Time (Museums & Galleries) – thorny emotions, reacting to art & the elasticity of time
We continue our exploration of time as a material with Wells Fray-Smith, London gallerist and founder of the inquisitive, irreverent online community What The F*ck Is This. We discuss which emotions we make time for through the arts, and question how and why we interact with finished work.
Wells: Trust yourself to own your experience. You have the confidence and the self-knowledge to say, actually, I want to spend three minutes with this, but these other ones, aren’t doing anything for me. Move on and create an experience that really is truly your own so that you can get something out of it. It’s like a radical honesty of like, not having to like everything. You know, it’s just noticing what feels good and going with that.
Catherine: That’s our guest. And she’s not talking about major life experiences, though I think her words can apply. She’s talking about time spent walking through a gallery and looking at art.
Have you ever done that and so felt alone in the room, but not in a good way? You’re in a museum or gallery… you’re with a friend, or a date you are trying to appear kind of smart in front of, and everyone is looking at the artwork and they are pensive, absorbed…. there is meaning in the room but you just… aren’t getting it.
Or what about when everyone just breezes by something you find totally intriguing? Ah well, times up, moving on….
<sound of clocks>
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This is PART TWO of our exploration of time as a material! Last episode we spoke with Alicia Toldi and Carolina Porras of Piney Wood Atlas, a project cataloguing small and unconventional artist residencies across the United States.
Today we’ll be chatting with Wells Fray-Smith, a gallerist based in London and founder of an engaging and slightly irreverent online community on Instagram called What The Fuck Is This. I met Wells online through a good friend, and I because I instantly trust someone more if they swear freely, we became fast friends.
Whoops, I have neglected to define our material! There are a LOT of ways to define time; let’s take a quick lil’ gander through a few different lenses…
In physics, time is defined as the numerical measurement of a material change. The arrow of time goes one way: what we did in the past is always behind us. But mentally and emotionally, many of us can agree this truth is… flexible. Visit a familiar place: the smells, the sounds, the light unleashes a flood of memories. Locations hold time.
But the second law of thermodynamics states that we live in a universe where a drop expands, time progresses in one direction.
Or… could time just be an illusion generated by the physical limitations of our world?
So, the way the material world acts is a lot different than how we perceive it. Our biology can warp our perception: chemicals in our brains like dopamine result in the over estimating of time, while substances we consume, like alcohol result in the under estimation of time.
And what about linguistics! Language can reveal how people in particular regions experience time. Our native tongue may indicate that time is non-linear, layered, scarce or… abundant. For instance there is no future tense in Sicilian. I repeat, THERE IS NO FUTURE TENSE IN SICILIAN AND SO I WILL BE MOVING THERE SHORTLY, they have very long dinners and I think I will fit in quite nicely…
Which brings me to… Culture. In our culture here in the States, or at least our mainstream culture in the States before COVID, time was a defined by a unit of measurement that coincided with a dollar amount. Most of us have to conform our entire lives to this measurement of time for profit or for survival.
And so, there are different ways to define and experience time, yes. Ways that serve the soul, and ways that numb it. Today, I want to focus on time as a material for processing your response to artwork: installations, galleries, museums.
Now, this may be tricky, especially if even before the pandemic, you didn’t typically spend a lot of time with art. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of art-appreciation, you’re here with me now, so let’s do this.
Did you know? Art can upset and inspire people in equal measure! Like the banana Maurizio Cattelan taped to a wall, or Banksy’s frame that doubled as a shredder. I personally have a LOT of feelings about art, from a rousing debate over the merits of minimalism, an impassioned rant urging people to stop associating Georgia O’Keefe’s work solely with vaginas or a delicious afternoon spent in the company of Nick Cave’s sound suits,
my range of feeling associated with museums and galleries can include derision, disgust, joy, peace, grief… but not everyone accesses these emotions so intensely in the presence of artwork. So let’s back it up, with some help from our guest, Wells.
Wells (47:19): You don’t get it. This is bullshit. My son could have done this, whatever.
Try to shift your understanding from art as like a noun and a thing to a verb, that it is something that does something to you and for you. And no matter what it does, that is productive.
So if it is making you feel thorny and writhe in your skin and not want to spend time with it, and he think your son could have done it. Great! Question it that has done something for you. And the next question is to say, what has it done and why does that matter?
Twas a fascinating study that was done at the Met, in quite a bleak, big brotherish situation, the met could then track how much time people spent in front of each work, what they found was the average time someone would spend in front of an artwork was three seconds, which is essentially the amount of time I would argue that you can look at something glance at it and then move on.
Um, so one of the things that I think may makes artwork tricky and might make it perceived as being inaccessible is that it is really demanding. and it’s a art form that requires we spend time with it, but often in a way that we don’t think about, because I think if you compare the experience of looking at art to the experience of reading a book, we know that when we’re going to sit down and read a book, it’s going to take us you know, ten minutes to read the chapter and we dedicate that time to it.
But we have this idea with art that we can glance it at it and look at the whole in a split second. But what is actually required is that initial glance and then this process of dissecting, um, and looking deeper and looking deeper and looking deeper. And I think the most successful artworks for me are ones that catch something in me. So that I look again and look again and look again, and I think the best curators are all curators and the best writers about art are people who can inspire that act of relooking, which is that act of spending more time with something.
Catherine: When you mentioned all those emotions that that artists can pour into work. It’s interesting. Because I, I go to a space to feel those emotions, but I don’t know if everybody is going into looking at art with that understanding of like, or that even desire to process those feelings.
Wells: There’s people want to go see art because they’ll maybe go see it with their friends. It seems like a cool thing to do.
Um, certainly if you’re gonna like pay admission for it, I think you have to have a good kind of a good reason to go and having this like moment of transformation or feeling a feeling might not always be it. Um, which might be another reason why people don’t spend a huge amount of time, you know, because they’re there for an experience rather that’s a kind of leisure or entertaining activity rather than an educational activity.
Why spend quality time with artwork? What does extra time make space for?
How do you process your emotions? How long does it take for a feeling to evolve?
Is three seconds enough? Why do people make art?
I’ve always focused on process, in an almost stubborn way. That’s why this show is about materials, and not concepts. But.. the destination can be a life-changing work of art that illuminates something about society, something about ourselves… and, as Wells points out, time is an essential ingredient for processing those feelings. And making time for art is an important part of her life.
Wells: So my experience of going to see art is very intentional. I always make a plan in advance, so I very rarely kind of see it off the cuff and I’m always prepped for it, which means, um, I dedicate pretty much half a day. It will either be a morning or an afternoon just for the sole intention, seeing an art. I will block out my calendar. I always go alone, which is a personal preference, but I like, I like to be able to have the experience of spending as much time as I want with one thing or no time at all and not having to be beholden to the route that someone else wants to take. And I like also to be able to process my experience and sit with it a little bit before I immediately start verbalizing that experience to someone else who could be with me.
I always bring with me two things, which is my phone, so I can take pictures, which I am so nervous to admit, but I always bring my phone and I always bring a notebook of some variety. And often I actually don’t write in the notebook, but it brings this sense of kind of security that if there were something that sparked something in me, I could, could jot it down afterward. Um, and otherwise that is it, you know, it’s me like very limited bag with my phone and the notebook and that’s all.
Catherine: I think that art can activate some type of emotional intelligence, reflection and, and spending time doing something that isn’t about productivity or, um, networking, or just all of this stuff that’s like embedded in our, like the capitalistic society that we live in. And so I was just thinking about how much intention and time you spend in the art world and experiencing objects and then emotions. And then I was just thinking about how you might also be having building like a skillset within yourself to handle non-art. Yeah.
Wells: So it’s, that’s also such an interesting question because I think if, if I’m being really honest, the way that I see art in a professional capacity is really different to the way that I see and experience art in a kind of personal one. And what I mean by that is that there is a certain pace, I think, to the art world where we are hungry to consume. So with curators, it’s like, how many shows did you see today? Did you see this one, this one, this one, this one, this one. And it becomes about quantity of content rather than like the richness of the experience.
Um, and I am a big advocate of the artist’s way, which is the book by Julia Cameron, which you may know, but she talks about taking ourselves on a date, only with you doing something frivolous, doing something playful. And often when I go see exhibitions for myself, it’s in the context of an artist date where I can just slow down really maybe only go see one object, you know, it doesn’t even have to be a whole exhibition. Um, and that experience to me is like the far richer, one than going to go see 12 shows in an afternoon. And, um, it’s, it also feels more yeah. More personal.
Wells describes the process of spending time with artwork as a solo retreat. But processing the emotions that come up and understanding a work of art in the context of society can be a communal process, to. Here’s where WTF comes back in.
Wells: I think the key, if the aim is to increase confidence in some way, that’s my thought, right? If the aim is to increase people’s confidence, looking at art, the one way that seems so fundamental to doing that is modeling people who have the audacity to share what they think, who is not a white male, academic lecturer. Yeah.
Catherine: What the Fuck is This is an Instagram account where Wells posts pictures, videos and questions about various art pieces. She asks people for their thoughts and feelings, unpacks the responses and then provides educational information on the artist and their intentions.
Wells: So the, I guess the interactions on What The Fuck Is This have been amazing. And I have been so heartened by people’s responses, firstly, that people are responding at all and feel impelled to do so, but also because people have picked up on incredibly detailed, sophisticated, complicated things that I have missed and I haven’t seen, and there’s been this for me, great moment of like a communal voice. Everyone’s sharing their own insights and feeding that back to the world in a way that I hope can model lot, lots of people having different responses. So for example, um, there was a piece by an artist called Do Ho Su in London, where he had built, it was a piece of public sculpture where he had built a scale replica of his childhood home in Korea on top of this bridge. And people often talk about the work as a kind of reflection on migration and what it might mean to have a physical home that isn’t contextually your home.
And I got these incredible responses from people who also related it to these amazing protests that people have done, where they haven’t there have been big, um, it’s happening in China and Korea, but also in the UK, these big moves to gentrify areas. And as a form of resistance people haven’t sold their property. And so you get what are called these mail houses, where they exist as these isolated houses, everything else around is bulldozed, but you just have this one thing that remains and endures, um, and people yeah. Really related it to that. And people have kindly shared their emotions, finding things, funny, finding things, moving. Um, I hope it’s just been an open forum where people can share.
Catherine: She’s created a tool where people can still experience art on their own and be with themselves and not feel beholden, but then they get to share their feelings and hear from other people like in a more structured way.
What got Wells hooked on spending time with artwork in the first place? When did this practice begin?
I went to go see a piece called, This is Me, This is You by an artist, Roni Horn. And it was on display at the Whitney museum of American art in New York in 2009. And I went to New York for the first time as a 16 year old because I thought I was getting ready for college. I knew I wanted to study art history. I had a friend who lived there and experiencing art felt like something that I wanted to invest more time in. So I took myself to New York, went by myself and had never been to the Whitney before.
Um, and for those who haven’t been there, it was at the time in this building on the Upper East side, that really didn’t fit in with the architecture of the city as a whole. It was built in 1966, designed by a European architect called Marcel Broyer in this brutalist tradition. So it reads us like a massive monumental concrete monolith, essentially. And the facade is staggered almost like a staircase. So you have these protrusions that come out. So me being 16, new to a city, arrived and thought, Oh fuck, I’m going to have an experience. You know, it kind of prepared me for thinking I was going to see something quite wacky, I think. The way that the interior architecture is set up is that basically every floor on the Whitney is the same and thought is important for my experience because you have to take an elevator up to the exhibition spaces.
And I had, um, so the elevator up, it opens on to the second floor of the gallery, where immediately there was this artwork that was a grid of 48 photographs of a young girl in her adolescence. Each of the photographs taken over a period of two years and she’s in her everyday life, um, doing pretty normal things like taking a bath, having just woken up, eating an ice cream. And there’s the sense of complete casual illness because it’s like, you’ve just caught her in her everyday moment, but also intimacy that you know, that the artist must have known this girl in some way to be able to capture her. Anyway, I looked at these 48 didn’t really think much of them continued through the exhibition. The next part of the exhibition was on the fourth floor. So I had traveled in the elevator again from the second floor to the fourth floor and the elevator doors open. And there immediately are 48 photographs arranged in a grid, basically what looks to be exactly the same thing, to the extent that I had to double-take. I was like, am I actually on the fourth floor? Did the elevator move? Are all these pictures identical?
Yup. They pretty much look identical and then started this process of trying to figure out if they were the same. Why would the same thing be shown on the second floor and on the fourth floor, I’m trying to think back to maybe half an hour before is when I first saw those images. And were there any details I could pick up on that would help me to see if these were the same images or if they were different images? And what I came to learn was that, uh, the set on the second floor and the set on the fourth floor were different, but they were taken about two seconds apart. So they look pretty much exactly the same. Um, so you do have to play this spot, the difference game, but then started this amazing process of basically traveling from the second floor to the fourth floor back and forth to play that game, um, and I wanted to share that experience because it was such an amazing example of, I think, a way that an artwork can use time. Uh, because my experience of the work really unfolded over about 40 minutes from when I first saw the first set, the second set. So it used my time, but it also very much played with the time of the city that the photos were taken two seconds apart, but over two years of her life. So suddenly get all these different markers, um, all these different markers of time.
Yeah, I think the biggest thing I felt when I saw that work was complete surprise, that complete surprise and also complete awe and wonder. And I think I had this feeling of my mind being blown because I thought that artwork to be powerful, had to be obvious and to pack how to pack a massive punch. And here was a work that dealt in very, very, very quiet difference. Essentially taking something that basically almost looks identical to be able to expose, um, well, the whole work is really about our identity and how it’s never fixed and how we are never the same. And so it took, um, it took a very, very subtle difference, Roni
Horn basically says, no, it can’t like nothing will ever be the same ever again, which seems like, you know, now as I’ve gotten older, it’s this quite beautiful lesson that has stayed with me, that everything is bleeding, everything was, has changed. It will change. It might look the same, but it’s never the same.
Catherine: What did that phrase, “nothing will ever be the same” bring up for you? For me, I feel like it’s grief, but also freedom, freedom to live your life in the moment, and the permission to grieve what will never be again…
The way we move through a gallery or museum can teach us a bit about the emotions we make time for. I’m going to assume you’re listening Material Feels, you are interested in art in some way shape or form. And so when you’re going through a gallery space or a museum what are the collections that you linger in, what do you kind of speed past, what do you not get, what makes you cringe? And if going to a gallery or museum is unimaginable to you right now, think about a hallway in your home, or the room you spend the most time in. What visuals do you sit with? What have you chosen to surround yourself with?
If an art piece brings up uncomfortable feelings, yes, you can just walk away from it and move on… But I’m curious about the type of emotions we can experience when we alot more time to art-viewing.
Privilege plays a role here, in that certain people can process emotions in public places. There is this feeling of safety for some folks that other folks may not have whether it’s feeling out of place in a highbrow gallery, or if it’s that society has labeled your anger as dangerous, or unprofessional, or deadly. Maybe your grief is seen as weakness. While it is a human right to have emotions, and to take time, it is unfortunately a privilege to process these emotions outwardly, and have autonomy over time.
I think there is power in artwork; the artists I admire are fighting for the right to process emotions, and fighting for the right to have autonomy over their time. So I think, in spending time with those finished works, you are a part of that revolution, too.
Wells: An artist who has used time as his medium is Felix Gonzalez Torres and a piece called perfect lovers where he displays two clocks side by side that take away in unison until one of them falls out of sync.
So, um, yeah, there are these two clocks. They start at the same time, one falls out of time, which has to do with the mechanics of the hardware of the actual clock. And it’s not something that Felix Gonzalez Torres kind of prefabricated. It’s something that just genuinely happens with clocks. You know, we all think that they tick at exactly the same time that 60 seconds is 60 seconds. But, um, the structure of time, as we know it, as this construct, we haven’t been able to replicate accurately in like analog science or analog manufacturing. So one of them falls out of time and it is a work that very much has to do with Gonzalez Torres his own experience of time because his, uh, partner and lover a man called Ross in the late 1980s was diagnosed with AIDS and time became something that goes all as far as was afraid of.
It was the thing that scared him the most because he felt like it was running out as Ross was getting ill. And as he was seeing him deteriorate. So he wanted to tackle the subject head on. And what you get then is each clock essentially being a stand in for the people, not relationships. So one of them comes to be Felix and the other one comes to be Ross that ticked to the same beat until they then don’t. And it becomes this great metaphor, I think for life, for falling out of sync because of illness, um, because of death, this desire to want to always be together. Uh, and one of the really touching things about the installation is that the clocks sit right next to each other. They don’t actually touch, but their memory serves me that are about a centimeter or kind of half an inch apart.
So there’s this togetherness and closeness that physically is always present as you experienced the work and you come to see these two clocks as a couple. Um, and they think it’s also an example of the way that time just isn’t experienced equally that we think of time as something that we, that is fixed, that structures our life, that we all experience in the same way. You know, a minute is 60 seconds for everyone an hour 60 minutes for everyone. Um, and this work hints at the fact that the time might be set our experience of it is different.
Catherine: Yeah. Just hearing you describe that made me feel really emotional actually. Um, thinking about like time and relation to intimacy and love and then trauma and grief and in relation to like what we’re all going through with a global pandemic and like being an inch, a centimeter away from each other at all times, essentially. Yeah.
Have you ever fallen out of time with someone? Or felt so in sync, but the world around you kept interrupting?
Hearing about this piece, I think how our state of mind, our energy levels, our concept of a day or an hour… it all can change. We fall in sync with some, out of sync with others. The powerful currents of illness and disability whisk our loved one, or ourselves, further and faster downstream. Same water, different current.
Sometimes there is nothing we can do to bridge that gap. We can only look around and know that we are soaked. We can acknowledge the water, measure the currents, discuss the weather at length over cooling coffee.
More painful than ending up out of sync: trying to ignore the difference. We tell ourselves everything is okay when it is not.
This artist found a way to acknowledge pain while still connecting with love, and us, the viewer. We are all united in the moment of observing these objects, a layered reflection on falling out of sync, all happening at the same time.
<bit of music>
Catherine: After my conversation with Wells, I saw that the De Young Museum had reopened — this was last fall; caseloads in San Francisco were down, and I thought, this might be my only chance in 2020 to see some finished artwork in person. I was right.
During my visit, there was an exhibit called the DeYoung Open, which featured artwork created by artists in the San Francisco Bay Area during the time of COVID. The gallery walls were hung with artwork from floor to ceiling, and viewers could look up each piece in an online database, where they could purchase it directly the artist. Usually galleries take a commission, and usually artwork in museums isn’t for sale. The DeYoung had utilized every inch of that space to support local artists.
It was an incredible, overwhelming experience. Four months later and I still remember it vividly. The colors, shapes, textures, pop culture references, pandemic culture references… saturated in my mind.
While I loved the experience, I was also afraid and sad. It was isolating to do something I used to love so much and feel the anxiety of social distancing, the anxiety of the pandemic. A lot of elders were there. I felt affection and joy, as I hadn’t seen many older folks all year, and then panic, and guilt at having even come to the space.
I also felt strange in the permanent collections. Everything felt like it was from another world. The pieces felt haunted, especially items from cultures where the narrative of how museums “collect” (see my air quotes) is unsaid but undeniable. I also felt confused about the role of the art world in a post-COVID world. What was the point?
It’s safe to say, if I had my laminated feelings wheel with me, every slice of the pie would have been highlighted. What the hell are you taking about? You ask? I’ll come back to this.
Catherine: So I was leaving the space feeling a bit spooked, and a bit lost. The art world I was so used to felt unfamiliar. It was also overstimulating.. my senses barraged after months of sameness. And of course, the specter of COVID, despite reduced attendance and social distancing protocol. I was this state of mind when a museum guard asked me about the recorder dangling around my neck.
<Melvin chatting with Catherine>
Catherine: That’s Melvin Phillips, or “Swell Mel” to his friends. He’s worked at the DeYoung for ten years. Everyone knows him. And he knows everyone!
If anyone has spent quality time with artwork, and seen the rainbow of emotions a piece can inspire, it’s the museum staff who watch over the galleries.
As he began to share his experience spending time with finished artwork and observing the emotions of visitors, I asked him if I could record. The audio quality is pretty awful seeing as we were in a lofty atrium surrounded by people chatting and looking for the bathroom, so bear with me here. Melvin told me about how much time he spends with the artwork. He’s also a poet, and writes about specific pieces that speak to him. He also sees ALOT of people reacting to the same pieces.
The most expressive art viewers? Kids.
Melvin: Kids are more open to express themselves. They feel inhibited…the parent could be with their child and the child can just say something… and the parent says, don’t say that, and shut them down. That’s what happens a lot… parents have pre-conceived conceptions of what it is they are looking at, they don’t want the kid to say anything, so they’ll tell them, just be quiet….they shut them down… they become fearful of expressing themselves.
Catherine: When we are silenced, it has an impact on our creativity, our imagination, our spirit. There is power in expressing, yes. But there is also power in being heard. And maybe that is what viewing artwork can be like: a conversation with ourselves, with the artist, with our loved ones.
The power of not only expressing, but being heard, got me thinking.
Have you ever seen that emotion wheel with all the colors blossoming out from a center of six core emotions? They vary from wheel to wheel. Color associated with core feelings is also a concept you might have noticed in Pixar’s Inside Out, I dunno it’s like KINDOF a cute movie, I may or may not have cried publicly in the theater, god I miss that…
So I was thinking about these feelings wheels when my housemate and I discovered a craft pop up in my neighborhood one Saturday morning. One of the ceramicists had laminated feelings wheels for sale, so naturally I bought five of them (hey, I know some people who could benefit from these wheels.)
The core emotions vary slightly from wheel to wheel; the one I got from the craft fair a few weeks ago centers in on fear, anger, disgust, sadness, genius and joy.
I started filling out the wheel day to day to track my emotions, to get kind of a heat map of my general feelings. And wow. There were a lot of them.
The wheel hasn’t given me any answers or solutions; it just made me aware of my feelings. It also made me realize what feelings I choose to communicate and what feelings I keep inside. It also forced me to face, head on, what situations and sensations bring up which feelings.
Okay this is getting meta, but stay with me.. What if… a piece of artwork… could be a feelings wheel the artist is trying to communicate to us? And the more we learn about the work, we can empathize, respond internally, see how WE feel… express that feeling to others and see how they feel about the artwork…WOOOOOOAHHHH that would be willlddd.
I feel like we have the feelings wheel inside, and the feelings wheel we present to others. We all have a different custom go-to color palette we’re comfortable mixing, and confident expressing. Maybe you’re comfortable vocalizing reds and yellows (anger and joy) but not so comfortable with purples and greens (fear and disgust). And I wonder how much of that palette you are so accustomed to expressing is learned from the authority figures who shushed you or encouraged you to speak up in different scenarios?
The most important takeaway from my chance encounter with Swell Mel? The role finished artwork can play in helping us learn how to show off our inner feelings wheel, and the importance of expressing our reactions to art to learn more about one another.
Melvin: Though we may be connected in different type of ways when it comes to dealing with what’s going on in the world right now… but our personal experiences are so much different… that no one experiences something like what you’re looking at, like artwork, just alike. I can say that for sure. I know this because I’ve lived it and seen it for ten years. No one sees the same thing the same way, let alone experiences the same thing the same way. Everybody is different. We’re all unique human beings and we have to learn how to communicate…and talk to each other.. cause when we don’t, that’s when you start having problems!”
This episode includes samples from FreeSound.org including the ticking of various clocks recorded by Metzik, and a wonderfully named loop, New York Jazz, by FoolBoyMedia which you heard playing under Wells’ New York adventure.
This episode was recorded on unceded Ohlone Land in what is now known as Oakland, California. This Valentine’s Day, let’s remember that Love is an Action: give time, money and resources to local indigenous organizations, and if conversations about land sovereignty, colonization or race are not frequent in your circle, maybe share more hard truths with your loved ones. Take out your feelings wheels. ….But also you wallets. COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on First Nations people. Please visit firstnations.org and donate to the First Nations’ COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, which is helping Native communities respond and recover from the effects of COVID-19. And continue to show up, materially, for Black and Indigenous folks, and for the Asian American community, which has experienced more and more anti-Asian racism as COVID has gone on.
Next up, we’ll be exploring a versatile material with the most serene extravert I’ve ever met: Zai Divecha. We’ll discuss how we can create space for ourselves with our chosen materials, and how the material world can make visible the invisible: sensivities, illness, or disability.
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Material Feels is produced by me, your host, Catherine Monahon. Associate Producer Liz de Lise composes original music for the show as well. This episode features sounds from www.FreeSound.org, as well as underscores and music created just for the show, by Liz. The show is a labor of love; here’s how you can support us:
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