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Kevin Begos, Jr.
On Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)

The following is a letter of Oct. 26, 2002, from Kevin Begos, Jr., on the original idea and evolution of William Gibson and Dennis Ashbaugh's 1992 Agrippa (A Book of the Dead). Begos was the publisher. His letter is addressed to Alan Liu in response to a request for a photo of the work. (The letter is reproduced here with Begos's permission.)

[from Kevin Begos, Oct. 26, 2002]


It may be too late for your essay, but you may be interested in the following story about where the idea for Agrippa came from. Gibson has never claimed credit, but many popular media articles suggested he "invented" the idea of a self-destructing text, just as he coined the word cyberspace.

Gibson was in fact rather lukewarm towards the idea in the beginning stages, and especially lukewarm towards the Blanchot/Mallarme influences that played a role in my coming up with the rough idea.

The condensed version of the story is that Dennis Ashbaugh, a NYC artist, had been trying to come up with some collaborative project to do with Gibson. At the time I had a small book publishing company, and was also a design consultant to the Limited Editions Club of NYC, a publisher of very expensive artist/writer collaborations. (Motherwell/Octavio Paz, Rimbaud/Mapplethorpe, DeKooning/O'Hara, etc.).

I had never read any of Gibson's books when I first met Ashbaugh, but he asked me to think of possible forms for a collaboration. Not having read Gibson, and having little enthusiasm for Ashbaugh, I didn't get too excited.

But at the very same time I was growing rather disillusioned with the Limited Editions Club and its museum/rare book collector clients. Now, I love fine books and bindings. But it had gotten so difficult to produce truly hand-made books that the average price of a Limited Editions Book was about $1,000. The bigger ones, like the DeKooning, sold for $5,000 and up (this was before the art world crashed in the early 1990s).

One story was fresh in my mind - from one of the buyers of the Limited Editions book by Motherwell/Paz. It's about 18 x 23 inches, probably 30-40 pounds with box, filled with original lithographs. This buyer had been so intimidated by the size/weight that she hadn't even opened the shipping box - she'd shoved the book under her bed, unopened.

So thinking about Gibson and Ashbaugh, I had this flash of an idea - do a 'book' on computer disc that presents collectors and museums with an all-or-nothing choice: produce a text on computer disc that self-destructs after one reading. If collectors/museums want a pure 1st edition, that could only be the unread state. If they choose to read the text, it becomes only a memory, not a tangible physical object to be bought and sold.

I was particularly happy about the quandary this would put museums and collectors in, because how could one even determine if the disc had been played, without playing it?

It took a long time to move from the idea stage even to having Gibson write the poem - 6 to 9 months, I think. Then, to everyone's surprise, this conceptual book started getting a lot of publicity. Needless to say, turning the 'idea' into reality was far, far more difficult than anyone imagined.

Gibson has rightly pointed out that Mallarme/Blanchot didn't influence him at all in writing the poem 'Agrippa.' But I had been involved with printing some of the early U.S. Blanchot editions, and had been very influenced by Mallarme, and such ideas, along with my experience at the Limited Editions Club, were the origin of the idea for Agrippa.

Gibson came up with the title 'Agrippa, a Book of the Dead,' and wrote a perfect (for the project) poem about memory and loss. And the whole internet boom was in the very early stages, and this project fit right in.

Final note: the project, such a success media-wise, was a financial disaster for my small company, and played a major role in driving me out of book publishing. It lost a lot of money.

this page by [Instructor Name], last rev. 2/3/03

Page Updated: Monday, February 3, 2003 10:33 AM