CULTURE

It’s like a Death Dance: An interview with Demian DinéYazhi´

Death Dance honors indigenous and brown punk energy during TBA on Sept. 16

Death gives way to life, to regrowth, and to rebirth, but there is a certain nuance to the dying that has much to tell us about the times, observable in the particular ethos of destructionbe it environmental, social, or political. For Demian DinéYazhi´, a Portland-based indigenous queer artist born to the clans Naasht’ézhí Tábąąhá (Zuni Clan Water’s Edge) and Tódích’íí’nii (Bitter Water), ideas surrounding a death have become the lynchpin of an evening he has curated to honor “the labor and intelligence of indigenous and brown punk energy.” Set to take place Sept. 16 and happening as part of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Arts Festival, it will be a Death Dance.

Rebecca Jones, lead singer of WEEDRAT

A person of many practices, including poetry, visual art, curation, and organizing through R.I.S.E.: Radical Indigenous Survivance & Empowerment (of which he is founder and director), DinéYazhi´ is no stranger to culling a variety of mediums into one compelling happening. However, the name of the event was originated by another indigenous artist from the region, Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos and American) in a pivotal conversation with DinéYazhi´ after the 2016 national election. “This is a conversation that I was having numerous times with primarily indigenous and activist-based friends,” DinéYazhi´ explained, noting their pervasive sense of being overwhelmed by the burgeoning of white supremacist momentum in the United States and its perpetuation by the government.

Through these conversations, DinéYazhi´ was seeking clarity. “Of course this makes sense,” he reflected. “These people will be out of power. They stole this country. They will be out of power in a few generations, and this is just one of the last attempts to maintain and assert that power, and really just f*ck people over as a way to hang on to this archaic heteropatriarchal, settler colonial mentality.” DinéYazhi´ was discussing this mode of thinking with Siestreem during a visit to her studio, when Siestreem made the connection: it’s like a death dance, like the morbid movements that salmon do as they are in the process of dying—the final throes.

When invited to curate an evening of performance for TBA, DinéYazhi´ explained, “I was just really interested in continuing this idea of the Death Dance, but while also trying to support indigenous and brown artists, indigenous and brown communities, that continue to be largely underrepresented within the Portland contemporary art scene, the Portland music scene, but also the theoretical and critically engaged communities who are really trying to dissect race politics, you know, death and survival politics. All these communities are, I still feel like, ignoring indigenous and brown bodies.”

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TBA: A dark, dead thoroughbred

Earplugs, distortion, and a 9-foot figure in a gown amp up the mood for o'neal and gaskin's packed house: "Is TBA a place for rage?"

The press release for Dead Thoroughbred reads, in entirety:

“DT is peri-conceptual, dis-experimental, and a-nihilist.

DT is a blackened performance that is never not happening.

DT is après-queer and post-ratchet.

DT is anti anti-capital capital.

DT is heavy evasion– worthless.

DT is useless currency devoid of value and wide in circulation.

DT has null intension and null extension.

DT is dead frivolous af.

DT is detrital presence; an exhaustion of lack.

DT is at least sidony o’neal and

keyon gaskin.”

The performance in the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s TBA Festival took place in the black-cinderblock box of the PICA annex space. Seats and a few spots on the floor surrounded a clearing for a stage, divided diagonally to make space for two audio setups – laptops, mics, an Ableton pad, various pedals. A lattice of what appeared to be IV bags filled with either black or clear liquid hung near the door to the main building.

keyon gaskin and sidony o’neal

It was a packed house, and everyone had been emphatically encouraged to use earplugs. The door shut and the audience had a few minutes to shift in their seats, adjust their earplugs, and then all the lights went down with an audible clank from some switch somewhere.

We sat for a beat in darkness cut by the red exit signs, then the enormous roll door that made up most of the outside wall churned to life and began to rise. As it rose, it revealed the defiant stance of gaskin’s legs, shod in a pair of severe, black stilettos, but as it continued up, their silhouette appeared impossibly tall and massive, draped in a black satin gown. When the door finally opened enough to reveal the whole figure, we saw it was topped with oneal’s head. o’neal was sitting on gaskin’s shoulders, and their whole form fit into the incredible, authoritative garment. The gown would fit just as well at a formal gala for a secret society as at the head of some interplanetary council, where 9-foot figures were expected.

They strutted in, and the room tensed with the precariousness of the situation – gaskin somehow navigating the room he could see only through the fabric over their eyes, walking on stilettos, pulling a black satin train that must have been 20 feet long. It was captivating, challenging, and incredibly effective for how simple an illusion it was. Once fully in the room, o’neal stepped down from gaskin’s shoulders, creating a centaur-like form as gaskin stayed under the trailing fabric and they moved in unison.

Eventually they split to opposite corners of the room, and the lights went down after o’neal lit a hurricane lamp and a cigarette. From there the show became harder to describe, which seemed to be by design.

For the rest of the show, which was about half an hour, gaskin and o’neal dueled on their audio setups, with loops of feedback, distortion, ragged tones, samples, and drones. gaskin worked the room with a movement performance seen mostly in shadow, lit his own cigarette, and o’neal spoke lines, whispered to individuals in the crowd, triggered audio samples and effects, and paced the room, at later points pouring bleach onto the floor. The two kept the audience in this diffuse, angry, dark, and challenging space until the lights clanked on with a brutal clarity at the end.

The mood ranged from ponderous to openly hostile, and I think choices were made to leave interpretations open-ended for much of the show. Many choices were also made to make the audience uncomfortable – filling the increasingly warm room with cigarette smoke, the grinding audio, and the direct interactions with the audience. o’neal’s most repeated and audible statement was “Is TBA a place for rage?” The last part, “a place for rage” was sampled live and later triggered by both o’neal and gaskin throughout the performance, underscoring its sentiment. It seemed to dovetail with the audio of a clip of Jim Carrey tearing down the very concept of New York Fashion Week, which played in full, punctuated by the ongoing dissonant soundscape.

o’neal repeated another phrase, or variations of it, but I was unable to catch the whole thing.

“People are disappointing precisely because they …”

I think the last word was “disappoint,” but I’m not certain.

Out on the courtyard afterwards, in the milling crowd, I found myself straining in the same way to catch snippets of the murmurs of the audience.

“Did you have fun” “Fun” “Yeah, that was the word I used.”

“The bleach was what put me over the edge.”

“…the dark thoughts that you would, like, vacuum the house instead to avoid thinking.”

“It’s a sinker.” As in it sinks in.

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gaskin and o’neal will be speaking about this performance at 12:30 pm on Wednesday, September 13.

 

 

Jef Gunn on the coming and going of his art

The Augen Gallery show reflects Gunn's process, creative and spiritual

Jef Gunn moved to Portland in the late 1990s. Over the past 30 years he has participated in numerous exhibitions in the Northwest and has wide ranging teaching experience. Gunn paints in a wide variety of nominal styles. He enjoys using encaustic (pigments in beeswax) because, as he says on his website (www.jefgunn.com): “With encaustic, I can bring together all of my other methods: oils, papers and inks, fabric, tar, and gold. My work draws on multiple lineages of art, culture and spiritual meaning.”

Jef Gunn in his studio, August 2017/Photo by Paul Sutinen

An exhibition of recent paintings is at Augen Gallery through September.

When did you decide that you wanted to be an artist?

I was 13 years old. I remember it. I had always been drawing, but in our house there was no talk about art. We didn’t have a whole lot of books—not that we were poor, but nobody read. Then my mom remarried and on my stepfather’s shelves was everything that Time-Life published. I just started looking at books and I pulled up a volume of Rembrandt from the Time-Life series and I just knew—I just saw—‘oh I get it!’

I want to do that?

No, it’s more like, ‘That’s what I’m doing. Oh, I see what I am now!’

That’s really cool. How did you pursue that?

I drew all the time. I didn’t know they were etchings. I wasn’t reading very well, so I just saw drawings. I could relate to drawings, but they were etchings. So I copied his etchings out of the book.

Then did you move on to other artists after Rembrandt?

Velasquez and Goya. They were in the same series.

Did you take art in high school?

Yeah, I took art in high school. That was like all I could do. I did very poorly in everything else, even gym.

So art was the thing where you thought, ‘This is me and I this is what I do and I’m good at it.’

Actually, in my senior year in high school they said, ‘You’re not doing very well in high school. How about how about you take the last half of your senior year and go up to Pasadena City College and take art classes?’ I said, ‘Yup.’ I went and took color and design and drawing and found out that I wasn’t the only artist in the school. In high school I was the artist in the school. I spent a year not knowing what the hell to do and went back to PCC and then transferred to Cabrillo College. Before Marylhurst [BFA 2005] that was the only college I had—junior college painting classes, and I did a building technology program at the same time.

During your time in high school and college were there teachers or important experiences for you?

I learned most from this one fellow at Cabrillo in Santa Cruz named Tom Allen. I remember him saying the most important people he looked up too were Hans Hofmann (I didn’t know who that was at the time) and Paul Klee. One time he took us on a field trip to the museum at UC Berkeley. There were a lot of Hofmanns.

Jef Gunn, “Ranch Next Over I”, 2015, oil on panel,
12 x 24 inches

What did you think of the Hofmanns at that point?

By the time I started painting I was really interested in Monet and Matisse. I hadn’t gotten into Cézanne yet. I didn’t know what to make of Hofmann because when I was drawing as a teenager it had to be tight. It had to be real. It had to be believable. I was drawing fantasy stuff like people riding dinosaurs.

I took my first painting class in 1975 when I was 20. It was in the mid-’80s—I was in Seattle then—I started looking at Picasso, and I had what I called ‘my cubist epiphany.’ I kind of went to it by way of [Lyonel] Feininger actually.

Yes, I liked Feininger early on, too. There’s something about those lines that describe something that’s there, but not quite there. What do you think about paint? What is your relationship with paint? There are painters who have a relationship with paint itself and there are painters who just want to make an image with paint.

I love everything about it. I love color and form, but also material—I don’t only use oil paint and encaustic—primarily I do that. It’s material, the thing itself. Oil paint can be a lot of different things. It can be dry and wispy or it can be scratchy or wet and gooey. And it reveals your hand. It reveals a momentary gesture. It’s like your mind thinks something, your hand does it, and—something about the springiness of the brush, the viscosity of the paint—it appears as your thought.

When you’re talking that way it makes me think of a violinist with the relationship of their bow and a string on the violin and the thought through the hand.

It’s direct.

Jef Gunn, “Ranch Next Over II”, 2017, oil on panel,
37-1/2 x 61-1/2 inches

Do you have an idea of when you first had that feeling about paint?

I think it took a number of years after I started. In the first five years I had a few kind of interesting paintings. I could create an image that was believable, might have some realism to it, but it becomes really about the paint in the early ‘80s landscapes and portraits and things.

Someone asked Tom Allen how important a likeness is in a portrait painting. He said the first duty of a portrait is to be a good painting and if it’s got a likeness, so much the better. The point is don’t sacrifice good painting for a likeness.

Do you feel there are any painters or painters’ works that that have had a particular influence on you?

Well, all those people we’ve talked about. Picasso and Motherwell, at one point after I started looking at Picasso. Monet previously. But when I got to Barcelona in 1986 (I was there for a year and a quarter), I kept seeing this fellow named [Antoni] Tàpies. So that year was huge because of looking at Tàpies, and he was like something you had to deal with. Every painter in Barcelona has to deal with Tàpies.

He was very prolific.

Outrageously prolific. I used to say the Zen of it just made me stop in my tracks, totally arrested. It was like, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to address this guy?’ On the other hand I was dealing with all that stuff up on the hill—that Romanesque stuff from the 700s, the 900s, was there.

Was there something about Tàpies’s materiality that affected you or something else do you think? It’s very much about thick stuff and other kinds of collage elements.

It was also his marks—marks you could tell carried metaphor—and everything about them. The metaphor that’s often talked about with him is the wall and what a wall could be. And the walls in Barcelona are highly textured, there’s graffiti, sometimes going all the way back to Roman times. And Tàpies used that to create these huge spaces with strange marks that looked like honey, or straw—the Dada of it was a huge force in it as well.

Dada, meaning?

The absurdity of it.

The feeling of chance?

There’s a great deal of chance, but there was always some sense of spiritual import behind it all that I could feel when I first saw it. I couldn’t make sense of it, but I could feel sort of like—if I say this it’s going to sound really ridiculous—a Zen master stands right in front of you. You’ve got to get around him. How are you going to get around him? It really feels like a challenge.

I realized all the things I carried around with me, what made art important—color, design, fine lines, technical dexterity and all these damn things—that’s not really what carries the power of a piece of art. All that’s fine and good and it might have all that, but if it doesn’t have this sort of gravity then maybe it’s just nice, but I got really got interested in stuff that had gravity.

When you say gravity you mean some sort of seriousness and meaning?

Like life and death. Like being and non-being. That’s what Zen is all about, what Buddhism is all about. I wasn’t a Buddhist at that time. I’d done meditation practice, but it felt like those sort of very primal human practices.

Are you Buddhist now?

Yeah.

Does that have anything to do with your painting?

More and more and more, actually.

There are a couple ways to think about that. One is your approach when you’re making the painting and the other is the artwork and what the viewer receives.

For instance I had a show in May of this year at Traver Gallery [in Seattle]. It’s entirely different from oil painting—mostly prints of small objects on Chinese papers mounted onto panels. Very very serene. Very very very very methodical. The same print from a nut shell over and over and over, and each time I printed there’s no thinking about it. There is no deliberation. There’s no philosophy behind it. It’s simply this moment, press, this moment, press, this moment, press— it goes on in a mantra so it’s like a whole visual field of mantra. No one needs to know what the mantra is, but I made it more explicit in my statement for the show. The act of painting is very much like that of meditating.

Do you begin a painting with an idea of what you’re going to do?

Sometimes I do that. Sometimes I see something. I still go out and paint landscapes. Then I come home and I’m dwelling on that landscape.

You paint landscapes on site?

Sometimes they’re finished right there just like classic landscape painting, but more often they’re better if I they cook in the studio and I keep puttering with them and looking at them. Sometimes I’ll look at them for a year. There’s one on the wall there—I thought, “Oh I know what to do,” so I kept it.

The classic abstract expressionist question is how do you know the painting is finished?

It just feels that it’s done. You know Chagall’s answer? I always liked Chagall’s answer: My wife tells me.

You talked about doing drawing from Rembrandt and things like that. Do you still do drawing?

Not as much and I feel guilty about that.

Drawing guilt?

It still feels to me true that it’s the foundation. I used to draw incessantly. I’ve got boxes and boxes of old stuff.

Why do you think that dwindled away?

The more I started painting and the more I started going into the sort of repetition pieces on paper. The more I paint I think more like painting than I think like drawing. There’s an interesting correspondence between Matisse and Bonnard. When Matisse was feeling depressed about his painting, he said that a colorist who is a drawer is not the same thing as a painter, and that made me look at those two painters differently. And even in Bonnard’s drawings he draws like a painter. He draws shapes and textures and squiggles because he’s working the shape and texture in the field of the shape whereas Matisse draws and then puts big flats of color around to the drawing more or less.

The painter Robert Ryman said, “It seems that the main focus of painting is to give pleasure: if someone can receive pleasure from looking at paintings, then that’s the best thing that can happen.” Is there more than pleasure that you want someone to get when looking at your work? Is there an emotional aspect that you seek?

Nowadays what I’m looking for in the work, and maybe it relates to how I know it’s done, is when I start feeling—even if we don’t want state it as drastically as life and death—but is it coming or is it going? That’s a Zen phrase. It’s a Buddhist phrase, but Zen uses that more than others. Is it there or is it not there? Is it somewhere between useless and useful or alive or dead? It’s got to be alive. Painting has to be alive for that to happen, but it should have this—I don’t know if I want to call it at tension because it’s too common a word—no one really knows what it means—but it’s got to arrest me and make me consider my existence for a few minutes. But then again I don’t want to it to be unjoyful. I’m really I’m really interested in joy right now.

How long have you been interested in joy? Was there a time you were interested in something else other than joy?

No, I enjoy painting especially in the landscape paintings, especially the ones I do outside. I have a real joy in painting them even if I am screaming at them and it’s all falling apart because I really enjoy that tussle.

A couple years ago I did something in painting that I’ve never done before. I just had a big canvas and started filling it up randomly, just putting paint on with no design in mind. Over time the painting started looking like a landscape I’d seen a couple years ago, obviously subconsciously showing up on the painting, so I developed it. And it was a really good painting. It had a joyful feel, strong colors and crazy, ludicrous, really free. So I’ve been trying to do more of those.

Be more wild and crazy and joyful?

Really spontaneous. Spontaneity is one of those qualities that comes with joy and Zen.

Do you visit the Portland Art Museum much?

No. I have a membership, but I don’t go very often. I’m a busy person. I work for a living so I don’t end up with a lot of time.

Jef Gunn, “Ranch Next Over III”, 2017, oil on panel,
24 x 40 inches

I was just wondering if there are any particular things you like to look at the art museum, something that you can revisit, that connects for you.

There’s one little Monet that I’m really fond of, the brushwork on it. It’s little, looks like the bank of the river with some trees, big sky. I usually go up to the C.S. Price room and those old Portland people. I always go to the Asian section. Asian art is really been a huge influence on me for two decades at least.

What do you think about being a painter in the age of video and computer generated art?

There’s a part of me that feels like one day the electricity is going to go out and everyone’s going to not know how to sharpen a pencil. Some of my hobbies include edge tools—chisels and gouges, saws and things like that. I’m a carpenter, so I’ve got a huge collection of chisels and planes and things. I like to know how to keep them sharp. There are a lot of things you can do just as fast with hand tools. I love hand tools. I love tools of all kinds. So I’m very interested in non-electric and non-digital things—not just to preserve them in a museum. But, I have a feeling that it connects one to the moment in a way that screens don’t. Screens can’t actually.

You paint landscapes as landscapes and you paint other paintings that are paintings as paintings.

Sometimes they are paintings as paintings and hidden in there is a landscape. Or I paint paintings just as marks.

What are the similarities or differences between those approaches? Do you approach a landscape painting differently from one that is just marks?

They’re similar in that they’re all about materials and marks, the materiality of the thing, and the marking and the shapes are all very important as themselves. But, in a landscape painting they will reference a landform like metaphor, like it’s a hill, or it’s a river or it’s a lake, or it’s a sky. Those all can have metaphorical significance. I used to say the landscapes come from walking and these other pieces come from sitting.

TBA: shamanism for today

Korean performer Dohee Lee's blend of technology, ritual, and engagement gets TBA:17 off to a stirring start

Dohee Lee’s performance Mu at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s 15th annual TBA festival is only one of the elements of her ongoing, multidisciplinary Puri Arts project. The Korean word, “puri” refers to the relieving and releasing of suppressed or suffering spirits, while “Mu” means shaman. From the start of the show (which opened Friday night and repeats at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9, in the Winningstad Theatre) it’s clear that these are not allegorical titles. Lee is embodying her own new form of performative shamanism which combines traditional spiritual and theatrical elements with modern technology, contemporary settings, and current events. The large-scale projection that opens the show follows Lee as she literally brings her rituals to the streets of the modern world, walking in full costume through the streets of New York as if she was leading a procession of monks instead of curious spectators filming her on their phones.

She accompanied the large-scale projection on Korean barrel-drums, wearing the same amazing costume seen in the video. She was draped in a coat of hundreds of long paper strips bearing writing mostly in Korean, though some appeared to be in English. She wore a simple but elegant and somewhat official folded paper hat and brandished a small hand gong that carried remarkably well through the theater. The paper strips, which could easily be prayers or spells or remembrances of the dead, fluttered behind her on her long sidewalk processional as she chanted, danced, and performed a series of genuflections. While clearly following a set ritual, she demonstrated a seasoned performer’s ability to adapt to the unscripted interruptions from the world around her.

Dohee Lee’s technological shamanism.

One of the most affecting moments in that video came from an encounter with a police SUV. First appearing in the background for a moment, it later dominated the frame when the scene cut to Lee in an alleyway, kneeling in a doorframe and reciting something to herself. The SUV bristled with authority, aggressively stating its right to be where it stood. Its presence seemed to underscore Lee’s status as interloper, as the trespasser interrupting the everyday with a spiritual duty. At the moment it seemed the cops might get out of the car or squawk their siren, Lee stood up, held out her gong, and without looking back processed out of the alleyway, as if she were leading the SUV. It was the first of many moments where the line became blurry between whether Lee was using ritual as a type of performance, or she was performing an actual ritual.

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Governor’s Arts Awards, revived

After a 10-year hiatus, the governor's awards return with five honorees. Plus: some highlights from September's gallery shows.

With school in session and Labor Day in the rear view mirror, Thursday is the first First Thursday of the fall season (even if autumn doesn’t officially arrive until Sept. 22), and art galleries across the city are busily installing new exhibits.

We’ll get to that. But first, some good news from the state capitol in Salem: After a 10-year hiatus that began when the state and national economies cratered, the Governor’s Arts Awards have returned. Gov. Kate Brown’s office announced Tuesday morning that the revived awards, which also coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Oregon Arts Commission, will go to two individual artists and three organizations.

Governor’s Arts Award winner Arvie Smith’s “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” (2015, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches, collection of Nancy Ogilvie) was part of his APEX retrospective exhibition at the Portland Art Museum in 2016/17.

Portland painter Arvie Smith and Yoncalla storyteller Esther Stutzman are being honored with lifetime achievement awards. Pendleton’s innovative Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, Portland Opera, and the James F. and Marion Miller Foundation are also being honored.

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Artists Who Fly Like Rocks

The Self-Taught Artist Fair opens Thursday at PNCA, expanding definitions and identities

September 7 is a big day in Portland arts and culture. Along with First Thursday festivities, which herald exhibition openings for many a gallery in the Pearl District, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art kicks off the 15th annual Time-Based Arts Festival with multiple (yes, multiple) performances and parties jam-packed into one evening. What a time to be in Portland! As the floodgates prepare to open with a barrage of visual art and performative offerings on Thursday evening, keep in mind a unique exhibition afoot at Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Commons Gallery: the Self-Taught Artist Fair: Flying Like a Rock.

The title of the exhibition, produced by The Center for Contemporary Art & Culture at PNCA and Public Annex, begs plenty of questions—for starters, what qualifies someone as a self-taught artist?

“Britney Spears,” by Dawn Westover, colored pencil and pen on paper, in the Self-Taught Artist Fair.

While, on the surface, it seems safe to assume that a self-taught artist is someone without any formal training, Public Annex’s Lara Ohland, the lead organizer on this exhibition, explains: “There have been a lot of questions, and I am continually trying to re-clarify for myself what this does mean.” As an artist with a level of formal training, Ohland emphasizes that she does not wish to be the “keeper to the definition,” noting instead, “I want to leave lots of space for people to choose their own identity in that.”

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The Washed Ashore Project: Saving the Seas with Art

Bandon-based nonprofit works to change attitudes by transforming ocean-killing garbage into sculptures

By DAVID GOLDSTEIN

Last month, as my wife and I entered Oregon on a cross-country journey, we wandered into what initially looked to be an unassuming art gallery in a little southern Oregon coast town. Huge sculptures filled the space. We looked at them closely — and suddenly realized that each was made from thousands of pieces of trash.

We had stumbled upon the Washed Ashore Project gallery in Old Town Bandon-by-the-Sea.

Flowering from the debris. Photo: The Washed Ashore Project

When Bandon artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi noticed the huge amount of plastic pollution on southern Oregon’s beaches, she wondered where all that garbage was coming from. So she did some research. Pozzi learned that plastic pollution has spread to every ocean and marine habitat in the world, and has entered every level of the ocean food chain, from whales to plankton. Turtles, fish, and other sea life ingest floating plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish. More than half the world’s sea turtles have eaten plastic, and partly as a result, almost all of their species are threatened or endangered. Other sea animals become ensnared in discarded fishing line, six-pack can holders, and other debris — more than 300 billion pounds of it, clogging Earth’s oceans and killing its creatures.

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