Cracking the Agrippa Code: Cryptography for the Digital Humanities

  • Quinn DuPont Faculty of Information, University of Toronto
Keywords: Cryptography, Code, Art, New media art, Crowdsourcing


In The Laws of Cool, Liu (2004) argues that the art book Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) (Gibson, 1992) is an exhibit of destructive creativity. According to Liu, the book’s great auto-da-fé  occurs when the software program, which is included with the book, displays an electronic poem, and then self-encrypts, a mechanism that destroys or “permanently disappears” (p. 340) the poem. This article argues that Liu’s understanding of encryption is incorrect. Encryption is not destruction because enciphered text is necessarily subject to cryptanalysis (“cracking”). Relatedly, this article demonstrates that Kirschenbaum’s thesis of “no round trip” is mistaken (Kirschenbaum, Reside, & Liu, 2008). Agrippa was fully cracked and reverse-engineered in the course of an online, global cryptanalysis challenge. This article describes the forensic details of Agrippa and its cryptographic routines.

Author Biography

Quinn DuPont, Faculty of Information, University of Toronto
Quinn DuPont is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, Canada.