The Logic of a Face

An individual’s face tells a story, sketching out his biography.

Criss-crossing it are different lines with various origins: psychological, pragmatic, historical, social, cultural, physiological, mechanical. It is a blackboard covered with signs, an authentic hieroglyph of heterogeneous traces that are present simultaneously, overlaid, sometimes confused and effacing each other. Rudolf Kassner noted that “each feature, face, being is metamorphosis,” as the polarity and indifference of set and mobile features, physiognomy and mime, statics and dynamics.

On the big screen the human face acquires unusual sizes and proportions, becoming a world and a landscape. Béla Balàzs wrote that when we see an isolated face we suddenly find ourselves alone, eye to eye with that face, and with it we can establish a relationship marked by an intimacy, proximity and complicity that were previously inconceivable.

Since man cannot be as he seems, simply because he is not limited to being but is constantly becoming, changing and transforming himself to assert his absolute uniqueness as an individual, the face is no longer space, but time. A face is history or, rather, it tells its own stories; it does not convey one’s character but, rather, its transformations.

To read and interpret these stories we need a unique cognitive faculty, a keen eye that becomes sensitivity, intuitiveness, instinct, imagination, past experience, attraction and natural empathy. A sentimental glance that, from the visible world, obtains the key to the invisible one.

True understanding of the other is thus derived from a “reciprocity of glances”: the meaning of the face is generated, time after time, within a polar-circular relationship of perfect co-resonance experienced between what objectively appears and subjective vision. This thesis is reinforced by the etymology of the term “visage”— face—which indicates both vision and sight, and thus the full reciprocity and interchangeability between the observer and the object observed.

In the wake of these considerations we can affirm that when we face others, observing each other up close and in depth, we somehow become similar, creating new projections and correspondences.

Ethics and Aesthetics of Encounter

For Martin Buber the encounter (Begegnung) has an importance that goes beyond simultaneous presence and individual growth. When a human being turns to another one and seeks to communicate through language or silence, between the two there occurs something that cannot be found anywhere else in nature. The encounter, defined as “the sphere of the between,” highlights the possibility of being fully involved with each other in order to encounter oneself.

Like the studies of Anthony Cohen, which analyze how the borders of communities are defined symbolically and how people become aware of belonging to a collectivity, my research explores the meaning of identity that derives from the symbolic perception of the sharing of an experience.

Starting with my personal experience, I have created a series of projects characterized by a powerful social interest inherently tied to profound aesthetic research. My production experiences have led me to work on different cycles of installations centred on the relationship between the individual and collective identities, and on the transformations produced by social relationships in the processes of the formation of identity.

Through the instruments of encounter, dialogue and engagement, and by analyzing subjects such as the relationship of the youngest generations with folklore, the relational dynamics within a couple and the school as an institution, I have plunged into cross-cutting exploration of the sense of belonging and of relations between the individual and the community.

In osmosis with contemporary theories that draw on different areas of the social social sciences, anthropology, philosophy and psychology, my research arises and is developed through the conviction that our identity, in perpetual motion, lives within stratifications of memories and grows through the sharing of relations and sentiments.

Identikit of the Artist

There is no difference between art and education. Both respond to a profound need for mutual analysis and knowledge. In this sense, the artist today has a concrete responsibility, not only in sharing the process of production of the work of art but also in its formal restitution, that should be accessible beyond the boundaries of the community of reference.

Therefore, my exercise unfolds in a reflection on the role of the artist, through an invitation addressed to each participant, aimed at drafting an identikit that summarizes their essential characteristics. Only at a second stage—following this first reconnaissance—it is possible to single out those who respond to those distinctive traits in the territory and activate a confrontation on individual attitudes and collective needs that is truly fertile and productive for everyone. I will stand to the side then, refusing to give instructions from a distance. Moving my steps from the idea of active citizenship, I chose to activate a device that reflects the identity of the group, raising the questions’ bar, starting from a relationship based on trust that stems from the practice of self-observation, identification of urgencies, and active listening.

The Spirit of Reciprocity

In light of the failure of multiculturalism and the paradigms that until recently sustained the cultural production of the West—in an increasingly individualistic and globalized society, dominated by Big Data and torn apart by extremism, characterized by a growing gap between rich and poor, between center and periphery, between North and South—is it possible to reactivate the sense of community, the desire for participation and a more authentic relationship with institutions?

Since the beginning of my experience as an artist and educator—by nature and attitude—I have activated a personal dialogue with my interlocutors, starting from the practice of active listening, self-observation, identification of urgencies and management of mediation processes. In every territory in which I found myself living and working—in Italy, in the United States, in Cuba, in India, in Spain, in South Korea and in Palestine—I created small communities of practice through fellowships generated by trust and a spirit of reciprocity.

Whether it is about a school, a museum or public affairs, I think it is necessary to establish a more human relationship with institutions. Rather than as an abstract entity, we should consider the counterpart as an individual, with whom to engage in an exchange among equals.

This need is made particularly strong and evident today by distance learning, in particular in the face of turned off cameras and microphones that make it hard to dialogue with the class group. Ever since I started teaching Multimedia Dramaturgy at Accademia di Brera, I decided to engage with only one student at a time, despite the large number of hours and energy I would have had to spend over the entire academic year. The resourceful new technologies made it easier to engage in a personal dialogue with the students, which culminated in the exam, hence not conceived as a mere test at the end of the course, but rather as a whole structured journey marked by time.

I believe it is urgent to share this methodology with other branches of society—beyond the art system and the sphere of education—in order to renovate and humanize institutions through a one-to-one dialogue. Only this way will it be possible to relate—in an inclusive and truly participatory way—with complex communities.

Slow Walkways

While talking about Friedrich Hölderlin’s poetry, Martin Heidegger uses a metaphor I am very fond of—that of “slow walkways.” These are bridges that do not look like such, since they belong to the places between which they establish the passage. The human exploration I carry out through my work occurs by walking these “slow walkways” alongside the other. They connect different elements of the landscape, favor encounter, dialogue, and openness. These processes require time and constant presence, but above all mutual trust, observation, and listening. It is a slow, gradual journey, in which empathy is the natural fuel.

Opening an Umbrella

I have never made documentaries. It is not an abstract and distant theme that dictates my path. I always instinctively move my steps from a need for personal investigation. Then, it is the encounters with the people I interact with that show me the way to follow. I ask questions and relate their answers. My idea of art is that of a suggestion that remains open.

In 2010, once I had landed in New York, I began to miss my dearest loved ones. I missed the daily routine as a couple. I wondered: how is it possible, in a long-distance relationship, to increase the awareness of that union?

“There is no essence without ‘co-essence’ and no existence without co-existence.” This is how Jean-Luc Nancy summarized and revived the question of the sense of being when coming across existents, in our original being with one another. This way he elaborated a new ontology of being that is both singularly plural and plurally singular. No presence isn’t shared, there is no subject that is not a we, an “in itself” that is not with others, in the simultaneity and concomitance of existence. At that time, the thought of the French philosopher on the singular plural being intertwined with my observations on the experience of love, on the being-with that represents the actual “taking care” of the other, the place where the singular plural being of every existent is manifested. His ideas also met my observations on the concept of community, which means being in common, being one with the other, or being together.

From this assumption, I decided to write and distribute a series of leaflets to meet young couples and interview them. Many were based on the east side of Brooklyn, which at the time was experiencing an important process of gentrification.

This is how Lover’s Discourse was born in 2011—a two-channel video installation in which a heterogeneous group of participants, varied in ethnicity, age, and gender, discuss the relationship between individual and couple identity, within the Williamsburg LGBT community and beyond.

The title of the work is inspired by Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977), an unusual essay on the vocabulary of falling in love, which in this case represents a methodological reference—it is a statement of intent. What used to struck me about that book, was in fact that it was written in a deliberately non-systematic way—it presented a chain of headwords of varying length, including psychoanalytic introspections, quotations from classical philosophy, and romantic literature, as well as conversations, intimate memories, and autobiographical notes. It is a mixture of heterogeneous elements that trace a personal semiology of love.

My goal was to emphasize the entropy of the starting paradigm to explore changes, challenges, and experiences that make up the identity of being a couple, to investigate the importance of reciprocity and interchange with the Other, and to do that through a sincere relationship with each of the participants.

Many couples replied to the ad posted on the bulletin boards of bars, clubs, laundromats, and restaurants in the neighborhood. We would meet right where they had read my ad. What drove them there was the curiosity to better understand what my intentions were, and then to face a process of shared self-analysis, through the creation of a relationship based on familiarity and trust. After seeing them a lot, I would invite them to my studio—one at a time. On the third floor of an industrial building on Metropolitan Avenue—which houses the International Studio & Curatorial Program—I staged this new work’s production process, transforming my private space into a minimalistic set.

Even though I decided to film the conversation with only one lover at a time, and in shifts, the whole relationship system actually had a broader scope. It included all the people involved and the viewers themselves, who become the diaphragm between the affirmation of a radical subjectivity and the world, while the content of the image evolves into the very process of its representation.

Adventuring into the labyrinth of gazes that make up and break up these young couples’ relationships, the viewers relive a formative experience. By choosing a position in the installation, and hence dwelling on one story or the other, they can decide to engage in a targeted way with some topics rather than others, according to their biographical events. This overlapping of gazes that leads to the construction of a subject’s identity is a theme in my research. By mirroring ourselves in others we can take on different shapes, thus producing new correspondences, highlighting deficiencies, and creating knowledge.

After attending one of the open meetings, in which the conversation with a lover was shared with the community, a girl commented: “talking about love is taboo for many. Tonight however it feels like we managed to open a large umbrella under which many have decided to stay.”

A Reverse Grand Tour

Back in Italy I felt the need to investigate the very condition of the artist in residence to better understand the relationship with the cultural institutions, studios, lands, and cities that have hosted me over time.

The Reverse Grand Tour is a 2012 project, conducted over the course of a year thanks to an itinerant residency in some of the most prestigious foreign academies in Rome. That was an unprecedented experience, conceived precisely to observe from the inside an educational and cultural system that is unique in the world, while analyzing the evolution and the present nature of the Grand Tour through the relationship of foreign artists with the city.

Right there where this model—that is so popular and often abused by the marketing and cultural promotion logics—was born, I decided to stop and question the very meaning of artistic production, and to do so through a face-to-face exchange with artists from different educational and cultural backgrounds. It is called a reverse Grand Tour, because it was carried out by an Italian artist crossing borders between countries, while still remaining within the very same urban boundaries.

The decision to exhibit this work inside the museum together with some historical pieces linked to the Grand Tour and self-portraits and portraits of 19th and 20th century artists raised the question of the actuality of the concept of academy and, at the same time, of the relationship between Rome and the international artists who—according to tradition—have been visiting and living the city every year, for centuries. It is a mobile landscape that lives in the stratification of history, but which takes actual form—thanks to direct experience—in a constant touring of places anchored to tradition, yet vivid and full of truth, since they are inhabited by new generations of men and women who have redefined their physiognomy. It is a human landscape that intends to renegotiate the artist-society relationship through an ethical exchange between those who produce art and those who use it or will use it in the future.

I remember a German artist once told me that she was looking for a passage in the wall to get home without having to circumnavigate Villa Massimo park. She pictured creating an opening to communicate with the people living in the neighborhood, who perceived that private space as a foreign land.

Even though I had only moved from one area of Rome to another, it was as if I had crossed distant nations and systems in a seamless journey. I had the chance to deal with wide-ranging cultural policies and each time my attempt was to adapt as much as possible to the rules and customs of each reality.

In each academy I had a space at my disposal. However, thanks to the artists’ desire to participate, from time to time I was allowed to enter and work in their studios too—setting foot on an ever delicate land, poised between individual relationships and the ones with the entire community. Constantly moving from one place to another inevitably implies a loss, a feeling of nostalgia and disorientation that I wanted to convey.

Although each academy is governed by rather definite balances, it became clear that in the journey itself, in the moving and crossing, the multitude is lost and the concept of community falls apart. The aim of the work was precisely to try and recompose this “union of many” that in reality exists only in fragments. It is a matter of inclusion—given the historical moment in which we live, we cannot but be present. Everyone is present in their own way, through an inevitable and subjective process of reconnection with reality. Today I consider presence almost as a duty for artists—especially younger ones, who run the risk of closing themselves in a system that has little to share with the common feeling. I am not referring to the correspondence between art and life, but rather to the need to reconnect authentically with oneself and with others. Shifting the attention from the work of art to the role of the artist in the society’s evolution process, it is clear that the artist can become a central interlocutor in community dynamics only thanks to a dense and lasting confrontation both on an individual and a collective level. This is precisely the reason why I felt the need to engage with other artists, to observe and question the system from the inside—firsthand.

Darye

Each journey becomes a process, a project of social and conceptual investigation, an occasion to explore the relationship between places, gazes, experiences, and perspectives.

Thanks to an International Artist Fellowship fostered by the MMCA National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Korea, in 2014 I moved to Seoul—a metropolis to which I am particularly attached because of the strong contrast between innovation and tradition that characterizes it, as well as because of the welcome I was given.

Even though I was used to traveling, this was my first time living in the East over a long period. It was a different experience compared to tourist travels. Living in a country as rich in contradictions as Korea led me to search for a connection with others in my daily life that could not come through the language since I do not speak Korean.

I struggled with this barrier at first, perhaps because of my background in dramaturgy and the importance of words and language in relationships. Even though the curators and students I was dealing with spoke English—with an impeccable American accent—outside of the designated places, beyond the university campus and the museum, I had no way to engage with strangers. Hence, I remember that a strong frustration arose and grew within me due to the inability to fully understand who I was meeting.

Even just going to the supermarket and moving from one neighborhood to another is quite difficult in a city like Seoul. I couldn’t adapt, I couldn’t fit in. Then I started to hang out at the Hwagyesa center, which grew up around the Buddhist temple founded near Bukhansan Mountain in the northern area of the city. There I realized that probably the best way to get close to a stranger and get in touch with that society would be, more than through words, through local habits and traditions, such as meditation, silence, observation, and contemplation.

The search for a new work, Darye, was born from this experience—halfway between a workshop and a performance—an intimate dialogue and at the same time an open meeting, in which everyone could participate. For this occasion, I invited a diverse group of Korean artists—who express themselves with different approaches through theater, music, and visual art—to have tea together in a hanok inside the Art Sonje Center, a traditional fourteenth-century wooden house built in the courtyard of what is now one of the most vibrant contemporary art centers in the world.

This resulted in a flow of thoughts, confessions, and hypotheses around the role of the artist in contemporary society and the relationship of each participant with traditions and institutions.

The title of the work refers to a traditional tea ceremony that has been practiced in Korea for more than a thousand years and whose main element is the simplicity of tasting tea in an informal environment. These kinds of ceremonies are restored, in the frenetic Korean lifestyle, to find relaxation and harmony.

With this work I revived a practice based on the desire to exchange views with communities and territories, investigating a mutual sense of belonging through firsthand experience. Specifically, I was interested in deepening how the younger generations of artists reflect on the influence of local tradition within their research. One of them commented in a pretty significant way and outlined the coexistence—in the creative process—of a sense of bewilderment with that of freedom in the production of new compositions because all the elements of Korean opera and theater were destroyed following the Japanese occupation.

In the academic field, the distinction between studies linked to classical eastern art and modern western art has created an indissoluble dichotomy between those who choose to draw from the past and those who project themselves forward, through a stance that has to do with the aesthetic but also geopolitical roots of art.

The conversation always took place with one person at a time, although the presence of the public manifested the intention to involve the collectivity within a new experiment inspired by the study of group dynamics and the identity of communities, the geographic-cultural ones and those related to the art system. Exploring shared codes—mirror and source of old and new collective imaginaries—what emerged were distant trajectories, personal attitudes, and wider-ranging politics that use traditions and contemporary art to catch the eye of international viewers. Just think of the extent of Korean cinema or of K-pop music, whose hits originated as rewrites of Western popular songs and today occupy the top positions of the world charts.

It is precisely on the cultural roots of the East-West binomial that one of the most important challenges in the process of renewal of contemporary society takes place, constantly poised between spirituality and materialism, collectivism and individualism.

Take Me to the Border

The notion of identity is closely related to that of community, insofar as the intimate experience shared by an individual becomes the access key to the truth of a certain social group. In this way, a circular movement is activated, and it is precisely the effectiveness of this ritual interaction, by empowering all participants to enhance relationships, that is the actual glue of community bonding.

The balance established between artist and community is crucial in terms of openness, transparency, mutual interest, and communication. It is a delicate, give-receive-return negotiation process that involves shared responsibility between the parties in creating something new.

The temporal component, as well as voluntary participation, are the two essential prerequisites for establishing a significant relationship with the other. Whether it is a book, a film, or an installation, my research methodology involves a first phase of collecting materials in the field and a second phase of dramaturgical rewriting and final editing. Starting from the confrontation, the aim is to recompose the multiplicity of points of view into a single personal view. The choral exchange with the different subjects is as important as the need to make the work accessible—in its formal synthesis—through the filter of individual authorship. In fact, the spirit of reciprocity that characterizes the process phase is fundamental even at the moment of the exhibition, in which the community has the possibility of creating a new dialogue, direct and singular, with each of the individuals involved during the production. In this way, if an active relationship is established between the artist, participating community, and public, the work of art can fulfill its function of radical education. Starting from these premises, the experience of the relationships established at the local level on the occasion of Portami al confine—a video installation produced in 2017 for the tenth anniversary of MUSMA Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Matera and now permanently hosted in one of the halls of Palazzo Pomarici—has been significant. Twenty-five refugees, farmers, minors, social workers, and elders explore possible ways to live together.

With regard to the sense of community, what I was interested in investigating is the concept of capacity—a term that can be translated as the potential to contain something external. In this case, I interpreted it as the degree of hospitality, meaning how much the community was able to tolerate the other—the foreigner, the immigrant, the tourist.

By community I do not just mean the people of Matera, but I refer to the community of practice made up of the people who have come together in this project, even from neighboring regions, with a common goal.

The first step to awaken the curiosity of the participants was distributing a poster with a letter dedicated to the city, for which I was inspired by the 1978 Lettera ai Materani by sculptor Pietro Consagra. The participants could take one in exchange for their collaboration. I still see these posters hung in people’s homes, on the walls next to the billboards, in municipal offices, in schools, all around Matera.

Transforming the museum into a space dedicated to welcoming—not to be understood as a gesture, but as a path of accompaniment—I thought of an exposition that would not only be an exhibition opportunity but also a production one, an incipit for a laboratory of permanent training in the territory.

The goal of my research is not just to create an artwork, but to open up a space, through its creation, to raise questions. In this sense, the idea of a border coincides with a possibility, an attractive value in terms of relationships that can be established between individuals—the border, then, not as a line that delimits, but as a space in which we find ourselves sharing an experience. And this is what happened during the workshops held in the rooms of the museum. I asked the participants to expose themselves by interpreting their own idea of border, to discuss it with that of others. There were those who ascribed the concept of the border to inner vulnerability and those who spoke of it in philosophical and political terms. I would then invite them to write down their new idea of border, which appeared inevitably changed as a result of the confrontation. Each person shared it, creating a collective conversation with no linearity. I was interested in shifting each person’s limits, to push them to take on another’s point of view, which they felt was close or distant. We would then leave the safe context of the museum and go down to the street. Each person worked on their own border, trying to overcome it, looking for their own key to cross it. Portami al confine represents each participant’s attempt to lead me to the place where the relationship with the community is established.

The process remains hidden and visible at the same time. The technique over time has been refined, yet, each time, I myself push the borders of my action in new directions.

I usually only involve people with whom I can establish a good dialogue, building a relationship over time. I ask them questions resulting from a shared workshop activity. The first questions generate answers and reflections that I then transcribe, among which I create associations through the practice of rewriting. It outlines a conversation that is never real because, although it takes place in a one-to-one dialogue, it is recreated according to a different order that associates and diverges points of view. A new sociality is thus generated—a collective portrait, a social sculpture starting from individual points of view that produce, together, a new interpretation of the community.

The Duty to Tell the Truth

I have always tried to establish a unique relationship in each meeting that individuals choose to attend. This is where the stories originate: from the urge to be heard, even by oneself. You could say that the artwork creates a mechanism of sharing, starting with the fact that you have something to say and that you choose to say it to me.

Today, the duty to tell the truth is up to intellectuals and artists—a mission defined by the daily choice to take risks. “If the thinker does not relate himself to the value of truth in political struggle, he cannot responsibly cope with the whole of live experience,” as we are reminded by Edward Said.

About the responsibility of re-imagining the world, in my opinion, the challenge will be to identify alternative ways of relating and, in particular, to be able to have more possibilities of exchange. A risk that arises not only when you start a community relationship, but already when a meaningful dialogue is triggered with one person. As in a love relationship, if the dialogue is not reciprocal it does not work.

The most emblematic encounter in this regard was with Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, which in 2019 led to the creation of a video installation entitled Dialogue with the Unseen. It is Said again who writes: “In dark times, an intellectual is very often looked to by members of his or her nation to represent, speak out for, and testify to the suffering of that nationality.” In my case, the crucial issue was to reconcile my identity, the characteristics of my art, and my vision of society with the Palestinian identity, culture, and history, which are often represented in a rhetorical, ideological, and superficial way.

I met Saleh Bakri in Haifa, in the summer of 2014, while Operation Protective Edge was being carried out in Gaza. Understanding each other’s intentions was not easy, since we were talking on the phone or by email. Yet, when he invited me for a coffee on his terrace overlooking the sea, the barriers dissolved and a fellowship was born, of which I am still extremely proud today, both on a human and professional level. The figure of Saleh Bakri is emblematic not only for the roles he has chosen and interpreted on the big screen but also for the stances he has taken as an iconic intellectual of the new Palestinian generation at the international level. I was not looking for an actor, but an aware individual who could make himself available to listen to the urgencies of the local community.

After a series of meetings, conversations, and confrontations, we wrote a four-handed alternative story to the occupation and war, intending to give visibility to individuals mostly unknown to the mainstream media, yet engaged, daily, in acts of creative resistance. In fact, what interested me were the strategies that individuals adopt, on a community level, to overcome trauma. I believe that this is the function of art—to shift the perspective concerning the points of view to which we are accustomed, to avoid perpetuating a model that always repeats itself without evolution.

Starting from that specific context, my goal was to tell a universal story, so that everyone— regardless of their origin, education, and religious beliefs—entering the installation could ask themselves simple, and at the same time profound questions about the meaning of the divine, nature, and society.

Through DJ Eisa Khalifa’s gaze, pointing towards Nazareth at sunset from Mount Precipice, and poet Asmaa Azaizeh’s real voice on what remains of old Haifa, Dialogue with the Unseen explores the sense of belonging and the cultural identity of a resistant community.

Saleh Bakri walks along a path in the Negev rocky desert, passes through the lunar landscape of Maktesh Ramon crater, and the looped scene turns into a hypnotic, abstract, and metaphysical image. The audience is invited to move through the space, immerse themselves in that landscape, and engage with different views that may challenge their own consideration of the concept of invisibility.

One of my purposes, as an artist, is to foster the desire for relationship and a capacity for action, experimenting with alternative methods to those we already know. The space of relationships is also a space of resistance, in which possibilities arise that allow us to see things from a new point of view. However, I do not believe that this can be achieved if we understand participation and relationality as factors exclusively internal to artistic practice. Confrontation, active listening, and identification of needs are possible by dialoguing, facing each other. It is a matter of responsibility. Why do you make art and what do you seek? Along with the necessity to address this question on an individual level, the role of trust in relationships has become more and more important to me.  This means getting to grips with the mistrust that initially characterizes relational dynamics and, above all, with the continuous possibility of renegotiating one’s own perspectives according to different strategies.

In the Same Direction

If truth is as limitless and unconditional as a land without defined paths, my attempt has been to trace some of them that I covered personally. Over twenty years I have investigated and told different stories, taken from common contexts and then reassembled, like the pieces of a mosaic, within an overall image.

According to French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, “what art can convey is a specific formation, configuration, or self-perception of the contemporary world.” Participation and knowledge through images are therefore both a tool and a goal that we must take into account today.

Universal means going in the same direction, being in the mind and practice with no distinction, and in this sense sharing through trust, not only in the other, but also in the same social bond, is one of the main keys of my research.

Persevering in working in isolation within one’s own studio or only in designated contexts is anachronistic and leads to works that often have the result of alienating the public. I believe that art must now return to vibrate with reality so that we can narrow that gap with those who are still convinced that what we are dealing with is a luxury.

Through a reconfiguration of the dynamics of production and exhibition, through a more empathetic, authentic and human approach, we can now, as artists, make a difference—but only if we look ourselves in the eyes, and learn to listen to each other, one at a time.

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