Playing with your ears

May 11, 2013 § 5 Comments

[ david Helbich’s Kortrijk Tracks. A soundwalk. ]

Louis the Sun King made a number of very strict scores for garden walks. He laid down, in Louis Quatorzian French, how precisely one should walk through his garden in Versailles. Louis walked with his entourage through that garden. And where the Sun King stopped and looked to the left, everyone stopped and looked to the left. So here’s this very complex garden, and it appears to be quite a different one when you are in this place and look to the left, or when you go a bit further and look to the left. There’s different perspectives, other details, other things… This kind of let’s say: absolutism, is something I love to play with. It is the composer, the artist, who decides when and where you will have this, or maybe rather that, experience.”

“The second of my Kortrijk Tracks is called The Garden. It is a track for the Houtmarkt. Which is a square that is called the ‘wood market’, but in fact is just a parking lot. There I put to use Guy Debord’s situationist technique to find your way somewhere, relying on a map from a very different place. Like stubbornly consulting the map of Paris while walking through a German forest. I project part of one of Louis the Great’s garden maps onto that parking lot and ask the users of the guide to move over the Houtmarkt along those lines, as precisely as possible. As a result, already at the outset the audio guide’s absolutism gets undermined. Because the situation there will not allow you to do so, at least not exactly. The place is full of cars. So you are forced to make your own decisions. “

“There is, of course, a touch of irony: ‘this Houtmarkt must have been such a sweet little square, and now they turned it into a parking lot’ … But a parking lot has its own kind of beauty, with its geometrical play of drawn white lines, delimiting the paths and spaces where cars are allowed to ride and stand.”

Which gives it a certain very formal quality.

“Exactly. It is like a score for the movement of cars. And drivers adapt themselves. They might simply ignore the lines. But they hardly ever do. They all stick to the choreography.”

David Helbich was born in Berlin in the early 1970s, and has been living and working in Brussels for more than ten years. Starting out as a composer (he studied composition with Daan Manneke in Amsterdam, and in Freiburg with Matthias Spahlinger), David soon manifested himself also as an installation and performance artist, as a choreographer and as a conceptual artist, while his main field of action gradually moved into public space. All of these interests and disciplines converge in Kortrijk Tracks, an audio guide commissioned by the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk and the RESONANCE Network.

“I started writing for air guitar. This means that as a composer, I left out the instrument. I wrote the piece for a guitar player, but it actually put me right in the middle of movement theater (bewegingstheater) and gave me a link to Fluxus, which I have always felt strongly attracted to. At the same time I remained attached to contemporary music, and in practice I ended up somewhere in between. So I asked myself: what if you would really compose these performative actions, instead of just developing them from movement? What if you’d write them down as scores? So I continued to be a composer, but left out the instruments. Somewhat later I started to do performance theater, with sound and movements. I worked with a dancer, and I let the audience move around: ‘Have a look at her here, and then go have a look at me there’… I was still composing, arranging things in time, putting them in a certain order. But what actually excited me most, was the movement of the audience. As a result, I left out more and more material. All that music. All those media… I was fed up. I didn’t want them anymore. I had already stopped using instruments, and now I also no longer wanted video beamers, no more slides, no loud speakers … I wanted nothing but an empty space, but then had to reflect upon what there was left for me to do. So I walked around with people in a theater. I continued to think of this as composition, because I still strictly organized things. But ultimately this was more about us being our own material, which is something you will also find at the heart of my audio guide. Then finally, at some point, I said to myself: ‘Hey David, you are still working inside a theater! Why not get rid of the theater as well?’ So I stepped outside…”

Like but few others David is aware of the rich history of his field. Between October 2006 and January 2007, he organised in Brussels a series of 12 Walks, each of which related to a different concept taken from the history of walking in the arts.

“What especially mattered to me in the context of those walks, and which also is central to my Kortrijk Tracks, is that you have to be aware that, in a manner of speaking, ‘you never walk alone’. Whatever form you choose, you are never alone with your medium, with your form, with your content. You are always part of this immensely complex world. So you have to find out how much of that world you want to let in, and to which extent you want to lock yourself out in order to do your art. That complex world is the outside, but it also includes the audience. And the agreement – I like to call it a ‘conspiracy’ – to get involved in … well, yeah, in a work of art. In what I sometimes call ‘the offer’. The word ‘soundwalk’ of course is deceptive. For it always is also a walk-walk and a visual walk, it is a traffic walk, an architecture walk and an urbanism walk. And it is a social walk, as in general you will be with a group of people. So you are walking next to who? And how is the group moving?”

A couple of years ago in Brooklyn I participated in a soundwalk where the participants were led through the streets blindfolded.

“I myself have worked with earplugs. Because the more you are shielding off your ears, the more you will be focusing on your hearing. And obviously also when blindfolded you are not walking by your ears alone.”

Touch becomes very important. We were going hand in hand, like a little train.

“I find some form of minimalism to be essential. I offer but little, which makes the experience all the greater. That’s my minimalist principle. The world is chaotic, but what I offer is highly structured. In that sense I am still very much composing. Those walks were usually very strictly timed… ‘and then we go to the left, and then we are here, and then there is another group coming from that side, suddenly crossing our path’ … That’s a score. But there are no ‘offers’. Like actors that suddenly appear and do something. I will not suddenly come out and say something, or show you something… I say nothing. I show nothing. The thing is showing itself. That’s because there is a context, a framework. It makes the audio guide far more than just a piece of sound art. Above anything else, it gives you a context for very different experiences and a very varied focus on a town. And it all starts with the decision to go to the tourist office and pick up a set of headphones, an mp3 player and the book.”

The sounds that we hear in the headphones, are they sounds from Kortrijk? Or do they originate in very different places?

“I want to think of them as functional sounds. There’s a certain number of effects that I like to create. Some of the sounds are field recordings that were made at a number of different places, but there’s also recordings made in Kortrijk. This is related to a basic technique that I already usesd in the very first audio guide that I made, in 2008, together with the Belgian composer Paul Craenen. We recorded the streets in the vicinity of the art workspace (kunstenwerkplaats) in Elsene (Ixelles), with binaural microphones. The idea for the sound walk then was to have people listen to a street while they were walking in that same street, thus effectively doubling the sound scape. It’s a very simple method, but one that creates a fascinating shift.”

You are walking in the street and you hear its sounds. And simultaneously, over the headphones, you are listening to a sonic transposition in time of the very same spots in that very same street.

“You do not know whether the car that you are hearing is real. You think someone is passing by, but when you look, there’s no one there. Or the other way round: you hear somebody walking and think it’s the recording. But then suddenly a real person appears. This corresponds head on to the reduction that I am looking for: the reduction of material, the reduction of composition… You reduce all intervention. And the result no longer is a composition, because you simply are listening to that same street. But again, it is very strictly organized. I then used this principle in an audio guide for the Elsensesteenweg (Chaussée d’Ixelles). This is a busy, quite narrow and sloping street in Brussels. A lot of people get off the bus at the foot of the slope and walk to the tube station at the top. Often that will be quicker. The bus regularly gets stuck in the traffic. This struck me as a particularly funny social phenomenon that I wanted to make use of. The audio guide should, in some way or other, relate to the city. Then, pretty soon, I mix in other field recordings. First these are sounds from the neighborhood, like from inside a shop somewhere along the street. It will give you the impression that you are listening through a wall, because the basic track continues to be a recording of the street’s sounds. This confusion somehow opens up a space. As soon as you are no longer sure about what you are hearing or what you are seeing, as an artist I can do to you whatever I like. I actually prepare you to become receptive to surprises, because you are no longer sure about what is real and what is not. And then I add more exotic field recordings, from Caïro and other Arab cities, which (for example because of the Islamic prayers) have a soundscape very different from that of Brussels. So people start their walk in Elsene, and in the course of some fifteen minutes, via Caïro I lead them back to Elsene.”

It reminds me of your installation Public Sound, which was part of last year’s Flanders Festival in Kortrijk. There you had two loudspeakers mounted at the top of the gate of the Begijnhof, and played back recordings that were made in Nablus and Jerusalem.

“Indeed. One of the Kortrijk Tracks is based on that installation. It uses the same sound material, but in combination with a little choreography that tells you how to listen to the sounds. ‘Walk around the tree, stand still at a certain spot…’ The title of the track is Holodeck, please. You remember that? The Holodeck in Star Trek? It is no more than an empty space, but it will give you the illusion of a virtual reality. It will fool you into thinking that you are somewhere else. This also was the crux of my Public Sound installation. You find yourself standing inside this Begijnhof, but are given the impression that there’s a different city on the other side of the wall. The Beguines that used to live there always stayed within the Begijnhof’s confines. They only heard the city outside. Its sound was all they had.”

“When I started to work on the audio guide, my first idea was to limit myself to this technique of audio doubling and to pick a number of places where this technique would be the most effective. I never wanted to make one continuous walk. It’s more interesting to choose a number of different spots, and make more specific relations with the city. I even thought about sending people outside, to the outskirts. Because an audio guide has to be more than just an mp3 player with a set of headphones and a set of sounds to listen to. It should be a tool for much more than only sound art. It gives you reasons to do certain things, reasons to act. I can send someone somewhere to go. But then what should happen when he or she gets there? This I where I began to radicalize things. And because I found there was still something missing in my idea for an audio guide, I decided to accompany it with a booklet, which to each of the track adds a score, a set of instructions for performative actions at that particular spot. This is how I obtained a very close relation between the Kortrijk Tracks and the rest of my work.”

So what you offer is much more than just the listening to tracks via a set of headphones, at selected spots in Kortrijk. There’s a number of other, very different, activities involved. Each track comes with very explicit instructions on how to listen, how to move, where to stand, what to do…

“There are nine tracks, and nine places. The walk starts at the tourist office. From there it makes a helical movement, which leads you in a number of steps to the center of the city. And each of the nine tracks tries to redefine the meaning and the potential of an audio guide.”

“Three of the tracks – one in the beginning, one in the middle, and one at the end – are exercises. They are called Warm-up, Keep-warm and Cool-down. The first is meant to warm up your ears, the second to keep them warm, and the final one is kind of a finishing off. They emphasize the fact that this is all about your ears; though it remains to be seen whether that indeed always will be the case. For the Warm-up, the beginning of the walk, I composed the gestures of mounting your headphones. You carry them to a small hill in front of the tourist office. It’s a spot where you can look out over the city. There you begin by warming your ears. You’ll need both hands free, so you put the headphones down. You then bring your hands slowly closer to your ears, press you hands against them, and so on. This is of course a highly conceptual way to prepare a soundwalk, leading up to this grand gesture of: now, now it begins! You pick up the headphones, you very slowly put them on, the track starts playing … and then what you hear is the sound of hands that manipulate a set of headphones. It’ll make you very aware of the fact that you are wearing this… thing… this plastic contraption. So here I directly address the materiality of the headphones, and the idea that you have to push buttons, that you will follow instructions. In a way it explains what an audio guide is. I explain the machine, then the audio guide, and finally the situation of you walking through Kortrijk. So this makes for quite a bit of reflection and self-referral. But of course it will not always be as pure as in the first track. After having enjoyed this fine view of the city and the Begijnhof, for the second track you turn around and within seconds will find yourself in the middle of the parked cars on the Houtmarkt. Or maybe it’s the garden of the Sun King’s Versailles. And so you spiral onwards through Kortrijk, from one place to another, through a shopping mall, across the Schouwburgplein, the Grote Markt, the Begijnhof, the parking in the Magdalenastraat, the busstation… There you perform what everyone else is performing: you stand and wait. And like quite a few others that will be listening to music on their iPods, you are wearing headphones. The difference is that you are not waiting for a bus. You wait for nothing. But it is only you who knows. So in fact you are cheating. But then, well, first of all nobody cares, and second nobody will notice. You have become an integral part of that particular situation. It is an act of perfect integration.”

“I had a related experience as a young man in Paris. I was waiting for my father, who was there for work, and I had some free time to spend. I loved Paris. I was from Bremen, it was a beautiful day, there were all these people speaking a language that at the time I did not speak myself, and it was all like… Maybe you know the feeling: you are in a city that fascinates you and, especially when you are still young, you very much want to become someone who’s at home there. You almost envy all those people that know all the unspoken rules and to who all of this is nothing special. So I tried to integrate. For those couple hours I wanted to become a real Parisian. I threw my jacket over my shoulder and began to walk fast, like everyone else. I stood and wobbled impatiently at pedestrian crossings, waiting for the lights to turn green, so that I could rush over to the other side. I was in a hurry, like everyone else. I was going somewhere, and I had to get there as quickly as possible. Well, I was not going anywhere, of course, but this is how I adapted myself to the city, to the situation: this is where I am, there is where I’m going… And during these few hours in Paris, people just kept on stopping me and asking for directions. It was hilarious. Suddenly I was no longer a tourist, I was someone who belonged there, someone who knew his way around. I found myself integrated in Paris… But I was just acting. And the same holds true for the audio guide. When people are walking around wearing headphones and holding a booklet, the world for them has become a theater. But it is also a stage. And they are the actors.”

David Helbich’s Kortrijk Tracks premiered at this year’s Flanders Festival in Kortrijk, as part of Sounding City‘s RESONANCE showcase, and as part of a collection of soundwalks for the city of Kortrijk, curated by the Festival’s director Joost Fonteyne. Currently the collection comprises David’s walk and Christina Kubisch’s ‘Electrical Walk Kortrijk’. It will be extended over the coming years (also see The Art of Soundwalk).

Throughout the year, these soundwalks are made available at Kortrijk’s tourist office to visitors of the Belgian town. David will also adapt his soundwalk for a number of other European cities, where it will be presented as part of upcoming RESONANCE events.
The Kortrijk Tracks make use of ‘pretty generic locations’, and David invites everyone to try the tracks in the city of their choice. You can listen to them and download the full set on Soundcloud, or using the player below. On his web site you can download the accompanying booklet with maps, instructions and scores, as well as a brief manual on how to use the tracks with an mp3 player.
For our Dutch and Flemish readers: this month’s edition (#115) of Gonzo (Circus) Magazine comes with Klankstappen (Soundsteps): a collection of eight downloadable soundwalks in Belgium and the Netherlands, which includes the Kortrijk Tracks and a re-enactment of the first ever Dutch soundwalk. Klankstappen is accompanied by an essay in the magazine on the history and meaning of the soundwalk, written by Danae Bos.

Holes, caves, archives and inscriptions

May 1, 2013 § 5 Comments

At the time of this conversation with Signe Lidén about her ‘Writings’ (an installation commissioned by the RESONANCE network, that premiered at this year’s Flanders Festival in Kortrijk, Belgium, as part of the Festival’s Sounding City sound art program), the space that would come to host the work, on the Buda tower’s ground floor, had nothing in it and still was little other than a hole, a cave, a cavity in the former brewery building: a floor, a ceiling, three concrete walls and a fourth one, made of glass. With words and gestures Signe tried to evoke an image of how that ‘cave’ would look like in a few weeks time. Not an easy task. But in this case it was an appropriate one. For holes, cavities, caves – ‘things’ that are both nothing and not nothing – are key elements in Signe’s work.

“Holes are a fascinating phenomenon. They consist of nothing, they are nothing in themselves,” Signe explained. “Holes are always defined in terms of their surroundings. Holes are matter-less. We perceive them because of the matter that surrounds them. And it is in this sense that a hole nevertheless is not a no-thing; it is not nothing. This is part of what I’m trying to come to grips with. I try to understand what this not nothing is. A hole has more in common with a material object than something abstract like, for example, a concept. Holes are localized, they are somewhere in space and time. A hole has dimensions, a form and a whereabout.”

“Throughout history holes and caves have functioned as time capsules. The earliest works of art were made and found in caves. But also these days works of art are being created in caves. Caves have always been places for religious and magic rituals. Because they offer protection. But also due to their acoustics, which transforms the sound of voices. And of instruments. Because of the way in which holes and cavities filter sound, I very often choose these types of places. In different holes sound has different qualities; it gives the surrounding another kind of layer, or the feeling of really being in that place.”

Holes are time capsules… This also refers to the fact that many important archives are kept at a safe distance from the turmoil of our big cities, where bits and pieces of our culture are stowed away, hidden indeed, in ‘holes’ and in ‘caves’. During much of the Second World War, for example, Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch was kept safe in a limestone cave not far from Maastricht. Also the Voyager Golden Records spring to mind, that in 1977 were put in a spacecraft and sent off into space, which, of course, is the ultimate hole…

Over the past couple of years, Signe was inspired by a number of rather special ones of these manmade time capsules. Like the Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen, sort of a botanical Noah’s Ark halfway between Norway and the North pole, where the seeds of as many as possible food crops are being preserved. And Onkalo, a repository for nuclear waste, which is currently being built, deep underground, on an island in the southeast of Finland. Or the Temples of Humankind in Damanhur, Italy, a ‘new age’ complex of caves and tunnels, hand-dug between 1978 and 1991 and filled with murals, sculptures, mosaic and strained glass with motifs and structures inspired by religious and occult societies from all over the world, dedicated to the divine in man and the preservation of spirituality. “I find that very special,” said Signe, “for how do you preserve spirituality? Pictures of these Temples of Humankind show some sort of a spatial choreography, in which all imaginable religious and spiritual images collide, in a kind of mega-kitsch ballet. But the question continues to fascinate me: how could one preserve intangible things for the future?”

Signe’s most recent source of inspiration is a mysterious Archive of Invisibility and Lost Knowledge (she doesn’t know its actual name, and invented this one herself), located in the vicinity of Yangshuo, China. It is dedicated to the storage and systematization of knowledge about traditional crafts, literature and art, that was lost during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). “As with the Temples of Humankind also here I asked myself: how would you do that? How do you save knowledge that has gone extinct? It is no longer there. So is it written in books? Is it in drawings, maybe? Are there still traces? I have been trying to figure it out, but it is very difficult to get information. I sent a number of mails, but didn’t get any answers. So the question remains: can you keep the knowledge of a craft without keeping the objects that it produced? Can you keep what surrounds a thing, without keeping the thing itself? Is it possible to preserve the aura of a work of art, without the actual work?”

Then the thing or the work of art becomes a hole itself…

“Yes, without the thing one would say that there no longer is any material memory. You disconnect memory from matter. If you make something, then there is the thing that you make. But there is also the ritual of the making. The thing corresponds to the technical part of its making; the ritual corresponds to the non-technical part. Does the non-technical part maybe generate as much material memory as the technical part? But then how can you preserve that kind of knowledge, which is not pronounced, but experienced knowledge? Knowledge that relates to ritual, to a practice? Who or what creates the aura of a work? This is the starting point for my Resonance installation. ‘Writings’ wants to be a work about material memory, without creating something that is specifically material. Its focus is on the process, and the process is something without an end. What is being created, remains unfinished forever. It opens up a field of continuous molding, without a final result. It is the idea of inscriptions as a ​​ritual. But also as something auditive. What you hear is part of the things that happen. And visitors will obtain an auditory access to the interior space of the things they are looking at. But for this they will have to move to smaller, separate, spaces within the space.
Do I make myself clear? Do you understand what I mean? “

Could you describe the installation as you now envision it?

“The space in the Buda tower is particularly suitable for this work. Long and narrow, and with a large glass wall. Outside, in the small garden that you can see through the windows, I want to do an archaeological exhumation. In the garden’s soil there must be a lot of things that come from the old brewery. The result of this exhumation of course is a hole, a dug out space, that you can see from the inside, through the glass wall. Inside I will make piles with the sand and soil that I dig up outside. On the ceiling of the space there will be an electromechanical construction, with chains driven by gears of different sizes, which will cause movement in different directions and of different durations. This time aspect is very important. The mechanism will drive circular plates, from which sticks are dangling down. The sticks touch the sand piles. Via their movement they will shape the piles; a shaping that, at the same time, is a writing. They inscribe, they make inscriptions, leave traces. I will put (contact) microphones onto the sticks. The signals from these microphones are sent to boxes attached to the walls. There will be four of them. In one of the boxes there will be a score, with drawn patterns, similar to the patterns that the sticks will be drawing in the sand. Via loudspeakers in the other boxes you will be able to hear the intimate sounds, the sounding interior, of the inscriptions that the sticks are making​​.”

Is the score pre-made, or is it drawn as part of the process?

“In a way both are the case. I already drew the score, but there’s also the play of light and shadow, that continuously will give rise to new constellations.”

The moving, writing and wired sticks are the heart of the installation.

“The sticks are tapping sticks, that are sort of scanning the piles of sand and soil. You can think of them as blind man’s sticks: – ‘I am a blindfolded person walking within a landscape where I attempt to resonate everything I come across with a tapping stick. And at the same time I am a deaf person walking on the same road, trying to understand which language the landscape is speaking’ – . It is a thinking, an understanding, a grasping through listening; and then analyzing the absorbing complexity of the landscape that surrounds us. I also mean the cultural and social landscape. This image of a blindfolded person is closely related to my phonographic practice. I do a great many recordings, and I connect them to an awareness, a sensibility of places; or of surroundings and things; of the places within things. All this is quite essential for the work. Gaining knowledge through abstract listening, or gaining abstract knowledge, through the sensing-knowing-understanding part of the brain, through listening to sound and its resonance in matter. This is material memory, which is one of the most important, interwoven, concepts that I find useful for talking about my work. It is a concept that is directly linked to ‘Writings’.”

Did you ever have, or tried, to find your way blindfolded? With a blind man’s stick?

“Yes I did! As a kid I went to school blindfolded. Almost every day. A friend picked me up at home, and the game I played was that I still was so tired that it was necessary for me to continue sleeping on my way to school. My friend made this possible by guiding me. He held my arm and led me with instructions like ‘step up, step down’, et cetera. And I could hear him, for I was not really sleeping, of course. But there was no light entering my eyes. Later I also often used a blind man’s stick as a way to investigate the resonances of a spot or a space. It is a great way to get to know the acoustics of a space.”

In all of your earlier works field recordings play a crucial role. In works inside you integrated recordings made outside, in a different place and time. You are not going to do this in ‘Writings’. All of the sounds will be generated by the installation itself. There is an outside (the hole in the garden) that you can see from the inside, and an inside that you can see from the outisde, like two poles; like a negative and a positive. But once inside, the work is entirely self-contained. It is a closed system…

“It is indeed for the first time that I create a space in which everything is related to one spot and happens at this spot. As such, ‘Writings’ combines in a very direct way the two sides of my practice as an artist. That is pretty exciting, en I am very curious to find how it will work out. Because, of course, I haven’t seen it. Yet…”

[This conversation with Signe Lidén took place on March 27th, 2013.
The technical realization of the work, during the first three weeks of April 2013, will be done by Signe in collaboration with her Norwegian colleague Roar Sletteland.]


Four weeks later, in Kortrijk…

What ‘Writings’ looked and sounded like, and what had become the material form of that what Signe had imagined and described in our earlier conversation, I found out four weeks later, on April 21st, 2013, at the opening of the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk’s Sounding City.

The space in the Buda tower was filled with the low rumble and clanking sounds of the mechanics of the installation, very present, but not too loud or obtrusive. The windows were covered with tracing paper, permitting the light to fall through, but not giving visitors a chance to look out, thus isolating the work from the rest of the world. It felt like stepping into an abandoned factory hall (which I guess are fine examples of contemporary manmade caves and which, in a way, in this former brewery building, it indeed was), where a number of machines had been left working, indulging themselves in a mechanical routine, the purpose of which had been forgotten a long time ago. Six limbed sticks were being moved around by the three circular plates on the ceiling, hitting and thus, though ever so slightly, re-shaping the piles of soil below them on the floor, that, for some reason, had been left there, and by the contingency of their material substance and form now were commanding their proper tracing, for ever and ever. The amplified sounds of the sticks’ hittings and tracings could be heard inside the two pairs boxes, as through a ‘sonic microscope’. One pair of boxes was facing the brick wall of the room. The second pair faced the covered window, combining the sounds with the sight of ‘writings’, the tracings of Signe’s score (pictures of which are illustrating our conversation above), making it reminiscent of what – in Dutch – is called a kijkdoos.

‘Writings’ in Kortrijk turned out to be, in sights and sound, an atmospheric, but also a rather hermetic work, impregnated by a sense of ‘formality’ and ‘philosophy’ that seems to be teasing the visitors, asking for a sudden flash of insight, an illumination, on their part, to make sights and sounds fall into place. “Yes, it is strange,” Signe said. “Several times during these weeks of creating ‘Writings’, together with my collaborator Roar Sletteland, it felt as if nature took us by surprise. I think it is the strangest piece I ever made…”

‘Writings’ can be experienced in the Budatoren, during the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk’s Sounding City until May 5th, 2013. Subsequent installments of the work will be part of upcoming RESONANCE events, later this year.

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