Author Archive

Climate Change’s Place in Literature

June 22, 2017

Interesting reflection on literature and climate change, and the challenges of writing

Artists & Climate Change

Climate change does not feature prominently in the landscape that comprises literary fiction. When the subject does appear, it is far more likely to be in nonfiction work. Sadly, the writers who write science fiction, the genre to which climate change has been relegated, are not taken seriously by the literary world. They will for instance rarely be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Global literature has shown that mainstream writers regularly respond to war and national emergencies of all kinds, but somehow climate change has so far proved resistant to their interest.

In the modern novel, it seems that subjects like climate change move to the background, while as what we experience in our everyday lives and relationships moves to the foreground. As Amitav Ghosh explains in his book The Great Derangement, the techniques that are identified with the contemporary novel exclude climate change, because its science and effects…

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Call for Artists: WetlandLIFE

June 7, 2017
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Fenlake Meadows. Photo: Tim Acott

The WetlandLIFE Research Team are looking for artists whose work can contribute to our knowledge and appreciation of wetlands and mosquitoes. By this we mean artworks, in any medium, that seek to influence our awareness, understanding, attitudes, emotions, values or behaviour towards them, and the ecological and social interactions that have brought them into being. This might be done by communicating the findings of researchers about wetlands and mosquitoes to new audiences, challenging how we think about them, or changing how we feel about them – perhaps helping us connect with them in new ways.

This is an exciting opportunity for artists to work alongside local communities and a diverse team of environmental researchers to show how art can influence how we value nature and ecosystem services. The focus of work will be on the Somerset Levels, Humber Levels and Thames Estuary, although reference will also be made to a broad range of inland and marine wetlands across England to capture the diversity of these places.

We are offering three bursaries of £5,000 each (total of £15,000). Artists can apply for the total amount – and create work that relates to the project’s three case study sites or to wetlands in general – or for one bursary worth £5000 – perhaps focusing specifically on one of the sites. We welcome applications from consortiums of artists working together to address all three sites. The bursaries cover the artist(s) fees, accommodation and travel, and all costs associated with the production and display of the artworks.

Artworks by the successful artist/s will be included in a final touring exhibition, planned in early/mid 2019, which will visit each of the three case study sites.

The full brief is available on the WetlandLIFE website.

WetlandLIFE is one of the projects funded through the multi-Research Council Valuing Nature Programme.

Anne Douglas – Low Carbon Futures: what have the arts and humanities got to do with it?

May 30, 2017

How many lawyers does it take to make Scotland low carbon? How many artists? You might think it doesn’t matter – it’s the scientists, engineers and politicians who will make the difference.

But increasingly it is recognised that our addition to fossil fuels is as much cultural as it is infrastructural. Single occupancy car use is related to our western individualism as is the instant, always ‘on’ culture of 24/7 which leaves no ‘down time’ and means that everything is available always (including summer fruits in the middle of winter) . The overarching question throughout the two days whether explored philosophically, legally or in terms of journalism, was How have we constructed this culture?” Before we can change it, we need to grasp our entanglements.

Connecting with a Low Carbon Future, University of Stirling, Law and Philosophy Department 19th-20th April, 2017

This conference explored what the arts and humanities can offer the transition to a low carbon future. Until recently the issue has been dominated by science and technology but there is a growing recognition that transition is equally a social and cultural issue.

Co-ordinated by Professor Gavin Little, Department of Law and Philosophy, as part of a research project funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the ambition for the event was high. The conference drew research papers from throughout Europe deliberately clustered into humanities disciplines that were closely related: law and politics; philosophy, culture and history; theatre studies and literature; visual arts, media and cultural studies.

The convenors framed a number of challenges. What might the humanities offer in terms of:

  • identifying barriers to low carbon transitions
  • achieving transition in ways that are ethically just
  • understanding and influencing political power?

Researchers across all domains are accustomed to revealing to peers what they understand differently as a consequence of a process of inquiry – negotiating knowledge within a discipline. It is a kind of test in the company of others equally equipped with the relevant expertise to judge the level, depth and authority of what is claimed. We work within disciplines as knowledge domains and traditionally in the arts and humanities, as lone researchers.

This gathering challenged us to undertake a different approach.

Firstly, arts and humanities disciplines needed to open up their discrete and individualistic ways of knowing, to come together on a shared issue: transition to a low carbon future. The parallel sessions organised in the closely aligned discipline clusters revealed clearly how the issue of transition reaches to the heart of how we, as human beings, make meaning and confer value. At no point to my knowledge was the potential of arts and humanities research on the issue in question. Nonetheless it became clear that it would take time to figure out how to be effective in an area normally associated with science and technology.

Secondly transition necessitates dialogue across disciplines but frequently when such dialogues take place, they only operate at a very superficial level. This gathering encouraged us to encounter other ways of knowing and examine the assumptions and constraints of other knowledge practices (as well as our own). A better understanding of assumptions and constraints might forge new connections across the different disciplines representing the arts and humanities.

Thirdly, knowledge of transition needs practical and experiential as well as theoretical ways of knowing. This was possibly the least developed aspect. As academics we are accustomed to being experts that draw from human society, its materials and practices, for the purposes of analysis and to pass wisdom on as the end point of the research process. This linearity and its implicit power relationship needs to be rethought to construct modalities of co-researching with non academic partners. This was touched on through notions of action, activism and practice based research but not perhaps yet fully grasped in the discussions as a radically different research approach.

Across the two days we encountered rich narratives of research that revealed the degree to which the arts and humanities try to understand the future from the past. The rate and nature of climate change has in many ways confounded learning in this way – climate change provokes us to think outside of the limits of our current knowledge and imagine what might be. Putting the issue of escalating change vividly, Professor Jose Albelda Raga, artist and ecologist from the Polytechnic University of Valencia in his co-authored paper with Nuria Sanchez, cited the Global Footprint Network that had proposed that our current rate of consumption will shortly exceed 1.5 planets while we only have the knowledge to inhabit one.

For some, notably Julian Dobson from Sheffield Hallam, who has been researching institutions committed to low carbon cultures, we need to become less dependent upon what has gone before and carefully examine systems in relation to logics of value – a university will value education whereas a local government will value civic responsibility. Inevitably there will be discord but this can become a creative opportunity if we forgo a set of cultural values based in expectation (of a secured life style, within an economic systems based in growth and development) to values of hope. It is only by relinquishing expectation that we could ever countenance our own possible extinction. The juxtaposition of the values represented by, on the one hand, expectation and on the other, hope is particularly challenging. One is focused on ‘what we have’ and the other on ‘what we might need’…

Professor Janet Stewart, University of Durham, delivered the first keynote. She framed the complexities and sheer difficulties of the issues of a low carbon future by evidencing how since 19th century industrialisation, metaphors of extraction had become hardwired into our everyday thinking, locking us into particular ways of imagining ourselves in the world. These both reveal and conceal the implications of fossil fuel dependence.

Stewart explored how photography for example is materially tied into the oil industry even though this is not explicitly acknowledged. It is also the main medium through which we are trained to see and celebrate extractive processes, for example in museum displays that draw on earth sciences. She referenced the recent development of energy displays in Vienna’s Museum of Technology. In various seductive ways oil culture and fossil fuel dependence in the 21st century had become ‘hidden from plain view’. We pretend, for example, that digital communication is in some sense immaterial, or at least drawing on ‘clean energy’, while in fact the storage and transfer of digital data is causing significant environmental problems.

Stewart’s keynote offered a number of important insights that were revisited across the two days, principally the recognition of how difficult it is to escape from current ways of thinking and acting. We are consistently reinforcing what Stewart termed ‘extractive seeing’ as a cultural regime and find it hard to escape the control that such a regime exercises. We ‘mine information’ and ‘read deeply’. To move away from this type of control, we need to think about ‘decarbonised seeing’ to begin to displace ‘extractive seeing’ and to come to the surface in reading the world.

Dr Pietari Kappa, University of Warwick, resonated the gap between subject matter and material practices in the film industry. Film producers might draw attention to the need for a low carbon future through the content of a film narrative but rarely produced film following low carbon practices. A much quoted example was the Mad Max film series, a dystopian narrative about a post oil culture that has been produced through conventional high carbon consumption. The whole industry is rife with contradiction and in some cases, forms of delusion. He placed ICT technologies at a carbon footprint of 3 per cent which equates with flights.

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Other presentations (notably Louise Guibrunet, University of London, and her exploration of the informal labour of refuse collectors in Mexico City) emphasised the importance of contradiction as a research tool and that meaning cannot be abstracted out of and away from the context of experience. The standoff between local government in Mexico City and an informal, but essential, public service of waste collection helped her to grasp the social, cultural, economic and political issues of waste pickers in a particular suburb of Mexico City. Echoing Julian Dobson’s point about discord in civic life, she pointed out that the Mexican government, unlike other areas of Latin America, could not formally recognise the important work of waste pickers because such work was illegal. This locked in the problem of escalating waste in the city centre. Arriving at shared meaning involves taking on perspectives that might radically differ from our own, not as a process of measurement or aggregation but as an encounter with difference that at some point requires resolution to move on, even if that resolution is to live with the contradiction.

In this respect the significance of practice outside of the academic institution, formed an important issue within some of the sessions, but perhaps insufficiently. This issue was revisited in the plenary. In this presentation Dr Dominic Hinde, University of Edinburgh, an environment correspondent working globally, emphasised the need to draw together the practice of journalism with research practice to ensure that a topic as pressing as the Anthropocene did not disappear from view. Journalism as a practice was in chaos economically and politically. Reporting the Anthropocene demanded a practice that was not caught up in capitalism. It needed to be a research practice that was decolonised, e.g. by forming global networks of mutually supportive researchers/practitioners.

The role of the imagination appeared in many guises. Without imagination it would be impossible to think ‘time’, to conceive a time long before human existence or, as we currently understand the future, long after such existence has ceased. Imagination and language, working in the contexts of particular interests, make visible and also conceal what we think to be ‘true’ or ‘real’. Camille Biros and Caroline Rossi, Université Grenoble Alpes, have undertaken to analyse the corpus of the United Nations and a selection of NGOs to track and define justice through these texts, using particular software. The research sets out to map the different interests at work in full knowledge that the least responsible are the most effected. It also reveals that justice is largely defined from the perspective of human self- interest. It is worth noting perhaps that this focus runs counter to recent developments to grant legal status, ‘personhood’, to aspects of ‘nature’ such as New Zealand’s Whanganui River, sacred to the Maori people.

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In introducing the plenary session, Professor Little explored the challenges of interdisciplinarity that occur in opening up new research domains such as Energy Humanities and Environmental Humanities. He stressed the value of discipline specific knowledge, its rigorous evolution and identifiable expertise. He re-iterated Joe Moran’s notion of inter-disciplinarity – it challenges old disciplines to interact and contribute expertise to a common practice. He drew a distinction between radical and moderate forms of collaboration where the former attempts to cross significant boundaries such as literature and hard sciences, risking superficiality and the latter has a more moderate, but potentially more profound ambition to interact with expertise that is more alike and by implication, less superficial e.g. politics and media. Hence the conference was structured in relation to close discipline alliances. Gavin Little made a powerful case for why issues such as a low carbon future cannot be left to science and technology alone as they demand a tectonic shift in human thought and value systems.

I share the concern to avoid superficiality, the tendency particularly in science/art collaborations to bolt the arts onto science in a purely illustrative function. It is interesting to note how rarely artists, for example, collaborate with disciplines that are close to them, preferring instead to make alliances with scientists. This is evident in the practice of the Harrisons, ecology artists, that our own paper*, co-authored with Chris Fremantle, addressed. Our point was to develop a framework for understanding the contribution the arts could make to transition. We looked at the early work of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, founders of the art and ecology movement. In particular we focused on the way in which their approach constructs dialogue across disciplines (including the sciences), contexts (local/global), constituencies (institutions, individuals, organisations) focused on a very particular ecological issue – the food chain of catfish, the ecological interdependence between algae and brine shrimp. In other words their practice begins with a very local observation from which a conversation is generated that involves whoever can support, problematize or imagine the implications of single instance of organic life for planetary well-being.

The Harrisons frame questions, for some of which there is no known methodology. They engage the imagination of multiple contributors in speculating on the implications of certain hard won insights that emerge through shared inquiry. Alongside this kind of speculative imagination that draws rigorously on evidence based research, there is practical wisdom – knowledge and experiences of place and dwelling in everyday life. They show how the arts, and by extension the humanities, draw together rigour with participation /collaboration, imagination with data and its interpretation. Arguably all these are essential to facing a future that will be completely different from the past and present.

In other words climate change and the move towards a low carbon future, it would appear, is pushing us in the arts and humanities to move quickly and in multiple directions – to move beyond a love of well honed skills/methods to become immersed in issues as they appear in life, in places, with individuals and communities, to see ourselves as part of the materiality of experience and to develop our research from a proactive, if not activist, position.

In the plenary, Nuria Sanchez made a radical proposal for developing the discussion out of her experience of delivering an innovative interdisciplinary Diploma in sustainability, ecological Ethics and environmental education at the University of Valencia, led by Professor Jose Albelda . She proposed that we start with a question core to transition, using the conference to generate a paper by working in interdisciplinary teams that would be presented as the end point of a conversation. This proposal, completely alien to most arts and humanities academics would on the one hand require teamwork and the negotiation of the boundaries of several disciplines and on the other speed, for she proposed that the paper might be written in a couple of days.

What are the wider implications of Nuria’s proposal?

It would mean centring our questions on matters of the environment whether or our disciplines were accustomed to framing such questions i.e. questions that at the point of posing them, may not be possible to answer from within a single discipline.

It would mean listening deeply to forms of expertise beyond our own discipline and figuring out the relationship that that discipline’s way of knowing bears to our own, encountering and embracing difference as well as discord as a creative, generative force.

It would mean rethinking rigour. This is currently invested in selecting and applying method appropriately but may came to mean understanding the degree to which method itself shapes and limits what can be known. It would mean developing skills in constructing relations (across disciplines as well as non academic partnerships), skills of empathy and of the imagination.

It would mean rethinking the dichotomy between ‘pure’ ‘primary’ research and ‘functional’ ‘urgent’ research, questioning the assumption that primary research is not functional or pure research is not urgent. In other words new ways of thinking about life on earth through literature might be recognised as as urgent as understanding bark beetle infestations.

It would mean rethinking economies of research, Ecology and economy share the same root of ‘oiko’ meaning ‘home’. Instead of research feeding capitalist economies i.e. research that makes money and addressing the side effects that follow, this approach demands that we rethink how to manage resources in sustaining life to narrow the gap between rich and poor as part of taking take care of the environment.


Notes

* Abstract: How do artists meet the challenges of a low carbon future? The poetics of ecology art practice
Anne Douglas and Chris Fremantle

We are accustomed to analysing and evaluating the work of art in ecology in terms of a ‘one-off’ project or intervention, as subject matter more than process. We argue that it is the poetics of a practice taken as a whole that is key to understanding how artists address the challenges of a low carbon future.

A practice is simultaneously a belief about what can be known (an ontology) and a form of action in the world. Ontologies underpin discipline specific knowledge. They are powerful. They draw on existing knowledge (epistemologies) and follow explicit approaches (methodologies) in order to create a position of authority through consensus, conformity and verification within each discipline’s community.

In contrast, an artist’s practice is put together/ made by an individual. It evolves over time, subjectively. The artist as ecologist works with the complexity of specific experiences and contexts, open to divergent, contradictory views and values. Managing complexity is important to ecology’s tracing of relations and interdependencies within natural systems.

Drawing on the work of Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison as a foundational practice in art and ecology since the early 1970s, we will establish a framework for understanding how the arts in ecology enable us as critical citizens to take, rather than defer, responsibility to science or governments. The Harrisons’ practice is driven by carefully framed questions that enable participants to judge what is important/unimportant in a particular situation. They deploy a metaphor for sharing knowledge and understanding. ‘Conversational drift’ forms and informs slowly like a glacier, gathering momentum while creating the energy for change.

The Same Hillside

May 25, 2017

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It was a seemingly unlikely pair forming the panel after the Crypic Nights premier of The Same Hillside at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. The one who looked like a farmer (checked shirt and flat cap) was the documentary film-maker John Wallace, the other (long hair and beard a t-shirt with a ‘pirate’ skull and crossbones) was soil scientist and a co-author of International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports Professor Pete Smith.* This art science collaboration has been going on for some years now and The Same Hillside is the third piece of work to result from this ongoing partnership. It’s interesting because there are several other on-going relationships between artists and natural and social scientists in Scotland at the moment, many focused upon land use, social impact and critical environmental change.

The Same Hillside is an immersive installation with projections on three screens as well as the floor, and a sound installation in the foyer. If I tell you it is an exploration of the landscape through the lens of Ecosystems Services (this is an extension of ideas about nature as capital, something with social and economic value) you might think it belongs on the Open University YouTube channel rather than in an arts centre. You couldn’t be more wrong.

John Wallace described his interest as a documentary film-maker in finding structures or lenses external to himself to use in constructing his work. These ‘constraints’ are devices John Wallace uses to clarify his current inquiry and focus upon what interests him. It forces him to follow other lines and explore subjects he might not otherwise take up on his own. Hearing Pete Smith talking about Ecosystem Services Assessment (a method of assessing the services that aspects of an ecosystem provides to human society) and the aspects of land-use that this reveals, John Wallace saw potential for a way to explore and make strange again a landscape with which he was deeply familiar. This was a chance to see with fresh eyes.

It isn’t common knowledge, but three major Scottish rivers flow from one hillside in the South of Scotland to opposite sides of the country: the Annan into the Solway Firth, the Clyde through Glasgow into the Firth of Clyde, and the Tweed into the North Sea. With this in mind, Pete Smith and John Wallace defined a 20 mile radius ‘study area,’ that worked from the common ground at the top of these three watersheds. The questions they wanted to explore revolve around the ways that these networks of land and water delight and serve human communities.

Wallace set out to explore different aspects of these ecosystems in relation to the ‘services’ provided to human society. Ecosystems provide natural products and raw materials such as food, wood and water, when intact and healthy they regulate flooding process, turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, they support us by recycling nutrients and enabling pollination. The Cryptic Nights information sheet notes,

“The area is home to five drinking water reservoirs, over 300MW of installed wind capacity, the West Coast Main Line, 400kV power transmission lines, the M74 motorway, thousands of acres of commercial forestry, hill farms, salmon redds, blanket bogs, and rare and delicate subalpine habitats.”

Ecosystems also provide aesthetic, biodiversity and spiritual services, a set of cultural interrelationships that have proven more difficult on to which to put economic value.

As a documentary film-maker John Wallace sought out the human stories which reveal deep and complicated relationships, a lifetime of meaning. Whether that’s the train driver talking about the impact of one 40-car supermarket haul and how many trucks that takes off the road, or the modern Saw Mill that uses the waste material to generate energy. John Wallace’s style is not interrogative or even prodding. So it is interesting when climate change keeps coming up in different narratives. It’s clearly an essential part of the reality for a wide range of people living, working and managing transport in the Scottish landscape.

Whilst ‘place’ as a vital facet of identity has been a signal thread in Scottish art-making for at least a generation, it usually focuses on a recognisable place. The Same Hillside focuses on a part of the country that supports a lot of other ‘places’, the towns and cities downstream. It embeds a bioregional or watershed-based approach: Dumfries, Glasgow, Berwick and all the other settlements on the Annan, Clyde and Tweed are all dependent on the health and viability of this upland territory.

John Wallace’s interviews with people living and working in this place focus upon the production and transmission of energy; the transportation routes; the scale of commercial forestry and the range of resulting products, the value of the peatland in sequestering carbon, as well as a means of provisioning game for hunting sport. The last scenes follow a group exploring the Spring at Hartfell as a specific example of the cultural and spiritual dimension of the landscape.

Underlying John Wallace’s sensitive handling of people and landscapes are the sorts of data sets that Pete Smith works with. Where the films on the screens take our conscious attention with stories, the data projected on the floor is telling another story, of car and truck movements on the M74, of rainfall, of the monitoring of land-use.

What is apparent watching The Same Hillside is that some bad decisions have been made in this landscape in the past – planting commercial forestry on the best farmland and draining the peat for grazing are two striking examples. After hearing about healthy watersheds with forest cover it was curious to look at images in the closing minutes. The last shot features long views from the hilltop down through the valley where there is hardly a tree to be seen. Here, water is sacred and aesthetics is provided by nature. Nature necessitates a healthy highland and stream corridor with plants and trees to regulate flow and temperature allowing for best conditions for all living things. Is the spirit in place, without its animating forces?

The Same Hillside (and the earlier works Cinema Sark and Sark-Tweed) don’t fit into existing categories of documentary film or installation art. They draw on languages of place and site-specificity, but also, albeit quietly, of everyday activism. They speak to the Anthropocene, that humans are affecting everything, without ever mentioning the term. The sawmill using its own waste product to generate energy is a form of attention to process, which goes beyond everything being focused by ‘the product’.

We need more productive partnerships between people like Professor Pete Smith and John Wallace – processes that extend beyond a project into a long term dialogue, interactions between those who work with data and inform policy, and those who work with sound, image, form and narrative. These connections with the artists and film-makers draw the sciences into the everyday of a critically positioned arts practice. Working across disciplines can challenge assumptions and lead to the emergence of new forms.

With thanks to Tim Collins for his comments and suggestions.

* The partnership between Wallace and Smith started during Do Not Resuscitate a series of events organised by Mike Bonaventura, then CEO of the Critchon Carbon Centre. Do Not Resuscitate brought together artists and scientists, drawing on the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programmes. The first piece of work resulting from this collaboration was Cinema Sark (2013), presented as part of the Environmental Art Festival Scotland, and focusing on the River Sark which is the boundary between Dumfries & Galloway and Cumbria, between Scotland and England. Wallace and Smith’s partnership isn’t the only significant outcome of Do Not Resuscitate – it contributed to the shape of the Environmental Art Festival Scotland and led to a residency programme Nil by Mouth.

Postponed: Harrison Studio event

May 23, 2017

ecoartscotland is sad to report that The Harrison Studio event at Woodend Barn has had to be postponed.

The Barn’s announcement is as follows, 

“The Dee and Don catchment areas Creating Resilience to Climate Change

The Barn team are extremely sorry to announce that due to the ill health of artist Newton Harrison, we are unable to proceed with our planned discussion event on Sunday 11th June. Newton expects to be able to travel to Scotland in late August or early September, and we look forward to re-arranging a date once the situation is clear.”

Read the full statement here including a document outlining the key issues that are being addressed by the project.

The Harrison Studio at Woodend Barn

May 19, 2017

ecoartscotland is thrilled to be able to share the news that The Harrison Studio will be working in Scotland with Woodend Barn. Apologies for cross-posting.


Barn Harrisons image

Invitation

The Dee and Don catchment areas
Creating Resilience to Climate Change

The Barn, Sunday 11 June 2017
7-9pm. Refreshments from 6.30pm

We are delighted to invite you to an evening of discussion in the company of internationally acclaimed artist Newton Harrison of the Harrison Studio (USA), who, along with partner Helen Mayer Harrison, has championed art & ecology across the globe since the late 1960’s.

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The Barn has invited Newton Harrison to visit Aberdeenshire to open a conversation leading to action, involving local agencies and communities in exploring the impacts of climate change on our local environment, centering initially on the catchments of the Dee and Don rivers. Following the Harrisons’ methodology, we hope to create a space where all voices can be heard and practical strategies can be formulated and shared.

This partnership forms the core of the Barn’s Art & Ecology programme for 2017-19, and will engage with environmental agencies, farming, fishing, forestry, government, academia, local communities and, not least, the creative sector.

We very much hope that you would like to be involved in supporting this project from the outset, and are able to join us for this opening event with Newton Harrison at the Barn.

Lorraine Grant, Anne Douglas and Mark Hope

RSVP to mail@thebarnarts.co.uk tel 01330 826520

For further information on the Harrison Studio please visit
http://theharrisonstudio.net/

Banner image: Chris Fremantle. Photograph: Mel Shand


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