Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Taking the street out of Street Art: Part 2

Photo credit: JJ Charlesworth, 2008

Photo credits, all above: JJ Charlesworth, 2008

Thanks to JJ from Art Review for allowing us to post the photos he used in his presentation at the Tate's Collecting Street Art talk (see earlier posts). Since the talk, I keep coming across street art, for example, the work below which is outside the National Union of Journalists HQ in King's Cross. The woman working on the reception desk of the offices where it is located wondered if it was a Bansky (I said that it was very unlikely as he uses a stencil technique). She then added that she watches people who are walking by and a lot of them stop to look at the work more closely. Later, she sees them smiling or chuckling to themselves. Now that's what I call fun.

By the way, who is the artist and are there any more works like this around?

Photo credit, above: Miranda Gavin, 2008

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Monday, July 28, 2008

The Streets are not safe

Street Art
Installation View 2
2008© Tate Photography

Can the art that was commissioned by Tate Modern to adorn the river facade of the building displayed until the 25th of August be considered “street art”? Well, it's not in the street, it's not the result of a spontaneous initiative, it didn't appear overnight without permission. The works might have been assembled under the name Street Art, but that's just the title of an exhibition of murals from artists who have been known to paint in the streets but who are also represented by galleries and make a living out of painting on more market-friendly surfaces than walls. This is certainly not an invitation to urban artists to use the walls of the Tate as a wall of fame.

Pure Evil summed it up best – as you would expect from pure evil – during the talk on Collecting Street Art: When street art is not in the street, it's just art. Is the Tate perhaps hoping to attract a new audience or to appear more dynamic and open to all cultures by creating a somewhat contrived association with counter-culture? read more

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Performance Art

Cy Twombly Wilder Shores of Love (Bassano in Teverina), 1985. Cy Twombly Collection © Cy Twombly.

As I recently wandered around the Cy Twombly retrospective, my eye was caught by a series of 24 drawings called Poems to the Sea. Executed on small squares of white paper whilst Twombly was staying in Sperlonga, a tiny fishing village perched on the coast between Rome and Naples, these works are at once drawings, poems, and, it seemed to me, musical scores. Numbers march at intervals across the surface of the drawings – you can almost imagine the artist beating in time as he put them down – ‘one, two, three, four – five.’ Horizon lines merge into stave lines. Splodges of plaster and accented pencil marks – whilst conjuring up waves and spray – become a score for their own performance.

The Theatre Of Possibilities, a concert held last week by the Almeida Ensemble directed by Richard Bernas, brilliantly complemented the drama and musicality of Twombly’s works. As Tom Service observed on the Guardian blog, this was no mere shoe-in to coincide with the exhibition. Instead, it opened up an illuminating perspective on Twombly’s performative mode of working, aptly summarised in Bernas’ programme notes by a quote from the New York critic Harold Rosenberg, made in 1952: “at a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act… what does on to the canvas was not a picture but an event.”

The importance of music for Twombly, and the extent to which it has influenced his painterly vocabulary, was clearly evidenced by the evening’s programme. It opened with a recording of Voile d’Orphee by Pierre Henry, a pioneer of electronic composition, which, with its complex textures and classical allusions, forms a musical correlative of Twombly’s painterly technique. Two songs by John Cage, who was with Twombly at Black Mountain College between 1951-52, followed; Experiences 2 and The Wonderful Widow of 18 Springs, which both transpose modernist texts (by e.e.cummings and James Joyce respectively) into unaccompanied folksong arrangements for the voice, whilst the evening ended with Monteverdi’s Combattimento, performed with relish and gusto by the Mezzo-Soprano Sally Burgess.

A particular highlight was John Cage’s Fourteen, an orchestral late work imaginatively staged at the Almeida (for what was, incidentally, its European premier) by Ellie Rees, with the musicians positioned between a fretwork of cables. As part of the piece, Bernas delicately threaded fishing wire into the bowels of a grand piano and slowly scraped it across the steel strings, to emit an almost continuous frail keening sound. The noise, according to him, is akin to ‘strangling a hamster’ – but at least you know the hamster dying a ‘slow but interesting death.’

The timings and tensions of Fourteen make for a listening experience during which you become intensely attuned to the moment of enactment. Twombly has said of his technique “each line is now the actual experience with its own history. It does not illustrate – it is the sensation of its own realisation.” This sensation of realisation is apparent in Fourteen as it is in Poems to the Sea.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Taking the street out of Street Art: Part 1

There are some clear no-nos when chairing a talk and wearing shorts (call me old fashioned) is one of them, whether you are male or female. Unless there's a point in drawing attention to your legs, it just distracts from the conversation. I couldn’t help it. I was sitting in the front row of the Starr Auditorium at Tate Modern trying to keep focused on the guests (who were either wearing jeans or were suited and booted) but the expanse of leg flesh revealed by the moderator, who was sandwiched between the four speakers, two on either side, kept commanding my attention.

Shaved or waxed? I wondered as I also surveyed the way her flesh puckered up when pressed against the seat of the chair - it was a salient reminder of how one can be blissfully unaware of how one is seen, especially when seen from a different vantage point. In this case, the stage is raised so that the front row have to look up... Once, when I was waitressing in Shaftesbury Avenue, London while studying for a degree in photography, a male customer, kindly and bravely, pointed out to me that there was a long red cord dangling between my legs. Horrified, I rushed to the bathroom only to find that the red thread detail on my knickers had started to unravel. I was wearing a very short black suede miniskirt. What’s more, I imagined that the customer may have thought it was a bloodied tampon thread but decided that over explanation would just make an already highly embarrassing moment worse.

The second no-no is running forty-five minutes over time. Please, please, moderators/chairs - whatever the preferred term - try and keep to time. This means guiding and reigning in the speakers so that they know exactly how long they have been allotted and keeping to it. People leaving a packed auditorium after an hour because they have to be somewhere else is also distracting. I’m no Derren Brown but unless I am completely inept at reading body language, it was clear from about 15-20 minutes into the Collecting street art talk that this was a cause for concern – regular glances at the clock at the back of the auditorium, pulling of skin on neck and general signs of unease. If there are more than say two speakers, why not extend the talks and make them an hour and a half instead?
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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Conversation with the Dead

Still from The Last Silent Movie. Susan Hiller, 2007. Courtesy of Matt's Gallery.

Languages are our most common, yet our most complex and coded
mode of communication. Some, such as English, are used by many people the world over and others are secret or extinct, decimated with the people who had knowledge of them. Susan Hiller's work tends to explore the latter, often via various forms of recording technologies. In the past, she has taken interest in all manners of strangeness, including horror films, UFO sightings and near death experiences. Yet, in conversation with fellow artist and curator Richard Grayson at Tate Modern for the last of this season's Talking Arts series, she explains that her interest in the otherworldly occurrences is not scientific or ironic, rather it stems from a curiosity for what can be experienced, felt, believed in and yet evades explanation.

Although The Last Silent Movie, her current exhibition at Matt's Gallery
might appear to be somewhat different, it is still very much focused on documenting and allowing the audience to witness what has disappeared. Indeed, it focuses on a series of recordings of 25 languages that endangered or have disappeared altogether. Ranging from crackling songs to rhythmic incantations and whistles, the sounds are accompanied by their translation, when available, as subtitles on an otherwise black screen. Comanche, Welsh Romany, Cajun all sound wildly different but speak of a same underwritten history, that of the people who are not alive anymore to tell their story. Indeed, there is something otherworldly and touching about the fact that the voices we hear belong to the dead and that Hiller found the recordings, meant to preserve the dialects in the silence and isolation of anthropological archives.
There is an uncanny synchronicity between the effect of these disembodied voices and some of the documentary photographic images that can be seen at Tate Modern this Summer as part of the Street & Studio: an Urban History of Photography exhibition. Both photography and sound recordings are traces of what once was. The light refracting off a particular scene that might have taken place more than a century ago made it possible for us to see particular representation of it now. The sound waves emitted by a man singing about a cricket in a language that nobody speaks anymore allows us to hear him today, long after his death. There is something particular about the possibility to access the past in the present time that is unique to recording technologies whether they are ancient or the latest development. Just like language, it is a highly coded experience: we know that the person we hear or see is not there, we realise how the technology works. Although it might not be seen as a full fledged language, it is a form of communication, a way for the dead and the forgotten to reassert their existence in the present.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Public Partnership

I picked up a couple of useful pointers during Friday’s Street Art talk. First of all: if you’re ever seized with sudden yen to slap a subversive poster on a billboard, tape over a road sign, rip up a few paving slabs or set fire to a CCTV camera, hang fire until Sunday morning. According to Brad Downey, one of the two artists speaking, this is the prime time for committing acts of street art when you can get away with pretty much anything. Secondly, if the police happen to take issue with whatever you’re doing – even if it is a Sunday – then don’t, whatever you do, run. Instead, ‘tell the truth; tell them what you’re doing’, and they’re more likely to laugh than arrest. This from Mustafa Hulusi, the other artist present, seconded by Downey, who attested to his experience in this area with his opening gambit: ‘Hi, I’m Brad Downey, and I’ve been arrested seven times for making sculpture.’ (Although this statement goes some way to indicate that however charmingly you explain yourself the police will still arrest you. But then, perhaps Downey’s art just wasn’t their thing).

Apart from dispensing practical advice, the talk, guided by the curators of the Street Art exhibition currently emblazoned across the ex-power station’s flank, revolved around the experiences that Downey and Hulusi have had when engaged in ‘subverting the public sphere.’ Hulusi, who now has a flourishing fine-art practice, regaled us with an entertaining account of how, graduating from Goldsmiths in the early 1990’s and facing the bleak realities of the job market, he took a job with a flyposting outfit. Having been fascinated by the ‘world of images’ and posters during his degree, Hulusi now found himself appropriately embroiled in an industry which contributed directly, in its nebulously illegal fashion, to the daily construction and deconstruction of London’s visual make-up. Good as the money was, the job had its downsides: namely, coming into violent conflict with an angry competitor who wanted Hulusi off his patch, and a serious encounter with the Belgium Police, who did not merely arrest Hulusi but interrogated him on suspicion of terrorism.

Like Hulusi, Downey has come into his fare share of conflicts when venturing into the public sphere with subversion in heart and mind. He showed a series of videos that followed him on his quest through the streets of various metropolises to ‘make the biggest piece of vandalism but make it as happy as possible.’ I found Downey’s express aim to use whatever the street provides to make a monument – ‘coming with nothing, leaving something’ – the most appealing aspect of his work. He feels there ‘is already enough information’ on the streets; the challenge lies in ‘shifting it around’, refiguring what is there so that people look afresh. One piece, created in East Berlin on a crisp Sunday morning, sees Downey taking a crowbar and prising up a step-pattern of grey flagstones, as dour communist architecture bristles all around him. He lines the slabs up at right angles to the spaces they have left in the pavement to create a Carl Andre-esque arrangement – then, as he walks away, tips the nearest one over so they cannon into each other like dominoes.

But here’s the rub: visually arresting and conceptually interesting though the sculpture was, I couldn’t help worrying about someone falling over it on the way to the shops. I put that out there in the full knowledge that it makes me sound like a hopeless reactionary: however, health and safety issues aside, street art, and the artists who make it, need to answer the challenge of who has the right to put what where. Not especially a legal right in any strict sense of the word, but rather the ‘rights’ of the other people who use the public space. If you’re operating so explicitly in the public sphere, is it important to temper your own wishes with a consideration of how the other people using the space might feel about the works that suddenly appear in it? Or are such considerations not only irrelevant but impossible to determine? As Downey and Hulusi’s experiences demonstrate, the arena of street art is a contested one. The art itself feeds off this, and rather than avoiding such questions, often seems to court them openly.

A response to this was what the title of Friday’s talk ‘Public Space: who’s it for’ seemed to promise. Potentially, the conversation between Downey and Hulusi – a practicing street artist and an artist who has frequently insinuated words and images into the public domain – could have generated a fruitful interrogation of then issues attendant on art in public spaces. Yet although the talk touched on them, it floated along on top of the artists’ experience without making any wider connections, or joining up the points made between them. Hulusi did begin to do this when he talked of the need to ‘determine what is a public space’ and decide ‘what do you want to do with your public spaces’, opening up the possibility of street art as an antidote to the shabbiness of much visual data displayed on our streets. He pointed out a little-known fact that over 80% of the billboards around London are actually illegal, clinging to the edge of buildings without proper planning permission. Which gets you thinking: if the adverts are as illegal as the art, well, we might at least have something interesting to look at…

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Film in photography and photography in film

Photography in film and film in photography workshop ; a journey in two parts led by Karen Mirza and Brad Butler of No.w.here

The relationship between the still and the moving image has never been a simple or linear one. It is not that the invention of photography at point A led slowly but inexorably to point B where cinematic moving film was invented at which point (um, C?) the two happily travelled along parallel tracks. Some of the earliest photographic experimental works by Eadweard Muybridge were dedicated to capturing movement – of horses and dancers, frozen but animated, held in a tension between the static and the kinetic and also between the world of art and science.

Later the two media began to feed off one another. The lush and carefully staged cinematography of American Beauty appears to both have borrowed from and strengthened the eerie suburban mythology which Gregory Crewdson represents in his large-scale, large-crew works.
Cindy Sherman has also borrowed extensively from that culturally recognisable language of feature films to create her series of still self-portraits. Sherman was invoked a lot over the course of these two days of exploring the relationship between film and photography. She featured as the patron goddess of genre-stretching in the discussion on the first day – the day in which we watched a boggling array of works which examined, tested, and inevitably, questioned the validity of a distinction between the two forms. She was name-checked in the commentary on a series of still portraits on the second day – the show day in which participants demonstrated works made especially for the workshop or which were part of an ongoing interest in a particular aspect of one of the two media. One of the interesting things about her work for me is the invocation of a narrative far beyond the limits of the frame of the photograph. Through placing some familiar visual clues in a constrained environment she plays with our expectations of what might or might not unfold in the scene beyond. This was also the effect of a more ‘conventional’ film which took the form of the secondary school science video – the Charles and Ray Eames Powers of Ten rocketed back out from a quietly picnicking romantic couple, the camera moving ten times further out every ten seconds into the cloudy nebula of space and then shooting back into the minute proteins that make up their - mine, yours - DNA. Patterns began to inevitably emerge between the structures of the universe and the structures of human skin and a narrative of creation began to shape itself. The guiding provided by the voiceover and the circularity of the motion reinforces those patterns.
We moved onto films with a more overtly political agenda - plays between the all-seeing imperial eye and the staunch gaze of those it oppresses demanded a readdress of that version of history which will allow only one interpretation; Ken Jacobs’ fit-inducing Capitalism Slavery and Capitalism Child Labour created a shaking, oscillating and insistent moving image from stereoscopes of cotton pickers that will not let the viewer escape implication in the exploitation of human beings. It simultaneously enforces a physically nauseous reaction that impacts on the viewer in a way that hundreds of modern documentary reportage photographs could not. Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi guided a motion camera over a photograph of colonial holiday-makers in Sri Lanka, the motion and carefully chosen moments of lingering bypassing the snapshot aesthetic.
Taken at one sitting, my mind began to stretch beyond its natural capacity to absorb any more visual information, to contemplate any more layers or impactions of meaning, to tease out a back-story or wonder why the film or slide show resisted that process so thoroughly. Being fed fresh material without much comment or discussion was a rich way to begin the process. Thanks must go to Karen Mirza and Brad Butler of no.w.here lab for their refusal to dictate but their sharing of two vast archival minds. We all left to return two weeks later with work to show.
More to follow on this.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Acts of Defiance

Actor Holly Strickland tells The Forum about what it was like to be involved with Combatant Status Review Tribunals pp.002954-003064: A Public Reading, recently held at Tate Modern:

"To coincide with the opening of 9 Scripts from a Nation at War, a collaborative work by Andrea Geyer, Sharon Hayes, Ashley Hunt, Katya Sander and David Thorne currently showing in the Level 2 Gallery, the artists, with the assistance of Tate curators Amy Dickson and Rachel Taylor, staged a public reading of transcripts from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals held at the US military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, between July 2004 and March 2005. I’m proud to have been one of the eleven readers at the event.

In response to complaints regarding freedom of information, the US Department of Defense made transcripts from all 558 tribunals available to the general public via the Internet. The artists contend, however, that the sheer volume of material generated by the tribunals (over 10,000 pages) has effectively obscured them from public view. Using the transcripts in their work is a gesture towards making them accessible to a wider audience. Certainly, I had no idea of the existence of these documents prior to the reading – you would only come across them if you were looking for them. They are well hidden, frequently moved around on the Department of Defense’s website and in PDF format so impossible to find through a text search.

My background is in acting, so this was how I initially approached the documents. I found it incredible that the 18 tribunals had not been specially selected by the artists for their dramatic qualities. The section was chosen randomly so that it might provide a representative part of the whole, with the material itself remaining as unburdened as possible by artistic or political bias. As an actor I have often heard directors talk about not getting in the way of the text, and this is similar to what the artists seemed to have in mind for the reading. It was impressed on us that we should not be aiming to recreate or act out the tribunals; our prime concern should be for the words to be heard.

We were a deliberately diverse group of people, from various professions, and those of us who were actors were given special instruction to approach the texts differently than we would a normal script. The artists were not interested in characterisation in a conventional sense. The roles we were playing, such as Tribunal President, Detainee and Personal Representative, were common to all the tribunals, and with each tribunal we changed role. We were not to impose any characterisation to differentiate our various roles, but remain in the role of reader throughout. This idea of playing a role was a key concern in the reading, as it is in ‘9 Scripts’, where each video installation corresponds to a different role in society - ‘Citizen’, ‘Student’ or ‘Soldier’.

The installation for the role of Detainee comprises three video screens showing recordings of the Combat Status Review Tribunal reading that took place in New York last year. The governing principle of the CSRTs was to define the specific role of ‘Enemy Combatant’ as identified by the United States in the ‘War on Terror’; the ostensible purpose of the tribunals bring to determine that each ‘detainee’ had been correctly classified as such upon their incarceration. As a response to decisions made by the Supreme Court that detainees had certain minimal human rights, including the right to contest their classification and therefore their detention, the tribunals gave them their first opportunity to speak on their own behalf. However, what became clear as we read was that these hearings were for the most part played out as a formality, and that no matter how the detainees’ scripts varied from tribunal to tribunal - wry or raging, obliging or uncooperative - the officials’ behaviour remained largely consistent in fulfilling their roles, arriving at an unchanging, uncertain conclusion.

Looking at the documents objectively, they are textually fascinating. Considering that they are concerned with defining an individual’s status, the definition of such individuals within the transcripts was often decidedly blurred. The point of view of the Detainee was refracted through many other roles within the tribunal, such as Translator or Personal Representative, and this was reflected in the at times confusing interchange of third and first person narratives. For example, reading the part of Personal Representative sometimes involved reading a Detainee’s statement, in which case the Personal Representative would use the first person, not speaking on behalf of the Detainee, but speaking as them. The transcriber of one tribunal put the words of the Detainee entirely in the third person, a characteristic of the text which, preserved in the reading, created an odd sensation of the Detainee being dislocated from the proceedings.

The effect these shifting subject positions had on us as readers was intensified by the rotation of roles. The stage was set up so that each seat corresponded to a different role and at the end of each tribunal we moved one place along. This gave us the opportunity to experience the tribunal process from many different angles, a prospect described as ‘delicious’ by Jon Snow, regretting that he had to leave after the fourth tribunal to go and read the news! The rapid changes of perspective this afforded was intellectually enlightening but, to an extent, emotionally restricting; another instruction during rehearsal directed specifically towards the actors amongst us was that we were not to try to ‘live the part’, to borrow a Stanislavskian phrase, or attempt to become someone other than ourselves, which is what I usually aspire towards in my work. I suggested that our approach was closer to the Brechtian idea of ‘showing’ rather than ‘becoming’ a role. This seemed entirely appropriate considering the political nature of much of Brecht’s theatre, and his technique of encouraging his actors to see either side of conflicts by swapping roles around during rehearsals.

With the rotation of roles and some speeches becoming detached from the speaker through use of the third person, the roles did not in fact lend themselves to close identification. However, the artists did not want us to read at a remove, but to allow the texts to affect us and, if possible, to let that animate our reading. Indeed, some of the statements and exchanges were so moving, it was impossible not to become swept up in and carried along by the emotion of the situation.

All this came to inform my reading as ‘Narrator’ in one tribunal. This role was created by the artists to encompass the sections of text in the transcripts that were not assigned to specific speakers. Suddenly, during a long speech, I was taking on many roles at once and the conflicts described were played out by a single voice. This contrasted sharply for me with the tribunal where I played the Detainee, but at which the Detainee had not been present. I attempted to communicate this non-participation in the process by fixing my gaze outwards, and not following the script. Another role created by the artists for the reading was that of ‘Witness’, but it was never embodied and was merely represented by an empty chair. The reason for this was that although detainees had the opportunity to call witnesses to speak on their behalf, in the tribunals we read potential witnesses were mentioned, but were never present. The idea that someone who was being held indefinitely, without sentence because without trial, would nominate, for example, a family member to be hauled out to Cuba for questioning by US military was striking in its ridiculousness.

The systematic flaws in the tribunal process frequently exposed themselves or were brought to attention by the detainee. It is a situation that exists in British law, but most detainees were flummoxed by the catch 22 of wanting to address the evidence responsible for their detention but being unable to do so because such evidence remained classified. In reading the part of Detainee, you could not but become affected by this exasperation. The transcripts were also revealing of how even the officials were not privileged with certain information. At one point, reading Tribunal President, I had to admit to ignorance to an important statistic, and Juliet Stevenson’s Detainee induced in me acute embarrassment during our exchange. However, although this was what I was made to feel, I was able to resort to a role that assumed authority over whatever challenged it, and paper over the upset. It was an electrifying moment for me as a performer, although I wondered whether the actual Tribunal President would have been as sensitive to the impassioned arguments of the Detainee.

Nonetheless, I wanted to be careful that the highly emotive quality of the tribunals, along with the vogue for antipathy towards the United States’ government, did not leave me with an unbalanced view of the story the transcripts told. It occurred to me that by aligning sympathies with the underdog and anti the establishment, I had myself opted out of interrogating the veracity of some of the detainees’ statements. But as Sam Roddick pointed out to me, with the passionate conviction of someone who has devoted their life to campaigning for human rights, guilt or innocence doesn’t come into it, it’s about just process.

This word ‘detainee’ now chills me. So seemingly benign, what it has come to signify to me is indefinite imprisonment without recourse to an impartial judicial system. When, in one of the breaks during the reading, news of reached us of an announcement that Guantánamo detainees had at last been granted a hearing in the US civil courts, it sent a collective shiver down our spines. I’m not suggesting, of course, that we felt we had in any way effected this decision, but this extraordinary coincidence certainly reinforced my sense that we had been engaging with art that was of immediate and urgent relevance to life outside of the gallery. Just a day earlier our government had secured parliamentary support for 42 days’ detention without charge for terror suspects, and my resulting uneasiness was heightened by my encounter with the CSRT transcripts.

Yet, and I’m sure that this is not only my performer’s vanity prickling, I didn’t feel we had the audience I was a) expecting and b) thought the work deserved, in spite of the reading lasting several hours and visitors able to drop in and out at will. Holding this one-off event on a weekday afternoon immediately excluded a large amount of people; the standard response from most of my acquaintances was ‘Oh, it sounds really interesting, but I’m at work’. There were posters inside the Tate Modern and a listing in the guide, but the publicity for the reading did not seem to stretch beyond the institution itself. I wondered whether the Tate might have been reluctant to give its unmitigated support to a piece so politically polarising, or if there were other reasons for what I consider to have been vital work going largely unnoticed."

- Holly Strickland

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Get Together

The Forum is now on Facebook! Join the group and invite your friends here

And here is the rest of it.
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