Ronald Kuhler was born in Teaneck, New Jersey, in 1931, the second child of an abusive Belgian mother and an often absent German father. His father, Otto, was an artist and industrial designer who worked for the railways, drafting streamlined, Art Deco designs for the next generation of locomotives. The family moved to Rockland County, New York, in 1938, and soon sent Ronald, a chronic bed wetter, to a series of boarding schools where he was ostracized and ridiculed by classmates, and often beaten by teachers. In the late 40s, the family relocated to an isolated and arid ranch in Colorado, where life didn’t become any easier for Kuhler. At home he was trapped with his family, and at school he was mocked by his peers.
Kuhler left the ranch in 1953 and moved to Denver. A year later, unable to find work, he enrolled in college. He had always been a skilled calligrapher, and in 1957, his friend, filmmaker Stan Brakhage, asked him to draw the titles for the four-part experimental film Dog Star Man. In 1962, Kuhler received a degree in history from the University of Colorado. A year later, he legally changed his name to Renaldo Gillet Kuhler. In the late sixties, after working for a few years as curator of history at a museum in Spokane, he moved to Raleigh, North Carolina where he took a job as a scientific illustrator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. He retired in 1999, but continued to freelance as a scientific illustrator until his death in 2013.
Kuhler's biography, however, isn't even a third of the story.
Writer and filmmaker Brett Ingram, director of the 2009 documentary Rocaterrania and author of the new book The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler (Blast Books), describes his first encounter with Kuhler on a city bus in Raleigh in 1994 this way:
Six-foot-four and stout, with a bushy white beard and ponytail, he wore a custom-tailored uniform of indeterminate origin: a sleeveless Kelly green suit jacket with wide, black, notched lapels, epaulets, and brass buttons, a matching suit vest, yellow flannel dress shirt, a fleur-de-lis Boy Scout neckerchief, and tight-fitting knee-length shorts (“cotton-blend lederhosen”). His epaulets and neckerchief slide appeared to be hand-carved and bore matching insignia, a singular design integrating arrows, stars of David, and geometric Navajo patterns. White knee socks with Scottish garter flashes, black wingtips, gold wire-rim spectacles, and a plain black baseball cap completed his ensemble.
The stranger, Ingram writes in the book’s introduction, took a seat at the front of the bus and enthusiastically began extolling the virtues of public transportation to no one in particular. Although intrigued by the odd character, it would be another two years before Ingram saw him again.
In 1996, Ingram, an electrical engineer on the space shuttle program, was hired to develop media for the Museum of Natural Sciences. On a tour of the museum’s inner workings, he was introduced to Kuhler, the in-house illustrator, and was startled to find it was that same eccentric from the bus. Kuhler, he discovered, was no run-of-the-mill eccentric. He was, rather, a vigilant and staunch individualist who despised conformity. He was a man with the courage to dress, live, and think as he wanted.
Shortly after being introduced, Ingram immediately saw the potential for a feature documentary about this interesting fellow with the singular wardrobe.
“I had wanted to start following Renaldo with a camera earlier,” he says. “But had to wait until I could afford a decent camera. I bought myself one for Christmas in 1997, and started filming Renaldo a couple of months later. On a surface level, Renaldo was immediately receptive to it. ‘I want you to spread my name from Minneapolis to Moline—like cow manure on my father’s ranch,’ he said. Odd analogy, but classic Renaldo. It meant I had his enthusiastic approval to following him with a camera whenever I wanted. I didn’t know where it would lead, but a rule that’s worked for me is that if a topic is intensely fascinating to me, I can safely assume it will appeal to an audience somewhere, however narrow it might be. More importantly, I sensed there was something worth patiently exploring with Renaldo, something much deeper than his appearance, attire, and manner of speaking. Turns out I was right. But getting to that deeper place with Renaldo was much more difficult than I’d hoped it would be."
The two became close friends, and over time, Ingram slowly began piecing Kuhler’s story together.
“The ridicule Renaldo faced for bedwetting was cruel enough, especially in a boarding school environment where it was no secret. But there was a whole lot more going on,” Ingram explains. “He was mocked and ostracized most of his life for any number of reasons, but the abuse and neglect started where it so often does—at home. He describes his father, who considered Renaldo an embarrassment, as almost entirely absent from his childhood, and even when he was around, he remained emotionally unavailable. That he never really knew his father gave Renaldo the freedom to idolize his dad, and he did. He described his mother as having a split personality, her darker side neglectful, mentally and emotionally abusive, and emasculating.”
Not helping matters, when Kuhler was eight, a psychologist labeled him “dull normal” after determining he had a below average I.Q. The diagnosis led only to more rejection from his parents, more ridicule from classmates, and more angry frustration from teachers who couldn’t reach him. “Their many attempts to break the boy’s spirit with derision and beatings only steeled his defiant resolve,” Ingram says.
Kuhler’s assessment of his parents was confirmed when he and Ingram paid a visit to his older sister, Winona, whom Ingram describes as a “surprisingly traditional, well-adjusted, and fully assimilated member of the upper-middle-class.”
“She admired their father, but lamented his frequent absence,” says Ingram. “Winona saved her harshest words for Simonne, whom she confirmed had not been the most affectionate of mothers. Strangely, throughout our visit, Winona herself talked down to Renaldo as one might to an undisciplined child. Obviously embarrassed by him, she insisted we dine across town to decrease the chances of running into any of her friends.”
Winona’s fear of being seen by friends when her brother was around may not have been wholly unjustified, considering some of Ingram’s own anecdotes about Kuhler’s public behavior.
“When I took Renaldo to Carolina Beach, he wore a Russian Sailor Suit comprised of a tight, horizontally striped long sleeve shirt, a Boy Scout neckerchief clasped with a hand-carved slide featuring an anchor and other nautical symbols, a pirate bandana on his head, and tight short-shorts—all navy blue, of course—plus his signature white knee socks, Scottish garter flashes, and black wingtips. That night, we mistakenly wandered into a seedy pool hall near the pier, the kind of place where you could easily get cut just for holding eye contact too long. Already tipsy, and wearing the aforementioned getup, Renaldo pranced into the smoky bar, loudly declaring, ‘Now this is my kind of place. It has real character! Good to see all you fine people.’ I knew we were in for trouble when he started repeating, in singsong manner, ‘I’m just a little sailor boy! I’m just a little sailor boy! I’m just a little…’”
After announcing his presence to the motley waterfront crew on hand, Kuhler set about making some new friends.
“To a grizzled man wearing a leather Harley Davidson jacket and greasy Confederate flag baseball cap,” Ingram recalls (noting the man was also clutching a pool cue), “he said, ‘Oh, my, what a lovely Victorian beard you have, kind sir.’ To the tattooed bartender with stringy hair: ‘Oh, look at the little white teeth. Such a cute little chipmunk you are, darling. Horses ears. Soft. Sweet. I’ll have a double shot of vodka, sweetheart.’ I asked if they had any specials running for Russian sailors, but the joke flew right over her head. Perched on a stool, legs crossed effetely, Renaldo delivered a series of monologues, none of which were well received. Between puffs on his cigarette, he explained that he shaved his legs daily, ‘so they’ll look smooth and sexy in tight sexy shorts,’ that he preferred ‘long, luxurious baths in Joy dishwashing detergent because it made bathing such a joy,’ and a few other gems I can no longer recall. Miraculously, we weren’t knifed or beaten to death, but after an hour of being drilled by hostile eyes, I dragged Renaldo out of there. As was often the case when he’d been drinking, he had been completely oblivious to the hostility, and would have been astonished to learn that he had been anything but welcome in that establishment.”
“Such traits,” Ingram says, “undoubtedly made him an easy target for bullies. Even later in life, Renaldo could only deduce that he was singled out for being different, a nonconformist, which is also true. Unfortunately, even today, for a disturbingly large portion of the population, empathy (or perhaps sympathy in this case) for those deemed outside the norm in certain respects, is apparently contingent upon the existence and severity of an official diagnosis, a recognizable label to explain away abnormalities in appearance and behavior. There were no anti-bullying campaigns when he was a kid, of course, so it was open season on Renaldo.”
The remarkable thing about Kuhler’s case is that while so many others with similar backgrounds grow into isolated, bitter, sociopathic, even murderous adults, Kuhler remained so open, enthusiastic and curious about people and the world around him, offering kind-hearted wisdom to anyone who was paying attention.
“I knew Renaldo better than anyone, but exactly how he remained earnest, kind, and genuinely sociable despite the adversity he faced is still somewhat of a mystery to me,” Ingram admits. “As I learned when I became a father, children are not born blank slates. They arrive fully pre-programmed with a personality, character, temperament, and constitution that, from what I’ve seen, does not necessarily change that much. I’ve always admired his courage to hold steadfast in his beliefs, and his refusal to conform for the sake of conforming—especially commendable accomplishments considering he managed to achieve them without hurting anyone else in the process.”
Paradoxically, Ingram believes the same inborn traits that made Kuhler an easy target also helped him survive. The openness and pure heartedness left him vulnerable, but allowed him to see the best in people, and approach the world with a childlike sense of wonder. His lack of social sophistication and general gullibility put him in the crosshairs repeatedly, but also left him unaware in many cases of just how savagely he was being mocked.
The very heart of Kuhler’s survival skills, Ingram says, lay in his far-reaching imagination. As Kuhler wrote in one of the countless notebooks he left behind, “The ability to fantasize is the ability to survive.”
Over time, and only very cautiously, Kuhler began introducing Ingram to the history and inhabitants of Rocaterrania, something he had kept a closely guarded secret for over half a century.
“Had it not been for Rocaterrania,” says Ingram, “I think he would have ended up angry, bitter, despondent, and completely lost. It is also very likely he would have failed to achieve the independence and freedom he cherished above all else.”
"When my line of questioning got too personal for Kuhler's comfort," Ingram says, "he became evasive. At best, he would present a few drawings here and there, some fragmented plotlines, and tantalizing details before declaring, ‘That’s everything, I think.’ I knew that wasn’t true, but we played that game for the next six years.”
Only after Ingram took Kuhler on road trips to Colorado to see the ranch, Santa Fe to see some of his father’s paintings, Florida to meet his sister, and assorted other day trips around North Carolina and Georgia was Kuhler finally convinced Ingram was there to stay, and wouldn’t reject him the way so many others had. That’s when Kuhler finally opened up.
“Renaldo was sixteen when he arrived at the ranch in June of 1948,” Ingram says. “Within a few short months, he turned to his notebooks for what he considered his only viable means to escape the boredom and isolation he felt. He began writing a story titled ‘Phillip Sonora,’ chronicling the imaginary adventures of the eponymous lead character, a former violinist with the New York Metropolitan Opera who had retired to the Adirondacks near the Canadian border. After loaning an early draft to a family friend who never returned it, Renaldo started over from scratch, this time telling his story almost exclusively with illustrations.”
Instead of writing things down, Kuhler stored all the mounting, interwoven details of the evolving story in his head for the next half-century, until finally deciding to share them with Ingram in the late nineties.
Beginning with the addition of two friends for his titular violinist, the original story, rendered now in purely visual form, grew and expanded until an entire, vibrant nation existed around the trio.
The small, independent, and wholly imaginary nation of Rocaterrania, like the play in Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 film Synecdoche, New York, became his life’s work. It was not a utopia, he insisted, or a fantasy land or dream land. It was a nation, like any other, rocked by turmoil, conflict, oppression, civil wars, political intrigue, coups and revolutions, victories and failures. More than anything else, however, through Rocaterrania’s history he traced his own, the pressures facing the inhabitants mirroring the pressures he was facing to conform, the turmoil and conflicts echoing events in his own life. It was an exercise in metaphorical autobiography, a complex and deeply personal attempt to understand how he had become what he’d become.
“I think of each person as a nation unto himself,” Kuhler once said. “What he does with that nation is up to him.”
Rocaterrania, which was situated between the Canadian border and upstate New York, was founded in 1931 by a wealthy aristocratic couple from Europe who did not understand American democracy, so decided to form their own monarchy. Over the course of half a century, Kuhler documented the people and history of Rocaterrania in extraordinary detail. In pencil, pen and ink, watercolor, acrylic and etching, he created nearly two thousand pictures capturing Rocaterrania’s geography, architecture, infrastructure, historic events, and inhabitants. He drew landscapes and street scenes and portraits, sketched architectural studies, designed insignias, flags and popular Rocaterranian fashions, painted stills from imaginary Rocaterranian films, drafted official government letterhead, drew newspaper comic strips, and even created a few drawings made by Rocaterranians themselves. He also invented a new alphabet and national language. Kuhler imagined every facet of Rocaterranian life—from the recycling program to the power supply to the tenets of the state religion—in sometimes mind-boggling detail. As he explained to Ingram, he never showed any of it to anyone because he was afraid they might think he was a little off.
The reflexive comparisons with other secretive, prolific outsider artists like Henry Darger are inevitable, but Kuhler was far from being a recluse. He also freely admitted that Rocaterrania was simply something he made up in his imagination, nothing more, though it was an imaginary place he inhabited fully, and discussed as if it was real. And considering it was autobiography in disguise, it was.
“Given his many less-than-ideal life experiences, Renaldo had tremendous unresolved anger for a long time, especially when he was a younger man,” Ingram says. “Rocaterrania offered him a healthier, more creative outlet to channel inner hostility that he might otherwise have turned against himself or another person. With the proverbial pen mightier than a sword, he dealt with quite a few real life bullies by casting them as buffoons, villains, or evil namesakes for unpleasant objects or locales in Rocaterrania. And he did this with black humor and biting satire. Certain social cues may have been lost on Renaldo, but irony was not.”
The massive and exquisitely designed new volume of Kuhler’s work, The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler, reproduces hundreds of his drawings, paintings, sketches, and portraits, offering up a dazzling spectrum of Kuhler’s style and imagination, from a detailed drawing of the Schwartz Opera House under renovation to uniform designs to head-scratching cartoons to endless sketches of Neutants—a new underclass of androgynous Rocaterranians created when the wicked Queen Catherine ordered all the wayward children of Rocaterrania be rounded up and neutered.
Together with drawing and painting, Kuhler was also a skilled calligrapher, woodcarver, and (as his own wardrobe attested) fashion designer, all with little or no formal training. Ingram believes that his wide-ranging artistic abilities, at least in part, can be attributed to his father. Apart from being an industrial designer, Otto Kuhler was a respected painter, whose Western landscapes and industrial scenes earned him some attention in his day.
“Although he gave Renaldo some pointers on technique when he happened to be around, his greatest artistic gift to his son was, perhaps, a genetic one. While artistic ability can be learned, artistic vision is hereditary, and both father and son had the vision in spades. As Renaldo liked to say, ‘Most people look, but they don’t see.’ He noticed, studied, and memorized visual details that most of us take for granted. In addition to astute observation of the world around him, his main inspirations were movies, books on history and architecture, and old photographs. He wasn’t influenced by other artists, or by popular or academic traditions in art.”
Although Kuhler did in fact take a couple art classes while in college in the late fifties, he didn’t get much out of them. At the time, Abstract Expressionism was all the rage, so that’s what his instructors kept pushing, having no patience for Kuhler’s own interpretation of realism.
“He considered the process of creating Rocaterrania, itself, to be his real art school,” Ingram says. “Which explains the wide variety of styles and media across his work. His techniques were nearly all self-taught through experimentation and practice, trial and error, the same way he taught himself the craft of scientific illustration for his job at the museum. For these reasons, and others, Renaldo’s work is located within the tradition of 'outsider art,' though in his case, a neighboring category, ‘visionary,’ is more appropriate.”
To accompany and illuminate the illustrations, the book also contains a detailed text laying out Rocaterrania’s tumultuous history and culture, from the rise and fall of dynasties to popular uprisings to the growth of the railway system, and the evolution of the national language. Given Kuhler wrote very little of it down, the hard work of piecing the history together in some coherent chronological form fell to Ingram.
“Aside from some notes and passages on the reverse sides of a small fraction of the illustrations in the collection,” Ingram says, “Renaldo wrote virtually nothing about his imaginary country, not in his diaries or anywhere else. I recorded his life story, the history of Rocaterrania, the process by which he created it, and its personal significances on film, video, audio, and in my copious notes. Much of it, too, I recalled from memory, some of which I’ve yet to write down. Renaldo constantly digressed, repeated himself, and used neologisms, code words, and inside jokes shared only with himself (until I came along), so my interviews with him are scattered and confusing at times. The story was so complex, the characters so numerous, that it was a laborious eighteen-month process of writing the main body of the text and illustration captions, not to mention selecting the relevant illustrations.”
Much of the credit for making the book a reality, he admits, has to go to Blast Books editor and designer, Laura Lindgren.
“I would characterize the creative process as a three-way collaboration between Renaldo, Laura, and me. Renaldo provided the content. As the foremost (only) authority on the subject, I organized the material and told the story. Laura shaped it into a gorgeous presentation by streamlining my writing and making most of the final illustration selections, given her vast design experience and having more objective distance from the material. This all sounds a lot simpler than it actually was.”
Considering the fragmented nature of the collected Kuhler interviews, when it came to writing the history of Rocaterrania, Ingram says he was forced to start from scratch, trying to limit himself to Kuhler’s own unique vocabulary and, whenever possible, using direct quotes.
“Since Renaldo only reluctantly and fleetingly described his illustrations to me with any detail,” says Ingram, “I often had to identify characters and locations by comparing them to those I recognized from other drawings. To further complicate matters, the story seemed partly in flux, right up until Renaldo’s passing, and some of his statements contradicted what he had said in a prior interview, or had noted on the backs of drawings. This was understandable, of course, given that it was his first attempt at recalling an oral history conceived decades earlier. Unfortunately, it required more effort to determine which plot details or chronologies were most consistent across multiple versions and made the most sense within the story as a whole. It was tedious, but produced accurate results, much the same way geographic position can be triangulated from three separate radar signals.”
Reading Rocaterrania’s long and tangled history, you can’t help but notice that many of the reported events seem to parallel events from throughout European history. Perhaps it makes sense for this to happen in a largely autobiographical work, given Kuhler had a degree in history.
“While he included all seven continents in one way or another, Renaldo was most intrigued by European history, especially the complexities of Russian history,” Ingram explains. “Everything about Rocaterrania is amalgamative, representing Renaldo’s sum knowledge of each component—history, language, religion, and so forth. Aesthetically, the architecture, interior design, and clothing, for example, reflect his personal preferences and sensibilities. Emotionally, he repurposed amalgams of personalities and events from world history to represent amalgams of the people, places, and events from his own life—including his own internal struggles—as they unfolded before him. Even minor dilemmas, conflicts, arguments, and rising tensions were represented by small uprisings in Rocaterrania, whether he was triumphant or defeated. Renaldo’s simplest explanation for the meaning of his creation was this: ‘I am Rocaterrania, and my troubles within me, and everything else… the events in my life.’ His integration of all these components into a metaphoric autobiography is what I find most brilliant about his creation.”
Rocaterrania’s first matriarch, the tyrannical and power-mad Catherine, for instance, blended the biographies of Catherine the Great and Kuhler’s mother Simonne. And since Simonne’s native language was French, he made Catherine French. Her order that all wayward children be rounded up and neutered reflected his own mother’s emasculating tendencies. In fact, one of the resulting Neutants, Peekle, acts as Kuhler’s alter-ego throughout the story.
In terms of Rocaterranian history, Kuhler’s eventual departure from the family ranch is depicted as the First Revolution, in which Cesar Georg Nicholai de Rochelle (representing his father and based on Nicholas II), was overthrown.
Gorgheni Kahn, the well-educated leader of the Second Revolution, was based directly on Lenin. While not representing Kuhler himself, he did act as a symbol of Kuhler’s own intellectual curiosity as he encountered new ideas during his first few years in college.
At still another metaphorical level, along with being autobiography and a reflection of European history, Rocaterrania’s growth and development also worked as an ongoing commentary on what Kuhler saw happening around him in America, from the environmental decline that came with increased industrialization and the dependence on cars to the dominance of corporate culture to a growing sense of alienation within the people. In many ways, Rocaterrania grew into the country Kuhler felt America could have and should have been.
“The nation implemented many socially and environmentally progressive programs,” Ingram says. “In part, yes, these programs increasingly appeared as a reaction to what Renaldo considered the social, political, and environmental decline of America. Nothing set his blood to boiling faster than hypocrisy, which, for him, once again, started at home. ‘With my parents, it was always do as I say, not as a I do,’ he told me. He had great difficulty resolving those two opposing dynamics—and contradictions, in general—in his parents, other individuals, or collective American society. His words and behavior were consistent in principle. He couldn’t understand why that wasn’t true in everyone else he encountered, including America as a nation. He attributed America’s decline largely to greed, political corruption, and the rise of big corporations. Paradoxically, he was at once more iconoclastic and socially conscious even than his father had been. These two qualities combined to spawn many of Rocaterrania’s idealistic progressive programs, which, like everything in his nation, were amalgamative, integrating elements of exemplar programs from other nations.”
For instance, fully understanding what it felt like to be an oppressed minority, and outraged that America had done little or nothing to stop racism, sexism, anti-Semitism or homophobia, Kuhler’s Rocaterrania passed stringent laws prohibiting discrimination. After researching the dominant faiths from around the world and finding most of them divisive and contradictory, he invented Ojallaism, Rocaterrania’s unifying, grassroots state religion.
One of Rocaterrania’s more radical environmental policies involved a universal recycling program, which went so far as to use human waste to fertilize crops and biologically-produced methane as the gas of choice when it came to lighting and heating.
“Recycling human waste sounds reasonable as a theory, but for obvious reasons, is not so workable in reality,” Ingram admits. “I read recently that parasitic worms found in North Korean defectors were the result of fertilizing crops with human waste. But when I was shooting a film in Vietnam, I visited a family that used a makeshift hood over a hog pen to capture methane to fuel kitchen burners, so Renaldo was not far off.”
Rocaterranians, as Kuhler said himself, could in large part be best described as “Urban Amish.” They distrusted fancy new technological developments, preferring radio, gramophones and old movies to television. They also preferred train travel over cars, as it was more environmentally friendly and provided for a much more social experience.
“Like Renaldo,” Ingram says, “Rocaterranian’s were not Puritans, but they were disciplined in living out their social and moral ideals.”
By the mid-nineties, it seems, even before Ingram began following Kuhler around with a camera, history essentially came to a standstilll in the small sovereign nation of Rocaterrania.
“By the time I met him,” Ingram says, “Renaldo felt he had achieved his long sought after independence and freedom. Most of his problems were behind him, so he no longer needed Rocaterrania to help solve them. It had served its primary purposes, so his interest in further developing it began to wane. During the time I knew him—from 1996 until his death in 2013—he was primarily focused on—obsessed with, really—the anatomical development of his Neutant characters. He gave me photocopies of each revision to keep my records up to date. He also made a number of architectural illustrations, and continued to develop the language of Rocaterranski and practice his ornate calligraphy. But most of his creative energy during that time was devoted to scientific illustration for the museum, even pro bono or on a contract basis after he retired. A diary entry from 1995 states without explanation: ‘Josip Wepka [Rocaterrania’s dictatorial premier since 1963] died today.’ Later, Renaldo explained that Wepka had died of exhaustion, and that going forward, Rocaterrania settled into a social democracy, relaxing right along with Renaldo.”
Kuhler once told Ingram, 'One of my greatest triumphs was to become the man I always wanted to be—myself.’ Ingram in turn says one of his own greatest triumphs was to follow through on the promise he’d made to Renaldo to at long last bring some validation and recognition to a brilliantly talented and imaginative artist who’d been shunned most of his life. He remains confident both the film and the book are accurate portrayals of a determinedly unique individual and creative force.
Some ten years in the making, Ingram’s documentary, Rocaterrania, came out in 2009. It was written up in The New York Times, led to a few gallery exhibits of Kuhler’s work, and shortly after seeing the film, Blast Books’ Lindgren began envisioning the possibilities that culminated in the new book.
“Meeting Renaldo and discovering his secret world was like someone showing me a secret garden that would have been destroyed upon his passing without anyone ever knowing it existed,” Ingram says. “I didn't see it taking over my own creative life—and to be honest, I'm ready to do something new—but it has been a real gift, just knowing him, not to mention having the honor of mediating his creation to the world. It was really nothing noble, more like a case of synchronicity where two kindred souls met by chance. If I had not come along, the whole thing would more than likely have ended up in the landfill. Even if not, no one would know the meaning of any of it as he wrote very little about it. I couldn't have ignored the responsibility of preserving his work any more than I could ignore a baby left on my front doorstep.”
Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, These Children Who Come at You with Knives, The Blow-Off, and several other books, most recently Residue (Red Hen Press, 2015). His work has appeared in New York Press, the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice and dozens of other publications.
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