Agrippa (a Book of The Dead) - Content and Editions

Content and Editions

Agrippa comes in a rough-hewn black box adorned with a blinking green light and an LCD readout that flickers with an endless stream of decoded DNA. The top opens like a laptop computer, revealing a hologram of a circuit board. Inside is a battered volume, the pages of which are antique rag-paper, bound and singed by hand.

Gavin Edwards, Details, June 1992.

The book was published in 1992 in two limited editions—Deluxe and Small—by Kevin Begos Jr. Publishing, New York City. The deluxe edition came in a 16 by 21½-inch (41 cm × 55 cm) metal mesh case sheathed in Kevlar (a polymer used to make bulletproof vests) and designed to look like a buried relic. Inside is a book of 93 ragged and charred pages sewn by hand and bound in stained and singed linen by Karl Foulkes; the book gives the impression of having survived a fire; it was described by Peter Schwenger as "a black box recovered from some unspecified disaster." The edition includes pages of DNA sequences set in double columns of 42 lines each like the Gutenberg Bible, and copperplate aquatint etchings by Ashbaugh editioned by Peter Pettingill on Fabriano Tiepolo paper. The monochromatic etchings depict stylised chromosomes, a hallmark of Ashbaugh's work, accompanied by imagery of a pistol, camera or in some instances simple line drawings—all allusions to Gibson's contribution.

The deluxe edition was set in Monotype Gill Sans at Golgonooza Letter Foundry, and printed on Rives heavyweight text by Begos Jr. and the Sun Hill Press. The final 60 pages of the book were then fused together, with a hollowed-out section cut into the centre, containing the self-erasing diskette on which the text of Gibson's poem was encrypted. The encryption was the work of a pseudonymous computer programmer, "BRASH", assisted by Electronic Frontier Foundation founders John Perry Barlow and John Gilmore. The deluxe edition was originally priced at US$1500 (later $2000), and each copy is unique to some degree because of handmade or hand-finished elements.

The small edition was sold for $450; like the deluxe edition, it was set in Monotype Gill Sans, but in single columns. It was printed on Mohawk Superfine text by the Sun Hill Press, with the reproduction of the etchings printed on a Canon laser printer. The edition was then Smythe sewn at Spectrum Bindery and enclosed in a solander box. A bronze-boxed collectors' copy was also released, and retailed at $7,500.

Fewer than 95 deluxe editions of Agrippa are extant, although the exact number is unknown and is the source of considerable mystery. The Victoria and Albert Museum possesses a deluxe edition, numbered 4 of 10. A publicly accessible copy of the deluxe edition is available at the Rare Books Division of the New York Public Library and a small copy resides at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, while the Frances Mulhall Achilles Library at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City hosts a promotional prospectus. The Victoria and Albert Museum's copy was first exhibited in a display entitled The Book and Beyond, held in the Museum's 20th Century Gallery from April to October 1995. The same copy was subsequently also included in a V&A display entitled Digital Pioneers, from 2009-2010. Another copy of the book was exhibited in the 2003-2004 exhibition Ninety from the Nineties at the New York Public Library. Gibson at one point claimed never to have seen a copy of the printed book, spurring speculation that no copies had actually been made. Many copies have since been documented, and Gibson's signature was noted on the copy held by the New York Public Library.

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