From the series YU: The Lost Country ÂŠ Dragana Jurisic
Post-communistic nostalgia and photography in ex-Yugoslavia Milanka TodiÄ‡
Post-communistic nostalgia and photography
Where do you come from? From Yugoslavia. Is there any such country? No, but that’s still where I come from. (Children of Atlantis: Voices from the Former Yugoslavia, 1995) The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the transition for Yugoslavia and other Balkan countries, but also for all the others who were living behind the Iron Curtain. What is particularly interesting in this East-Central Europe area are the “multicultural cities and regions …, as well as the dialogue of larger cultural paradigms Eastern and Western, traditional and innovative” (Cornis-Pope, Neubauer 2002: 26). Thus, the basic hypothesis we use to approach the complex phenomenon of the post-Yugoslav photography is based on multicultural, multiethnic and interdisciplinary clarification of significant and, at the same tame, completely subjective and self-guided photographic projects, some of which, such as Paula Muhr and Dragana Jurišić’s series of photographic images, originated outside the political borders of former Tito’s Yugoslavia. However, all the chosen female authors: Goranka Matić, Ana Adamović, and already mentioned Paula Muhr, Dragana Jurišić, have at least one thing in common – a deeply inscribed mark of the transitional and postcommunistic visual culture.
Goranka Matić, Days of Pain and Pride, 1980 © Goranka Matić
Days of pain and pride The death of Josip Broz Tito, “the father of the nation”, on 4th May 1980 represents a point where decades of hope of the multiethnic social community dramatically confronts the deepest collective felling of sadness and disappointment because of unfulfilled expectations. Dystopia and loss of illusions came as an awakening from a beautiful dream, since, according to the projection of the great leader, Yugoslavia was supposed to become some kind of a land “over the rainbow”. Writing about Tito’s Yugoslavia, Igor Duda pointed out: “First of all is important to know that the communists concluded: ‘Man’s personal happiness is the highest aim of socialism’. The point was ‘continuous improvement of material and cultural living and working conditions,’, namely, ‘fulfilling personal and collective needs the fullest extent’” ( Duda 2014: 15). The feeling of nostalgia and deep sadness for the lifestyle of the past mixed with anxiety about their future overwhelmed the Yugoslavs after the leave of the dictator who ruled for 35 years. Before we open a discussion on Goranka Matić’s innovative photography project filmed with regard to the death of Josip Broz Tito, it should be emphasized that on Tito’s formal and spectacular funeral there were delegations and the highest representatives of numerous world countries, and the whole event was photographed by professional agencies while the live TV broadcast was distributed to several dozens of countries. On the margins of this funeral and media spectacle of images, art historian Goranka Matić (born 1949 in Maribor) appeared with the ambition to document the life
on the streets of Belgrade outside of this funeral epicenter and out of the mass media focus. In the series of photographic images, Dani bola i ponosa (Days of Pain and Pride, 1980), the name she adopted from the printed media, she looks for, in the first place, cultural artifacts and examples of traditional folk grievance. In the focus of her research quest are staged images/tableaus in shop windows of small craft shops and stores where the portraits of the deceased Josip Broz Tito were prominently displayed. The prerogative and privileged position of the orthodox icon in folk rituals of mourning was unexpectedly replaced by the photographic portrait, a mechanical image of an atheist and party leader. In 1978 Goranka Matić was a member of the Student Cultural Centre (SKC) in Belgrade, which hosted the first international feminist conference ever to be held in a communist country entitled: Comrade Woman: The Women’s Question: A New Approach. During the days of national sorrow for the death of Josip Broz Tito, she started her first photographic project Dani bola i ponosa (Days of Pain and Pride). She was an anonymous young girl with her father’s old camera in the streets of Belgrade. But she was an exceptional woman without tears in her eyes and she was ready to collect visual proofs of the profound popular admiration and religious adoration of the first communist national leader and a heroic figure behind the iron curtain (Todić 2014). The series of photographic images Dani bola i ponosa (Days of Pain and Pride) is an exceptional example of visual narration which reveals heterogeneous cultural layers. Black ribbon over Tito’s photograph is a ritual orthodox sign of grieving for the deceased, but on a symbolic level it is in conflict with atheism of the communistic doctrine. Constant permutation of the conflicting ideological stances registered in Goranka Matić’s photographic images series is partially a product of the carnival
atmosphere and folklore street performance which successfully combines the principles of life and death. Still, it is important to emphasize that the documentary approach of Goranka Matić discards the shell of the social-realistic idiom and establishes a new visual matrix of free expression. Her photo-conceptual work makes room for the position of the outsider in controlled conditions of image production typical for totalitarian regimes. It is also important to say that the photographic images series Dani bola i ponosa (Days of Pain and Pride) was created from an alternative position of the Benjaminian “walker” (flâneur) who seeks for personal souvenirs. On the other side, the feeling of nostalgia profiles her insider view, because Goranka Matić with a camera in her hands is also an active participant in the funeral and the media spectacle. She as a woman with a camera in her hands has the privileged and rare status of the participant/observer of the past and future. Post-communistic nostalgia A melancholic look at the glorious past burdened with contradictions, where the failed reforms were rotating and civic liberties limited and when everyday life was under the surveillance of the dominant and powerful bodies of the communistic party, in the encounter with the destructive impulses of the transitional culture brought about the nostalgia for «the good old days». In literature, this phenomenon, which is not only typical for ex-Yugoslavia, is known as the post-communistic nostalgia. “One of the key arguments holds that ‘nostalgic’ icons are successful because they play the cultural role of mnemonic bridges to rather than tokens of longing for the failed communist past. In this capacity they forge a communal
sense of continuity in the liquid times of systemic transformation” (Bartmanski 2011: 213). Dominic Boyer argues that “we should take seriously the fact that nostalgia talk in many contexts means something more or other than resignation to – ‘westernization’ and melancholy for how much better or easier or younger life once was” (Boyer 2010: 27). I interpret nostalgia talk in Yugoslavia as a mythical image of Tito’s dream about a land “over the rainbow”.
Paula Muhr, Tito/Tata, 2008 © Paula Muhr
Paula Muhr (born in 1977 in Belgrade), starting from an old family photo album as a tool, recreated the experience of returning to the past as a melancholic memory of the absence/presence of the authoritarian father figure. She compared Josip Broz Titoâ€™s role of the father of the nation with the most powerful figure in a patriarchal family. In her visual narration exhibited in 2008 as digital projection, under the name of Tito/Tata (Tito/Dad), there is a rotation and confrontation of a series of documentary photographs which build a metaphor for the unlimited power in the sphere of public/private life. The very title Tito/Tata carries an unhidden association and functions as a symbolic mirror image which mixes two powerful male bodies into one: the representative figure of Tito, party leader and the lifelong president of the Republic, and the Father figure, as the carrier of power in the sense of pater familias, which was, at the time, in the position of the director of one of the largest state-owned sweets factory in Yugoslavia. Post-modernistic tactics of appropriation deeply articulate the feeling of personal nostalgia for the absent father in a dysfunctional family on one hand, while on the other hand, there is a quest for the personal identity and place in the family and in the broader social community as well. The melancholy of growing up and building a new identity of an autonomous artist, instead of the submissive position of a ÂŤsweetÂť girl and daughter, are being questioned in public and private image archive bases. Paula Muhr sets the concept of the photographic project Tito/Tata (Tito/Dad) on the level of participant/observer as the female child who is growing up in the shadow of a respected
father. But, at the same time, she uncovers the complex processes of the gender identity construction in the sphere of private and public life. “Images of Tito were taken mostly from the Internet, whereas the images of my father were culled from his private photo album. All the images have poor technical quality, referring to their source – pixels become visible by dramatically enlarging the Tito images, whereas tear and wear of my father’s photos become invisible in the form of large scratches and other usage marks”, says Paula Muhr while presenting her work on her webpage ( Muhr 2008). What is striking is the re-evaluation of the position of the father as well as the visual equalization of the family and private role of the man/dad on one hand, and the powerful political and public figure of the ruler, Josip Broz Tito, on the other. A critical reassessment of the dominant position of a man in the space of personal and collective memory is conducted by a simple comparative method and a surrealist idea of the free activity of the objective case. A seemingly randomly-collected documentary photographs function as fragments of concatenated images which are discontinuously set in a row and in that way build a quasi-film narrative about a powerful male figure in socialism who rises up to the personality cult on the macro and micro, and on the individual and personal plan as well. In Tito/Tata series of photographic images, the photographs are always paired, but somewhere on the edge of the two photographs, one should look for the suspense that leads the observer into a detective chase for the real identity of the ruler/father. The father metaphor has widely been discussed in post-structuralism theories, but it would be good
to add here that in the context of a powerful personality cult in the era of Titoism, its function is additionally expanded and layered by new demands. Slavoj Žižek, in his own original way, wrote about it: “We have the paradox of the extremely oppressive, so–called totalitarian post–traditional power which goes further than the traditional authoritarian power. It does not only tell you ‘Do your duty, I don’t care if you like it or not.’ It tells you not only ‘You must obey my orders and do your duty’ but ‘You must do it with pleasure. You must enjoy it.’ It is not enough for the subjects to obey their leader, they must actively love him” (Žižek 1999). Paula Muhr immersed her look deep into the history of Yugoslavia, the country of her growing up and education on one hand, and on the other, her own family history. On that way of reexamining the macro and micro history it was necessary to conduct the reevaluation procedures of the powerful authoritarian father’s body not only in the sphere of the visual, but also on the level of language/text. Namely, in the way she wrote the name of the Tito/Tata project, a process of equalization of two powerful male bodies can be seen. The noun tata (dad) is written with a capital letter which is in conflict with the valid spelling norm of the Serbian language. But only in the sign of the Father’s name, as post-structuralism theorists teach us, a subjective identity can be built and a symbolic culture order can be accepted. Nostalgia and look into the past «is not merely an individual sickness but a symptom of our age, an historical emotion ... The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future” (Boym 2001).
Ana Adamović, Two Choirs, 2013 © Ana Adamović
Ana Adamović (born in 1974 in Belgrade), put the culture of memories as well as the complex processes of collective and individual memory in the focus of her video andphoto projects, among which the research named Dva hora (Two Choirs) dedicated to children’s choirs in socialist Yugoslavia is especially interesting in 2013. She argues that: “Only children were a tabula rasa, the clay system could have shaped. With the correct and controlled upbringing they were to become the real architects and citizens of the brave new world, the project realized in the present but to be
achieved in the future. ... Generations of the former Yugoslavs were growing up watching Disney cartoons, enjoying popular (Western) music, art and culture, while their parents raised them according to the ideas of American Dr. Spock. On the other hand, these same Yugoslav children were Tito's pioneers from the age of seven, taking an oath to be loyal to the State, the Leader and Yugoslav religion of Brotherhood and Unity, all through the official state rituals and celebrations,” (Adamović 2013). Upbringing and childhood were top priorities of the communistic systematic re-education even in the initial years of building the new Yugoslav society. The ideological message sent to children was indirect and “wrapped-up” into sports, carnival and formal mass spectacles which were re-run according to a precisely set annual schedule. Every child of ex-Yugoslavia participated in the collective oath-taking ceremony on the Day of the Republic after which they received pioneer organization cards and red pioneer scarves. In other words, generations of innocent young ones were involved into a powerful collective body of the communist youth, in accordance with profane and spectacular rituals of the party. Reviewing the archival material in the Museum of Yugoslav History in Belgrade, Ana Adamović singled out archival photographs which she later used to recreate her new narrative in the photographic and video medium. “Every May 25th, his official birthday, Josip Broz Tito, former Yugoslavia’s president for life, received countless gifts from his fellow-citizens, including photo albums. Today, most of these albums are kept at the Museum of Yugoslav History in Belgrade, where they constitute a precious document that testifies
about how the people of Yugoslavia sought to present themselves to their uncontested leader.... A 1962 photograph of the school choir of the First Educational institution for deaf children in Zagreb is the starting and visual reference point of work Two Choirs (2013). Unlike the photograph, the video work shows children performing a song in sign language, universally accepted today but in the 1960s still not used in Yugoslav schools for hearing-impaired children,” says Ana Adamović regarding the exhibition having the same name at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade (Adamović 2013). In one of the archival photographs from 1962, there was a choir of deaf children and the famous patriotic song My Country is Most Beautiful of All, which was gladly performed during the pioneer ceremonies, was reanimated in the same-name video in 2013. The video was realized in cooperation with Zemun elementary school pupils and the members of the Belgrade boarding school for children with hearing impairments with the intention to bridge the historical abyss and to establish the mechanisms of the culture of memories instead of the culture of forgetting. Ana Adamović sets a media dialogue between different generations of children, from once a single country (Yugoslavia), and now from different countries (Croatia, Serbia), and also between the opposing ideological framework (communism, capitalism). Ana Adamović puts mnemonic energy into her project Dva hora, she herself belongs to the generation of the transition culture and is decisive in her intention to stabilize the visual trace of the current personal identity in a critical post-communistic culture. On numerous exhibitions held from Ljubljana and Maribor to Belgrade and Novi
Sad at the beginning of the new millennia, the collective pictorial memory of exYugoslavia is reexamined, recollected and reinterpreted. “No memory can preserve the past. What remains is only that ‘which society in each era can reconstruct within its contemporary frame of reference.’ Cultural memory works by reconstructing, that is, it always relates its knowledge to an actual and contemporary situation. True, it is fixed in immovable figures of memory and stores of knowledge, but every contemporary context relates to these differently, sometimes by appropriation, sometimes by criticism, sometimes by preservation or by transformation. Cultural memory exists in two modes: first in the mode of potentiality of the archive whose accumulated texts, images, and rules of conduct act as a total horizon, and second in the mode of actuality, whereby each contemporary context puts the objectivized meaning into its own perspective, giving it its own relevance,” (Assmann 1995: 130).
The past, and the photographs of the children singing in the Educational institution for deaf children choir in Zagreb 1962 as well, do not belong to the time and space in which Ana Adamović’s photo/video installation is being created. But, the discovered picture of the children’s choir from the past was transformed into a digital image, photograph and video, not only for the study of memory, but, above all, with a goal to illuminate the process of building one’s own identity. By digging in the field of old photographic messages, the artist intends to find relevant narratives which could bridge the time before and the time now in an unstable life of an individual and in a transitional culture. The photograph of deaf children singing in a choir was borrowed
from a museum, therefore, it had already entered the visual corpus of the collective and cultural memory, but it is also the cornerstone of the subjective quest for self-cognition. However, no matter how the collective memory is a slippery phenomenon, when we consider the relationship between memory and photography, we cannot forget Kracauer’s key arguments on the dialectical conflict and the juxtaposition which exists between memory and photography. In 1927 he wrote that: “Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memoryimages retain what is given only insofar as it has significance. Since what is significant is not reducible to either merely spatial or merely temporal terms, memory-images are at odds with photographic representation. From the latter's perspective, memory-images appear to be fragments but only because photography does not encompass the meaning to which they refer and in relation to which they cease to be fragments. Similarly, from the perspective of memory, photography appears as a jumble that consists partly of garbage,” (Kracauer 1993: 425). On the visual level, photography easily sets a dialogue between the referential field of reality and fiction, more precisely, staging the show in front of the camera, letting the image register the transience of the moment and the unrepeatable perspective of imagination. “What the moralists are demanding from a photograph is that it do what no photograph can ever do—speak. The caption is the missing voice, and it is expected to speak for truth. But even an entirely accurate caption is only one
interpretation, necessarily a limiting one, of the photograph to which it is attached. And the caption-glove slips on and off so easily”, (Sontag 2005: 84). The archival photograph from 1962 does not warn the observer that they are looking at a deaf children’s choir, like in the reinterpreted Ana Adamović’s photography/video from 2013 where the pictographic letter is also used by children who do not have a hearing. The photographs, the archival/analogue as well as the directed/digital one, equally build a pastiche and a multilayer meaning structure of the postmodernist piece of art. They are an efficient tool in the author’s research of the multimedia representation of childhood in the visual culture: socialist, on one hand, and transitional on the other, which Ana Adamović has led with passion in the last couple of years.
From the series YU: The Lost Country © Dragana Jurisic
Dragana Jurišić, Hotel Yugoslavia, 2013 © Dragana Jurisic
Memory betrays everybody Dragana Jurišić (born in 1975 in Slavonski Brod) gains her first photographic experience on the ruins of her cozy and sweet home with the beginning of Yugoslav’s civil war: “The story of me as a photographer starts on the day when our family apartment got burned down together with thousands of prints and negatives my father, an ardent amateur photographer, had accumulated. On that day I became one of those 'refugees' with no photographs, with no past. Indeed, my memories of the events and people I encountered before that Sunday in September 1991 are either nonexistent or very vague. As Joseph Brodsky wrote: ‘Memory betrays everybody, especially those whom we knew best. It is an ally of oblivion, it is an ally of death. It is a fishnet with a very small catch and with the water gone. You can't use it to reconstruct anyone, even on paper.’ That day I learned the power photography has over memory. The day after the fire was the last time my father took a photograph, a perfunctory snapshot to record the damage for the insurance company. Where he stopped, I started. The act of photographing, of looking at the world through the camera lens, helped provide a semblance of control over an otherwise unpredictable world”, (Jurišić 2013). The fact that the places of growing up construct the identity is well-known in the culture studies, but the same applies to the abandoned places of growing up. Micro-geography is permanently inscribed in the subjective experience and is a mandatory scenography of
every life story. The mental map of her hometown (Slavonski Brod), country (Yugoslavia), region (The Balkans) cannot be erased from Dragana Jurišić’s memory because it is woven into the structure of her personal identity construction. “But, the built environment also constructs inter-subjectivity, and it is the form of inter-subjective relations currently being generated and entrenched that is especially pernicious: the world is being constructed, quite literally, in ways that adversely affect how we regard politics and who we recognize as fellow citizens,” says Susan Bickford (Bickford 2000: 356). The specific inter-subjective dialogue focused on the ambience of growing up which is abandoned was achieved by Dragana Jurišić with Rebecca West (1892-1983, London) and her controversial book Black Lamb and Grey Flacon (1941). Rebecca West, publicist and feminist, presented the readers, first in America and then in Britain, her exciting journeys to Yugoslavia in 1936, 1937 and 1938 with amazement and romantic enthusiasm ( Koljević 1989: 21). Dragana Jurišić went on a trip around ex-Yugoslavia in 2011, reconstructing the spatial and emotional coordinates from Rebecca West’s book. Colin Graham argues that “West’s epic account of Yugoslavia, presented in the form of a travel book, but actually with the structure and sensibility of a great modernist novel, loops back on itself, creating moments of clarity and fears of dissolution,” (Graham 2013: 43). By radical procedures of appropriation, which are used by postmodern artists, Dragana Jurišić firstly reanimated the account of Rebecca West’s travels in a different, visual medium as a photo-conceptual work. But it is not only about the dialogue which is built
between the text and the image, the past and present, nor the inter-subjective communication which freely flows through time. In her statement, Dragana Jurišić says: “At Easter 2011, I started retracing West’s journey and re-interpreting her masterpiece by using photography and text, in an attempt to re-live my experience of Yugoslavia and to re-examine the conflicting emotions and memories of the country that was,” (Jurišić 2013). It means that she interpreted the authentic journey experience from the novel by writing her own version of Black Lamb and Grey Flacon but in the form of legends which like a cold report accompany each of her documentary images made on the territory of exYugoslavia. “The result of this ambitious journey is the wonderful exhibition YU: The Lost Country, a visual journey into the past and present punctuated by West's prose and Jurisic's own words. The attempt to answer the universal question about identity in a very personal way. And since Jurisic herself follows Roland Barthes' assertion that ‘photography is more akin to magic than to art’, it is no surprise that many of the photos have an otherworldly feel to them and leaves the viewer wondering about their own memories and identity, “ (Wall 2014). Of course, geographically Yugoslavia has remained the same, but what is dramatically different are the perspectives between two female and emotional perspectives of the territory of Yugoslavia. There are, first of all, media differences between literature and photography, which this work does not deal with, but it is important to say that literature speaks (tell things), and the photographic image shows (show things), (Michalski, Gow
2007: 25). The silence of the photograph and her layered narration are a part of the struggle for “hearts and minds” of observers. Two female artists, self-aware, with gender-differentiated opinions, start from two distant points in time, and, not by chance, always on Easter, but with the same intention. They want to re-contextualize their scarce knowledge, emotions and life experiences of Yugoslavia. Also, they both want to reexamine their own image about themselves and the world they live in and their aesthetic and ethical idioms. One was born in England, the other in Yugoslavia, but for both of them the image of Yugoslavia is the image of the Other and an imaginary topos. For one of them, at the end of the 1930s, it was a land of the Balkans which was a part of Orientalism and the colonial discourse and for the Other it is a communist land of the East which she left as a refugee at the end of the 20th century. “Joel Snyder has said that what we see in a photograph is not what we would have seen in front of the camera at the moment the picture was taken. This is a correct assertion and my work is not an attempt to capture the reality in front of me or some particular moment in time; the only thing I want to convey and transcribe is my emotional and intellectual reaction to that given experience or encounter. The photographs in YU: The Lost Country represent my internal reality. It's an imprint of my experiences. A photograph, I believe, points iconically, or inwardly to something that is contained within the frame, and not towards the outside reality”, says Dragana Jurišić in her original essay accompanying the project YU: The Lost Country for which she received «special recognition by Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor Prize, (Jurišić 2014).
The seeing subject Photographs made in the East are sometimes out of focus, technically on a lower level from the written standards on the global image market. Their messages are illegible and sometimes they are expected to show a shocking scene of violence, dilapidation, and depression. The photograph acquires different meanings in the process of contextualization, during different readings, but all of them come from the observer. Thus, as Burgin says, the meanings of the photographic image are the product of “the seeing subject” (the individual who looks). Neither the photographer, nor the medium, nor the subject, are basically responsible for the meaning of this photograph, the meaning is produced, in the act of looking at the image, by a way of talking, (Burgin 1986: 64). The seeing subject could be the postmodern artist who freely appropriates the artifacts of the past for their artistic projects, as Ana Adamović does in Dva hora (Two Choirs), with the idea to gain her own knowledge by shaping the construct of the past, about growing up, about Tito’s pioneers and post-communistic nostalgia. But, the best methodology to frame the personality cult and totalitarian regime suggest documentary snapshots of Goranka Matić. In searching for models of constituting her own identity in the series Tito/Tata, Paula Muhr, by following the rhythm of repetition and doubling of snapshots photographs, constructed a gender-founded visual message through the process of editing ready made photographs. The uncatchable boundaries between the public/private space, and then the presence/absence of the powerful Father figure in a female life ambience and political/personal in the context of ex-Yugoslavia destabilized the act of perception. Her view, as well as the look of the observers who are yet to come, slides from one to the
other photograph, detects similarities and differences in the symbolic movement of the Father’s name in the autobiographical narration under the title Tito/Tata. In order to read the visual message of the photograph, and especially the details in the shadow, the seeing subject has to succumb to the emotional and unstable personal feeling, as once Barthes did (Barthes 2011: 66). We still have to adapt to the associative and almost irrational skill of reading required for the works of Dragana Jurišić, because those are works which do not tolerate speed and instant information. The contemporaries of the discoveries of photography considered that they were holding “a mirror that remembers” in their hands, and as in the photographic image there is not a trace of the subject’s presence behind the camera, (Geimer 2007: 19), it should be considered that the two remaining: one as a motif in the photograph and the other as the future seeing subject, are ready to inscribe in its transparent surface a legible microhistorical narrative about the transitional culture in ex-Yugoslavia. Bibliography Aftermath, Changing Cultural Landscape, Tendencies of engaged post-Yugoslav contemporary photography. (2014) Available online: https://aftermathsee.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/aftermath-changingcultural-landscape-sarajevo/ (accessed 30 May 2015). Adamović, Ana. (2013), Dva hora, Two Choirs, http://www.anaadamovic.com/Two_choirs_photographs_1.html Assmann, Jan. (1995), ‘Collective Memory and Cultural Identity,’ New German Critique, Cultural History/Cultural Studies (65): 125-133, http://kultura-pamieci.pl/wpcontent/pliki/literatura08/assman_collective_memory.pdf Bart, Rolan. (2011), Svetla komora: Beleška o fotografiji, trans. J. Acin, Beograd: Galerija Artget. Bartmanski, Dominik. (2011), ‘Successful icons of failed time: Rethinking post-communist nostalgia,’ Acta Sociologica, (54) September: 213-231. Bickford, Susan. (2000), ‘Constructing Inequality, City Spaces and the Architecture of Citizenship’, Political Theory, 28, (3), Jun: 356-376.
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