ISSUES OF THE DIGITAL DIVIDE AND E-WASTE IN THE ARTWORK OF IKE FRANCIS
Affiliation: School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave. Chicago, IL United States 60603; email@example.com
Keywords: Ike Francis, Nigeria, art history, Netizen, e-waste, hypermobility, materiality, infrastructure, new media, mixed-media, urban planning, circuitry, ethics, technological literacy, multistable perception, informal networks.
Abstract: In the mixed media works of Ike Fancis, images of portraiture and landscape are conjoined through found circuit boards and other electronic equipment. These works comment on the gap between technological literacy and the materiality of e-waste. Ethically speaking, a synthesis between these two issues is needed; however, Francis’s work suggests that this process may be impossible.
The work of artist Ike Francis reminds us that the hypermobility engendered by the internet is only possible through the material circumstances of the local. In mixed-media works such as Netizens 2.0 (2008) and 8 Faces and a Village Square (2003), he combines found circuit boards, transistors, and other electronic equipment with paint, wire and fabric to form images that make reference to the urban grid and portraiture simultaneously as circuit boards stand in for both anthropomorphic features and an aerially-viewed lattice-work of the urban grid. These cyborg “citizens of the net” are made out of laid-bare materials of computing, reminding us that internet access is only possible through the physical mechanics of circuit boards, telephone wires and consistent electricity. In a country where all of these elements functioning in harmony are hard to come by, an infrastructure that supports internet use cannot be taken for granted. Furthermore, Francis’ use of salvaged motherboards and computer circuitry raises questions about the ethical imperatives involved in the disposal of hazardous waste that is produced by such a community. E-waste from the developed world is increasingly being shipped to developing countries like Nigeria, where it causes untold amounts of health and ecological problems. An understanding of Francis’s work necessitates an understanding of these problems outside the confines of art history and criticism, involving environmental, urban, and economic studies. Through detailed analysis of these conditions that inform his work, we can better bridge the gap between the transnational fluidity of the internet and its often problematic material circumstances.
Ike Francis was born in 1970 in Lagos Nigeria. He graduated with a B.A. in sculpture from Port Harcourt in 1995 and an M.F.A. in painting from the University of Nigeria at Nsukka. He currently teaches mixed media and painting at the University of Port Harcourt. Given his background in both painting and sculpture, he claims to work somewhere between the two forms as a mixed media artist (Francis, 2008a). His training at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka is crucial to his development as an artist, not only for the technical training he received there, but also for the specific style that the University advocates for its artists, known as “Natural Synthesis.”
As a cohesive school of art, it developed out of the curriculum of artist Uche Okeke. Beginning in the 1950s, Okeke, in his associations with the Zaria Art Society and Mbari Arts Club, developed a distinctive style of abstract painterly art that often made reference to classical uli and nsibidi markings as well as other aspects of pre-contact Nigerian art. Uli markings are pictographic markings, often used as decorative embellishments, which are made with pigment from an uli plant. They are drawn by women in Igbo villages, either on these women’s bodies or on the walls of houses. By adopting the uli principles of improvisation, the plays of positive and negative space, and the forms of uli and nsibidi in his abstract paintings, he developed a style that merged Western painting with this traditional Igbo practice to form the principles of Natural Synthesis (Ottenberg, 2001, pp. 17-85).
While Francis’s work is in keeping with the notion of Natural Synthesis as espoused by Okeke, it is perhaps more directly related to the work of another faculty member at the University, artist El Anatsui, who makes elaborate wall hangings out of discarded materials. As an educator, he certainly passed on aspects of his own work to his students; however, he denies the kind of totalizing approach that Okeke took towards arts education, stating that while he does encourage his students to use materials found in their everyday environment, similarities between the works may best be explained by the general spirit of sankofa—literally “go back and pick” (Ottenberg, 2001, p. 159) in Twi, but used by Anatsui to refer to “reclamation”(Anatsui, 2009)–that characterizes the post-independence movement.
For Anatsui, the objects he uses often represent broken and fragmented parts of history, reclaimed by the artist to rebuild after the troubled period just after independence. Discarded materials therefore have political and social resonances as they are indicators of a shared, yet troubled memory in need of healing. This process of sankofa then is more than just going back and picking up, it has an active component of reclamation which is necessary for rebuilding a fractured society. He uses it to apply to a general spirit that pervades in postcolonial Africa as nations attempt to rebuild out of the fragmented scraps left after colonization (Anatsui, 1993, pp. 39-52).
In terms of content, Francis’s works comment on consumption and waste, just as Anatsui did so out of a desire for reclamation of heritage and memory in the wake of the postcolonial period in Africa (Binder, 2008, pp. 24-37). Francis acknowledges the influence of Anatsui on his own work (234Next.com, 2009) which is evident in his cross-disciplinary approach, as well as in these thematic concerns. However, he expands on these themes to include globalized networks of exchange that have developed in the aftermath of the postcolonial period. Discussing his process, Francis writes:
I stroll the streets of Nigeria scrounging, scavenging digging, picking or collecting used and refused items from sites of their last abode. Circuit Boards, CD Plates, Diskettes, Empty cans, Old newspaper/Magazine prints, Ropes, Fabrics, Condensers, Wood stumps, Copper wires […] journey their way from these dumps to my studio where they play in concert with factory made art materials to assume new life. When recharged they beat their supposed transience and can outlive its creator (the artist). My strolling the streets also take me to cyber cafes where youths and adults throng to browse the streets of far away continents through a mouse click […] (Francis, 2008a).
These two situations, web browsing in the internet café and the scavenging artist searching for inspiration, are conjoined by Francis as part of a similar process of collecting and information gathering. Furthermore, the ephemeral and transitory act of “mouse clicking” is here linked with an insistent materiality that comes from his combination of discarded technology with older, more traditional forms of art-making.
As such, his works can also be thought of as a operating by the process of combination or synthesis. This is not the “Natural Synthesis” (though he is perhaps inspired by this concept) as espoused by Uche Okeke, but rather one of the individual with his or her environment. His series of works, titled 8 Faces and a Village Square (Figs. 1-4), is particularly indicative of this process. Here, the grid-like patterns created by circuit boards allude to an aerial view of the urban landscape. However, these forms resolve themselves into portraiture, created through an expressionistic application of paint. They are not merely expressions of either the urban space or the individual, rather they are both, indicating a mutually dependant relationship between individual and urban environment.
In some respects, these works function as a multistable perception phenomenon, which occurs when an image has two or more subjective interpretations, with each contradicting or canceling the possibilities of the other. In this case, it occurs in Francis’s work where the urban grid is only visible if one ignores the portrait and the portrait is only visible after ignoring the grid. I am not interested in this image in terms of its role as illusion as such, but for its properties as two images in one, and especially in the difficulties of seeing both forms simultaneously. To see either requires a shift in orientation on the part of the viewer.
This shift in orientation and the impossibility of seeing both images at the same time is apparent thematically in Francis’s work as well. The juxtaposition between the materiality of the circuit boards with the flattened image rendered in paint call into question the binary opposition between image and material, hardware and software, rootedness and transience. The image of the portrait (functioning like an image on a screen) cannot be seen at the same time as the material of circuitry that comprises the image (functioning as the hardware of the computer.) While image and material are combined in his works, they are separated by the gulf required in shifting orientations that prevents one from realizing both at the same time.
The problems inherent in the divorce between material and image are further intensified by the necessities of location, in regards to the local, and what Saskia Sassen describes as the “hypermobile” (2007). She elaborates on this problem further using the example of real estate. Whereas real estate is traded globally over the internet, its existence as hypermobile commodity depends on its physical location. However, it is difficult to conceptualize this difference, as we are used to the liquid remaining distinct from the solid—from the materially rooted. It is inherent in the very structure of internet communication. While on the one hand, the internet embodies an archive of knowledge and images accessible to anyone at any point with no fixed location; it is also completely dependent on the infrastructure required for its very existence. By focusing on the material interworking of the computers that play host to the internet, material that is often invisible to us encased in the plastic shell that surrounds the computer, Francis reminds us of its importance.
This infrastructure is taken for granted in developing countries where computer literacy is high and where telecommunications run smoothly. However, in countries such as Nigeria, there are many material obstacles that stand in the way of access, leading to what is often referred to as, “the digital divide” between those with access to the internet and those without (MacBride, 2008, p. 76). While there are now somewhere between 11 and 40 legitimate Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Nigeria, this figure pales in comparison to the well-over 7,000 ISPs estimated to exist in the United States. Granted, only about ten of these 7,000 control 90% of the market, however, the sheer number indicates the structural support for a large amount of providers (Silvius, 2009).
The vast majority of the costs of internet service (over 80 %) do not come from investments in the super technologies on the cutting edge of development; rather, they come from the infrastructural costs of building and maintaining cable and phone lines on a reliable network of roads and tunnels that carry these lines (Graham, 2002, p. 81). Service to Africa has greatly improved in the past few years thanks to an enormous circuit of cable laid by AT&T in 2005 that surrounds the continent, providing service to coastal cities at a cost (Graham, 2002, p. 88). Of course, this network still leaves out interior communities that must rely on connections to these port cities which are often mediated through unreliable infrastructural supports.
These structural problems are further exacerbated by political and social ones which plague many African countries thereby inhibiting technological growth. In Nigeria, as in many other African countries, telecommunications and power services are provided by government run companies which are often poorly mismanaged and rife with corruption, preventing any kind of well-established communications infrastructure (McCormick, 2002, p. 140). Some argue for an increasingly liberalized policy on telecommunications companies that, through competition, would work to provide better access to local communities. However, others argue that such a policy would lead to new forms of “neo-colonization” as larger multi-national companies with little concern for the needs of local populations would monopolize the industry, causing internet access to be just as unaffordable and unattainable for the majority of Africans as it is now (McCormick, 2002, pp. 141-142).
It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Francis’s work can be read as advocating a greater awareness of the materiality required for internet connections given much of Africa’s troubled history with materials and resources. Under colonialism, Africa was viewed as a conduit for raw material goods, unable to produce the kinds of manufacturing technologies available in Europe. Arguably, this perception has not changed, as James Ferguson notes, “the latest round of worldwide capitalist restructuring, with its frenzied construction of ‘the global economy,’ has left little or no place for Africa outside of its old colonial role as provider of raw materials” (Ferguson, 2006, p. 8). The disparity between the access to technology and an infrastructure that is unable to support it has led to a tension between the possibility for instantaneous global communication and its material reality, which is hampered by the issue of speed as Brian Larkin notes “poor material infrastructure of Nigeria ensures that as the speed of Nigerian life increases, so too does the gap between actual and potential acceleration, between what technologies can do and what they do do. Thus, even as life speeds up, the experience of technological marginalization intensifies, and the gap between how fast society is moving and how fast it could move becomes a site of considerable political tension” (Larkin, 2004, p. 305).
In a series of works similar to 8 Faces and a Village Square, titled Emergent Netizens (Figs. 5-8), Francis elaborates on issues raised in the earlier series. Once again, portraiture, circuit boards, and topographical views of the urban environment are combined. By titling these works “Netizens,” the work alludes to the writing of Michael Hauben, who first coined the term in 1992 to refer to an internet user who feels the same responsibility towards one’s online community as one would towards a physical community (Hauben and Hauben). As such, the term “netizen” carries an ethical connotation that was not necessarily present in the earlier series. Ethics are important for Francis, as he writes:
Our virtual experience being a transgression of time, speed and space is bound to be infected with those systemic viruses which threatened the former order, and in these concatenation of ideas; virtual crimes, dangerous appropriation of other cultures, imbalances in modes of participation to the global village and altering of ‘self’ is bound to spread with unprecedented speed (Francis, 2008b).
Francis’s unease with the “altered self” is made manifest in these works in the imbrications of the human with the machine and with the personal and public spheres combined. Francis’s use of chicken wire (Figs. 6 and 7) in this series creates barriers to the portraits reminiscent of cages or prisons perhaps indicating that the freeing possibilities of global communication are perhaps not as free as they might appear. The merging of private and public space that is made possible by the internet through blogs and other social networking sites poses ethical questions for Francis as it certainly did for Hauber in the early days of the developing internet.
Ethics is not just part of Francis’s thinking; it is also part of Anatsui’s discourse on sankofa and reclamation as he states:
All of Africa is undergoing a period of turmoil. […] It is to this predicament that my attempt in my works to use decadence and destruction as elements of creation and reconstruction addresses a message. I hasten however to reiterate that regeneration and growth are not automatically consequent on break-down. Conscious effort, and intact chambers of memory to provide that grog of experience which strengthens the new form, are requisites (Anatsui, 1993, p. 39).
Here, Anatsui’s “message” becomes an ethical one as he stresses that renewal through sankofa is only possible through “conscious effort.” A particularly prescient aspect of ethics that the “Netizens” series addresses, which is perhaps more pressing for third world countries like Nigeria, stems from the means by which Francis acquires his material. Transistors, circuit boards, wires and whatever other raw materials that goes into his work are all salvaged from trash heaps. By actively seeking out these materials, he is calling attention to their source, thereby raising the issue of e-waste, a term that refers to any potentially hazardous electronic waste.
Indeed, e-waste is a major problem in Nigeria, but how does it reach the country given the sparseness of technology there?—the answer lies in exportation. Companies in the developed world who need to dispose of their electronic waste often look to the developing world where dumping and pollution laws are not as stringent. They sell the waste to traders within these countries at a fraction of the cost it would take to break down the waste and recycle it (Schmidt, 2006, p. A234). These local entrepreneurs are willing to buy the waste because the people who sell it also sell a few serviceable electronics along with the waste that these merchants are able to sell at higher retail values to the local population. However, they must take the useable with the unusable, which is estimated to be about 75% of all the goods sold. Furthermore, an estimated 45% of all computers to enter the Nigerian market are second-hand computers sold as a result of these transactions (Schmidt, 2006, p. A235). It is also estimated that approximately 500 tons of e-waste enters ports in Nigeria daily (Carney, 2006).
Besides the damage it does to the environment, this waste is harmful to people. It invariably leaks into the water table, contaminating local water supplies. When piles of this trash become too unmanageable, the waste is often burned, releasing these toxins into the air where they can cause further health risks to those living nearby. While there are informal industries that employ needy people to recycle these materials—there is no shortage of labor here either, given that large Nigerian cities such as Lagos are overcrowded with a limited number of legitimate jobs to go around (workers can make around $2 a day performing such activities)—they are unable to maintain proper health code standards and as such, workers often recycle e-waste at the expense of severe health risks (Carney, 2006).
Given the extreme dangers to health and life that the e-waste trade causes, how has it continued to flourish unchecked? First, e-waste is not subject to the same kind of international tariffs and regulations as other hazardous waste, nor does it fall under the restrictions placed on new electronics. E-waste enters into these countries as regular waste, and therefore, it is very difficult to trace its source. However, research has shown that the majority of e-waste entering Nigeria comes directly from the United States and countries in the European Union (See Fig. 9).
It must be emphasized that trade in e-waste is a black market activity, governed by informal networks, rather than by visible governmental regulations. In “Cities as Frontier Zones: Making Informal Politics,” Saskia Sassen is optimistic about the possibilities of informal networks for working against corrupt governmental systems, providing services that nations cannot or will not offer (2007). Brian Larkin discusses these networks as they relate to Nigeria using the term “piracy infrastructure,” which includes industries such as pirated videos, so-called “419” internet scams, and which can be expanded to include e-waste. This form of infrastructure has nearly replaced all other forms of infrastructure in Nigeria, and for Larkin, it allows the country to compete on international networks of information sharing that the country would otherwise be restricted from due to a material infrastructure that is prone to frequent collapse (2004, pp. 289-293).
While both Larkin and Sassen discuss these informal networks as providing an infrastructure that was previously lacking, they do not address the ethical implications behind these networks, which do provide vital services, such as second-hand computers, but at a tremendous cost that has nothing to do with economic necessity. Instead, the ethics of globalization that Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses in relation to his definition of “Cosmopolitanism” is more appropriate in considering his works (2006, pp. xi-xxi). While Appiah’s term is problematic in its assertion of a set of values that should be universal, it is useful as a way of considering a framework for assessing the effects of global issues such as e-waste in ways that do not merely provide a pragmatic justification for these practices. Although Appiah’s model does not provide direct solutions to the problems inherent in these global networks, it does provide space for communication, which would indicate the opening up of these networks, rather than relegating them to the margins as “shadow” industries.
These conversations have been started in the form of international e-waste reforms, with the most significant being the Basel Convention, which was drafted by Basel Action Network (an NGO committed to limiting e-waste that is also responsible for collecting much of the data on e-waste) in 1989. Under this accord, countries would be held accountable for dumping e-waste in the developing world, and would instead, through taxes and other measures encourage companies to recycle e-waste rather than selling it. The convention would also place classification restrictions on what can and cannot be termed e-waste, with provisions flexible enough to handle waste produced as a result of heretofore unknown future technologies (Basel Convention, p. 8). Thus far, sixty-five countries have ratified the convention, including Nigeria, the United Kingdom and France. However, the United States, one of the biggest producers of e-waste in the world, has still not ratified the convention. Currently, as long as waste leaving the country is shipped with the intent to recycle, it can pass inspection and be shipped anywhere in the world. Since e-waste is technically recycled or reused in countries like Nigeria, it is allowed to be shipped in spite of the health and environmental costs that such recycling and reuse activities entail (Schmidt, 2006, p. A235).
The problems of e-waste are exacerbated by a worldwide culture of obsolescence and an overall lack of technological literacy. In Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, Giles Slade chronicles the history of disposable commodity in the United States, which developed out of marketing strategies designed to ensure a continuous market for products that would need to be replaced every so often after breaking down. Rather than fix the broken products, they were merely disposed of and replaced. This strategy has gone so far as to produce a culture that replaces products faster than they break out of a persistent validation of the “new and original over what is old, traditional, durable, or used” (2007, p. 265). While advertisers are often blamed for the creation of such a culture, Colin Campbell takes a much more nuanced position, arguing that consumer behavior is just as much to blame for our obsession with the new and that manufacturers are in some ways responding to a need (as quoted in Slade, 2007, p. 267). Whatever the root cause of throwaway culture, it has shifted from being a peculiar American trait to being a worldwide phenomenon, at least, in the developed world (Slade, 2007, 267). Of course, one of the downsides of all this rapid consumption is massive amounts of e-waste that it generates as consumers throw away perfectly useable phones, computers, mp3 players, televisions and other devices in favor of new, more “cutting edge” devices. By reminding us of the ethical imperative that we have to maintain our virtual community as citizens of the net, Francis reminds us of our responsibility to our physical environment as well. His works force us to reconsider our fixation with obsolescence in light of the destruction it causes.
This is not to say that no work has been done to improve the knowledge base on e-waste and its effects. The national Committee on Technological Literacy—which states in its mandate that “Americans are poorly equipped to recognize, let alone ponder or address, the challenges technology poses,”(Slade, 2007, p. 280)—has begun to implement changes to the K-12 curriculum in the hopes of facilitating a more technologically aware population (Slade, 2007, p. 280). However, the problems that e-waste poses are perhaps too large and too immediate to wait the generational period that is needed to produce such a literate group. This education can come elsewhere as well, and the informative power of art is perhaps one avenue for it.
Indeed, Francis’s work addresses the issue of literacy in relation to technology. In a work from his “Netizen” series (fig. 8), circuit boards are placed alongside pictographic markings arranged in a grid that allude to uli and nsibidi script. Markings of this kind were prescribed by Uche Okeke and others at the University of Nigeria Nsukka as a way of defining a specific style that would move towards a unified identity of contemporary Nigerian art as part of Okeke’s program of Natural Synthesis, which I touched upon earlier. While Francis is alluding to this philosophy of art making which would have been an integral part of his training, his work is more than an assertion of artistic solidarity or national identity. The importance of uli for Francis’s work is in its connections to written language, and more specifically, written language that is no longer understood. While there are still some practitioners of these techniques, they are increasingly dwindling as Nigeria modernizes, and the language is now mostly known to scholars (Ottenberg, 1997, pp. 1-17).
By situating these markings side-by-side with the found circuit boards, the work sets up an analogy between the two forms. The circuitry still contains information encoded within it that is no longer accessible to anyone, just as these languages which are only partially understood have lost much of their ability to convey information. The work also speaks to a language barrier between cultures, whether past and present, West and South, or rural and urban. This is not a matter of literal language translation, but of cross-cultural translation and the barriers that are erected as a result.
While the process involved in seeing both portrait and grid is not as present here, the process of changing orientations is. One must change orientations to “read” either section, even if that reading is frustrated or impossible. A shift in orientation is necessary for bridging the gap in technological literacy in both the United States and Nigeria—for those in the U.S. this means tempering our drive for new technologies with an understanding of the material implications of e-waste, whereas, for Nigerians, many of whom have firsthand experience with the threat that this waste poses, a need for better telecommunications infrastructure is necessary to profit from technology use rather than suffer from it. It is an ethical imperative that stems from sankofa and the responsibility of the “netizen.” Acting on this imperative necessitates an understanding of the relationship between image and material, as well as between the local and the hypermobile. In both cases, it involves combining an understanding of what is on the computer screen with the material that is behind it, and it is this process which Ike Francis calls our attention to in his works. However, this understanding is tempered by the problems inherent in technological illiteracy and invisibility, whether through the problems of cross cultural translation or their marginalization through their location within informal “shadow” networks.
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Figures. 1-4: Ike Francis, “8 Faces and a Village Square,” 2003. Mixed Media. Images taken by I Francis
Figures 5-8: Ike Francis, “Emergent Netizens.” 2008. Mixed Media. Images taken by I Francis.
Figure 9: “Known and Suspected Routes of e-waste Dumping.” Source: < http://www.pcij.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/e-waste-dumping-routes-large.jpg>.