“Our waking existence… is a land which, at certain hidden points, leads down into the underworld – a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise.” -Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Wanderlust

Few places in the world are as enshrined in the pantheon of urban explorer mythology as the Carrières de Paris, often referred to more colloquially (though inaccurately) as the Paris Catacombs. Since 2008, we have spent dozens of hours underneath Paris, exploring the system and meeting those who map and build it. And despite that lively and active present day cataphile culture, it is clear from looking at the history of these spaces that we are all only a blip in the long history of subsurface Paris. Parisians are melded into the very fabric of the earth through these quarries.

Sightings

As early as the 13th Century, open air quarries, and later mines, were sunk into the Left Bank of Paris to feed architectural projects on the Right Bank. Eventually, as the city became pressured for space, people began building over the Left Bank. A voidspace was created which, since the 13th Century, has been continually lost and relocated, condemned and celebrated, backfilled and re-excavated. As Winch writes on his blog, exercising access to this voidspace is not a right or a privilege, it’s just something that can be done. And we do – again and again. These sunken tombs have a magnetic pull, despite, or maybe due to, the potential for visceral terror they harbour.

Taking the privilege

While in the quarries, we find ourselves in a negative space, a spatial gap that exists because earth matter has been excavated to build something else entirely. In architecture and urban planning this is sometimes referred to as space left over after planning or SLOAP.  Geographers and urban planners find that those modern negative spaces are used for various urban subversions, like skateboarding and street art, being largely ignored and disused space; but we rarely imagine SLOAP being as vast as the urban underground in Paris. As Marc Explo told me while we were wandering the 180 miles of subterranean galleries and chambers “if you want to know how big the quarries are, just look at all the buildings made of limestone in Paris. Then you understand the immensity of what we’re in.”

Expanse

In 1774, a hundred feet of the Rue d’Enfer collapsed, revealing the voidspace underneath. When King Louis XVI asked engineers to report on the implosion, he was told that much of Paris could collapse; it was built over fragile quarries that stretched for miles. This triggered an epic ongoing urban stabilisation project that spawned many of the shafts, rooms, mines and galleries that we now temporarily occupy. But the rich history of these spaces had just begun by this point. Into the 19th century, the caverns and tunnels were mined for building stone and by the end of that period, they would contain the skeletal remains of eleven million Parisians exhumed from graves where they impeded development – the quarries were transformed into a massive Necropolis.

This system have harboured criminals, French revolutionaries and Nazis, they have been used to grow mushrooms and store wine and, increasingly, give Parisians an unmonitored space to throw parties and get high in our age of the ever-present watchers. Today the tunnels are roamed by a different clandestine group, a loose and leaderless community whose members sometimes spend days and nights below the city. This is our urban playground, a timeless organic underworld of caves, water, bone and soil.

Their underworld

Our tombs

The contemporary relationship between explorers and the catas is thought to stretch back to 1793 when a Frenchman named Philibert Aspairt journeyed by candlelight into the abandoned quarry system to find a “lost” wine cellar. His body was found eleven years later and a monument erected to his memory, which still stands to this day. In Ninjaicious’ Infiltration Zine Issue 9, back in 1998, the urban explorer Murray Battle tells tales of multi-day sub-urban rambling, nipple-crunching tunnel crawls and and port sipping in La Plage. Not much has changed since then. As National Geographic wrote in their recent article, entering the quarries has been illegal since 1955, so cataphiles tend to be young people fleeing the surface world and its rules – freedom reigns underground, even anarchy. One of the cataphiles the authors run into down there is a guy called Yopi who says “many people come down here to party, some people to paint. Some people to destroy or to create or to explore. We do what we want here. We don’t have rules.” Our time in the catas costs us nothing but the battering on our bodies and psychological stability – an increasingly rare direct feed into the nervous system and hypothalamus – and contributes nothing to society except to add the the surreal project in whatever ways we desire. Money is of no use here, imagination is the currency.

Tarry

Of course, the phenomenological primacy of accessing the void cannot be ignored. After entering the Paris catacombs last year, on our Kinky Paris trip, our expectations of what to expect, think and feel began to melt with every sip of port, dripping off of us with the sweat and blood and caked quarry mud. It seemed all we could do was act, except in those moments when we were so shocked by some sight, smell or crushing feeling we were rendered temporarily inert. We would sometimes run into other sub-urban dwellers down there, cataphiles who spend the majority of their lives below the City of Light. We also encountered groups of people hunched over single file with bobbing headlights and plastic cups full of beer, and we would nod hello as we passed, acknowledging our shared experience in this space of unregulated sensory madness. It seemed to go on endlessly, and we achieved a state of supreme disillusionment or exceptional clarity (the meld). When we left and had to reconform to social expectations the come down hit hard.

Come down

Every time I am in the catas, I can’t help but think I am headed to the last party at Zion, just before the machines drill through to inevitably annihilate the remaining humans and their wonderful little dystopia. The catas feel like a post-capitalist future where everyone took the red pill and woke up. And yet, an 1877 engraving by Charles Barbant also relays this sense that we need not go to Herculaneum or Pompeii to find buried cities, for they occur beneath our own feet. Whether those spaces are a terror or a utopia, or indeed both simultaneously, perhaps can only be known subjectively to each distinct voidspace entrant. These experiences, like so many we seek as the intrepid explorers of this age, often verge on incommunicability (perhaps contributing to my reliance on multimedia in attempts to relay these stories – see below).

Subterranean utopia

So where do these thoughts fit into the hack? Well my friends, the quarries of Paris are perhaps the best Western example of a place where humanity has become intricately interwoven into the informal subterranean urban matrix. Paris culture would suffer a grave setback with loss of access to these spaces (not that such a thing could ever happen, they are far too vast). A co-addictive symbiotic relationship has been built over nine centuries where the populace continually hacked the closed system open again and again, leading to a consistent stratigraphic memorialisation of rediscovery and renewal that is now layered so thick with history and culture you can almost eat it (I tried). The catacombs are proof that just as virtual social systems can be maintained by the multitude, so can physical space. Enter the void.

Occupied

________________________________

Want to see more? Have a look at the video footage from my first trip to the Carrières de Paris:

Then read about it in my just-released article in ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies:

 

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Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.
– Goethe

Dear British Transport Police,

I hear that in a recent police interview, you produced 91 pages of Place Hacking you had apparently printed out from a high quality laserjet. Firstly, let me just say that I am delighted you used so much toner working toward a better understanding of how urban exploration functions as a critical spatial practice to unveil hidden parts of the city and activate little moments of urban orgasmic wonder in an age rendered increasingly banal by forces of securitisation (no offence intended). We always suspected that only you guys, and maybe some of the TFL track workers, could ever understand the depths of our tube and train fetish. Do you like to stand in tunnels and record clips like this too?

I knew it! So listen guys, just between fellow train pornographers, you arrested some of us on Easter. It was a clean bust, we got a little silly there for a few weeks running around on live lines and everything and you were pretty cool about it. But the thing is, you forced your way into my flat while I wasn’t there and you’ve been holding computers, cameras and hard drives in your offices under some sort of vague “terrorism” authority for 3 months now. I never gave you permission to come in my house and the whole thing, if I’m being frank with you, is beginning to reek of a civil rights violation. Now I’m not trying to be cheeky here but we all know that you understood within 10 minutes of talking to us that we’re just train geeks with expensive cameras. I mean Howard Stern even said we’re like Dungeons and Dragons ubernerds that took our adventures into real life. Which is pretty accurate.

Bigger

Nerds

So given all the cuts going through a wide swath of UK society at the moment, you will understand if I suggest that the funds diverted for this “investigation” are being rather ill-invested. You see, in contrast to, let’s say, Lambrini chav chicks screaming on trains which apparently happens every day, we cause far less trouble for BTP. I mean 98% of the time you didn’t even know we were in there. We were also very forthcoming when you caught us, we played fair. Tell me, have you learned anything new looking through our hard drives full of porn and pictures of trains and cranes? I didn’t think so. And in terms of the acts of “terror” you apparently think we are involved with, well the only terror we inspire is the kind that makes you think about your life and how you’ve wasted it working at a boring office job when you could have been running around in TFL tunnels with that warm, brakedust-laced air swishing around you, getting all in your teeth and jumping over the 3rd rail running from the worktrains at 3am, diving into the Japanese knotweed they never clear up. It’s not any more terrorful than, let’s say yarn bombing or throwing magnetic lights on buildings or skateboarding. Though I suppose you might consider those activities big “social scourges” as well eh?

Let bygones

Be bygones

Look, I am just going to lay it out here for you BTP. We make the city more fun. We do this because we love it, not because we want to make your life difficult. Honestly, it would be better for all parties involved if you just ignored it. We aren’t doing anyone harm. In fact, it could be argued that we actually make the city safer by exposing flaws in your transportation network that a bunch of kids with bulky tripods and backpacks can sneak into – no telling what someone who was really motivated could do. Tell you what, we promise that if we ever see a “terrorist” down there we’ll brain them with a tripod okay? In the end, we are, I am sure you realise at this point, basically model citizens: active, aware, careful, well-dressed and *ahem* well-educated – not to mention the fact we’ve been running citizen patrols in the tunnels we pay to maintain (and pay you to police) for 3 years now without ever asking for a dime!

And so, in the spirit of reconciliation, taking into account all I have outlined above (as well as my many publications on the topic you also undoubtedly printed off on that crisp laserjet and enjoyed with a nice scotch), I have prepared an invoice for the work we have done exposing your network’s security flaws. I will CC another copy to your office but would appreciate prompt payment on this, given you have everything we own and we need to buy some new ropes, harnesses and bolt croppers.

Anyway, I hope you guys are having a good summer. Mine is pretty boring, just writing about all the disused Tube stations we explored and stuff. Cool thing is though, at the end of it I get a PhD. Now that, my friends, is public money well invested! Please let me know if you have any questions.

Sincerely,

The Goblinmerchant

PS. You guys should try exploring everything, it’s awesome!

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Scattershot

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Saturday Jun 11, 2011 Under Academia, Cultural Geography, Ethnography, Film, Geography, Spatial Politics, Urban Exploration

I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.
-Thomas Carlyle

Time is a rubbery thing

The last few months, I’ve been rather entrenched in writing my PhD. With 5 chapters now done and under review, things are well on their way. However, this time for reflection during my self-imposed exile here in the Mojave Desert has also been fruitful for other writing projects, including 2 book chapters, 5 journal articles and 3 web publications. This work has pulled my attention from Place Hacking for the moment. However, I thought it might be worth rounding up what’s gone down lately in this scattershot update.

First, I was invited to write an op-ed piece for the Domus architecture and design magazine on the fragmentation of urban exploration. Essentially the article is about how an unlikely mix of media attention and marketing exploitation threatens to polarize an otherwise apolitical practice. The article can be found here. Immediately after publication, Control from the LTV Squad in New York City posted a great response which has sparked renewed discussion about the social and political salience of urban exploration as a practice. That can be found here.

In a more academic context, a few weeks ago Luke Bennett published an article in Environment & Planning D: Society and Space entitled Bunkerology – a case study in the theory and practice of urban exploration. Stuart Elden and Deborah Cowen were kind enough to allow me to respond to the article on the Society and Space blog. That response can be found here. Bennett then replies in an excellent post which is here.

Finally, Otter at SilentUK has uploaded a trailer for the film “Crack the Surface” which myself and JD at sub-urban are co-producing with him. More exciting than tinfoil in the microwave.

All and all, it’s been a heavy few months for urban exploration but I am heartened by the new debates and discussions sparking everywhere about the practical and theoretical issues around the practice. As I wrote recently to Snappel, I think that it’s really vital those of us who are willing to engage with our practice on more than a superficial level do so and, as such, I am really encouraged by the thoughtful responses from both Control and Bennett.

Urban exploration is at a crossroads right now and it is up to us which path we take. As it should be clear from these publications, I for one am not content to allow herds of ruin fetishists, bitter armchair commentators or corporations define what history will see us as. Urban exploration seethes with potential as a critical spatial practice at a time when space is rapidly constricting under the control of pseudo-apocalyptic forces manufacturing fear and distraction daily to keep desire and dissent at bay. It is my hope that through these publications and exchanges, the potential for urban exploration to sap those illusions is slowly being unleashed.

It’s time fellow earthlings. Smash and grab it. Explore everything.

With love from Sin City, USA

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There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.
Raoul Duke

Intentions

I arrived in Syracuse, NY and escaped as planned in my newly-acquired ’88 Dodge, speeding into the Canadian winter wonderland with every intention of sucking the life out of every moment that I encountered. Dressed in black, masked up, layering my thin California skin against the wrath of Persephone, I had every intention of doing what we do best – turning an idea, absurd, slippery and unmanageable, into resolute action with a resultant outcome of epicness. I know the formula. However, expressed in this way the “idea” is only an ideal problem, which in reality takes on an unsettling and radical complexity. The problem was, perhaps, in the way I had become accustomed to how our band operated; firstly in our interdependency and then in our relative immunity. Crossing the border into Canada, I screamed through like a drunk whirlwind, smoke from a California sage bundle pouring through the windows, blasting leftover dubstep which had fermented in a Tupperware container with the lid taped down so it wouldn’t spill, jumping around in the passenger seat, totally unaware that I was radically out of place. The topographical fractilisation finally evidenced itself when I pulled into Niagara Falls to stare at a tailrace now inaccessible. I have clearly underestimated the impact that seeing the Belly of the Beast sewn shut would have on my explorer constitution. Soberly drinking a very well made whiskey sour, I took a photo of Niagara falls with the other tourists and drove off to park in some farmers crop where I slept in the car, shivering and bored.

Fissure

It occurred to me in a frostbitten hallucination that the photos I took were not flatly captured do to any technical limitation but because of the lack of required investment in either meaningful human exchange at the moment of shutter release nor interesting endeavour toward the moment of acquisition. A determination as to which of these factors was leading to my disillusionment became a primary goal for the trip.

But the fear set in with the realization that the expectant fracturilisation had begun to make it’s move from spatial to psychological.  Mental processes began to take unrecognisable forms which, at times, could only be understood in moments of lucid dreaming or utopic drug visions. My PhD thesis began acting as a gravitational tractor beam, pulling me back to the mother ship as I continued to struggle toward the liberating slavery where my work could be completed in an appropriately manly fashion. This seemingly productive internal feedback loop taking me to ‘work’ however, in this context, led me to a constant sensual disenfranchisement that I had forgotten in London. The pinnacle came in Chatham, Ontario, where the car broke down and I was yanked from it by a thick-necked Canadian with a machine gun who told me I ‘had a mouth on me’. He seized the vehicle, called me in a ‘transient’, and left me standing in sub-zero temperatures with my roly suitcase. It was fucking cold.

Disillusioned

I left the burning, green fluid-spurting car with the police and escaped Canada on a boarder-hopping shuttle full of old people without event. I caught a plane from Detroit. My line of flight to Minnesota was not to be realised and I called Darlinclem from the airport, impossibly bitter. Sweet as ever, she agreed to reschedule our Subterranean Twin City rampage for the summer.

Upon arriving in Las Vegas, the suggested endpoint for my roadtrip that barely happened, it occurred to me that the required to remedy for the situation was some old school Place Hacking. A quick personal database query revealed an aircraft boneyard halfway to LA and I hit the road. Arrival revealed incomprehensible dereliction, dozens of square miles of dead planes, military housing, cinemas, shopping malls and a giant hospital now used for urban military training. All required sneaking around inside the defunct George Air Force Base, now the Southern California Logistics Airport. It felt a lot like an abandoned Soviet military base in Poland. Except for the tumbleweeds and sand. And paintball remnants. Well that and there weren’t statues of Lenin everywhere. I guess they weren’t really that similar.

Warning signs

Not that sneaky

Places

Not that freaky

I was relying on known variables here trying to rip space into time with my subtle knife, creating temporal amalgamations and fresh spatiotemporalexperiential concoctions with salt and lime. My own past was here somewhere, past the Canadian ice sheets and industrial ruins of Detroit, here in a desert full of tumbleweeds, sagebrush, jackrabbits, adobe and agave. This past had to retain it’s juvenile viscerality, that recognition that it’s articulation historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was’. It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. But the danger coalesced limply. Rather than London riot police attacking me with batons, I found overweight security guards easily converted though commiseration with their existential misery. I kept praying for military police to show up so Silent Motion would descend from a rooftop to take one in the eye with a ninja star while Patch kicked another through a wall with his famous swift boot. Everyone I encountered was so apathetic, they didn’t even care what my mission was, why I was wearing a giant cowboy hat covered in bodhi seeds or for what reason I was photographing their derelict hospital. The contrast between the furiousness of their illusions of control and the lacklustre enforcement of the stated boundaries was nothing short of disheartening. Freedom without boundaries is pointless.

I'm doing this

For no reason

Despite my misgivings, the moments of encounter between the present and the past, experienced through physically exploring abandoned architecture, uncovered that old embodied practice that mirrors the role of the archaeologist assaying surface material without deep excavation to analyse the character a place, as expected. It’s just that I undertook my surface survey of affectation by making connections more topologically than topographically these days. I successfully temporarily inhabited those sites of material history and constructed assemblages of emotional and memorial attachments that melded pluritemporal geographic, historical and experiential imagination, perhaps one day subject to nostalgic romanticism and that was sort of satisfying. But they remained, in my mind, the product of a life left behind, each composition an infantile regression. As such, I revisited those sites of old from my research, a babe suckling a solipsistic personal history missing all my favourite characters.

Still rotting

Despite it all

The only thing, as always, that remained of interest was those impossible-to-ignore topographic characteristics, those moments when I felt London was in the desert in me and that my crew could feel the Mojave through our tingling warder bond. These are the singular incorporeal constellations which belong to natural and human history, and at the same time escape them by a thousand lines of flight. I arrived in the desert where I will write our stories and found that here the radio crackles and hums with talk of evacuation zones and potassium iodide. I’m sitting here picking at my fingernails and refreshing news pages over and over to the faint scent of burning plastic and I’m in Fukushima. It is heavenly in it’s apocalyptic serenity, useless it is ineffectual attempt at human connectivity, terrible in it’s aftermath.

Lines of flight

In the end, it is the decentralization of disruptive energy created by my need to tug my thread into the desert that is causing the angst behind it all. I need it. I know that. At the same time, the media connectivity feeding me streams of information from the home I left, knowing that I am here to produce a theoretical contribution that neither I, or anyone I have come to respect by now cares much about also lingers. But more than that, it is the realisation that the dream of freedom I was taught as a child is a sham. The United States is not the land of the free, it is the land of the subjugated, the apathetic and the weak while the fight rages on in Europe and North Africa for the future world we will inhabit. My throat is dry while the deserts of the Middle East run red with the blood of a desire the population in this derelict desert has forgotten is theirs to take. And so I write.

Feels like this

______________________

Explode Everything

 

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Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and nights. But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge. You would know in words that which you have always known in thought. You would touch with your fingers the naked body of your dreams.
The Prophet

Urban dreams

Part I

Desire was everywhere when we stepped of the plane at Charles de Gaulle. We nipped and yelped, scurrying into the city wearing rags and muddied bags, dragging tripods down the walls of Métro tunnels like Freddy Krueger. The thirst, after weeks of depraved scholarship, endless perverted workdays and inert meetings over coffee, had concretised into the force of a tsunami. The wave broke at times around tall objects, splitting and climbing for a moment before splashing down again in a liquid slump of ecstasy. At other junctions, it snaked into infrastructural gaps too small for bodies. We followed the water to find the glitches in the system, trying out various keys and tools for which the original intended purpose was never understood, lost artefacts from another time, rediscovered by our nomadic band of forgotten disciples. We bled and drank, crawling into our sleeping bags when we could smell the bread baking, the delicious olfactory beacon warning us the City of Light had switched on for the day.

Depraved

Everyday life is a life lived on the level of surging affects, impacts suffered or barely avoided. It takes everything we have. But it also spawns a series of little somethings dreamed up in the course of things. Exploited, those affects, glitches, errors in lines of code, paired to the desires to find them, become the preeminent domain of the urban explorer, the skateboarder, the street artist and all children while they are still conscious, before society rapes them into submission, huddled in the corner of an overcrowded classroom where they are forced to recite the national anthem over and over again.

Desire wasn’t purchased, nor did we try to sell it. At the same time, it was a profitable endeavour, an investment in the communication of the incommunicable, a necessary departure from direct economic production. Urbanity is codified by a set of rules which creates spirals of economic ‘prosperity’, where relentless velocity must be maintained to preserve the perpetual accumulation of wealth, resources and labour. The result is a system which reproduces itself in ceaseless iterations like a demonic fractal art project, even (or even especially) when those accumulations are superfluous or unnecessary, until it pops.

Juxtapositions

The result? An endless stacked stratigraphy of miscommunications, abortions and aberrations, interminable confusion about what could and should have been, sparkling smiles as the successful accumulation is directed into personal coffers, suicide from bridges where it does not. What sprawls all around us everyday, whether we are in London, Milan, Paris or Los Angeles is a capitalist monstrosity that regrows heads as you slice them off. Our only advantage against this unkillable and utterly beautiful beast is its immensity, for it is this very horrific attribute that allows us to run underneath unnoticed while it spews poison in the Siene.

Endlessly fractal

Part II

“Ah! Paris! What a beautiful city, don’t you think?”
“I don’t give a shit, what I wanted to do was ride the Métro.”
Zazie dans le métro

Rails

At its best, capitalism encourages a kind of generalised schizophrenia, a shatteringly intense fracturing of subjectivity. On the other hand, to survive it has to contain these effects through oppressive fictions like the nuclear family and psychiatry, which attempt to ‘reterritorialise’ desire: to put it safely back inside the home and to keep it there. Night after night in Paris, on this trip and others, we took the secret desires from home and mind into streets and practice. While the Marxists sit in Starbucks with their coffees crying for the overthrow of the system and the anarchists fight each other in squats, condemning comrades as sexists and fascists, we create desire. We are coercive machines that produce breaks and mobilise flows, nude in sewers, hanging from cranes, in love with the endless accelerations of material layering that keep cracking open underneath the weight of 6,869,652,772 human bodies.

We are the result of inevitable urbanic schizophrenia. While the dragon spews its poison, wagged by its own tail, we urinate on its leg, chuckling as our playfulness conjoins deterritorialised resources and temporarily appropriates the surplus from their reterritorialised conjunctions in nice little packages of pixels to print and mount illegally in the New York Metro. To each moment, we cling with all our heart, knowing it is unique and irreplaceable – and yet we wouldn’t lift a finger to prevent it from being annihilated.

Insert human here

As Dsankt told me while we wobbled toward each other in some subterranean dungeon, until you get over that initial dereliction fetish and prepare to let all things come and go, you haven’t found it yet. So as each sparkling moment expands toward the implosion we all know is coming, we feed the system. And when the engorged stomach lining finally tears, we will climb inside it’s dead body like Luke Skywalker penetrating his gutted Ton-ton and become enlightened.

Glitch

Each epoch not only dreams the next, but also, in dreaming, strives toward the moment of waking. It bears its end in itself and unfolds it with ruse. In the convulsions of the commodity economy we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled. Now that it’s all over and I am back here stewing in my own filth writing this PhD thesis in a nostalgic dispassionate embrace, only one thing is certain: the spiral will start churning again; the unstoppable desire to take our love to the streets will build, little seeds of speculation will begin to sprout, phone calls will be made. And we will go again to slide into urbanity’s womb and fertilise unfathomable nightmares born from the passion of those tiny glimpses we are all so apt to ignore. We will play, in this form and others, in imaginative permutations of superhumanity that don’t yet exist, again and again, until we are dead.

When it's over

_______________________________

A thousand blessings to Marc Explo, our tireless host. Thank you also to Winch and Otter for your brotherly companionship all weekend and to Olivier, Kat, Dsankt and Mrs. Dsankt for the wonderful dinner and champagne, delightful conversation and company as we climbed through sewage to get to a bridge.

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