I thought this was the end then it started over
interview by JEFF RIAN
portrait by SEBASTIAN PIRAS
All artworks courtesy of Richard Prince
For a number of years, Richard Prince lived in a small apartment on East 12th Street in New York City. He collected pulp fiction and the first editions he could afford. His artwork in the mid-’70s largely consisted of boxes of slides of ads and magazine pictures, which he reshot with Kodacolor film. He called them “rephotographs.” In the mid-’80s, he began to re-draw cartoons from magazines; he then made abstract paintings with jokes silkscreened onto them.
In the ’90s, Prince quickly became one of the most famous American artists, transforming American clichés — muscle cars, basketball hoops, cowboys, B-girls, jokes, celebrities, etc. — into artistic iconography. He made “appropriation” and picture recycling trendy. More recently, he’s recycled Instagram pictures of young girls having fun — echoing his rephotographs of biker girls (without permission). Now he creates even more controversy, given the high market value of his work. Richard Prince could be the new Andy Warhol, abstracting American banality, working nonstop, sticking to New York City and, despite himself, becoming a star.
JEFF RIAN — The first time we met was in your small apartment on East 12th Street, between First Avenue and Avenue A, back when this was a really bad neighborhood. Luc Sante and Richard Hell lived there. What got you there?
Richard Prince — I got lucky. A girlfriend, Allison, rented the storefront. She convinced the landlord to give me a “railroad“ apartment on the second floor, $75 a month. I scored. This was, like, 1978. Rene Ricard also lived there. The neighborhood was crazy. There was this kid who lived next door to me, 12 years old. Turned out to become one of the heaviest punks on the scene. I think his name was Jason. He tried to burn the building down when he was 14. He eventually started a band called Cro-Mags. I used to leave the building at 10 at night and run to First Ave so I wouldn’t get mugged. This was the day-to-day normal. I would hang out at Paul’s Lounge on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 11th Street until 4:30 AM. By that hour of the morning, I could walk home. By then, anyone out to get you was long gone.
JEFF RIAN — Dike [Blair, a mutual friend, who introduced us] went there regularly. That was his corner bar. Who else was going to Paul’s Lounge?
RICHARD PRINCE — Joey Ramone. He always sat at the bar alone. Quiet. We would watch HBO. Paul, the owner, pirated cable. Cable was still pretty rare in those days. We’d sit and stare at this new way to subscribe to TV for free. Paul was juiced in. He was from New Jersey. Sweet guy. Loved to put pictures of celebrities who stopped by up on the wall. Mostly the celebrities were Joe Franklin’s. You know him — TV and radio host? Tiny Tim [falsetto folk singer from the Dylan era of folk singers on MacDougal Street]. Uncle Floyd [variety show comedian]. Frank Sinatra’s son was up there on the wall. What I liked about Paul’s Lounge: nobody went there. It was the opposite of the Mudd Club. Sometimes I was the only customer.
JEFF RIAN — I remember you had a run of pulp fiction paperbacks and a few first editions. I remember you had Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. When did you start collecting? Do you remember why?
RICHARD PRINCE — Book collecting. It’s like insulation from the outside world. A room full of books was something I had no experience with. My family didn’t read books. I didn’t start reading until I was in my early 20s. Serious dyslexia. But after I started, I couldn’t stop. When I arrived in New York, there were tons of secondhand bookstores. Mostly on Fourth Ave. The East Village was full of them. I started buying paperbacks. First printings. What I could afford. I really had a jones for what first appeared. I don’t know where that comes from. Why does anyone want the original copy?
JEFF RIAN — People are obsessed with origins — Adam and Eve, the Big Bang, the real Mona Lisa. But you seemed to bridge the two — words and images. Like you, I started reading at 20. But then I was gone on it. In the late 70s, I bought a mint copy of Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading at one of the used bookstores on Fourth Avenue for 10 bucks, which I sold for $90 to a dealer in Santa Barbara. I wish I still had it. Books were objects. First editions were intellectual property wrapped in pictures. They were erotic: the nicer the book, the better the object. Add comedy and cars to books and images, and you get a picture of the world we grew up in.
RICHARD PRINCE — I’ll always think the shared book mania was the glue. They’re weren’t many of us. Even right now, the art world is a very closed-off place. Artists don’t let much in.
JEFF RIAN — Add New York, and you get brains, images, and jokes. Did you think about books that way? Was it instinct? You were the only first-editions collector my age I knew who wasn’t also trying to be a book dealer.
RICHARD PRINCE — I think it all comes down to Adult Comedy Action Drama. I put myself in a position where, putting out different bodies of work every two or three years, I felt like I put out my own magazine. It was always in the back of my mind. Living in a giant novel. Editorial. Advertisements. Cartoons. Op-eds. Letters to the editor. Short stories. Centerfold. Mix it all together. I mean, you look at an artist like Bob Dylan. Acoustic. Electric. Basement tapes. Standards. My visual mania runs along those lines. What can I say? I’ve been working on the railroad. Now the Internet.
JEFF RIAN — What made you think you could get away with redoing Ezra Pound’s dictum, “Make it new,” in a switch to “Make it again”? Or did you not care?
RICHARD PRINCE — By getting back to “making it.” I’d like to see more artists’ museums, even if it was only a room. I like the idea that [Donald] Judd’s building on Mercer and Spring Street is a landmark. I love museums. But they’re driven by committees, boards, and chairs, and only interested in the historical. Meaning that they want work that’s some kind of inspiration. The Holy Grail. The one and only. Ulysses inscribed to Ezra Pound. The association. I get it. I’m with it. I’m down. My attention span has the reach. I can brave MoMA if I have to. But MoMA has a job to fulfill. And I don’t. There should be more Marfas. That’s all I’m saying. “Play it as it lays.” Give art a chance.
JEFF RIAN — We are the hated, the baby boomers, the first television generation, the first to be babysat and seduced by pictures, having experiences our parents couldn’t control, like Lenny Bruce, Captain Kangaroo, Little Richard, and Richard Pryor. I was on The Pick Temple show in Washington, D.C. for my sixth birthday, a guy dressed as a guitar-playing cowboy. I went home with cake and ice cream. I have dreamed about being a guitar player since then. Who or what changed you?
RICHARD PRINCE — Television. We were the first generation that glued into that medium. By the time we were five, we were parked in front of this new globe. It spiked our minds. Whether it was the game shows, the soaps, The Twilight Zone, or a show like The Ed Sullivan Show. Every Sunday. Clockwork. The family routine. That show was about variety. And by the eighth grade, you were seeing acts like The Rolling Stones. I mean, that was an “opening.” Once you saw that, the parents, the teachers, the police… couldn’t put those “stones” back in the bottle. It’s hard to imagine now, but I can’t tell you how exciting it was to hear Little Richard wail or watch Chuck Berry’s duck walk. Alternative universe. Brothers from another planet. It was radical. If anything was new, it was the constant feed of people who weren’t anything like your family. Where do I go to get some of that? And when can I go? I couldn’t wait to get out of there, to split for New York.
JEFF RIAN — You worked at Time-Life for a long time.
RICHARD PRINCE — My job at Time-Life was a dystopian J.G. Ballard sci-fi made-for-TV movie. I worked there for 10 years. I had to turn it into something. I make up things to survive. You have to. Entering that building, in Midtown, it needed to be turned into something that fit my needs. Not theirs. I used that building. I bled it. I bit into it like a vampire. It was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was actually the perfect place for someone like me to work. Once inside, you never had to leave. It was large. It had everything. Hospital. Cafeteria. Hospitality rooms. Grocery store. Its own post office. And they were putting out seven magazines. Sometimes there were whole floors that were empty. You could just roam around and make office sculpture. Once I opened a closest and found 50 photographs that went into the making of Life Goes to the Movies. This was, like, 1975. Nobody cared. These were “assignment” photos. They were going to be thrown out. So I just took them home. It was like beachcombing. Except the tide was washing up pictures of Natalie Wood. I claimed. I took. I made believe they were mine. I still have them. Taking the subway up to work, I saw the graffiti. The tagging. I tagged the Time-Life building. It was it. And I was it. We were all it.
JEFF RIAN — When did you first start to make a living from your art?
RICHARD PRINCE — That was never part of the deal. The deal for me was to get a place with minimal rent (the lowest of the lows) and a part-time job and spend as much time as possible inside my own world. “Inside World” [a show at Kent Gallery in the late ’80s]. What’s that Velvet Underground lyric? “My mind split open.” That’s what I was interested in. Practicing without a license. Making money selling art? You’d have to ask a dealer that one. The art world is wired around money right now.
JEFF RIAN — When I first met you, you showed me some slides on a light table, cropped ads that you’d photographed in magazines. What’s your connection to literature, cars, and music? Did you see them as extensions of the way you think about art? Did you always want to be an artist?
RICHARD PRINCE — Yeah. Artist. Always. As far as I can remember. Never anything else. All natural. Very lucky. I’ve never had any doubts about being that. Just doubts about doing it. That comes with the territory. The subject matter comes first. How to translate the subject comes second. Sometimes when I see something, it’s like I run into it. I stumble upon it. Two and two together. Lucky breaks. More luck.Not having a style means I can have many subjects. Books, cars, backyards, mountains, cowboys, sunsets. The newspaper is “full of it.” The American landscape.
JEFF RIAN — Way back in the ’80s, you transited to drawing. Was that waiting to happen? It wasn’t obvious; it came out of the blue. You said somewhere that you like “God-given” talent. The drawings always looked like you drew them as if you’d made them. Why did you wait so long? Or did you?
RICHARD PRINCE — I always drew. I can’t remember when I didn’t. I just didn’t think it was a medium that I could improve upon. Or contribute to. That’s why I picked up the camera. Because I knew jack shit about the camera. I saw the camera as a tool. An apparatus that I could fuck up. But drawing I never let go of, and I never stopped drawing with a Bic pen. I mean, I thought through Bic. How stupid is that? In 1985, I wanted to draw again. But what? Cartoons. So that’s what I did. I redrew cartoons. Mostly from The New Yorker and Playboy. I drew them with a 6B pencil on cold-pressed Arches paper. I already knew my supplies. I knew how to translate. And I already had the skill. I just didn’t have the subject. I really liked Whitney Darrow cartoons. His style. So that’s what I did. I copied Whitney Darrow. Sidebar: Darrow was once a roommate of Jackson Pollock.
JEFF RIAN — Remembering John Dogg, from the late ’80s, the pseudonymous minimalist who made art from tires and tire accoutrements: What got you into hot-rod cars? You’re the only person I know who uses the kind of parts I sold when I worked at Big Ed’s Speed Shop, back when I was 17 and new nothing about art — only guitars and cars. I loved that stuff, the language, the nut-job car-head drag racers and stock-car racers, like Junior Johnson, who was a client. When I quit Big Ed’s, I sold my tricked-out ’57 Chevy, bought a VW bug and a Fender Telecaster, and became the lead guitarist in a band playing the D.C. club circuit. Then I took classes at the Corcoran School of the Arts, played at night, and a few years later got into books. We had a lot in common. Was it us, or the world?
RICHARD PRINCE — Vanishing Point. 1970 Dodge Challenger. Bullit. ’68 Mustang and ’68 Dodge Charger. That’s it. Those cars came out when I was teenager. I never owned one when I was a teenager. Too expensive. Anyway. When I started to focus on the contents of lifestyle magazines, hot-rod magazines were all over the newsstands. I noticed in the back of these magazines ads for car parts. You could order replacement parts. You could order a fiberglass hood for a 1970 Dodge Challenger. Bingo! Mail order. Paint the paint. It was another run-in. One thing leads to another. In 1987, I wanted to paint, but what? That ”what” turned out to be something that’s already painted. I started mailing away for goods to a company in California. They arrived in a big cardboard box. I remember painting a fiberglass Charger hood first. All white. I must have put nine coats of white on that thing. I mounted the hood to a frame and hung it on the wall. It was pretty flat. Monochromatic. No one got it. Zero attention. I don’t think people even knew what they were looking at. Same thing happened back in ’83 when I showed my cowboy photographs. No interest. The hoods bombed. But I kept ordering and painting them. Zipped, striped, numbered, metal flake. I used crazy car colors. Commotion Orange. Plum Purple. It was non-fiction painting.
JEFF RIAN — I often wondered about the cowboys. Was it about television? Marlboro wanted to get men to smoke filter tips. Men didn’t smoke filter tips. Was it a Brokeback Mountain kind of image? Was it a behavior as much as an image? My cowboy nephew raises cattle and looks and acts exactly like the actors from that gay cowboy film. Cowboys are like America’s Three Musketeers — fey and macho all at the same time. Cowboys are like priests. What’s that all about?
RICHARD PRINCE — I think I showed them in ’83. Not one sold. I used a really cheap commercial lab in New York to print them and made editions of two. That was very specific. Editions of two. Intentional. No one had made a photograph in an edition of two before. It was almost unique but not quite. There was still the photograph’s ability to be a multiple in the decision. And it turned the photograph more into an object. Anyway. The edition was “limited.” It was all about what a photograph could naturally do. I think I made a list. “The 8-Track Photograph.” The list is out there somewhere. There was no one writing about this stuff. So I did. I also published a novel in 1983, Why I Go to the Movies Alone. That book is what I thought about photography. What did I say? My way to make it new is to make it again?
The 8-Track Photograph 1977-78 West 11th St. NYC
1. original copy
2. re-photographed copy
3. angled copy
4. cropped copy
5. focused copy
6. out-of-focused copy
7. black and white copy
8. color copy
Each track (or reproduction) is a program. Each program is a code. These codes can be produced with commercially available materials from commercially available sources. The display of any program or combination of programs can be selected quickly because of availability. This availability always exists due to each program’s independence from other programs. It is never a question of addition or subtraction, since each track is an independent component to the program. The primary advantage is that the components of the picture exist on bankable tracks. Whatever state the picture finally exists in, the states that helped to make the photograph exist continue to exist until called for again.
JEFF RIAN — Your book, Why I Go to the Movies Alone… the language, the use of third-person singular for first-person singular, was a way to throw your voice. It was different from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (there’s a mint copy of that book inscribed to me somewhere in the world, sold for another failed relationship)… You had the voice of a person who lived a double life, who spoke of a mind infected by being inside and outside of a picture. That seemed to be the new aesthetic from the first Television Age. It was physical and visual. It seemed to have to do with living inside of moving pictures and trying to make life like that. Your work did that somehow. I remember going to your studio — and every time I went, it was like that, like being in two worlds at once. Does that make sense? Is that how you felt?
RICHARD PRINCE — Yes. What was real. What was really real. What was very real. We were all lied to. Our entire life. Truth or Consequences. Who Do You Trust? The $64,000 Question. Let’s make it $64 million now. That was our condition. That’s what we were supposed to figure out. To tell the truth was our issue. But how to tell it? Remember how we felt? No future. And why should we care? We owned half a stereo. I remember moving in with a girlfriend on Second Ave. and 22nd Street in 1984, 11th floor. She had a real job. A real income. She had real furniture. In the building on the ground floor, the first video rental store had just opened. I was their first customer. You had to buy a membership. I was in a club. This was my club. The convenience was spectacular. An opening every night. I spent a year on this girl’s couch watching movies. I guess you could say I was suspended. I don’t know how else to describe it. I really did go to the movies alone.
JEFF RIAN — Even way back, your studio always excited me, like going into a rock concert just when the guitar tech cranked up a Marshall amp. The noise, the energy, the emotion, the sound — that, too, was about cars, just in another way, in a more private way. It’s a feeling. It’s erotic, You have a way to make very erotic work about stuff everybody knew about — which of course is what art is always about: things people know about but get a hard-on from in a very different way.
RICHARD PRINCE — It’s like that joke I painted: “I love pussy so much, if it was air-conditioned I’d live in it.” I don’t know if the painting is sexy or the joke is sexy. It’s hard to be sensual when what you’re trying to do is figure out formalism. Is spilling your guts sexy? The art world can be obnoxiously uptight. So many rules. Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures is everything. And everything in “creatures” is sex. Man Ray’s portraits of Meret Oppenheim? Sex. Stieglitz portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe. The list is endless. I just saw the Marsden Hartley show at the Met Breuer, and the form, function, execution, and subject really turned me on.
JEFF RIAN — R. Crumb and Tom of Finland get hard by their own work. I’ve always been eroticized by a certain kind of art. I felt that whenever I visited your studio. This is the absolute truth, and it’s why I had Hubert Winter invite you to be in Wien Fluss. 1986., where we talked more and made an interview, which was my first publication. We walked around Vienna at night, fully eroticized, going to the only nightclubs they had: strip clubs.
RICHARD PRINCE — I think about sex all the time when I’m making art. I have no idea if any of the thinking gets in. But sex is an ingredient. Part of the recipe. Nourishing. Satisfaction. If someone said to me that one of my works made them come, I think I’d take that as a yes.
JEFF RIAN — Your work reminds me of Duchamp’s version of eros — sensory attraction. How do you feel when you make it? I don’t mean it’s erotic because there are girls and tits in your pictures. I mean something else, something about attraction other than the purely sexual, lusting for the ol’ in-out.
RICHARD PRINCE — I think my New Portraits … the Instagram portraits are sexual. I mean, they’re a lot of things. They’re complicated portraits. I could talk all day about the theoretical issues that they imply. The system. The delivery. And the “who do you think you are”… It’s all brand-new. But at the end of the day, what I imagine them to be is what I imagine they are. Sometimes I just want to eat them.
JEFF RIAN — Our mutual friend Dike Blair had made a video of the house upstate that you turned into an artwork, painted silver, the walls very nicely unfinished, sculptures everywhere, and a car in the yard. Then the house was hit by lightning and disappeared. Outside was a muscle car. By now, too, the cars and sculptures are the size of a Bernini fountain, without the fountain. They are the vehicles of current transcendence — cars are a home’s anti-home, an escape pod, the place most of us learned about sex. How do you get them made? What do they feel like to you?
RICHARD PRINCE — It’s strange, because I’m just now putting out a zine called 20 Cars. These are cars I’ve realized over the years. I’ve made or built at least that many. I have my own body shop. I think the shop was just an excuse to hang a cheesy calendar with girls in bikinis. It took a while, but I realized cars don’t need pedestals. That’s a huge advantage when you’re making sculpture. I’d been working for 10 years on a ’68 Super Sport Camaro. Struggling. It was held up off the ground with chains. I would put it away. Bring it back. I tried a holding-in-place contraption. I finally decided just to refit it with axles, grease, custom rims, and Goodyear tires. All it needed was some sense. My car sculptures are my favorite cars. There’s so much subtext in them. So many references. Cars have been part of my landscape since I was a young boy. They’re like a soundtrack. A tape mix. But when they’re finished, they don’t start. They don’t move. It’s like they’re in neutral. Maybe the most important thing about my cars is that I don’t start out thinking about them as art. Want to make art? Don’t.
JEFF RIAN — Having kids has turned me into a big SpongeBob fan. Many parents are, I would imagine. I’ve seen many great and creative kids’ films, like Kung Fu Panda, which I loved, and spent hours watching shows like Teletubbies and Blue’s Clues. Last year, visiting you, I saw an array of Hippie Drawings, all framed up and looking scrumptious, the colors of candy and fruit, nearly edible in sensuality. You said you made them with your kids. They looked like futuristic Picassos, dreamed up via comics and light-through screens, which stare back at us and at our kids at home. Where did those drawings come from? Why do they look so good?
RICHARD PRINCE — Hippie Drawings. It started with the title. It always does. I think I made the first ones around 1998. I was drawing with my kids. I found an old photograph when I looked like a hippie. But I never was a hippie. ButI started making these drawings as if I was, or that someone was, a hippie. I thought I could get away with it. What could I get away with? As long as I said they were hippie drawings, then I could get way with making them. My kids drew like all kids. Scrawls. Sticks. Mark-making. Crayons. Lots of colors. Scribbles. Unaffected. They didn’t care. It’s hard to get to that place where you just don’t care.
JEFF RIAN — Someone like Picasso, a truly great artist, seemed to change his style with each wife. He basically painted women. Warhol painted images. Rauschenberg recycled images and anything he could find and mashed things together — including using the silkscreen process (as did Warhol and you) — into a kind of poetic project that turned trash into flowers; he made us see beauty in detritus. You looked at the world through a couple of different lenses: as a collector (of books and art) and as a kind of commentator about the things people do to amuse and seduce themselves. My feeling is that you survey the world and look for things that have not yet been co-opted by, for, or in art — things that are still available for reinterpretation. One obvious example is the jokes. No one had made art out of jokes. Cartoons like Lichtenstein’s and Warhol’s were not jokes; they were images. Jokes are verbal. You also seem to hide behind a kind of irony, meaning there’s something else going on. That something else, it seems to me, was the gathering storm that became your multiplex, multifaceted, multidirectional art. I’m not sure Picasso thought so much about why exactly he did what he did. The same could be said for Warhol and Rauschenberg. They did what was in them to do. Some artists have an ax to grind, which is often political, and often not very good art. Dylan complained when he was described as a “topical” songwriter and didn’t consider himself one. But your changes over the years — the gathering storm that is your art — grew in form and content. They are not at all topical, but about life and experience. Are you in life or outside it? Do you want to escape life by being an artist?
RICHARD PRINCE — That’s a big question. Escape? Find? Contribute. Extend. Be part of. Collapse. To talk to artists who are not here. But have left behind. I like to be alone. I like to make art alone. Solitary. It suits me. I can spend all day painting with no one around and no reason to spend all day painting with no one around. There’s no mystery for me when it comes to making art. Second nature? Maybe. There’s definitely something spiritual about it. I went to the Picasso Museum in Paris about two months ago. I’ve been several times over the years. They were showing paintings and drawings of Olga. I was floored. I’m reduced to tears. I know that sounds corny. But look at Picasso’s line. His drawing. I know what he’s doing. Maybe it’s as simple as that. I know. And it’s the knowing, the connection, that makes me feel good. There’s very little that makes me feel that good. I know that he knows. I know that he knew that Cézanne knew. I know that Cézanne knew that El Greco knew. So I guess it isn’t about escaping. It’s about feeling, passion, excitement. It’s where I belong. And I don’t need anything or anybody else to help. As long as I can look at a portrait of Olga, I’m all right.
JEFF RIAN — Vito Acconci and Glenn O’Brien died this past spring. Part of our lives went, too.
RICHARD PRINCE — Lost a real one when Glenn O’Brien checked out. He was so much part of the fabric of downtown. Downtown doesn’t exist anymore. I remember I used to call downtown “even Lower Manhattan.” Doing art for the fun of it is the hardest thing I’ve been trying to do lately. Almost impossible. But I’m trying.
JEFF RIAN — Are you back to being freelance?
RICHARD PRINCE — The art world is different from when I first came to New York. But it’s always been different. And will continue to change. There’s more of everything. But there’s still only a small amount of the good stuff. There’re always 10 things going on at the same time. Biennials. Art fairs. Museum shows. Auctions. New neighborhoods with storefront galleries. Opening and closing. Pop-ups. Rent a room and send out an email. And then there’s the Internet. The social media. Twitter and Instagram are places where an artist can do his or her thing — anything — without asking permission. Anytime. Anyplace. Under any circumstance. And we’re always looking back. And what we’re looking back at is better than what you’re supposed to look at now. Give art a chance. I like art that ends up being part of the culture, whether it’s painting, music, or writing.
JEFF RIAN — Do you feel freer now to do what you want?
RICHARD PRINCE — I wish I had some words of wisdom. But I don’t. It’s not like you can make a piece of art, and it suddenly makes someone bound to a wheelchair get up and walk. Art’s not a miracle. Art’s not a religion. Art’s not a government or a philosophy. It’s not a theory or equation. It’s a way to be subjective. Judges. Umpires. Critics. Agreement is a powerful emotion. But the chances of getting a bunch of people to be on the same page about Christopher Wool or Cindy Sherman or Robert Gober or Sally Mann or Ellen Gallagher or Robert Mapplethorpe? That’s not going to happen so easily. In the end, for most artists … art is a cop-out. I recently said on Twitter I don’t have a gallery, but Instagram is a pretty good place to show. I’m still thinking that one over. Probably by the time this interview is published, I’ll retreat, regroup, rewind, replace, recant, rewrite, remix. Right now I’m listening to Van Morrison and ELO. Yeah, I know. It makes no sense. I’ve watched Straight Outta Compton five times. So there’s a balance there.
JEFF RIAN — Is there a primary theme or corpus that defines your work?
RICHARD PRINCE — Something that’s never been done. Something that’s never been won. I didn’t say that. But I wrote it down.
JEFF RIAN — What do you want to happen to your collection?
RICHARD PRINCE — Maybe I can leave it all on Instagram.
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