news release: July 2002

500 Pounds of Common Earth 1 Metre Cubed, Transylvania to Los Angeles
by Roman Vasseur

First exhibited at the Austrian Cultural Forum London in Summer 2000 has now reached it's 'final' destination. It's westward wandering has taken it to London via Hungary, Austria and Germany, Dublin (Project, 2001), New York (Art Resources Transfer Inc., 2002) and Los Angeles (Raid Projects, 2002). 'The Artist' reports:

After entering the Unites States at New York, 'The Consignment' existed briefly in the city as an 'art exhibit' at the gallery of Art Resources Transfer Inc. 'The Consignment' has now arrived in Los Angeles where a reception was held at Raid Projects Gallery on the evening of Saturday 3 August to mark its arrival there. California is designated as the final destination of 'The Consignment'.

In California, meetings were held between 'The Artist' and representatives of the Centre for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) based in Los Angeles concerning the Centre's offer of a storage facility located in the Californian Desert at 35¡ N, 117¡40' W, near Edwards Airforce Base. The site has been visited and assessed and a decision made in conjunction with CLUI to go ahead and deposit the crate in the high desert at this secure facility. Shipment will be made on 9 September. 2002 Equipment will be installed at the desert storage facility to enable constant online surveillance via the project website.

New essays by Nicola Cotton (Beyond Cratehood) and Tom McCarthy (Shipping the Disaster Home) are are available online from Vargas Organisation. A publisher is being sought in Los Angeles to produce the final and complete document of 'The Work'.

Los Angeles Times wrote, 'Vasseur makes an enduring impression, and his work sends broad messages that art is but a box we fill with our own projections. It's a story that we choose either to believe or reject, and a smuggling act that calls for subversion, subtlety and surprise.'

Artist Roman Vasseur's project entitled 500 Pounds of Common Earth, Transylvania to Los Angeles, orginated in May 2000 in the Borgo Pass in the country of Romania. It has wended its westward journey by road and rail, sea and air via Vienna to London where it was exhibited at the Austrian Cultural Forum (June 2000), thence to Dublin where it was exhibited at Project Arts Center (September 2001). Very careful preparations were made for its importation to the United States in view of official concerns about phytosanitary protection. However, the artist has stated that his aim is to "avoid any reference to myths or fictions commonly associated with its place of origin." After its brief sojourn in New York City (until July 25th), the consignment continued west to artist-run space Raid Projects in Los Angeles, where it resided until the end of August 2002. The arrival of the Earth in Vienna was greeted with confusion, apparently because the trucker who shipped the crate from Romania, effectively, had smuggled it. It arrived in the Austrian capital as it were, "without papers". Roman Vasseur wrote from Vienna, "The woman at K**** Transport in Vienna is telling me that the problem she is having is that, technically speaking, the consignment does not exist and is therefore an 'illegal immigrant sitting in her warehouse,' because it has not originated in the EU, nor is there any proof that it originated from outside the EU. In her 14 years experience of moving goods from Eastern Europe she has never known a shipment of this size to come across the border without being stopped and inspected." A way was found for the stateless parcel to receive accreditation and for it to continue by air via Munich to London where it was given refuge at the Austrian Cultural Forum. David Burrows, reviewing in Art Monthly, wrote that Vasseur's 500 Pounds of Common Earth "might have passed as an innocent piece of post-minimalist sculpture or a homage to Walter de Maria. Exhibiting a work that comments on immigration and the European Union risks didacticism but Vasseur avoids this by allowing the narratives that the box accumulates on its travels to suggest complex allegories."

Roman Vasseur
‘Beyond Cratehood
‘Shipping the Disaster Home
‘The Vampire
500 Pounds of Common Earth
news release: ... Transylvanian Earth to New York, 2002
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Beyond cratehood
by Nicola Cotton

There is something fascinating about an object which does not exist in quite the normal way. From the moment its travels began, 'The Consignment' has not been seen as itself—as a crate of earth one meter cubed —but as something either more than or less than it actually is. On leaving Romania via Hungary, it escaped inspection by customs and so did not receive a certificate of origin. Consequently on arrival in Vienna, it was deemed to be an illegal immigrant (more than it is), but also, technically speaking, to be non-existent (less than it is). From the outset, then, 'The Consignment' is both inadequate and overdetermined. On the one hand, it can be seen as a failed object—one that does not even accede to the modest demands of cratehood. On the other hand, it appears as something infinitely more than a mere crate. Its failure is offset by a kind of excessive 'success'. This makes of 'The Consignment' a paradoxical object which achieves success precisely by being a failure, or to put it another way, by being an object which through its deficiency leads to excess.

I will explain in a moment in more detail what I mean by this, but before doing so, it is important to establish two fundamental points. First, the argument put forward so far concerns 'The Consignment' as it exists in the field of representation. Indeed, it is based on the notion that 'The Consignment' is the starting point for an artwork which is all about the nature of representation; that is, about the way we construct meanings around objects which, in themselves, mean nothing at all. The inverted commas used in this text and by the artist (or rather 'The Artist') when discussing 'The Consignment' provide evidence of this. Neither the term, nor the object to which it refers can be taken literally. Rather, each draws attention to a place where meaning can either proliferate, or collapse altogether.

The second point is that there is a clear distinction to be made between 'The Consignment' (the crate of earth) and 'The Work' (the crate plus the multiple narratives it has generated). The failed object described above refers only to 'The Consignment' in so far as its physical presence is underwhelming, uninteresting and barely worthy of note—to customs officials and gallery visitors alike. There is nothing to look at. But, at the same time, there is everything to think about. This humble (non-)entity possesses a unique capacity to exist beyond itself in a limitless array of verbal and visual forms: for example, a special share issue to fund it, images of the excavation of its contents in Transylvania and subsequent vampire narratives, official documentation to accompany its progress, critical discourse about it. Suddenly an object which confronts us, quite deliberately, with an intellectual and aesthetic dead end becomes the source of an infinite number of engaging interpretative possibilities. In doing so, it establishes a relation between empirical reality (a dull box of dirt) and what is referred to in philosophy as the 'Thing-in-itself' (the transcendent realm of ideas which cannot be represented). In other words, it touches the sublime.

I return here to the idea introduced at the beginning of this essay that 'The Consignment' is a paradoxical object which through its own deficiency leads to excess. In Kantian philosophy, the sublime is characterised by unboundedness, by a sense of the infinite. We can see this too in the way 'The Consignment' sets off endless explanations, descriptions, speculations, theorisations, stories ... But our liking for the sublime, according to Kant, 'is by no means a liking for the object (since that may be formless), but rather a liking for the expansion of the imagination itself' [1]. This is true of 'The Consignment' also: there can be no active preference for a crate of earth—and to this extent it is a rather displeasing object—but its very dullness inspires us to weave narratives around it and this expansion of the imagination to create 'The Work' is pleasing.

As with the Kantian sublime, the pleasure here is negative, since the object that is its cause is disproportionately dull compared with the limitlessness of the ideas which it makes present. This is what is meant by my claim that 'The Consignment' is a paradoxical object which achieves success through failure. As Slavoj Zizek puts it: 'The paradox of the Sublime is as follows: in principle, the gap separating phenomenal, empirical objects of experience from the Thing-in-itself is insurmountable—that is, no empirical object, no representation [É] of it can adequately present [É] the Thing (the suprasensible Idea); but the Sublime is an object in which we can experience this very impossibility, this permanent failure of the representation to reach after the Thing.' [2]

For Kant the sublime, properly speaking, is not attributable to an object, but to the mind and its capacity to attune itself to the suprasensible Idea. There is no doubting the existence of that Idea. Following Hegel, however, Zizek argues against this position. What Kant fails to recognise, he suggests, is that if the feeling of the Sublime occurs when the phenomenal world of representation appears inadequate, the possibility must also exist that there is no Idea—no positive entity, or Thing, or God—beyond phenomenal representation. It may be that phenomenality is all there is. In this case the sublime is no longer a matter of successful failure in which an inadequate object (the crate of earth) points beyond itself towards the Idea (infinite representation), because the object ceases to be inadequate. It becomes entirely positive in that it is a tangible presence that fills the void left by the Idea reduced to the level of pure Nothing, or absolute negativity.

Hegel expresses this possibility by means of a series of 'infinite judgements', or phrases in which the subject and predicate are radically incompatible and incomparable: 'The Spirit is a bone', for example. At this point, the sublime is no longer concerned with boundless phenomena, but rather, to quote Zizek, with 'a miserable 'little piece of the Real'—the Spirit is the inert, dead skull'. [3]

The miserable little piece of the real is a triumphant something in place of nothing. Its very phenomenality acts as a kind of guarantee. In the present context, it might be argued that the crate, too, is a miserable little piece of the Real in the positive sense. Thus my conclusion takes the form of another 'infinite judgement', namely that 'Representation is 500 pounds of Common Earth, 1 metre cubed'.

Nicola Cotton, Department of French, University College London, is a writer and curator working from London and was recently responsible for co-curating the touring group exhibition Nausea: Encounters with Ugliness.


  1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (1790), trans Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), §25, p. 105.
  2. Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), p. 203.
  3. Zizek, p. 207.

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Shipping the Disaster Home
by Tom McCarthy

'Matter,' writes Georges Bataille in La Dépense, is 'the nonlogical difference that represents in relation to the economy of the universe what crime represents in relation to the economy of the law.' What better corroborator could Bataille's claim have than Roman Vasseur's common earth? This is matter in its most nonlogical, its most recidivist state: silent, dirty and recalcitrantly meaningless. A looped video shows Vasseur at the Borgo Pass—an ugly fissure in the Ur-European landscape, scene of catastrophic fires, famine and sieges—directing peasants as they shovel earth onto a truck. They look like not-quite archaeologists, not-quite surveyors, not-quite grave-robbers: illegal and undesignatable at the same time, just like the earth itself, which, through a set of décalages between shippers, border security and customs offices, managed to enter Europe 'proper' (the EU) both as contraband and without status. Meanings—legal, allegorical and aesthetic—have been chasing after it ever since, trying to plant themselves but never taking root in its resistant soil.

Not that sowing meaning into soil is new to Europe. Goethe and Wagner fertilised their earth with Teutonic symbolism; Rilke urged it to arise invisibly within us; Celan, who had seen his parents disappear into the earth-grave in the sky that German culture gifted them ('Dig this earth deeper!', the blue-eyed death-master of Todesfuge tells the Jews), spat it out as tortured words. Beuys connected it to telephones; Kiefer filled books and aeroplanes with it. The earth of Europe is rich to the point of toxicity with associations—and with terror. 'Why,' Stoker's Dracula tells Harker, 'there is hardly a foot of soil in all this region that has not been enriched by the blood of men.'

'Every attempt will be made,' writes Vasseur, 'to avoid direct reference to myths and fictions commonly associated with this region.' What a wonderful stroke of disingenuousness. In its inception, execution and documentation the earth project positively grafts itself onto Dracula, and vice versa. Stoker's epistemological-cum-confessional mode unfolds across the emails Vasseur sends to London and the bureaucratic statements they contain, just as the correspondence between Stoker's solicitors Billington and Carter-Patterson unfolds across the invoices for goods and details of delivery Vasseur meticulously keeps. The shifting ethnic tectonics of Stoker's Mitteleuropa, in which Saxons, Wallachs, Dacians, Magyars, Szekelys, Slovaks, Servians and Carpathians (Andrei Warhola, 'Drella' to his friends, the pale master of death, artifice and self-invention, hails from this last grouping) jostle for position, are replayed as Vasseur's box negotiates its way across a troubled modern zone whose contours are continually realigning - a fleeing migrant bound, like so many before it, for the new, free land, the country history has not yet contaminated: America.

But scratch all that and entertain for one moment this proposition: that the earth never left America, that it was always and already there. Or rather, that it left only to detour en route back to its place of origin. Who put Dracula in Transylvania? Hollywood did—with a little help from an English writer. And what is Transylvania, essentially—this ethnic melting pot, this place of auto-transformation, real estate contracts and death? It is America, or at least a mirror in which America, vampire-like, can look at itself without seeing itself reflected back as itself. Transylvania serves as an index of America's paranoid fear that the very processes that nurture it might be corrosive: fear of immigration, fear of sex, of tainted blood (a fear shared by East Coast socialites and West Coast homosexuals alike), fear of the very land itself: Baudrillard may have told us that the most real thing about America is Hollywood, but the superior minds of Burroughs and de Tocqueville knew that even before Hollywood was soil, and it was evil. Maybe Bush is right: the US is, like Stoker's Bistritz, under siege from evil, enemies without and enemies concealed within. Vasseur's earth, then, bearing down on New York, banking over the harbour as it aims straight for Manhattan, is evil coming home to roost: death in a box, a vehicle, like Stoker's Demeter (which, shunning the designated port, rams Whitby itself), driven by a man who knows he is going to die, who is effectively already dead.

The earth's final destination is Los Angeles. LA is the real Borgo pass: a torrid, smoggy place built on a crack, a faultline, what Mike Davis calls 'an abstraction of dirt and desert signs'. The great architect of its sustainability (undeadness), William Mulholland, is a kind of inverse Dracula: where the engineer brought water to the desert, the Count insulates himself against the multitudinous, free-flowing seas (the waters on which, as Yeats had it, 'common things' are pitched about) by laying earth across the water. Hatred of the masses: isn't all LA a kind of feudal Draculaville? Davis describes its 'fortress' architecture, its division into 'places of terror' and 'fortified cells' from which banked rows of cameras stare out—creating, he might have added, zones of vampire-like invisibility around their occupants. Then again, LA could be read as a mirror of Vasseur's earth, the screen through which it finally reveals itself: a delicate ecosystem (as Davis tells us) full of embedded information in the form of disastrous environmental history, earth in which networked associations are residual in 'a hugely complicated system of feedback loops'. Residents of LA's middle class neighbourhoods are constantly trying to have their own patch of earth designated in the most valuable way, like so many self-serving critics hoping to advance their stock by staking a fashionable patch of Vasseur's project—or like the people who bought shares in it, hoping that its future value as art would return them profit. LA has drawn so many oil prospectors that its surface has more holes drilled into it than anywhere else on earth: so many peep-holes in a coffin's lid, openings through which the black matter beneath the surface breathes and inarticulately gurgles.

This endless speculation, in all senses of the word. That is what Pynchon sees in the Watts Towers: an attempt to generate some profitable meaning out of rubble. Rubble is, of course, the flip side of all architectural projects, just as ruin is the spectre haunting speculation. LA may be a boom town, but it is also a place of abject poverty, of bankruptcy, of riot, fire and flood. If the seismologists are to be believed, though, all LA's legion previous disasters are as nothing compared to the enormous, catastrophic earthquake that is now long overdue. When it comes, warns Davis, loss of life will be incalculably huge; damage costs will run into the trillions. Speculative value, like the city's vampire fortresses, will crash back to earth when the earth really moves. The stray dogs beneath the freeway know this: if the traffic stopped you would hear them howling like the wolves of Borgo. You would also, if you listened, hear the bums and schizos, like a thousand unleashed incarnations of Stoker's lunatic Renfield, muttering as they push their trolleys: 'It is coming—coming—coming!'

Tom McCarthy is a novelist and writer living and working in London. He has written on art and literature for various magazines and publications including the Times Literary Supplement, The Observer and Mute. McCarthy is also instigator and General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS). For further information see:

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The vampire in an age of wars around terror and economic anemia
by Bryan Alexander

The vampire is traditionally a figure of personal violence, both committing acts of transgressive penetration and in eliciting destructive responses. When Jonathan Harker first attacks Dracula, his shovel strikes only a glancing blow off of the vampire's head. The attack fails in most senses, revealing Harker's weak will, and leaving a mark, deferred for later recognition. Some months later, with allies, Harker attacks again, and this time penetrates Dracula's outer layers, causing money, not blood, to gout from the monster's body. Finally, the heroic band cows and slaughters the count's auxiliaries, then stabs the Transylvanian into disintegration.

Yet each of these somatic incursions is overdetermined spatially. When Harker stabs, it is with a Gurkha knife designed, or built, in India, in a clear use of empire as defensive sign. This occurs in London, within Harker's domestic space, representing both the vampire's depth of invasion, and his ejection. Earlier, clobbering the vampire with the shovel occurs in the depths of Dracula's ancient home, deep within a mixture of the Freudian Gothic's basement of id and real estate (Dracula is, after all, an aristocrat, and this is his land). The vampire's spatialisation goes beyond Lefebvre's insistence on the spatial grounding of meaning; the monster's eruption into social space is an ontological move, threatening the space of narrative and norm. It is not a local error, a restricted omission of rules. The vampire is a plague-form, like Shelley's monster, capable of virusing the world. Like the arrival of a radiation-spawned giant insect [1], signalled by the etymological hint of 'monster' as monere, 'to warn', the vampire is a sign that something is terribly, fundamentally wrong with the world.

Let us return to Dracula's shower of gold, struck by Harker's imperial knife. What better metaphor for the present state of capital's confusion? Kenneth Lay, CEO of Enron, before the United States Congress, strides and stares in the finest clothing and demeanour money can buy. He falls protectively silent in the face of accusations of theft, of having stolen the deferred rewards of employees, bleeding funds dry, eventually sucking the vitality from the American market. Notice that Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Anderson are not clearly producers of wealth in the nineteenth-century or modernist senses. They are not factory systems. They are instead manipulators of money, secondary or support creatures, in old Marxist language, parasites. Marx wrote about this in his ferocious Gothic mode – while capital acts monstrously ('If money, according to Augier, 'comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,' capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt'), it maintains a public face of fine style, which it itself underpins. [2] Indeed, Enron made its initial success by controlling energy, quite literally.

The Gothic is the zone of haunted spaces. Return to spatialised vampirism: the time of the twenty-first century's (first) capital implosion is also the time of confusion over land and territory. The collapse follows the rapid transformation of real estate in areas with strong new media populations (San Francisco, New York, Silicon Valley, also London) during the 1990s, where shops with science fiction names appeared, and kid millionaires gentrified neighbourhoods. The dot.bomb to a degree allows for the return of pre-Web ownership. But, more significantly, as venture capital calls in its chits and withdraws support, these reterritorialisations now deterritorialize, becoming zones pointing towards the old west's ghost towns, postmodern mini-Detroits [3]. In this context, Dracula's threat of alien land ownership continues to appear. While American businesses head for cheaper climes, foreign investment arrives steadily. Nike opens up factories in Vietnam, and Hong Kong capital buys up buildings and firms in California. Detroit is now partly led by Daimler-Chrysler, a figure out of William Gibson's Gothic cyberpunk future. Land ownership is increasingly mobile, liquid, non local, and the properties so owned gradually empty out.

These spaces, and many others, are at the same time steadily shifting into a new ontology, imbricating themselves with an interpenetrating second layer of information space. All of this capital is already digital, of course, both in the electronic revision of financial streams and the grudging/frantic flight to cyberspace. But what is changing now is the ubiquity of these digital zones. Formerly confined to desktops and laptops plugged into walls, the cyber has cut loose via wireless, with laptops pulling down global information grids, cell phones knitting conversations in the midst of rooms, Palm Pilots beaming files to each other. Computing devices increase in number, often grow smaller, and diversify in space. In Michael Heim's terms, we're approaching a space of 'avatecture', where the virtual and the physical coexist, overlapping, interlacing [4]. Electronic (and electric media) have always been uncanny, but physically pinned down [5]. Networked mobility and wirelessness means all of the cathected anxieties of cyberspace, that monstrous playground of ids unleashed by screens, are now seeping into, or from, walls and rooms. A chat room overlays onto several physical rooms of conversation. A teenage boy types from his bedroom to a sexual predator in his car, while mom and dad track data flows from their machines by sniffing packets from their wireless hub. Attackers can use the digital world to track prey in the physical – in a recent Australian case, a group of men stalked potential rape victims by a network of mobile phones. The women reported hearing cells ringing in the city space around them, listening to phone talk triangulate around them.

Bruce Sterling calls this 'terrorspace', and imagines situations where citizens consent to their own tracking through ubiquitous computing in order to protect themselves, and their property [6]. While this clearly aids in the immediate Gothic problem of avoiding a monster, it remains to be seen if the creation of a terrorspace defensive network serves as garlic for the larger, vampiric monsters of state and capital [7]. Sterling's argument is clearly a post-9-11 move, addressing an American audience much more willing to surrender liberties in the classic discourse of freedom/security trade-off. Microsoft's much-parodied slogan, 'Where do you want to go today?', now fully acquires its inquisitorial edge.

Down on the ground, September 11th and its aftermath contain a profound element of land ownership and terror, even beyond the sacralisation of Ground Zero. Bin Laden's family made its bones, as we say, through grand property development; symmetrically, bin Laden's 2001 attack is one of property destruction. One recalls, perhaps, his videotaped discussion of the World Trade Center's collapse, where the al-Qaeda leader used his building construction background to analyse the fall of the towers (the phrase is Samuel Delany's). He and his organisation, of course, are famously more liquid and mobile than static buildings allow, remaining, as of this writing, uncaught. Like Hassan i Sabah, they lurk in power's interstices, non state actors that are the terror of states, personal threats to leaderships (think of the fourth plane's likely target) and spectres for populations [8]. At the same time, the networked organisation retains its global reach, knitting resources out of complex networks, able to coalesce at unpredictable, nomadic points. We should expect vampiric metaphors to be attached to bin Laden in popular discourse, especially as he remains unkilled, uncaught. 'How do you kill a monster that cannot die?' (Craig Baldwin, on the CIA plots against Castro, Tribulation 99 [9])

While the purpose of the 9-11 attacks is partly geopolitical spatial (the withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia, support from Israel), the effects in the United States are a national version of terrorspace, both literally and rhetorically. The notorious Ad Council series of 'Freedom' commercials [10] are carefully organised to terrify by constructing a series of places: 'Main Street USA', 'Church', 'Library', 'Diner'. Airports, federal buildings, monuments, the occasional and politically useful bridge, have become zones of intensified surveillance and policing.

If you've been in airports recently, I believe you are seeing a pretty apt, early version of Terrorspace. At any random moment, you can have your possessions rifled through by strangers. Your shoes are scanned, and various small but vital objects in your pockets can be confiscated by semi- educated security geeks. They're either pathetically under-trained for the job (in which case you certainly feel no safer), or else they are intelligent and capable people (in which case you pity them and wish they had some other job, for the sake of general human happiness and the GNP). Rather than making us any safer, Terrorspace airports serve as political indoctrination centres that humiliate our voting population on a broad scale. They are meant to inure us to ever-escalating levels of governmental clumsiness and general harm. (Sterling, '')

Remember the interpenetration of data and the physical world. All of these spaces are gridded by data, patrolled by mobile information units, interlocked by searched databases. Identity profiles parallel the motions of the persons they describe, carefully maintained ghosts. Jonathan Harker's second attack on Dracula is a quite accurate image for this reterritorialisation, revealing the stream of finance which circulates through the apparatus concerned with terror.

Through these spaces, then, move the cargoes of information, of bodies, of incipient destruction, intertwined in multiple layers of communication and exchange. Networks of control, regulation, monitoring, and of course discipline wrap around these objects, sagging under their weight, at times. The question is to what degree they have superceded the land.

Bryan Alexander, associate director of the Center for Educational Technology, researches and teaches on cyberculture, computer-mediated learning, and the Gothic.


  1. Thomas Zummer, 'What the Hell is That?' [back]
  2. Karl Marx, Capital I. Penguin, 925-6 [back]
  3. The term is from Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 [back]
  4. Michael Heim, 'The Feng Shui of Virtual Reality', [back]
  5. cf Dunne, Anthony. Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design. London: Royal College of Art, 1999; Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000 [back]
  6. '', [back]
  7. David Brin, in The Transparent Society, does make a case for universal surveillance – including popular, citizen-mounted observation and collection of data – weakening the ability of elites to commit crimes. (New York: Addison Wesley, 1998)[back]
  8. Cf, for example, Peter Lamborn Wilson's well-known 'Secrets of the Assassins' ( [back]
  9. (1992).; also its home page,[back]
  10. [back]

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