No 42.

Christoph Cox

in conversation with Valerie Mindlin

Christoph Cox is a philosopher, critic, and curator of visual and sonic art. He is the incoming Dean of Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School. Cox is the author of Sonic Flux: Sound, Art, and Metaphysics (2018) and Nietzsche: Naturalism and Interpretation (1999), and was a co-editor of Realism Materialism Art (2015) and Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (2004/2017). He has curated exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, The Kitchen, CONTEXT Art Miami, New Langton Arts, and G Fine Art Gallery, among others. His latest book, Vectors of the Readymade: Sound and Idea in Contemporary Art, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Publishing. The conversation was conducted in May 2022.

VM

What is the difference for you between music and sound? I was thinking specifically about that great 1984 essay by Chris Cutler, Technology, Politics and Contemporary Music: Necessity and Choice in Musical Forms, which outlines the specific path the development of this form necessarily takes, but then the way he does it brings up a lot of concepts that are incredibly relevant to sound and that you often invoke as key as well. I am talking in particular about the way Cutler describes the medium of musical transmission and perpetuation as memory, and, by extension, the oral tradition and improvisation, and how notation enters that sphere to fundamentally restructure the very nature of the musical form into the written, externalized textural document that is settled into a singular specific configuration and is also turned into a commodifiable property. This transmutation of the aural into the scopic form of composition, also, in addition to just a broader criticism of music as pre-established cultural form as such, which is at the heart of Cage’s criticism of music, for example, often appears in your discussions of sound vis-à-vis music, as well.

CC

It’s tricky to make any kind of sharp distinction between music and sound or music and sound art. But I do think there's a useful distinction to be made. As Edgard Varèse put it, music is organized sound, sound organized according to certain principles and rules that are embedded in historical, cultural, and social traditions and contexts. But there’s also a broader field of sound—non-musical sound—that so many twentieth and twenty-first-century artists have brought our attention to. Of course, human beings have attended to and appreciated non-musical sound for their entire history; but the invention of sound recording in the late nineteenth century marked a decisive turning point. Audio recording allowed us to bring the entire field of sound to our aesthetic apprehension. Again, I don’t think there’s any firm distinction there, but I think it’s uncontentious that there’s a world of sound beyond music, and so many artists over the past hundred years or so—from Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Varèse in the early twentieth century to Pauline Oliveros, Christina Kubisch, and Toshiya Tsunoda more recently—have brought that broader sound world to our aesthetic attention.

In some respects, Cutler’s essay is a classic Marxist effort to carve history into modes of production, in this case, modes of production of sound. For most of human history, music and language was conveyed from human to human by ear, hand, and mouth, conveyed as a set of oral/aural practices handed down from person to person, bard to bard, singer to singer. In this way it became a kind of cultural memory. One of the interesting things about this cultural memory is how fluid it was, because any repetition of a song is going to have some difference or variation. It’s going to morph and drift.

Sometime in the later Middle Ages, musical sound came to be captured in the form of notation. This development was significantly connected to the emergence of capitalism. The question was, “How can we take this set of sounds, capture them, ascribe them to a particular author, treat them as private property, and protect them via copyright?” Musical notation fixed sound, which became something you sang or played with reference to a primary musical score that served as a single authorized version. And so, the drift, the change, the alteration that happened with the previous mode of musical production (what Cutler calls the “biological” and what we might call the “oral/aural” mode) became a fixed commodity that could circulate as such. The third mode of production, the “electronic” mode, emerged in the late nineteenth century with audio recording. You’d think that a tape or a record would reify sound even more fully than would musical notation; but, in fact, what we’ve seen with all the DJ practices that emerged in the twentieth century (and Cutler was remarkably attuned to this) is that, now, with all sorts of analog and digital tools—tape recorders, turntables, Garage Band, Pro Tools, etc.—we have the ability to take that stuff apart, reconfigure it, and release it back into the sonic flux in a kind of new oral mode that once again encourages difference and drift. Hip hop, disco, and other dance music were crucial to this development.

Cutler doesn’t have much to say about the distinction between sound and music, but for me, what the electronic mode of production allows is the ability to capture the whole world of sound, anything, that can be recorded or registered by a microphone. And this is a big reason why we’ve seen, over the past fifty years or so, such an explosion of sonic practices focusing on non-musical sound.

VM

And that goes to the difference between indexical and extractive mode of recording and production of sound, selection vs. receptivity. And that allows—or, well, maybe that’s the question, does it in fact allow for, or is this difference similar to the distinction between music as a predetermined by a conventional structure and mode of distribution cultural form and something else? But then again, art practice is also a cultural form, and so with sound—as opposed to music—does it just fall into a different socially established form altogether? What is the point at which we exit the cultural form?

CC

That's a great way to put it. Some of my critics have rightly pointed out that, while every form of music is culturally embedded, these sound art practices that extend beyond music have developed their own norms and are, of course, also inscribed in cultural landscapes. What we call “sound art” is not somehow external to the domain of cultural inscription. But what's interesting to me and what I think has always been my main concern, is thinking of sound in terms of flows, considering how sound is released, constricted, constrained, routed into notations, or recordings, or art galleries. I’m interested in all the forces that liberate and constrict sound. Some of them are political, some are social, cultural, religious, and so on. And there are natural constraints as well. After all, sound is material stuff that’s shaped by the natural and built environment. So, I’m interested in all these forces and forms of sonic release and capture.

VM

But when it comes to thinking of the social and, you know, institutional framings for that, it actually brings us right back into that very anthropocentric, logocentric, sort of, you know, type of Saussurean-Derridian philosophical ontology that sound art is supposed to be the most successful at exiting, at least according to Sonic Flux—toward a more Realist Materialist kind of different ontology that allows for thought to be thought outside of itself without being always inherently inescapably shaped by and for human understanding, as would be anathema to the entire Post-Structuralist canon...

CC

Whenever this question arises, I always point out that structuralist and post-structuralist thinking was at the core of my intellectual formation. That was my intellectual baseline; and it shaped me deeply. But I do think that the linguistic turn that was so prevalent in the mid- to late-twentieth century—in European and Anglo-American philosophy alike—was not well suited to thinking sound. It's not to say that sound is somehow immune from culture, but rather that culture is larger and bigger than language. And that's why I think that a broader and richer way to think about all that stuff is to consider culture and nature as a collection of flows. This is why I'm particularly attracted to Manuel Delanda’s work and obviously to Deleuze and Guattari as well. When Delanda thinks of language, he thinks of it not as Saussure and so much of the semiotic, structuralist, and poststructuralist tradition does. Rather he thinks of it in terms of a theory of flows, according to which reality fundamentally consists of the spatial and/or temporal movement, circulation, passage, or becoming of matter, energy, and information. So DeLanda thinks of language as a dynamic historical process, as a flow of sounds, words, and syntactical constructions that encounter all sorts of forces (cultural, political, religious, etc.) that shape and alter it. This is a truly materialist account of language that places it on par with other flows (flows of lava, biomatter, genes, etc.). And this is what I tried to do in Sonic Flux: to describe sound as a flow like this, one with similar determinants and is shaped by social, political, economic, and linguistic forces. The linguistic turn took language to be central, primary. In fact, it’s just one among many flows. And the philosophical approaches that treat language as central or primary are not particularly helpful in thinking about sound. The modalities of representation that one finds in textual and visual approaches limit how we think about sound and don't allow us to conceive it in its broadest and most powerful ways.

VM

And so what I find interesting to ponder given that is how it may be possible—or is it possible?—to then turn back that line of thinking, and to utilize and apply that modality of enquiry to the rest of art, and the culture? What of other mediums of expression, are they completely impotent? Is there no salvation for Modernism?

CC

As Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried famously pointed out, one of the central features of modernist work was the attention to the specificity of medium and media: the attention to painting as painting, for example, painting as a very physical medium, pigment on a flat surface. The question, “What's the material specificity of this medium? What can and does it do?” is very valuable, I think. Though I criticize the anti-realist and logocentric focus evident in a lot of cultural studies approaches to music, some of those approaches have often asked exactly this kind of question: What is it that this form of music does? How did forms of house music, for example, very physically and affectively foster gay music cultures in the eighties and nineties. That is, I think we could offer a kind of materialist analysis of these modes of inquiry, which can be powerful. I’m interested in the material specificity of a sonic practice—not so much what it “means” but how it operates on its audiences or on those who interact with it.

VM

It’s funny how when you think of the way Francois Laruelle talks about what art is, his definition of art practice proper, that to me sounds pretty much like, you know, someone like Rosalind Krauss would describe medium-specificity or the way Boris Groys talks about Malevich and kind of art as operation or demonstration of a process. What do you yourself see as more successful kinds of other medium practices that also may attempt or get to the point along the Realist-Materialist line of thinking that you see sound art getting at most successfully? And what do you think may be their capabilities?

CC

That’s a great question. Over the past six months or so, I’ve gone to all the big survey exhibitions in New York: the New Museum Triennial, Greater New York at MoMA PS1, and the Whitney Biennial. There’s a lot of great and powerful work in these shows. But I was often struck by the difference between what the artist says about the work in the wall text and what the work does. While I wouldn’t say that the work has to stand entirely on its own, I do think it has to do something, it has to perform an operation and not just be an illustration or representation of an external idea. Of course, the textual frame can help you see what the work does, but some of the works that I found powerful as physical entities in front of me seemed very out of sync with their textual descriptions. It seems to me that if the work of art fully requires a textural apparatus to frame it and guide the viewer or listener, then it's not a very successful work of art. Of course, the Conceptual tradition is important to me (as a philosopher and art theorist); but a lot of the work I’m seeing in exhibitions these days is different in that their conceptual content does not seem to be evident in the sensuous or physical experience of them.

VM

I'm really happy to hear you say that because so often hearing people speak of Materialism and Realism, and in Sonic Flux as well, as it relates to art, what is kind of the specter that always at least comes to my own mind is George Bataille, and the informe, and kind of the idea of exactly that—a work of art as an operation, or a demonstration of a force. So, what and whom do you see as being successful at that right now, that is not in the sound realm? Or is it possible for something that is not sound right now, at this particular historical and critical moment, to be kind of most medium-specific and effective in that Bataillean, operational way?

CC

That’s a broad question! I'm trying to think of what I might offer as a successful example. An obvious case, maybe, is filmic practices that are attentive to their status both as material entities (celluloid, light, digital pixels, etc.) and as representation. In the Bataillean sense you mention, I’m interested in work that both inhabits the specificity of its form and overflows or undoes that form. I guess what I'm less interested in, or find less successful, are works of art that rely solely on their representational capacity or on an entire textural apparatus to give them meaning or value. I suppose it’s a question of the Derridean supplement: if the wall text has to stand in for the work itself, one wonders about the success or adequacy of the actual work that one views, unless one wants to take the wall text as part of the work, which I guess, if one is a good Derridean, one should do.

VM

But so, the more of that gets layered on the further it gets away from that kind of Dionysian-Deleuzean access to the Realist, Materialist, you know, flow, of things. So then, how is it possible for example, for painting to ever get to that?

CC

Yeah, another good question critics have posed to me is: Can there really be works of art that, more fully than others, manifest the Dionysian flow or sonic flux? In some sense, the answer is no, because, if the world fundamentally is a collection of flows, then anything and everything—any artwork, for example—exemplifies it as much as any other. But I do think that some works of art draw attention to those fundamental flows more than others. This is why I find Robert Smithson's work so powerful. He was certainly interested in presenting work in a gallery context. He had all those very nicely framed and boxed “non-site” pieces; but he also revealed that those works were mere static samples of flows that exceed the work, the gallery, the viewer, and the artist. He constantly raised the question of how to negotiate the boundaries between the frame, the institution, the limits of the work of art and what flows outside of these. Any work of art, he said, can only be a kind of a postcard from that primary Dionysian experience. Conceived at the proper scale, that experience is the experience of an eternal flux of matter; and any artwork, any sculpture, any painting, for example, is a way of capturing or sampling that in a frame or box. Sometimes that box is so tidy or focused in on itself or its cultural referents that it disregards the flow from which it comes. Conversely, sometimes that box is permeable enough to reveal or spill out into that flux. This is the Bataillean point again, I think.

VM

Well, it’s interesting to hear you mention it because through a lot of your writing, you lament the very specific kind of linguistic turn that Conceptual Art specifically, at a certain point around the mid-century, takes, and takes the rest of the art world along with it. What would be the alternative lineage of art through that period?

CC

As I mentioned, I have a tremendous fondness for and interest in Conceptual art. I’m a philosopher, after all! Sol LeWitt, Adrian Piper, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Art & Language—all those folks have had a big influence on me and I’ve written about their work. It’s true that Conceptual art was directly and explicitly inspired by the linguistic turn in both Anglo-American philosophy and European philosophy. And I think it reveals both the power and the limitations of that philosophical lineage. One of the things that’s so peculiar to me about Conceptualism—in the work of Sol LeWitt, Lawrence Weiner, and Art & Language, for example—is that it often exemplified exactly the sort of logocentrism that Derrida critiqued in the late ’60s, at exactly the time when Conceptual art was flourishing. That is, it relied on the linguistic signifier to deliver the idea, to be the conveyor of the idea. By contrast, Derrida argued for a conception of language as a kind of autonomous power that forms the linguistic subject and conceptuality rather than a tool for human subjects to deploy. Despite the absolute priority he gave to language and the cultural text, Derrida’s writing (“Signature Event Context,” for example) can be read as conceiving language as a kind of anonymous flow from which every spoken or written word is a sample.

Taking up this idea, I’m much more interested in thinking of concepts as themselves forming a kind of cultural flow. In the original sense of the word, memes give us a good sense of this. How are concepts formed as samples from a thought flow? How do concepts themselves flow and at what speeds do they circulate? How are they shaped by cultural, social, political, technological, and aesthetic forces? Which concepts or ideas gain traction, and which don’t? Ideas form flows, too. What we call cliches are boring or tired ideas that are so embedded in the cultural sediment that they have little force or novelty (though they certainly constrain thinking); by contrast, how do genuinely new ideas or concepts gain the power to grab hold of subjects and provoke these subjects to pass them along, like a virus, as William S. Burroughs famously said about language?

VM

Right. Now, another figure that appears in a lot of your writing, that kind of goes way beyond all that, and beyond the general anthropocentrism of it all is [Quentin] Meillassoux. The idea of the Archefossil, an artefact of the pre-human era, as a tangible empirical evidence against correlationism—could we please talk a little bit about the way sound is—or is it?—the only modality of access to that level of thinking and of ontology?

CC

Meillassoux is interesting to different people for different reasons. I am not particularly interested in his Cartesian mathematization of the world. What I am interested in is his critique of correlationism, which is powerful and important. Meillassoux pointed out what was really a glaring absurdity in so much of philosophy and cultural theory: the idea that reality is inextricably correlated with the human subject’s mode of apprehending it. In an unpublished essay, I draw on Meillassoux to try to think what a sonic fossil might be. In a very real sense, the entire universe is a kind of a sonic fossil insofar as it was formed through a set of powerful vibrations (baryon acoustic oscillations) that determined the distribution of stars and galaxies. The cosmic background radiation is also a sonic fossil: its peaks and troughs are indexical records of the primordial vibration of the universe. I also draw on the work of photographer and conceptual artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, who thinks of photography as a kind of fossil, an indexical imprint that’s fundamentally akin to the formation of geological fossils. I think it's fascinating to think about all sorts of media as forming these kinds of imprints. Susan Schuppli has done interesting work on the photographic capacities of oil spills, the way this toxic chemistry forms a sort of iridescent film that connects it with early experiments in photography—a kind of non-human photography (to quote the title of Joanna Zylinska’s interesting book). So, to get back to your question, Meillassoux’s work provokes me to think of the real and of media in these very materialist and non-anthropocentrist ways.

VM

So that's another thing that's interesting to think about: how do scientific developments kind of establish new standards and new objectives or horizons for artistic production in general?

CC

Yeah, that's a good question! I think it’s important to consider scientific thinking on par with artistic thinking—as ways of creating concepts and percepts that can be either limiting or productively creative. I've had a lot of discussions recently with a colleague who's a physicist and an artist, Kaća Bradonjić. In the project she’s working on now, she’s interested in how working physicists (consciously or unconsciously) construe the primary objects of their work: particles or energy carried by a field, for example. Through interviews and by observing scientific talks, she tries to elicit these image repertoires from practicing scientists and then to render them in her artistic work. She’s interested in the ways that the visual repertoire of scientists allows them to think and do certain things but may also constrain them, how the limits of their imaginations can become the limits of their scientific activity. So, yeah, I think there’s an important role that art can play in revealing the conditions of possibility of scientific thought and activity, and vice versa.

VM

And so, what kind of radically Realist philosophical position, and what kind of questions and challenges specifically artistically would such a position then pose?

CC

This is a bit of a digression, but I often teach the work of George Berkeley, the early modern idealist philosopher. For Berkeley, all that exists are minds and ideas, and what we call the physical world is just a collection of ideas. Students new to this kind of idealism initially assume that Berkeley is describing some bizarre world that’s totally alien to the world they know and interact with. But I always explain that the weird thing about Berkeley’s world, or the world of the idealist, is that it's exactly the world in which we all live. It’s just that there are no physical objects. Physical objects are ideas. In other words, the idealist leaves everything exactly as it is (while also opening new possibilities: for example, Berkeley’s idealism is a way of justifying the existence of God). This is true of materialism as well. The materialist leaves everything exactly the way it is. We just think about it differently; and this thinking opens new possibilities for thinking (and closes off others: e.g., there’s no place for God, except possibly in a pantheist sense). So, when we materialists think about artworks, we might ask: What is it made of? What are its physical, conceptual, and affective capacities? What are its potentialities? What does it do? The artwork remains the same, but we consider it differently. Representation might be something it does, but maybe not the most interesting or powerful. How does an artwork hit us? How does it shape us? How does it frame us? How does it alter our cognitive, creative, conceptual, or material capacities? What does it do? Delanda’s materialism invites us to conceive the world in terms of tendencies and capacities, the tendencies and capacities of materials, of human bodies, of artworks. I'm not naive enough to think that those tendencies and capacities are the same for every subject. I don't mean to suggest there's some neutral human subject with a given set of capacities and tendencies. But, just as materials (metal, wood, or plastic, for example) have capacities and tendencies of their own that are not dependent on our desires or beliefs about them, I think that works of art have capacities of their own that are not simply individually or culturally relative. A lot of contemporary art seems to foreground those capacities. One tendency of contemporary art is to foreground questions of ability and disability. This is a way of thinking about the very material capacities of human bodies, what they can and can’t do, how they are very really affected by the artwork, the gallery context, etc. This is an exciting development in contemporary art and of contemporary culture more broadly: to be much more aware of human difference in terms of ability, disability, capacity, tendency, etc. These are very materialist concerns, very realist concerns.

VM

Is there a more interesting and critically rigorous way to approach that position, do you think?

CC

For all sorts of valid political reasons, the tendency is to say, “Let's try to make everything as accessible to everyone as possible.” Universal design is certainly a good thing. But, from philosophical standpoint, I want to think a bit more broadly about this, drawing on Spinoza’s great remark: “no one has yet determined what the body can do.” It seems to me that paying close attention to what a body can do and what different bodies can do, paying very close attention to what artworks can and can’t do in relationship to different bodies is conceptually a very powerful way to think about art. And I think it's politically rich as well. A lot of really interesting recent writing has taken up this question – for example, Sarah Hendren’s What Can a Body Do?, Paul Preciado’s Testo Junkie, or the Xenofeminist Manifesto. All these texts provoke us to think creatively about the variety of human capacities and how they can be hindered or extended. With regard to accessibility, the immediate tendency is critique: “this work of art or exhibition is inaccessible or should be made more accessible.” That’s certainly an important critique. But if we think more broadly and make explicit what the artwork or exhibition allows and doesn't allow, that becomes an interesting conversation, I think. Where I teach at the Center for Curatorial Studies, there was an interesting thesis project a few years ago that was all about access and accessibility, and that's really affected the way students design their exhibitions.

VM

Speaking of a few years ago, your latest book, Sonic Flux came out in 2018, if I’m not mistaken. That's four years ago. So, with hindsight and kind of from a perspective benefitting from all the things that happened in the interim, where do you stand yourself right now in relation to the book and that line of thinking? How has your position developed since then? What do you think would be an important kind of addendum to what was and could only be said there and then?

CC

I think a lot about this. I'm happy with the book in all sorts of ways but also very quickly see its limitations. I mean, hopefully, that's what spurs us as thinkers and writers to think and write otherwise! Some of this rethinking is prompted by critics and some of it just from reflection and self-critique. The general scope and framework of that book I still fully endorse. That is, I endorse the broad theoretical conception, the effort to think of sound within a materialist theory of flows. And I think that the various artistic practices that I considered were very helpful in framing and shaping that theoretical framework. But, again, there are surely limitations to that book. The artistic lineage that I consider there is almost entirely European, and almost entirely white, and that's surely problematic. There are just so many other interesting and powerful artistic projects that could have shaped the book in important ways but to which I was insufficiently attentive. In more recent work, I’ve tried to explore some of those artists and lines of inquiry.For example, I wrote a piece on the politics of sound that considers the question of aesthetic politics in terms of flows and codes. I draw centrally on projects by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, whose work is powerful and helps us to think in a very concrete way about how flows of sound have very real political consequences and effects. I'm really interested in thinking with the work of Pauline Oliveros, particularly her conception of the Sonosphere, which would've been a very helpful way for me to conceive the sonic flux.

Another thing I've become interested in is the relationship between phonography and photography. In Sonic Flux, I note the explosion of interest in field recording, not only the early field recordings or compositions of the Vancouver Soundscape and folks like that in the sixties and seventies, but also the field recordings of more contemporary artists such as Toshiya Tsonoda, Jana Winderen, Emeka Ogboh, and others. I'm really interested in what exactly a field recording is. Is it a documentary object? A work of art? Both? Is it a slice of the world extracted from the sonic flux and submitted to aesthetic or scientific apprehension? What is the effect of dislocating or abstracting sound from its particular location or place? I'm interested in thinking about this with photography, because, of course, photography was confronted with these questions from the very start: What is a photograph? Is it an index? Is it a representation? What does it mean that it's always a past event and never a present one? All those things… and so, I'm trying to consider whether the history of photography can tell me something about the practice of phonography. In this project, I’m engaging with Laruelle’s conception of “non-photography,” that is, a conception of photography not as a representation of the world but as a material component or sample of it. A photograph is not other than the real, it's “alongside the real,” as Laruelle likes to say. And so, to think of audio recordings as forming a kind of layer or flow that’s alongside the real in that Laruellean sense, that really fascinates me and, and there's certainly a lot of work to do in that regard.

VM

So, is this what you're mainly working on right now?

CC

There are a number of things I’m working on. For example, there's a follow-up book on Conceptual art and sound art that’s currently under contract with Bloomsbury. It was initially a chapter of Sonic Flux, but it just grew and grew. And then I'm working on the phonography-photography project, and also a collection of essays largely on film and video. Some of the essays in that book stem from work I’ve published or given as talks, for example, the piece about sonic fossils and photographic fossils. I've got a longstanding engagement with the artist Tony Cokes that I'm interested in developing further, really trying to think about his work, which so deeply engages text, sound, and image in ways that I find powerful and fascinating. I’ve sketched some essays on The Otolith Group and on Lucy Raven's work, an essay on Hollis Frampton, and so on. So, it's a collection of essays that loosely develops some concerns that were latent in Sonic Flux, while addressing specific artistic practices.

VM

Is there anything you wish you could be working on that you aren’t or can’t right now?

CC

Right now, I’m just trying to finish some things that I’ve started! One project that’s really been on hold is a project on sampling in the broadest possible sense. The basic framework of Sonic Flux is that there is a perennial sonic flow of sound and that what artists do (and, indeed, what every living thing does) is download particular aspects or slices of that sonic flux. That is, they sample it. I’m interested in thinking this form of sampling alongside the scientific practice of sampling. When a scientist takes a sample, what is that they do? What makes a sample a “good” sample and what can the scientist glean from such a sample? When a hip-hop producer takes a sample of an audio track, when a field recordist takes a sample, when a photographer does, what’s the relationship between the sample and the flow from which they sample? In the broadest philosophical sense, the question is: what’s the relationship between the particular and the universal? Photography is a form of sampling, it gives you this particular image and this particular configuration via this particular apparatus right here right now, and I guess I want to know what is the ontological and epistemological status of all those samples and how can the scientific sample help us to think about the photographic sample, and vice versa? That's a broad project that I have in mind. It’s going to take a while, but I'm quite fascinated by these questions.

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