back in April I had an opportunity to inspect the New York Public Library’s copy of AGRIPPA, the 1992 artist’s book/electronic literature collaboration between Dennis Ashbaugh and William Gibson (published by Kevin Begos). If you do not know how cool this is you can go here for some basic background information. The purpose of what follows is to make public a reasonably complete physical description of the book, something which appears to be lacking at the present. Indeed, there is a great deal of internet lore and misinformation surrounding the project; Gibson himself, for example, once claimed never to have seen a copy, in turn leading some to conclude none were ever completed—but this statement is belied by the appearance of Gibson’s own signature on the flyleaf of the copy at NYPL. The best technical description to date is from the Center for the Art of the Book; while it is authoritative on bibliographical matters it lacks any description of the book’s actual content.
AGRIPPA measures 11 x 15.5 inches. The cover is linen over boards, pale green, artificially aged and liberally spotted with what can only be burn marks.
The interior comprises 30 separate leaves, apparently handcut with ragged edges. The flyleaf is signed by both Gibson and Ashbaugh, and numbered copy 12 of 95.
On the next page the following printer’s marks appear:
Sun Hill is the name of the press where the letterpress type for the DNA text (see below) was set and printed.
The bulk of the interior pages are occupied by a four-letter sequence of text, apparently a C-A-T-G nucleic acid quartet. A recent exhibition label from NYPL states that it is a literal encoding of the text of Gibson’s poem. Whether that is correct or not I cannot say; if so I have not broken the code myself.
The sequence occupies four double-columned pages, printed left justified in an all upper case san serif font (Monotype Gill Sans), maybe 16 points; the full sequence is repeated eleven times, for a total of 44 pages of text.
Here is a transcription of the code on the title page, representative of what one finds throughout:
Preliminary checking with the NCBI’s BLAST database (thanks Jess) does not suggest any correspondence to any known genetic sequence, and moreover it is important to note that there were only a handful of such sequences that had been mapped by the Human Genome Project c. 1991 when AGRIPPA was completed.
Interleaved on different paper (the Fabriano Tiepolo of the CBA description) are a total of seven prints of Dennis Ashbaugh’s artwork. These generally feature what the stylized “chromosomes” (characteristic of Ashbaugh’s work) and sometimes other imagery and text besides, all variously legible. The second etching, for example, includes traces of an antique camera. The third displays a pistol. These are simple line drawings. (Readers of Gibson’s poem will recognize the objects from the text.) The etchings are generally of a single hue, ranging from an almost florescent green to browns, oranges, and greys. None of them altered or faded in any appreciable way during the course of my engagement with the book (about two hours).
There are also several other pieces of artwork in the volume. On the verso opposite the opening page of text there is a drawing of a hand (bearing some resemblance to an old-fashioned manicule) dangling a plummet. The following text is printed (ellipses indicate illegible gaps):
Anthony’s Timing Plummet
This . . . is constructed to mark one second of time at each beat and intended to simplify timing of expressions . . . 25 cents.
Likewise, another two-page opening of printed text has a TV set overlaid in charcoal, as though it were transferred from an absent etching in the manner of some other localized rubbings and corruptions in the book. The same image appears on both the recto and verso of the opening, with the text partially legible beneath.
The last third or so of the book consists of leaves that have been glued together—therefore they may not be turned. This is in addition to the count of 30 leaves indicated above. A well is cut into these leaves, apparently by hand, measuring 4.75 x 4.75” and about a half-inch deep. This is where the floppy disk containing the “text” of Gibson’s poem resides. The interior of the well is painted black. The topmost leaf (a recto) begins a twelfth repetition of the genetic sequence. The verso page opposite the well is the seventh and last piece of Ashbaugh’s art (it includes traces of illegible text).
The case: AGRIPPA comes packaged in a fiber glass case. It is bulky and awkward to handle, maybe 14 inches by 20 and about 2 inches high (alas, I didn’t measure). There is a small label coated with what might be resin in the upper right hand corner; there are several lines of text on the label, but only “CA. AGRIPPA” is actually legible (and only barely).
Opening the case: the bottom half of the interior is given over to what appears to be corrugated cardboard spraypainted black, as well as some stiff netting or webbing use to seat the volume, much like the disk is embedded in the back of the book.
The diskette itself is a 3.5” Maxell disk, with the following printed on the manufacturer’s label:
MF2 . HD
DOUBLE TRACK/135 TPI
There is no marking by hand on the label. Whether the disk contains the text of the poem, whether the poem is truly encrypted as is purported, and whether it has ever been (or ever will be) “run”—read—one can only speculate.Posted by mgk at June 4, 2005 09:26 PM