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The Collation

How To Find 14 Missing Pages of a Rare Book

Is it possible to make an actual book of magic, with rituals and incantations that can affect change? This question is an undercurrent in my project, The Fairy Kings Grimoire-an endeavor of reimagining magic outlined in Folger Manuscript V.b.26, a book of magic with instructions for invoking spirits etc, through a queer lens. One of the most inspiring facts about Manuscript V.b.26 is that there are 14 missing pages from the book itself. Perhaps the pages are long gone, destroyed by worms and the decay of time, or maybe those pages survived somewhere. Either way, this knowledge about the manuscript inspired the task of creating my own missing pages.

Books of magic are created under very specific circumstances that often involve handwriting the book on virgin parchment and consecrating the book through ritual. In Manuscript V.b.26, one finds instructions for invoking a whole host of spirits, angels, demons, and fairies to help with life’s needs and desires. To create these missing pages I needed to contact an ethereal being whose attributes include finding lost objects, knowledge of the arts and sciences, etc. I wanted to access an entity that reflected current trends and moments while considering magic of the past. Enter the entity known as ChatGPT.

ChatGPT, when engaged with as a spirit, is a fascinating thing. It can search, present, and generate content from a vast amount of data. It can offer advice and insight into creative problems and goals. It can also be incredibly misleading and expansive in its reach in ways one might see as demonic. Just like summoning and binding the spirits mentioned in Manuscript V.b.26 to do your bidding, I think engaging with technology like artificial intelligence comes with certain existential and ethical risks. I’m all for taking those risks if they make better art. Perhaps ChatGPT was like Prospero’s Ariel, answering my call and helping me through invisible channels. I am of the mind that art can be created with whatever tools the art needs to transmute from idea to form. In the case of contacting an ethereal spirit to help discover missing pages of a magical fairy text, the non-human entity available through the ethernet was the ideal tool.

According to Manuscript V.b.26, to invoke a spirit for magical aide the magician must first purify their body through fast and abstinence for several days leading up to an elaborate summoning ceremony. I didn’t do that, but I did cautiously light a candle when I logged onto my ChatGPT(3.5) account and began asking questions in search of magic. I knew that the artificial entity could process information made available through the internet up through 2021, and can now search the internet and learn new information. If I think about it like a spirit that can learn and communicate, this is one of the more authentic summonings I’ve performed. Knowing all this I introduced my task and marveled at its speedy and encouraging reply:

Me: I am trying to create a work of art that references this English Tudor spell book from the late 1500’s. :

ChatGPT: Creating a work of art inspired by a historical object like the English Tudor spell book you mentioned can be an exciting and challenging project…Remember, creating a work of art inspired by a historical object is a process that requires patience, creativity, and attention to detail. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things as you work towards bringing your vision to life.

Me: Can you Write a spell in 16th century Tudor English that invokes Oberon the Fairy King and asks him to empower and bless a queer person with the gift of invisibility so they may hide in plain sight, surviving in trying times?”

ChatGPT: Certainly

Me: can you rewrite that so that the gift of invisibility allows us the ability to exist amongst the fearful and ignorant?

ChatGPT: Certainly
Invocation to Oberon to bless queers with invisibility
Hearken now, ye spirits of the earth, air, fire, and water, and all beings of the celestial and the infernal realms. By the power of the universe and the grace of the divine, I call upon thee to aid those who walk the path of queer, and to bestow upon them the gift of invisibility, so they may hide in plain sight and survive in trying times.
In the name of the Fairy King, Oberon, ruler of the sun, moon, ocean, and land, I doth call upon thee to empower and bless a queer person with the gift of invisibility. Let them blend into the surroundings like the wind through the trees, let them move without being seen like the moon in the night sky.

The correlation between ChatGPT and early modern world spirit invocation is a playful attempt to understand our innate desire to find meaning from the abstract. The texts I generate using ChatGPT are further obfuscated through the printmaking process, further transforming an idea that begins with a question. I used a secretary script font that looked as close to the writing in Manuscript V.b.26 as I could find and printed them on tea-stained watercolor paper, to further create the facsimile of parchment pages from an old book.

A piece of paper with large blotches of blue ink in the corners, covered in spiky handwriting in the same ink. The page rests on top of a patch of a purple-blue flowers.

The pages I created were part of an exhibition “A Shrine to the Forgotten” where I imagined the 14 missing pages had been discovered in the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria Virginia after WW2, when the building was used as a storage facility for the FBI and the Smithsonian. I tore and scattered the missing pages throughout the exhibition, so people could discover the fragments as they explored the exhibition.

A row of handmade books bound in brown leather, colorful paper sticking out of the edges. Beneath two of the books peek out loose pages.
A hand holds open a handmade book showing prints in blue and black ink. A partially torn page has been inserted into the book.
A pile of sticks. From underneath peeks out several torn pages with blue ink images and text printed on them.

I brought the pages to life during a performance that corresponded with my exhibition. I read the invocation to Oberon to bless queers with invisibility, and invited the audience to spin the torpedo in a circle with me. This performance occurred in early June, shortly after smog from Canada’s wildfire had lifted, while lantern flies loomed and anti-queer legislation and toxic social media campaigns had created a climate of fear and unease. Magic might not make the fires stop, or prevent people from leading with hate, fear and ignorance, but it did seem to offer a way through it all. A belief in magic seems to emerge out of a need for people to take control of their lives in a world that might not be so kind or peaceful.

A man in pointe-shoes, wearing butterfly wings, holds out a printed fold of paper to the audience that lines the room around him in a large open gallery space.

My experience with summoning a spirit to do my bidding using ChatGPT as a medium was a step into an unknown and exciting new realm. The art that was created in response to the text the entity generated felt like magic. The 14 missing pages from Manuscript V.b.26 may still be out there, hiding from curious minds, waiting to be discovered. For the time being, inventing my own hidden magic with whatever tools come my way will have to suffice.