Contents of spoon-archives/avant-garde.archive/papers/stewhome.txt

"Introduction to the Polish edition of the Assault on Culture" Anyone who is unfamiliar with the subject matter of this book would be best advised to read this new introduction after they have perused the 'original' text. While I am very pleased to see the work translated into Polish, I would write something completely different if I were to sit down again and compose a treatise on the movements that are described in the following pages. The book was written towards the end of 1987 and published in the summer of 1988, at a time when it was difficult for English readers to obtain information on groups such as the Situationists and Fluxus. Since then, there have been major retrospective exhibitions devoted to both these movements and the publication of numerous catalogues. Two further monographs have appeared on the Situationists in English, two in French and one in German. A good deal of previously untranslated Situationist material has recently been published in English and the craze for such books shows no sign of abating, While Anglo-American cultural historians now seem happy to treat Fluxus and the Situationist International (SI) as the most important avant-garde groups of the sixties, surprisingly little comparative work has been published on the two movements. It appears that most 'experts' want to treat them as specialist areas which simply don't overlap. Although this book dealt with both groups, one of it's weaknesses was that it highlighted a few parallels between the two movements but failed to draw out the fact that through Gustav Metzger and the Destruction In Art Symposium (DIAS), we can find overlaps in the personnel who belonged to these dual avant-gardes. Metzger was, of course, a participant in the Festival of Misfits and had a number of other connections with Fluxus artists - some of whom were involved in DIAS. His links with the SI are less direct but are to be found among the likes of former COBRA and Situationist theorist Constant, who ranked among the leadership of the Dutch Provos at the time they participated in DIAS. Another DIAS/SI connection is Enrico Baj. Although he was never a member of the Situationist International, Baj was part of the milieu from which it grew, having been a participant in Asger Jorn's International Movement For An Imaginist Bauhaus - the group whose merger with the Lettriste International (LI) constituted the formation of the SI. Baj also has connections with Mail Art, an outgrowth of Fluxus. There's a whole chapter dedicated to Mail Art in Baj's book Impariano la Pittura (Rizzoli , Milan 1985). Metzger actually invited the specto-Situationist International to participate in DIAS - but rather unsurprisingly, the Debordists refused to have anything to do with the event. Other connections between the Situationists and Fluxus could probably be traced through LI and SI member Alexander Trocchi. These would take two routes, Trocchi's beatnik co nnections dating back to the fifties and his involvement with the London underground of the sixties, when he was unsuccessfully attempting to launch Project Sigma. Apart from failing to draw out these overlaps in personnel, the book is also weakened by the fact that I make no distinction between avant-garde and underground movements - the former tending to be much more ideologically coherent than the latter. As well as possessing a greater critical rigour, the avant-garde collects together in smaller and more exclusive groups than the loosely structured underground. The SI clearly constituted an avant-garde movement - as did the various tendencies which fed into it. Fluxus began its life as an avant-garde movement but degenerated into an underground current. The Dutch Provos, Motherfuckers, King Mob, Yippies, Mail Artists, Punks and Class War exhibit an underground rather than an avant-garde mentality. Neoism was self-consciously avant-garde. Although the Portland based founders of the group had intended to create an anti-ideological underground movement called No Ism, the young French Canadians who were among the first to take up the call issued by Dave Zack, Al Ackerman and Maris Kundzin, transformed the ideas of their mentors and in doing this, reinvented the avant-garde for the post-Punk generation. This process, which was one of almost complete reversal, resulted in the tendency being renamed Neoism. As perhaps the only genuinely avant-garde group of the ten year period between 1975 and 1985, the Neoists rank among the most likely candidates for future canonisation as part of the tradition that stretches from Futurism and Dada to the Situationists and Fluxus. Possibly due to avant-garde personalities desiring what James H. Billington describes as 'radical simplification', the history of groups such as the Neoists and Situationists tends to become even more distorted than those of related underground movements. Obviously, this process has advanced a lot further in the case of the SI but it's also become an important factor in the historification of Neoism. A case in point is the chapter on the group in Geza Perneczky's A Halo (Hettorony Konyvkiado, Budapest 1991). In this text, Neoism is treated as if it had already arrived at its post-1984 stage of development when the Portland 3 founded the movement as No Ism in 1978. The book also devotes undue space to Istvan Kantor and me at the expense of an accurate history of the group. As a Hungarian emigre, Kantor was probably viewed as being of particular interest to those who spoke the language in which the book was published, while I provided the easiest means of linking Neoist theory back to that of the Situationist International. This is a mirror image of the way in which Situationism has been historified, since much of the published material on the SI continues to exhibit a bias against - or at least ignorance of - North and East European members of the group. In the Anglo-American world, there has also been a complete misunderstanding of the way in which Situationist ideas were initially taken up by a handful of English speaking radicals. According to legend, the men who 'invented' Punk Rock were former members of the English 'Situationist' group King Mob, who'd abandoned the revolutionary cause and instead perverted the ultimate anti-capitalist critique as a way of making money. The reality is rather different. The four members of what was briefly the English section of the Situationist International were part of a larger anarchist/freak scene in Notting Hill, West London. Their understanding of Situationism was filtered through pop culture, anarchism, black power, the underground and many other things - as can be seen from their extremely free translations of French Situationist texts. When the English section of the Situationist International was expel led by the mother lodge in Paris, they formed King Mob with Dave and Stuart Wise. Rather than being Situationist, King Mob was actually an imitation of the New York Motherfuckers group. A few of the individuals who were later active in the early Punk scene were on friendly terms with members of King Mob and other Notting Hill activists. This connection may have contributed to some of the wilder aspects of the sixties counterculture being incorporated into Punk - although none of the ideas that were passed from one generation to the next were explicitly Situationist. That this is also the official position of the Debordists is made quite clear by a very explicit comment in Internationale Situationiste 12: 'a rag called King Mob. passes, quite wrongly, for being slightly pro-situationist'. The problems associated with the historification of the Situationist International were greatly compounded by the 1989 retrospective exhibition of their work. The show was tailored to please chauvinists in three different national markets - so that in Paris the exhibition more or less concluded with the French uprisings of May '68, in London with British Punk Rock and in Boston with American simulationist painting. While the protests of those who opposed the very idea of a Situationist retrospective seemed rather pointless - if the SI had not wished to be historicised by way of exhibitions, the group wouldn't have deposited documents with museums - it was a great pity that the show was completely deformed by nationalist considerations. Much of what has been written about the SI simply consists of anecdotes from a mythologised history. Even the American journalist who tried to break out of this vicious circle by adopting a technique of free association, demonstrates little more than the failure of his own imagination by endlessly falling back on the key episodes of Strasbourg, May '68 &c. In Lipstick Traces (Secker & Warburg, London 1989), Greil Marcus moves effortlessly from John of Leyden (religious heresies of the middle ages) to Johnny Lydon (who under the pseudonym Rotten sang for the Sex Pistols) not simply due to the names sounding similar but because they make up what the author perceives as a hip and radical alternative history. The result is a sanitised Situationist family tree, the more unpleasant findings that ought to turn up given Marcus's technique of free association simply don't feature in the book. For example, the Council for the Liberation of Daily Life, who went on to become the American section of the SI, operated out of Box 666, Stuyvesant Station, New York - 666 is, of course, the number of the Beast or Satan. Likewise, Sid Vicious (bass player with the Sex Pistols) murdered his girlfriend in New York's Chelsea Hotel which many years earlier had hosted Ku Klux Klan meetings. There are numerous parallels to be drawn between the SI and the far-Right. Many reactionaries not only write in a manner similar to the specto-Situationist house style, they're also drawn towards the same themes. Taken out of context, suitably censored chunks of ultra-rightist propaganda could be passed off as Debordist texts. Take, for example, a piece of writing by the notorious anti-Semite Douglas Reed: 'The money power and the revolutionary power have been set up and given sham but symbolic shapes ('capitalism' or 'communism') and sharply defined citadels ('America' or 'Russia'). Suitably to alarm the mass mind, the picture offered is that of blank and hopeless enmity and confrontation. Such is the spectacle publicly staged for the masses. But what if similar men with a common aim secretly rule in both camps and propose to achieve their ambitions through the clash between those masses? I believe that any diligent student of our times will discover that this is the case.' While, C. H. Douglas in the Social Crediter of 17th July 1948 sounds even more trenchantly Debordist: 'Ideas and even whole paragraphs. which first see the light in the Social Crediter can be read in increasing numbers in various reviews and periodicals. almost invariably without acknowledgement'. The similarity between the rhetoric of assorted reactionaries and the SI is partially due to the Debordists finding themselves in the same political wilderness as economic cranks such as Major Douglas and his Social Credit movement. However, the parallels run far deeper than this and they can't be reduced to a single issue without grossly distorting our understanding of the subject. The SI plagiarised a number of slogans that had previously been popular among Christian heretics of the middle ages. The religious ideologies from which these epigrams sprang were virulently anti-Semitic and this gives us another angle from which we can look at the Situationist's relationship to the racist right. It's extraordinary that Marcus fails to mention this, since he cites a work - Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millenium (rev. ed. Oxford, New York 1970) - which deals very explicitly with the anti-Semitic content of feudal heresies. To return again to the technique of free association, although Marcus doesn't do much with it, the procedure can certainly produce interesting results. For instance, Charles Radcliffe, a member of the English section of the specto-Situationist International, shares his name with the Jacobite who is said to have founded the earliest Masonic Lodge in Paris and assumed the role of its first Grand Master in 1725. Thinking about the SI in terms of a Masonic organisation throws light on how the group functioned. There was no application procedure for individuals who wished to join the Situationist International, membership was a privilege offered only to those considered worthy of the honour. Asger Jorn appears anxious to dispel the idea that the SI is a latter day version of the Illuminati when he writes in Situationiste Internationale 5 (December 1960): 'The Situationists unilaterally reject the request made in Pauwels and Bergier's book The Morning of the Magicians (Les Matin des Magiciens), for assistance in setting up an institute to research occult techniques - and the formation of a secret society for those who are able to manipulate the conditions of their contemporaries'. Despite Jorn's rejection of Bergier and Pauwels proposal, the Situationists were fascinated by the occult and this aspect of the movement has been largely overlooked by the individuals who've championed the SI in recent years. But as Graham Birtwistle notes in his book Living Art (Reflex, Utrecht 1986), while there 'is no evidence that Jorn associated himself with any theosophical movement in a way comparable to his membership of the Communist Party. his interest in esoteric traditions was certainly more than a passing fascination and in his later theories it was to wax while the orthodoxy of his Marxism was to wane'. When Jorn was asked in a 1963 interview if he was a shaman, he replied: 'Well, how is one to answer that. don't you know about the shamans?'. James Webb devoted a few paragraphs to the Situationists and mysticism in his book The Occult Establishment (Open Court, Illinois 1976). Among other things, he noted that: 'The 'society of the spectacle' is seen as both cause and effect of the system of production, but it might quite simply be expressed as Maya, the illusion which must be overcome. Throughout all the transformations from Surrealism to Situationism, the idea of overcoming appearance has held constant: and traditional occultism and mysticism agree very well with this position. The new revolutionaries do not forget their masters. Andre Breton's last pronouncement on Surrealism cited the esotericist Rene Guenon - who began his career as a disciple of Papus - and the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem's Traite de Savoir Vivre (1967) actually includes a chapter with the same title as one of Guenon's books.' From Ivan Chtcheglov's 1953 essay Formulary for a New Urbanism with it's references to Campanella ('there is no longer any Temple of the Sun') through to Debord's recent writing, the Situationist circle has been obsessed with the occult, mysticism and secret societies. The editors of the post-Situationist journal Here and Now hinted at this when they ran a parody of a Debord collage on the cover of their double issue 7/8 - prominently featured was a Rosicrucian bee-hive. Inside, there was a review of Debord's book Commentaire sur la Societe du Spectacle which was illustrated by a portrait of Adam Weishaupt, the eighteenth century founder of the Illuminati. The Here and Now editorial board appear to be suggesting that the SI emerge from three different traditions: one artistic, one political and a third which is largely ignored - that of the occult and secret societies. Since most 'secret' knowledge is non-verbal rather than actually being 'secret', it's appropriate that Mike Peters and his friends should allude to this largely unrecognised influence by the use of pictures. At this point, it's perhaps illuminating to turn to a 1978 interview with Ettore Sottsass Jr who was an integral part of the milieu that formed itself into the Situationist International: 'I was always interested in ancient cultures, the Egyptian, the Sumerian, the Central American and Jewish cultures. cultures that have left traces in our memories, from magic to religion to fanaticism. Technologies of life which are not always rational, like those of the East, which progress by constant training of the body and mind'. Of course, Sottsass broke with Jorn and Debord's circle just prior to the foundation of the SI and today this Italian is best known for the typewriters he designed while working at Olivetti and the furniture he's produced with 'Memphis'! However, his attitudes are typical of those who belonged to the SI, even after the movement split into rival 'cultural' and 'political' factions. Like the Situationists, the Neoist Network drew heavily on the mythology of the occult and secret societies. Florian Cramer has been researching this area. In a letter to the author, Cramer stated that Kabbalism was a major influence on John Berndt's Neoist writings: 'Berndt quotes the concept of gematry, that is equating words with the numerical values of their letters. Other Neoists, such as tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE have produced work premised on this occult technique. You report in The Assault on Culture that tENTATIVELY substituted 'e' with '(nn)' in some of his texts: 'n' is the fourteenth letter in the alphabet, the total of the digits of fourteen is five, or 'e'. In The Flaming Steam Iron. Berndt writes that the perception of total incoherency leads to a new coherency (if 'no things are alike' then 'anything is anything') resulting in the materialisation of Monty Cantsin. This is the very problem the Kabbalah is concerned with. And Berndt continues: 'The Neoist universe of cosmology is based on the house of nine squares'. The square is the Kabbalist symbol of God and his four letter name is YHWE'. The Scottish Neoist Pete Horobin once told me that Montreal activist Kiki Bonbon appropriated the word Neoism from a text by the notorious magus Aleister Crowley. The multiple identity Monty Cantsin, which was adopted by many members of the Neoist Network, was intended as an explicit reference to the Free Spirit movement of the middle ages. The name literally meant what it said - Monty Can't Sin! This was a standard heresy of the feudal era, which in less condensed form ran that because God was everywhere, everyone was God - and because God couldn't sin, there was no such thing as sin. Hell was simply refraining from doing the things that we desired - while blasphemy, drunkenness and fornication were holy acts. More than anything else, Neoism was about transforming the way in which the everyday world was perceived, an attempt to subvert consensus reality. An anecdote about the 8th International Neoist Apartment Festival in Lon don will illustrate this far better than any amount of theory. On the final day of this event, two Hungarians knocked on the door of the Neoist HQ and asked if they could interview Istvan Kantor. Pete Horobin informed them that Kantor had returned to Montreal. After some further banter, the men were invited into the building and led through to the downstairs room where I was working on an audio document. The Hungarians were dressed in long raincoats and looked like caricatures of KGB agents. Their cover story was that they worked on a youth magazine in Budapest and had flown to London specifically to do a feature on Neoism. Since Horobin had single- handedly organised the Apartment Festival, he took it upon himself to explain what the event had been about, while I answered some questions about my involvement with the movement. Both Horobin and I refused to let the 'journalists' take our pictures. The Hungarians then requested permission to photograph the building. Upon being told that this was okay, they pro ceeded to take snaps of walls, doors and windows. At this point, tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE came downstairs to find out what was going on. After being informed that the visitors were 'journalists', tENT offered to pose for a portrait. However, he didn't want the picture to be of his face, it had to feature the upside-down question mark that had been shaved into the back of his head. As one of the Hungarians aimed the camera, tENTATIVELY told him to wait a minute because he wanted the question mark to come out the right way up in the photo. tENT then attempted to stand on his head. After pretending that he was unable to do this, he got up and said he had another idea - if the camera was held upside down, the question mark would come out the right way up in the picture! The Hungarian obediently did as he was told. Like the Lettristes, the Neoists were groping towards new modes of being - and the relationship between Neoism and the Plagiarist/Art Strike movement provides some remarkable parallels with Lettrisme's role as a precursor to the more significant Situationist International. This book didn't include chapters on the various Festivals of Plagiarism or the Art Strike because it would have been premature to write about them in 1987. I was very actively involved with the various Plagiarism/Art Strike groups and what I have to say about them can be found elsewhere. John Berndt, Florian Cramer, Geza Perneczky and several other individuals have been attempting to appropriate all the work I produced after breaking with Neoism for that earlier movement. They are particularly keen to claim late issues of my magazine Smile as Neoist publications. Possibly this is because they wish to present the Neoists as the last possible avant-garde. Berndt, for instance, produced posters proclaiming 'BEWARE: STEWART HOME IS STILL A NEOIST' and has suggested that within Neoism I played Henry Flynt to Dave Zack's George Maciunas. Without doubt, former comrades are becoming increasingly bitter as the eighties avant-garde enters the history books in a suitably distorted fashion. An example of this process is to be found in the new standard English language work on anarchism, Demanding the Impossible by Peter Marshall ( Harper Collins, London 1992): 'Inspired by the Situationists and anarchist theory another post-punk anti-authoritarian group emerged in the late 1980s around. journals like Smile, Here and Now and the more scholarly Edinburgh Review. Much of the new libertarian writing is in the Ranter and Dadaist tradition of poetic declamation. It fuses fact and fiction, history and myth, and opposes the primitive to the civilized. Rather than resorting to agit-prop, it tries to politicize culture and transform everyday life'. Equally distorted accounts of the Neoist and Plagiarist movements can be found in the third edition of the Glossary of Art, Architecture an d Design Since 1945 by John A. Walker (London Library Association, 1992). Somewhat surprisingly, when the Victoria and Albert Museum organised an exhibition entitled Smile: a Magazine of Multiple Origins (London, March- August 1992) the accompanying catalogue essay by Simon Ford was remarkably accurate. I now want to go back in time and deal with a few of the problems associated with the historification of Fluxus. Henry Flynt in his essay 'Mutations of the Vanguard: Pre-Fluxus, during Fluxus, late Fluxus' (included in Ubi Fluxus, Ibi Motus 1990-1962, catalogue to the Fluxus exhibition at the 1990 Venice Biennale) observes: 'In the process of transforming Fluxus into a reiterated museum exhibit, there has been an astonishing amount of manipulation of Fluxus history. All radical claims - aside from mere unpretentiousness - have been stripped from Fluxus. Also, a genuine Fluxus offshoot such as the Neoists has been blocked from official Fluxus because its members are undergrounders rather than money artists'. Flynt goes on to suggest that Fluxus supremo George Maciunas was obsessed with the idea of organising the entire avant-garde - although obviously the greater part of it, such as the Situationist and Destruction In Art movements, escaped his control. However, as Mutations of the Vanguard makes clear, much of the New York scene which operated independently of Maciunas during the post-war period has now been assimilated into Fluxus through sleight of hand operations on the part of academics, curators and artists jostling for a place in the culture industry. Ironically, many of the Fluxus bandwagon jumpers were more successful than the Maciunas circle during the sixties - but now find themselves reduced to claiming membership of this 'historically important' movement because their own careers have flagged while what was formerly a marginal group has benefited from the 'vagaries' of fashion. The parallels between the historification of Fluxus and the Situationist International are remarkable. While in the late sixties and early seventies, it was Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the March 22nd Movement who were considered to be at the forefront of the May '68 uprisings in France, twenty-five years later, various enthusiasts have succeeded in transforming the image of the numerically insignificant Debordists from one of impotent ideologues whining on the sidelines to that of pivotal actors in the drama. Returning to Flynt, I want to deal briefly with the claim he makes in his essay to the effect that after 1968 there was no longer any need for an avant-garde. Flynt's argument basically runs that once he had developed his critique of art and abandoned this area of activity in favour of 'brend' - paradoxically to resume work as an artist at the tail end of the eighties - the avant-garde was an anachronism. While brend was a more advanced concept than Debord's simplistic understanding of art as an essentially radical content that had been deformed by its bourgeois packaging, the necessarily subjective formulation of the Flyntian modality prevents it from acting as the last word on the avant-garde for anyone other than its author. In fact, the Art Strike movement of the late eighties took up elements of the critiques of culture made by Flynt, Metzger etc., and succeeded in propagating this heady brew with far greater success than any previous avant-garde group. Staying close to the present, another movement not covered in the pages that follow was the Wroclaw based Orange Alternative. This was because news of what Waldemar Frydrych and his circle were doing did not reach my ears until after the first English edition of the book was published. Among the publicity generated by the Situationist exhibition in 1989, certain hacks saw fit to make passing reference to the Orange Alternative as Polish Situationists. From the scanty information available in English, this appeared to be mere hyperbole, since the few reports about the Wroclaw group that did appear in the Western press made it clear that the Orange Alternative had more in common with the underground traditions of the Dutch Provos and American Yippies, than with the SI's vanguard pretensions. One action in particular, resonated with those who were familiar with the sixties counterculture in the West. It was reported that during a Decemb er demonstration, members of the Orange Alternative dressed up as Father Christmas - and that this caused a great deal of confusion among representatives of the Polish authorities. When the police attempted to round up the protesters, they also managed to arrest a number of those who'd been genuinely employed to play the role of Santa Claus. Two decades earlier, members of the New York Motherfuckers group had gone into a department st ore impersonating Santa Claus and handed out free gifts - with the result that the public were treated to the spectacle of the police snatching back toys from children and Father Christmas being arrested. Members of King Mob were so taken with the success of this scandal that they repeated it in London. However, while it's likely that at least some Orange Alternative activists were familiar with both Debordist theory and the sixties counterculture of the West, they clearly developed a praxis that reflected their unique social situation. There are other groups around today that draw on the legacy of the avant- garde and underground movements described in this book. One example is the US based Immediast Underground. Personally, I'm not impressed by this outfit - their propaganda is little more than a contentless string of buzz words: 'Dealing with the Ecology of Coercion; Networker Congresses; Correspondence, Mail Art and Exchange; Hacking; Seizing the Media; Routing the Spectacle against itself; Creating Public Production Libraries; Enjoying Public Media and an Open State'. The Anti-Copyright Network (ACN) is an international group working in a similar area - they distribute subversive fly-posters around the globe. The claims the ACN makes for itself are more modest than those of the Immediast Underground but their activities are more substantial. The London Psychogeographical Association (LPA) was initially no more than a name made up at the founding conference of the Situationist International to make the proceedings sound more impressive. In 1992, the group be came a reality. I was alerted to this fact after being handed a leaflet that read: 'London Psychogeographical Association trip to the Cave at Roisia's Cross, August 21st-23rd. This trip has been organised to coincide with the conjunction between Jupiter and Venus on 22 August. The trip will last for three days and involve cycling for about 100 miles and camping for two nights. The rendez-vous is at the back of Tesco's car park, Three Mills Lane, London E3 at 11am on Friday 21 August with bicycle and camping gear. We hope you can make it - see you there!' A further outing was organised by the LPA to research the environs of St. Catherines Hill, Winchester, on the occasion of the conjunction of Venus, Uranus, Neptune and the Moon. A booklet entitled The Great Conjunction: the Symbols of a College, the Death of a King and the Maze on the Hill was published on the first day of this 36 hour excursion. The text revealed that the LPA was conducting rigorous investigations into ley-lines, the occult, the ritual organisation of power, alchemical psychodrama, mind control and architectural symbolism. The group is developing various avenues of research left unexplored by the Situationists after Asger Jorn left the movement and it split into two rival factions. The (re)formation of the LPA looks like being one of the most important events of recent years - it may revitalise the avant-garde. Having looked at a few of the recent developments that grew from the tradition of oppositional culture described in the pages that follow, I want to get back to the task in hand and wrap up this introductory essay. Only a little more than five years have passed since I wrote this book but it seems like a lifetime. While the text has its faults, if I began to correct them there'd be no end to the process and I'd find myself writing a different work. In the words of one reviewer, the book is 'a concise introduction to a whole mess of troublemakers through the ages'. I like to think of the following pages as a bluff your way guide, a fairly painless means of getting an overview of the cultural currents in the second half of this century that owe a greater or lesser debt to the Futurists, Dadaists and Surrealists. The way the book is organised will become clear towards the end, everything hangs on two chapters - 'Beyond Mail Art' and 'Neoism'. If I was going to write a book devoted to just one of the movements that gets name checked in the chapter headings that follow, it would be Neoism. In particular, I'd like to research the claims made by various French-Canadian Neoists to the effect that they created the first computer viruses at the beginning of the eighties. Although the early date suggested for this accomplishment makes the claim appear rather dubious, it's probably only a matter of time before various enthusiasts start declaring that the entire hacker underground was a Neoist invention. However, there's absolutely nothing about this in the following pages, as you'll discover if you read on. Stewart Home, London, January 1993

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