Hehmeyer, Paxton. “Interview with Kevin Begos, Jr.”

Paxton Hehmeyer, “Interview with Kevin Begos, Jr.”
 (transcribed and edited from a phone interview conducted December 17, 2005)
Paxton Hehmeyer is a graduate student in the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a member of The Agrippa Files editorial team. His research interests include Early Modern English literature; transitions to print culture and the history of the book; the early English nation-state. He may be contacted at heymeyer =at= umail =dot= ucsb =dot= edu. Kevin Begos, Jr., is the publisher of Agrippa (a book of the dead). [This fresh edit of the interview, posted 19 July 2015, reflects additional copy-editing and emendation by Alan Liu of the original raw transcript of the oral interview.]
You graduated from Bard College, is that correct?

Begos: Right.

With a BA in English?

Begos: Creative writing.

And then after graduating from Bard College how did you get interested in publishing? What was your first move after that?

Begos: I actually got interested in publishing even before graduation. I founded with another friend from school a literary magazine called Dislexia. I guess I was in my senior year then. I kind of naively thought that you could just put together a literary magazine. I mostly published other young writers I knew who weren’t published yet. But we had an interview with Herbert Selby Jr., and I was corresponding with Paul Bowles, the [American/]Moroccan writer. He was offering some of his translations from Moroccan. So I was very naive about it. But I published the one issue of that literary magazine and then started publishing books.

Dislexia was a literary journal. When you started publishing books, did you start with literary books or art books?

Begos: I came from really a literary background, but Dislexia had some drawings in it and some photographs. Bard is an art school with a real mixture of artists, photographers, dancers, and writers; so it was pretty normal that my circle of friends [included all of them]. Actually, the first book I published was a book of drawings by an artist named Michael Hafftka.

As I understand it, you also published a pamphlet of his after that.

Begos: Right, a book called Art of Experience and a number of other things of his over the years. But basically [how I started was with] an organization nearby to Bard College called Open Studio Print Shop, which had been set up with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts—specifically to work with artists and writers to help them produce their books, usually in small editions [that] weren’t really expensive editions. It was just people who might print five hundred copies of a poetry book or of a novel or something like that.

Were you involved with Open Studio as you were working with Dislexia?

Begos: Open Studio actually printed Dislexia. They basically had a system where they let me work off some of the costs. So I helped [with production]. I didn’t know printing at that stage, but I helped with some of the bindery work or some things, and that continued on after the first book I did with them. They in the end had a job for me. So I started to work in the Bindery for them and learn that part of the business. Then I started to learn to run the printing presses and book design. I thought that one way to become a publisher was to learn how to print books. I didn’t realize until many years later that this is really not the normal pattern. Basically, to be a publisher you should have a trust fund and be able to pay people to do everything!

So were you working then at Open Studio as you were publishing books as well? Were you doing your own thing as you were learning the tools of the trade?

Begos: Exactly

At what point did you leave Open Studio and set out on your own?

Begos: Open Studio closed in late eighty-two early eighty-three. The NEA cut off their grant funding; it had been dependent on that, and then I opened my printing business in conjunction with another person who had worked at Open Studio, and ran that for three or four years. Basically [I was] doing the same kind of work with artists and photographers. That’s where I started working a lot more with people from the art world, like photographers. [It was] the same model: I would do some printing for galleries and clients and I would also publish my own books on weekends or whenever I had time.

Were there some people who were influencing you at the time at Open Studio?

Begos: The first was one [Richard] Minsky, who was a very creative and unique book binder. He gave me a book binding lesson along with other people in Open Studio. It was probably in 1980 or eighty-one, and that was my first exposure to . . . really creative off-the-wall book binding . . . Some of my co-workers were Clifton Meador, who is now at SUNY New Paltz [Columbia in Chicago], Phil Zimmerman. They were both from the whole tradition of visual artists who were using printing presses to produce very creative work. So that influenced me a lot. They were all pushing the envelope of what a book was and of book design . . . Phil Zimmerman also had his own publishing company, so I printed some of his books for him. Books by Keith Smith, Scott Hyde. We had a whole range of visual artists who were working with the form of the book. And that was where I was first exposed to those people in the early eighties: ’82, ’83,’84.

You said you moved to New York, is that correct?

Begos: Right. And by the late eighties . . . I still was publishing literary books on the side, but I was working as a consultant to the Limited Editions Club by the late eighties. Designing some books for them and also just helping with the production process. They worked with much more famous artists. They had done books with William De Kooning and Robert Motherwell during the eighties. They had been in existence for years and years at that point. They had a whole network of craftspeople and subscribers and libraries that they would [sell] to.

Was there anything different in terms of the production–what went into the production of a book–that you didn’t expect or you didn’t know about before you entered into the industry itself?

Begos: Oh yeah. There is a whole world. I should say that at Open Studio and in the early eighties, we were mostly producing books that would sell for ten or twenty or thirty dollars. They were unique artistically but they weren’t very expensive books. The Limited Editions Club produced very expensive hand made books, basically using the type of craftsmanship that existed for centuries of etchings and stone lithographs and hand bindings and leather bindings. Those are two different things; those are two evolutions in my career as a publisher. In the early stages, I just viewed printing as a way to produce pretty standard printed books. A number of them were novels by Michael Brodsky and poetry [by other writers] . . . I had to learn printing and binding. That was difficult and complex, but Limited Editions Club was a whole other level. So that was where I got into producing books like Agrippa that were really handmade and really one of a kind. [ . . . ] Also it was the same model: they would pair an artist and a writer [ . . . ] Octavio Paz with Robert Motherwell illustrations or Arthur Rimbaud poems with Robert Mapplethorpe pictures. They had a long tradition of doing what’s called an artist’s book or a livre d’artiste, where you’re really combining a visual artist and a literary artist.

Is that what you wanted to do–combining the artist and the author–or did you get more into the art world and more into producing art books? At Bard College, you said it was a synthesis

Begos: I was printing for a lot of art galleries by the early eighties, although those were mostly photography galleries. So even by the time of Agrippa I had been working with artists and galleries.

Was there any change in the late ’80s as the Internet went on-line? Was there any change in the publishing world, any new outlook . . . anything along those lines?

Begos: There were a lot of unknowns then; clearly there was this whole new frontier. But remember in 1992 and ’93, Google didn’t exist yet, Yahoo didn’t exist yet, America Online hadn’t started. There were these little online communities, kind of like the Well and Echo. John Perry Barlow was involved with those. So people could sense that there was a big change on the way, but the internet hadn’t exploded yet into what it became by the mid to late nineties. In that sense we were ahead of the curve [with Agrippa], and certainly Gibson’s been ahead of the curve in many ways.

What about the difference between fine art publishing and a mass produced novel? What is the sense within publishing industry of that difference? Is there a difference?

Begos: There’s a huge difference. I mean actually the fine art book that Agrippa is and that the Limited Editions Club produced are such a tiny part of the marketplace that most of the publishing industry doesn’t even know it exists or even care. The publishing industry is dominated by big publishers who fill Borders and Barnes and Noble with books, and that’s a great thing. But they’re really focused on content. Alfred P. Knopf, or Houghton Mifflin, or whoever they are, or even a text book publisher, someone who publishes William Gibson’s books–there the drive is to find a manuscript that’s really good and unique and that the public wants, whether it’s a novel, or a diet book, or a children’s book. The tiny little sliver of publishing that I was in, in the late eighties and early nineties, and what Agrippa was–[this] is such an obscure niche of publishing that, as I said, most people don’t even know it exists. It has a completely different dynamic . . . Many of the publications of the Limited Editions Club were not new works but reprints of old works . . . just produced as a work of art, with the most original graphics, and etchings, and lithographs. So you’re really trying to create a beautiful object, more than . . . hoping to appeal to the masses.

So what kind of approach then would a reader or consumer of that kind of art book take to a reprint of a previously published novel or group of poems? Would they come to it as an admirer, or to read it, or to contemplate it?

Begos: I loved producing beautiful books, but there was a part of that business where you would spend tremendous amounts of time and money trying to do something that some people . . . even some of the people who bought [the books] didn’t appreciate or take notice of. It was such a small group of people, museums and collectors, who appreciated a handmade book and who appreciated . . . letter press printing and handmade paper and all that sort of thing. Part of the idea for Agrippa came out of some of the frustrations I saw at the Limited Editions Club of people who didn’t appreciate these beautiful objects. . . . I’m not saying all their subscribers were like that, but there were some who were wealthy who maybe bought these things as status symbols. That market was more driven by the artist, by a famous artist. [It allowed buyers to] own something by William De Kooning, or Robert Motherwell, or Robert Mapplethorpe, or whoever it was. So they were kind of show pieces. There were good things about them, but there was also a tension there: it is so precious that you can’t curl up in bed with it and read it. That’s a little bit of a problem, or it was for me.

With Agrippa, did you seek to rectify that problem by bringing in a popular writer?

Begos: You know it wasn’t that thought out. . . . Dennis Ashbaugh had wanted to do a collaboration with Gibson, but he didn’t know how to go about doing it, and he didn’t have an idea. He knew through friends that I published and designed, producing collaborations between artists and writers. When he first approached me . . . I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know Gibson’s work; I didn’t really know Ashbaugh’s work. It wasn’t high on my list. I had a lot of other projects. The idea kind of came out of the blue. I just had this idea at one point a month later: to do a book on a computer disk that destroys itself after you read; and at that point I didn’t even know if it was possible to do. I’d had this idea, but it actually took months more before I’d even determined that it might be possible. And it just kept growing from there. On the one hand, Agrippa was driven by that idea; but on the other hand, it was driven by Gibson and Ashbaugh wanting to work together.

So there were two sides to how the book arose.

Begos: I think it ended up being more than two. Alan [Liu] uses the word “collaboration” in his introduction to the [Agrippa Files] site. . . . That’s actually a word from the contract I had with Gibson: . . . it was a collaboration between Ashbaugh or Gibson and myself. You’ll never see that word in a standard publishing contract. A novelist normally sends his manuscript off to a publisher. It’s not a collaboration, it’s a straight commercial deal, where the publisher produces a set number of copies and does a certain royalty. So I had seen that this was something different, because there were so many experimental aspects–[for example:] whether a disappearing book could really be produced. Ashbaugh had the idea of disappearing images [too], which someone had told him could be done and in the end . . . couldn’t. But it [the origin of Agrippa] really had many stages–like John Perry Barlow getting involved and [also] Brash, who wrote the software code–that brought in a whole separate dynamic different than anything I’d [done before].

So it was a three-way collaboration. Can you elaborate on the kinds of things you would do as a publisher? What kinds of choices did you have to make?

Begos: In terms of the actual book itself, I was more the designer of the book, in terms of the typeface and deciding on the layout that would mimic the Gutenberg Bible. Some of it just came naturally. I’d had a book as a child that my parents had given me that had a little opening cut out in it. It was an old book that someone had just cut a little opening into, and you used to see those in used book stores. They would take old books that they couldn’t sell from the 1800s and make this sort of mysterious [object] where you could hide something in the middle. That seemed very easy: . . . that would be the way that the floppy disk would sit in that little opening the book. But then Ashbaugh designed the box for it that was all his aesthetic: the outside and the inside of the box. But then separate from that I had the responsibility of trying to do the software program, which was something I didn’t have any experience in. . . . well no one had any experience in trying to produce a software program or a book that destroys itself after you read it. So that was a difficult thing.

Can you comment on any of those aesthetic choices that you made? Do any of them have resonances beyond personal or book history?

Begos: Well, . . . in an artists book you are really seeking to make something where everything works well together. [It’s] not really for me to judge whether Agrippa succeeded that way. Ashbaugh was an abstract artist, so I think that inspired the idea that I wanted to allude to the Gutenberg Bible [but in a modern way]. But then instead of an actual text it was just “ACTG” letters. Certainly, I had seen all the work Ashbaugh was doing, and got inspired by that. That led to the typography being completely abstract. I mean, there’s not a hidden code, or there’s not a single word of English in the title page or the text of Agrippa. It’s random letters. [That is, they weren’t purely] random because they were originally from a certain genetic code; but they’re jumbled up during the printing process. Essentially [it was] just a purely visual statement.

In that sense it was purely an aesthetic choice, an focus on appreciation of the look of the book itself?

Begos: Exactly, I thought it was interesting (not many other people would) from a typographical standpoint.  Type is always used to render words and sentences, and it was interesting to me to put out a book [in which] the typography is really purely visual. It doesn’t convey any meaning. Certainly, there are portions of the sequence that relate to actual genetic sequences, but that’s not the same as saying that there are words or there’s a story in the traditional sense. That was a conscious [decision]. It was also part of making the mystery of the book . . . [and really] the whole project.

The typeface is Gill Sans. Did you choose that because of its beauty? Or is there anything in that choice hearkening back to Eric Gill’s work and his ideas? Gill has written a lot and written a lot about work in printing.

Begos: Yes, he was an incredibly gifted person, but also a very tortured one. So it was the beauty of the typeface. I wanted it to be a modern typeface, even though it was mimicking the Gutenberg Bible. It seemed silly to have it look like an old-fashioned book, especially since Ashbaugh is a modern abstract artist. The book needed to look completely modern, but have those hints of the Gutenberg Bible. But Eric Gill also . . . had a dark side to his personality, and there’s a little bit of a dark side to the Gibson story and the whole mystery about it and the whole notion of a book that destroys itself, a text that destroys itself after you read it. So I thought that was fitting.

Is there a spiritual side that you were referencing in the Gutenberg Bible and Eric Gill? Or is the context just book history, book aesthetics, and the evolution of the book as a visual artifact?

Begos: The whole community of people–the craftspeople who produce this kind of thing–I think most of them would say there’s a spiritual side to it. There’s a big difference between sending a manuscript or art work off to a big factory to be printed, and having someone do it by hand, literally one at a time on a hand-cranked press, which is the way the etchings in Agrippa were produced. . . . I printed the title pages for the book on the hand press. That’s part of the whole aesthetic [typical] of a little community of artist book makers taking personal pride in their product, in something that is made by individuals at different stages. People who have a really good knowledge of book history, they can tell . . . who the designer of a book was [from the] different styles of different printers and etchers. People have styles. I’ll say that really the vast majority of people who wrote about Agrippa or were attracted to it could care less about that sort of thing. I mean I cared about it. But I don’t know whether [to] the general public or most people . . . that came across.

When the poem was hacked, they literally just took the poem entirely out of its context. Entirely out of the dilemma of the poem being erased. It seems like a lot of the richness of the interplay between the poem, the content, and the aesthetics of the book was lost because of that. Do you think that’s true? Is there always an interplay between the visual aspects of the book and the content itself?

Begos: Oh, there is. But that was actually a problem long before Agrippa was hacked. When the first articles started to come out in 1992 . . . the worst case was People magazine, which ran a little blurb about William Gibson’s book appearing on computer disk and self destructing. It actually didn’t even mention Dennis Ashbaugh’s name or that his work was in there. Which I thought was terrible. I know Ashbaugh was offended by that. In some sense, because Gibson was so famous or was a hot topic, people focused on him; they focused on the computer disk aspect of it. I think a lot of people really believed that all there was to the project was just a computer disk that self-destructed. . . . The field of artist’s books is so small [that] they just didn’t realize how much work had gone into the other parts of it. . . . So that was a problem from early on. . . .

There was a writer from a newspaper in the New York area who was writing something on Agrippa. He was based out in Long Island and I was based in Manhattan. He sent a photographer to photograph the book one afternoon. And he’d done a phone interview with me, though I don’t remember if he called Gibson or not. . . . He checked with me after the photographer had come to make sure that it had gone alright, and I said yes. I said, “well aren’t you coming by; don’t you want to see the book?” He said “no; you know, the traffic’s really bad; you know, I just don’t have time.” He published a story the next day, and there was nothing wrong with it; but I found that very odd. It probably would have taken him an hour to drive in, . . . or he could have waited a few days. But . . . some people, . . . they almost seem resistant to seeing the whole package.

It was also a problem from a technical standpoint, in that we had wanted to incorporate Ashbaugh’s images in the disk so the disk wouldn’t just be Gibson’s poem but would have both [works]. Basically, we were limited by the [storage] size of the floppy disk. What the person who wrote the code told me was that the encryption was taking up so much of the space that there wasn’t . . . enough space left for images or . . . images [of high quality]. That would have been the ideal thing: to have both Ashbaugh’s images and Gibson’s text on the disk. . . . But even that would have lost the whole context of the printed book. I was really trying to play on these different traditions: the electronic one and the old one of printing. People mostly wanted to focus on the electronic side.

Do think that’s its a more general problem? It seems that most people when they approach a book are just looking at the content, at what they can get out of the book, instead of enjoying it as an object.

Begos: That’s normal . . . that’s the way most books are, other than coffee table art books. And even those are generally just beautiful reproductions of an artist that you like or a photographer you like. . . . I was very conscious that this whole community of craftspeople and this whole tradition of handmade books and handmade paper was in jeopardy in some ways. I don’t think they will ever disappear; I think there will always be some of those people; [but] you certainly [found] a lot [more] a hundred years [ago]. Maybe in a hundred years they will be gone; maybe everything will be digital. And that whole tradition of what Gutenberg or Rembrandt or Dürer did [with] etchings or woodblock prints will be gone. We will do it all digitally.

I have two questions about that. Do you think that as the Internet has developed web or site designers are gaining more control so that site-making itself takes on those craft aspects you see in the publishing industry? Or will there always be a difference between those two kinds of crafts?

Begos: I think there’s really a craft aspect to [the digital]; I learned during [the making of] Agrippa that code writing and software writing are very personal things [with] personal styles. And the same is certainly true on the web and will continue to be. I think people are going to make [the digital] . . . a unique environment that offers different artistic outlets. Spiritually, yes it can be that. It really depends on how much you feel affinity for an actual object. Different types of handmade papers have different textures, different smells. [They] look slightly different, have different weights. Probably most people don’t care about that sort of thing, but I don’t think a virtual world or an online world can ever reproduce that. It may be that people stop caring about an actual book and just look at them in museums and old libraries. There are some similarities to the craftsmanship, but there are some differences too. On the Agrippa Files website, you all managed to make the disappearing images work. So it canwork in the digital world, [but] it doesn’t work in the real world.

If what’s on the Internet is purely content, it would almost free up the book to become an object again–to become a real craft object, an artwork.

Begos: You could certainly[do that]  just by using typography and interactive images and sound. I mean there are things on the web that can be done that couldn’t be done in a book. Sound is the first thing that comes to mind, and video too, not just static images. So the one thing won’t be the actual feel and smell of the object. In other ways, the web offers possibilities that books never had.

Was each copy of the artifact Agrippa unique? Each of these had a handmade aspect.

Begos: Yes.

You used monotype, where each letter too is individually cast.

Begos: That’s right. The Monotype corporation . . . sells digital typefaces now; it’s a digital version. The type for Agrippa was a lead type, cast on an original monotype machine. So it cast each letter individually. . . . To the real fanatics of typography, the original monotype is the pinnacle of typography in a lot of ways.

Can you tell the difference once a work has been printed between a monotype and linotype?

Begos: There’s linotype and then of course there’s just standard offset printing, which is done from film or digital files. Yeah, you can tell the difference. In some cases it’s very close, but there are slight differences.

In the book itself..there’s nothing on the copyright page. Is that correct?

Begos: Right. That was to make the book exclude anything other than the signatures on the front and just abstract typography. I went ahead and did that after checking with copyright laws, [which] had been changed in the late 1980s. So the copyright appeared on the disk. You can still see on the web [ . . . ] where certainly people by the next day or two [after the poem’s broadcast] were reproducing the initial scrolling scenes of the poem, which credits Kevin Begos publishing and has a copyright and all that. So that appeared on the disk. The object itself was protected. Copyright law had changed by the late 1980s so you didn’t have to actually print all that stuff on there. If you were printing tens of thousands of books that was a whole different set of guidelines; but this was a different project.

But because it was a handmade object there was an aspect of Agrippa that in any case wassn’t reproducible in the way of a mass printed book.

Begos: Right. That was essentially where I was coming from. It would be impossible or virtually impossible to reproduce it.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Begos: Agrippa ended up involving input from different people. . . . At the beginning of the project [Gibson] hadn’t written the poem. So we had this idea, but we didn’t know what it was going to be for. So [Gibson’s input] gave the book a whole  shape. He wrote the poem [ . . . ] a poem about memory and history.

In that respect, there certainly was a way in which the art and the craftsmanship that was going into the book influenced Gibson’s writing as well as vice versa.

Begos: I don’t know how much it influenced his writing. Part of it was that . . . Ashbaugh and I were in New York and he was in British Columbia. He was in regular contact with Ashbaugh, but he didn’t come to New York much [and] we didn’t go out there. I think he kind of . . . let things happen as they happened. Certainly the poem he wrote influenced us: the old newspaper advertisements and the whole antique relic look of it. If he had written a poem that was all about the future, about cyberspace, . . . the object would have had a whole different look. Instead of being rusted and burned, it might have been sleek. The text really did influence the way it looked.

Was the title itself Gibson’s idea?

Begos: The story was: he found a photo album when he visited, I think it was his family’s home in West Virginia, during a project. It was an Agrippa photo album . . . I can’t remember whether his father or grandfather had owned it. It was a family photo album, but the brand name of the album was Agrippa, and . . . that reproduction on the outside of the box [Agrippa’s case] is actually from the original album he found that his father or grandfather bought back in the twenties. So he came up with it [the title], but . . . Agrippa (a book of the dead) cane from “Agrippa, the name of the photo album.

Are there any cautionary words you would offer in regard to looking at the book online as opposed to in person?

Begos: I would just say they are two entirely different things. You don’t get the feel or the smell or the weight of the book or even the full sense of the page size and the layout.

posted by aliu on 02.19.06 @ 12:52 am | 0 Comments