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Totality: A Guided Tour

There, readers, there is the next milestone for you, in the History of Mankind! That universal Burning-up, as in hell-fire, of Human Shams. The oath of Twenty-five Million men, which has since become that of all men whatsoever, ‘Rather than live longer under lies, we will die!’ – that is the New Act in World-History… This is the truly celestial-infernal Event: the strangest we have seen for a thousand years.

– Thomas Carlyle 01


I. ‘…psychic history of modern Europe…’

‘Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk: Europäische Utopien seit 1800’ (the first phrase is translated, variously, as ‘The Inclination Towards a Synthesis of the Arts’ or ‘The Search for a Total Artwork’; the second as ‘European Utopias since 1800’) was installed at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1983. Organised by Harald Szeemann, the exhibition was the third instalment of a triptych of travelling shows, starting with ‘Jungesellenmaschinen’ (‘Bachelor Machines’) in 1975, and continuing with the different incarnations of ‘Monte Verità’ (named after the ‘Hill of Truth’ in Ascona, Switzerland) in 1978.

Together these exhibitions offered a kind of psychic history of modern Europe – an affectionate, if critical diagnosis of its deepest drives and impulses. Moreover, they are an ambivalent part of the articulation and critical establishment of, for the lack of better way to put it, a ‘postmodern condition’ in Europe.02Szeemann’s trio took on an ambitious multiple function in this moment: it was a kind of exorcism perhaps, an attempt to shed the habits and narratives of modernity; but it was also a morgue, where its corpses could be named and maladies discovered, as well as a fragile and loving archive of its ideas and images, assembled and stored away for future use. A meditation on the dream of a radical integration of artistic disciplines, ‘Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk’ drew together a head-spinning selection of socialist dreamers (Charles Fourier and Henry Thoreau), avantgardists (Erik Satie and Hugo Ball, Marcel Duchamp and El Lissitzky, Marcel Broodthaers and John Cage), charismatic ritualists (Hermann Nitsch and Joseph Beuys), dreamlike and dystopian filmmakers (Fritz Lang and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg), iconoclastic architects (Antoni Gaudí, Carl Friedrich Thiele, Rudolf Steiner) and enthralling outsiders (Henry Dunant, Adolf Wölfli and others). According to Szeemann’s thesis, they were united by their drive to create a ‘total art work’; in this drive he discovered the very best and worst of European culture in the twentieth century – utopias of beauty, social justice, sexual liberation and emancipation from labour on the one hand; consumer spectacle, totalitarianism and genocide on the other.

This essay attempts a partial tour of that exhibition, and assembles evidence towards a line of thinking on some of its modalities and ideas. It is an attempt to recover Szeemann’s diagnosis of this doomed European drive.

II. ‘…A steel snake, constrained and organised by the one general movement…’

Divided and sorted into hexagonal bays in the main hall of the Kunsthaus, Szeemann’s exhibition on first glance achieves a clean and conventional Modernist style – eschewing, for the most part, the performative densities of his exhibitions of the 1970s, such as ‘documenta 5: Interrogation of Reality – Picture Worlds Today’ (1972), ‘Bachelor Machines’ (1975) and the expressionist floor plan of ‘James Ensor’ at the Kunsthaus Zürich (1983). Compared to those delirious exhibitions, ‘Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk’ seemed relatively sober and austere, a cold clinical registration of a ‘tendency’ in European thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Look at individual pictures, however, and this impression of sobriety is thrown suddenly and violently off balance. Up close the pictures expose ecstatic or deranged views of imagined universes inhabited (if they are inhabited) by ciphers: not quite fully humans, but hermaphroditic half-people with globes for heads – figures of the future whose humanoid bodies have smooth, full, hard, geometric surfaces. Swiss artist Markus Raetz and Swiss designer Albin Uldry composed one such faceless figure for the exhibition poster: suspended in the zero gravity of some inner or outer space, concentric halos of lavender, blue, pink and ochre emanate from the figure’s spherical skull – lines of transformative force. One of Oskar Schlemmer’s abstracted corps de ballet pirouettes around a corner; a sly King Ludwig II fingers his sword behind Gaudí’s inverted fossil-model for the Colònia Güell at Santa Coloma de Cervelló. ‘The limited walk through the Kunsthaus’, wrote Peter Rumpf in his review at the time, ‘becomes a boundless mental walk in one’s head’ – a cranium now apparently swollen, rounded and transfigured by its utopian fantasising. 03

Architecture was an integral part of the exhibition. Alongside architectonic abstractions by Kurt Schwitters and Kazimir Malevich were paintings by Carl Friedrich Thiele (the night sky imagined as a giant, glittering dome – a classical agora by way of Sun Ra); a 1824 lithograph depicting an aerial perspective of Robert Owen’s imagined co-operative of New Harmony, which the nineteenth-century utopian industrialist would establish in Indiana in 1826 with disastrous results; Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s transmogrified gothic cathedral; and photographs of Walter Gropius’s model for Erwin Piscator’s Total Theatre in Berlin, 1927.

The utopian inclination in architecture lends itself to spirals and spheres: a reconstruction of Tatlin’s model monument – ‘a dynamic image’, wrote Nikolai Punin in 1919 for the Soviet Commissariat of Enlightenment, ‘imbued with the powerful tension of endlessly disturbed and clashing axes’, oscillating ‘like a steel snake, constrained and organised by the one general movement of all the parts, to raise itself above the earth’ – sat in view of Hermann Obrist’s model Design for a Memorial (1895) – a shabby Jugendstil premonition of the communist monument, which extended itself skyward like a tendril. 04

Similarly, spherical temples, palaces and planetariums put forward the image of secession (from a compromised reality) and totalisation (of a created and harmonious order). 05 See the haunted cross-sections of Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Newton’s Cenotaph (1783-84), or the Russian theosophist Alexander Skrjabin’s sketches of ‘Mystery- Temples’ and ‘Consciousness-Stones’ (c.1914) – or, seen from its colossal, infinite interior, a Temple of the Great Unity (1898) by Fidus dedicated to the ‘archaic veneration of Mother Earth and Nature’ which are nevertheless excluded, except in ornamental form, from the temple’s wordless, cultic centre. 06

In other cases architectural interiors are suffused by fragmented, elemental or triumphant inscriptions: the marked columns of Rudolf Steiner’s wooden Goetheanum (1913); the cumulated assemblage of Johannes Baader’s ‘megalomaniacal self-portrait’, The Great Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama 07 a section of a room from Broodthaers’s Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, its walls covered in ‘an amassment of tautologies’ (1968/1975); 08 a 1973 painting by Anselm Kiefer that pictures, by way of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle (1848-74), a majestic Valhalla-esque hall of honour for ‘Germany’s Spiritual Heroes’, whose names Kiefer has written in charcoal across the painted wooden floor.

(1920), an inversion of his 1906 design for a ‘World-Temple- Pyramid’;

III. ‘…force … and precision’

As inscribed at the bottom of Kiefer’s painting, it is Wagner’s name that is written largest in the exhibition. Alongside its bastard offspring cinema and performance, the composer’s innovations in theatre had central importance. In theatre the word – written, spoken or sung – pervaded and invigorated architecture; in the same way that it had, in the form of education, pervaded Owen’s architectural utopia – that is, with force and ‘mathematical precision’. 09

If the ‘synthesis of the arts’ was not Wagner’s invention – it had precursors in both the Wunderkammern of the seventeenth century and in the world expositions of the early nineteenth century – it was in his essay ‘Art and Revolution’ that the tendency traced by Szeemann’s exhibition had its earliest clear articulation. Wagner’s formulation looked to Greek tragedy, which he described as a ‘great unitarian artwork’ that ‘lived in the public conscience’. Tragic theatre, in this sense, was ‘the abstract and epitome’ of everything expressible about Grecian life. ‘The nation itself’, he wrote, ‘stood mirrored in its artwork … communed with itself and, within the span of a few hours, feasted its eyes with its own noblest essence.’

While ancient tragedy deployed singing, orchestrated movement, music, visual effects and the built environment to produce an integral whole – an ‘actual, living art’ – in Wagner’s time this whole had been brutally dismembered: ‘separated into its component parts … each one to take its own way, and in lonely self-sufficiency to pursue its own development’. This traumatic ‘dissevering’ was to be traced to ‘religious self-alienation’ – ‘the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one’ – put forward by Ludwig Feuerbach in his 1843 essay ‘The Philosophy of the Future’ and criticised by Marx in his ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ (1845/ 1888). 10 In this shattered modernity, Drama was dead and art was beholden to – as well as split between – commerce and the church.

Separating the arts, Wagner argued, had fatally wounded art’s public function. Art could no longer effectively mirror communal life of the ‘folk’; in the modern era, art ‘lives alone in the conscience of private persons, the public un-conscience recking nothing of it’. 11 What is more, in its diminished and necrotic form, art became commercial entertainment: compelling nothing more than amusement or distraction. No mere restoration was possible, Wagner claimed. What was taken for granted by the ancients presented itself as revolutionary in Wagner’s present: not only the radical re-synthesis of the arts, but the reunification of art and polity, art and public life:

Only the great Revolution of Mankind, whose beginnings erstwhile shattered Grecian Tragedy, can win for us this Art-work. For only this Revolution can bring forth from its hidden depths, in the new beauty of a nobler Universalism, that which it once tore from the conservative spirit of a time of beautiful but narrow-meted culture – and tearing it, engulphed. 12

This nobler universalism, Wagner argued, would be regained in a new and forceful form of dramatic theatre – for in such collective production ‘each separate branch of art is at hand in its own utmost fullness’. 13 In the grip of this full and reintegrated Drama, distracted and atomised consumers would be shocked into a new, revolutionary, nationalistic collectivity.

With its modest arrangement of plans, pictures and miniatures, the exhibitionform of ‘Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk’ definitively located such fullness elsewhere – totality was the myth to which all of its inadequate sign-systems referred. Plans, photographs and renderings; costumes, maquettes, models and props; fevered scribblings, doodles and abstract paintings; reconstructions in miniature of Ferdinand Cheval’s model of Le Palais Idéal, Gaudí’s Hanging Model for the Church of the Colònia Güell (1906-12) and Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919/20; unrealised): scan Verena Eggmann’s photographs of Szeemann’s exhibition and these are the things you see.14 Ursonate (1922-32) was performed by the dance company Tanzfabrik Berlin at the Kunsthaus; Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet (1927) was realised at the Schauspielhaus Zürich; Laurie Anderson performed America on the Move (1979-83) at the Volkshaus Zürich; Wagner operas were performed at the Opernhaus Zürich and Robert Wilson lectured on his unfinished opera the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down (1984- ongoing) at the Kunsthaus.15 The programme of events also included film screenings:

Pictures and plans of the Bayreuth opera house gestured not to the intense experience invoked by Wagner but to the bare framework for that experience – the seating, stage-setting, the double-proscenium that, if one were to encounter it in person, might produce Wagner’s ‘mystic gulf’ between performers and audience. The Zürich version of the exhibition, on the other hand, included an expansive and ambitious programme of performances: Kurt Schwitters’s

Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Syberberg’s operatic, 410-minute montage Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977). The events and films presented the insane, synthetic plenitude absent from, but immanent to, the exhibition’s bare constellation of artefacts.

That such a collection of works should make for a queer exhibition is perhaps obvious. There is the dizzying fact that each work aims to be – or is caught in the act of imagining itself as – an entire, elaborate, inclusive world. Where most exhibitions depend on constructing relationships among various fragments, here each artefact, in more or less ruthless fashion, ‘understands itself as the destruction of everything that opposes it’.16Indeed this totalitarian negation is explicit in the very essays where Wagner first asserts the idea of the total artwork. As Slavoj Žižek asserts, ‘the early revolutionary Wagner is definitely more protofascist than the late one – his “revolution” looks rather like the restitution of organic unity of the people who, led by the Prince, have swept away the rule of money embodied in Jews.’ 17 In his essay for the catalogue of the exhibition, Bazon Brock offered a comparable if even more brutally reductive equation: ‘TOTALKUNST und TOTALITARISMUS’ – total art and totalitarianism.18(Later Brock warns his readers against feeling too sure that the fascist form is a thing of the past: ‘If we want to experience an actualised Gesamtkunstwerk, we have only to visit Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center…’) 19

On this point Szeemann was clear: there is no such thing as a ‘synthesis of the arts’ and there mustn’t be.20 For ‘if the dreams and ideas of fantasy connections would come true and be forced on society, we would end up in a totalitarian state, the way we have known it.’ 21 Attempts to put the Gesamtkunstwerk into practice were categorically barred, ‘because then it is no longer art; it is power politics’.22 Rather than nostalgically glorify Wagner’s idea (which Szeemann acknowledged wasn’t articulated all that completely in the first place) his exhibition would use the concept of a synthesis of the arts ‘as a poetic vehicle in the museum – a place where fragile connections can still be tried out and take sensual form’. 23

The utopias put forward, then, were to be partial, failed or unfulfilled: however hideous or alluring, however ambitious, they remained individualised dream-images of a totality that might exist – not practical plans for their realisation. Colour theory alone made for a properly harmless (if fanatically overdetermined) predispensation: Johannes Itten with his colour wheel (Appendix to Utopia, 1921) and painting of a fat toddler-icon (Kinderbild, 1921-22); Piet Mondrian and his ‘new plasticism’. And then there is the emblematic dispossession of Swiss humanist Henry Dunant. His horrified response to Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s bloodbath at Solferino in 1859 led to the founding of the Red Cross and the establishment of the Geneva Conventions; he was subsequently disgraced in a credit scandal and expelled from the organisation he had founded. And yet here are his stunning watercolour tablets from 1890: apocryphal retellings of the lives of the Christian saints, which seem to have invented, with no precedent, their own meticulously dense pictorial language – an unhinged combination of scroll, map, broadsheet and webpage. ‘Transformation sociale soit Nouvelle Terre‘, reads one inscription. ‘Dieu est amour.’24 The danger was in sentimentalising failure – indulging in the pathos of the outsider or ‘lost figure’. But the pictures tell another (still romantic) story of ecstatic and paranoid geometry remaking the universe … Christian virtue and terror: That universal Burning up, as in hellfire, of Human Shams. 25

IV. ‘…the principle that “alone, I am not a problem for myself…”‘

‘It is now widely accepted that the art history of the second half of the twentieth century is no longer a history of artworks, but a history of exhibitions.’ 26 Yet this version of an absolute present still seems to require a present patrimony, its ‘seminal figures’. Had Szeemann not existed it would have been necessary to invent him. Perhaps he was invented. So ‘Szeemann’ may really be the last of those melancholic figures who people his exhibitions.27 A catalogue of what he stands for today might begin: exhibitionmaker as auteur; Meister and Grossvater of ‘postproduction’; godfather and patron saint of freelance and itinerant curators; archetype and original; guarantor and affirmer of the art world’s neoliberal present. ‘Szeemann is to the twentieth century what the flâneur or the dandy was to the nineteenth.’ You catch yourself saying this kind of thing.

Never mind that he remade himself in 1969 into the Agentur für geistige Gastarbeit (Agency for Intellectual Immigrant Labour): a bureaucratic bachelor machine, more disseminator than inseminator. His was a beautifully convoluted form of pataphysical self-exploitation: ‘a clear, self-organising, institutionalising sense of self which provided the basis for pursuing a possible pataphysical course – in the form of a constantly selfrenewing control circuit.’28 His departure from Kunsthalle Bern after organising ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ in 1969 is conceived of on these terms as well, as if by leaving the institution he was escaping a bad marriage. ‘In our case, everything worked perfectly, since we adhered literally to the principle often expressed in marriages that “alone, I am not a problem for myself: it is you and the others that make me one.” That having been established, there were no further problems.’ 29

V. Regression … closure … expectation

Concerning the exhibition as a catalogue of possible futures:

I take the concept of politics to be essentially a temporal concept. In its clichéd, classical form, people talk about politics as the art of possibility … Following Walter Benjamin, I like to think of politics as not the art of possibility but the art of actualisation, which actually turns out to be considerably harder than the art of possibility. I think we’re probably back with possibility nowadays because we haven’t got much actualisation. And I think that probably one reason that there’s an interest within the art world and other cultural spaces about the temporal dimensions of the works is because of a certain regression from actualisation to possibility, if you like. Politics has regressed to the idea of finding the possibilities that you might actualise. 30

Concerning enclosure and territorialisation:

The properly Utopian program or realisation will involve a commitment to closure (and thereby to totality): was it not Roland Barthes who observed, of de Sade’s Utopianism, that ‘here as elsewhere it is closure which enables the existence of system, which is to say, of the imagination’?[…] Totality is then precisely this combination of closure and system, in the name of autonomy and selfsufficiency which is ultimately the source of that otherness or radical, even alien difference… 31

Concerning great expectations: a certain quote from Robert Walser’s Fritz Kochers Aufsätze(1901) served Szeemann during his preparations for ‘Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk’. It reads:

My brother paints, writes poetry, sings, plays piano and does gymnastics excellently. He’s very, very talented. I love him, and not only because he’s my brother. He is my friend. He wants to become a bandleader – but I would rather he became something that combines all the arts of the earth. Certainly, he has high ambitions. 32


— Julian Myers


  • Thomas Carlyle, quoted by Richard Wagner at the beginning of his essay ‘Art and Revolution’ in Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, Volume 1: The Art-Work of the Future (trans. William Ashton Ellis), London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Kübner & Co., Ltd., 1895, p.23. Available at Wagner Library: htm (last accessed on 30 October 2008).
  • Ludwig Feuerbach, ‘The Philosophy of the Future (1843)’, translated by Zawar Hanfi, 1972. Available at future/index.htm; Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, written in 1845, first published by Friedrich Engels as an appendix to his essay on Ludwig Feuerbach in 1888. Available at theses.htm (last accessed on 17 November 2008). In this one sense, Wagner might have agreed with Marx’s famous injunction: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.’
  • Richard Wagner, ‘Art and Revolution’ (trans. William Ashton Ellis, 1895), Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Volume 1: The Art-Work of the Future, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Kübner & Co., Ltd. Available at (last accessed on 30 October 2008).
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • The exhibition travelled to three more venues in 1983 and early 1984: Städtische Kunsthalle and Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen in Düsseldorf from May to July 1983; Museum Moderner Kunst/Museum des 20 Jahrhunderts, Vienna from September to November 1983; and Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, from December 1983 to February 1984.
  • Sections of Wilson’s opera debuted in 1984 in Minneapolis, Cologne and Rotterdam, but the opera has yet to be performed in its entirety.
  • Wagner, ‘The Artwork of the Future’, as quoted in Harald Szeemann, ‘Richard Wagner’, in H. Szeemann (ed.), Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk, op. cit., p.166.
  • Wagner, ‘The Artwork of the Future’, as quoted in Harald Szeemann, ‘Richard Wagner’, in H. Szeemann (ed.), Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk, op. cit., p.166.
  • Bazon Brock, ‘Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk’, in H. Szeeman (ed.), Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk, op. cit., pp.24-29.
  • Ibid., p.30.
  • Indeed Jean-François Lyotard, whose La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (1979) popularised the term, contributed an essay to the catalogue of ‘Jungesellenmaschinen’. See J.-F. Lyotard, ‘Où l’on considère certaines parois comme les èlèments potentiellement célibataires de quelques machines simples’, in Harald Szeemann and Johannes Gachnang (eds.), Jungesellenmaschinen/ Les Machines célibataires (exh. cat.), Venice: Alfieri, 1975, pp.98-109.
  • Hans-Joachim Müller, Harald Szeemann: Exhibition-Maker, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2006, pp.77-78.
  • H. Szeemann, ‘Vorbereitungen’, Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk, op. cit., p.16. As translated in H.-J. Müller, Harald Szeemann, op. cit., p.78.
  • Ibid., p.79.
  • H. Szeemann, ‘Vorbereitungen’, op. cit., p.16.
  • ‘Let social transformation be the New World’; ‘God is love’.
  • T. Carlyle, op. cit., p.23.
  • Florence Derieux, ‘Introduction’, in F. Derieux (ed.), Harald Szeemann: Individual Methodology, Zürich: JRP/Ringier, 2007, p.8.
  • F. Jameson, ‘In the Destructive Element Immerse: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and Cultural Revolution’, October, vol.17, Summer 1981, p.99. My sentences redirect sentences Jameson wrote about Syberberg to refer to Szeemann.
  • ‘[Une] conscience de soi s’organisant et s’institutionnalisant elle-même, fournissant le fondement d’un possible cheminement pataphysique – sous la forme d’un cercle de règles se renouvelant sans cesse.’ Originally published in H. Szeemann and J. Gachnang (ed.), Jungesellenmachinen, op. cit., p.11; reprinted and translated in T. Bezzola and R. Kurzmeyer (ed.), Harald Szeemann with by through because towards despite, op. cit., p.280.
  • Ibid.
  • Peter Rumpf, ‘Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk’, Bauwelt, no.13, 1983. Fragment translated in Tobia Bezzola and Roman Kurzmeyer (ed.), Harald Szeemann with by through because towards despite: Catalogue of All Exhibitions 1957-2005, Zürich, Vienna and New York: Edition Voldemeer and Springer, 2007, p.433.
  • Peter Osborne, at ‘It’s About Time’ panel discussion at Frieze Art Fair, London, 17 October 2008.
  • F. Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, op. cit., pp.4-5; Roland Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Loyola
  • H. Szeemann, ‘Vorbereitungen’, op. cit., p.19.
  • I owe this observation in part to Walead Beshty, who argued for the repressed influence of Jugendstil on Tatlin’s monument in ‘Whose Monuments? A panel discussion with Walead Beshty, Julian Myers, Jenée Misraje and Erlea Maneros’, at FOCA, Los Angeles, 11 September 2008.
  • Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, New York and London: Verso, 2005, p.39.
  • Volker Welter, Biopolis: Patrick Geddes and the City of Life, Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2002, p.148. ‘From there it is only a small step’, Welter continues, ‘to becoming a staunch supporter of a blood-and-soil ideology that later nurtured German National Socialism.’
  • Brigid Doherty, ‘Berlin’, in Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris (exh. cat.), Washington: The National Gallery of Art, 2006, p.97. Doherty quotes historian Hanne Bergius who writes that The Great Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama demonstrates ‘the revaluation of architecture from Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) to Gesamt-zerstörwerk (total work of destruction)’. Thanks to Tara McDowell for the reference.
  • Harald Szeemann, ‘Marcel Broodthaers’, Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk: Europäische Utopien seit 1800 (exh. cat.), Frankfurt a.M.: Verlag Sauerländer, 1983, p.427.
  • ‘…[T]he experiment cannot fail to prove the certain means of renovating the moral and religious principles of the world, by showing whence arise the various opinions, manners, vices and virtues of mankind, and how the best or the worst of them may, with mathematical precision, be taught to the rising generation.’ Robert Owen, ‘A New View of Society’ (1813), as quoted by Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940, p.90.