May: Andre Masson

 

“The field of battle . . . literally threw me into the humus humain”[1]

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André Masson Figure, Oil and sand on canvas, 1926-7

 

On first reading the quote above it seemed to me that the French surrealist artist, André Masson, was describing his psychopathology; describing how he had ‘fallen to pieces’, crumbled psychologically after experiencing a night where he was left exposed to the elements, hallucinating whilst lying in a crater on a First World War battlefield.[2] I also interpreted this as a comment on his desire at the time to join the corpse of a German soldier, lying next to him, in death[3] and therefore as being symptomatic of his wish to return to an inanimate mineral-state like the soil around him.

 

“ The indescribable night of the battlefield, streaked in every direction by bright red and green rockets, striped by the wake and the flashes of all the projectiles and rockets all this fairytale-like enchantment was orchestrated by the explosions of shells which literally encircled me and sprinkled me with earth and shrapnel. To see all that, face upward, one’s body immobilised on s stretcher, instead of head down as in the fighting where on burrows like a dog in the shell craters, constituted a rare and unwonted situation. The first nerve-shattering fright gives way to resignation and then, as delirium slips over you, it becomes a celebration performed for one about to die.” [4]

 

Over time the phrase ‘humus humain’ kept coming back into my thoughts. The ‘humus’ (soil) seemed to blend with the protective sprinklings of earth on his body in the crater on the ridge of the Chemin des Dames (in the second, longer quote) and with the sprinkled sand in the painting above. It became apparent then that the ‘humus humain’ could also imply a bleeding of the boundaries between human and non-human, the body and the organic and inorganic particles around it. Masson’s paintings will be considered in the light of the theories of André Breton, the leader of the surrealist movement and then in terms of the theories of the academic ‘vibrant materialist’ Jane Bennett. It seems fertile then to pursue the collapse of subject[5] and object[6] in Masson’s work since it could explain some of my experiences of the various agencies involved in the flux of different objects found in the ruination on Crescent Road, and in my paintings showing affinity with these encounters.

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Andre Masson, Battle of the Fishes, Oil, sand, pencil, charcoal and Gesso on canvas, 1926

 

During the mid-to-late-1920s Masson lived in Sanary, a picturesque harbour town in the South of France. It was here that he became enchanted with the ribbed lines in the sand that he found on the beach; lines which led him to invent the technique of automatic sand paintings[7] in which he would ‘rain’ sand down onto glue that he had dropped onto the canvas. The particles of the seawater or the air moving over the surface of the beach ‘drew’ in the sand. The sight of these lines seemed to have reactivated his previous experiences on the bare landscape of the Chemin des Dames during World War One. In the crater he had ‘merged’ with the ‘wounded’ landscape on a ridge made up of loess[8] and chalky rocks.[9] In the contemporary photograph below it is still possible to see the way in which the topography of the land became a strange inland sea of soil and rock due to the wave formations caused by heavy shelling. Although, it is apparent that this scene is now returned to something less brutal being covered by a reassuring layer of grass.[10]

 

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Jeffrey Gursky, Untitled (Fort on the Chemin de Dames Ridge), No Date Given http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/ww1-underground/gusky-photography#/02-chemin-des-dames-fort-670.jpg

 

As a loner, Masson was an artist who lived on the edge of the Surrealist circle.[11] Confusingly he seemed to also inhabit the circle’s centre (in relation to the development of visual automatist practice and his invention of sand painting).

 

André Breton and the Unconscious in Automatism

For Breton’s and the surrealists the unconscious was seen to be a positive force: it was the seat of the irrational, and was valuable for its state of flux. This same flux would explain the way that internal and external experience merged for Masson and so lends itself to a similar merging of the human and the non-human: the soil becomes a figure; the soldiers and tanks become fish; the beach becomes a battlefield. For Breton, and the others in his circle, ruins were seen as a form of unconscious space.[12] (REF NEEDED) Therefore Masson’s use of the unconscious in automatist painting could be said to contain a kind of shifting ‘mental debris’ rather like the shifting material debris found in the ruined ground on the ridge and in the particles of the sea and sand on the beach. At the moment I am unclear as to the nature of the analogical creative processes present in Breton’s theories. Analogy, or the comparing of two things, is often present in unconscious thought: does this suggest that the human, in Masson’s case the artist, is the ultimate agency that ascribes significance to the assemblages, in terms of both perception and in terms of the imaginative creative act?[13] (REF NEEDED). Since the unconscious is housed in the mind found in the brain and connected to the nervous system, it is apparent that the nerves are involved in information passing in and out of the individual. Being inherited from our animal ancestors the nerves can be seen as pre-human (or even non-human).[14] For Breton the unconscious would have been said to underlie most of Masson’s automatist agency. The connections of this agency to the nervous system therefore has ramifications for notions of human agency, intentionality and free-will.

 

Masson through Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Materiality

 

Various new materialist thinkers would suggest that the shifting groupings of debris described above, and the disorderly flux of unconscious processes are sites of emergent rather than intentional meaning.[15] That is to say, that the ruined landscapes, the unconscious and the automatic method and resulting paintings are connected because the particles in the different assemblages all have common material origins.[16] This would mean that they would view the non-human as being as important as the human in terms of agency. However it seems that the author Jane Bennett differs from the new materialists, since she would argue that Masson was more receptive to an awareness of flux (or ‘becoming’) and of material agency because he was held in a passive state whilst lying on the ground in the crater. This material state of becoming can be likened to a similarly fluid quality in Breton’s reading of the unconscious.

 

In her book Vibrant Matter, Bennett describes her encounter with an assemblage of “glove, pollen, rat, cap, stick”[17] that she encountered in the street and she claims that:

 

“I caught a glimpse of an energetic vitality inside each of these things, things that I generally conceived as inert. In this assemblage, objects appeared as things, that is, as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics.”[18]

 

For Bennett this event led to her coining the term ‘thing-power’ to describe the way in which humans are ‘called’ into certain assemblages because of what she terms ‘sympathy’. For her ‘sympathy’ requires that we should be in the correct receptive state, perhaps one that is passive, rather like the state that preceded Masson’s automatic paintings and his experience in the crater.[19] It seems that ‘sympathy’ is important in relation to Masson’s paintings. He was wounded, the German soldier had been fatally wounded, the landscape of the Chemin des Dames was ‘wounded’ and it seems as if these wounds were still very ‘present’ for him in 1926. So ‘present’ that either they ‘sought out’ other wounds, or they were ‘sought out’ by other ‘wounds’, even in the picturesque coastal landscape of the Mediterranean. However it is not as simple as a ‘sympathy’ of wounds. Since Masson also seemed to be seeking for the opposite; he sought to depict a fiercely vital force; sought for entities that were forcefully ‘seeking’ to maintain their vitality as in the Battle of the Fishes and Figure.[20] For Bennett this is force is described as the ‘liveliness’ of matter’ [21] but she differentiates between the intentionality of the human and the agency of the non-human.

 

How much agency did Masson have whilst the painting was produced? He regularly used to go without sleep and food for days and he worked for very long periods without breaks. This practice would have led to the ruination of reason- presumably due to an activation of the flight or fight response; in other words the ‘pre-human’ of the nervous system would bypass the ‘human’ of the higher cognitive processes. This ‘return’ to the pre-human can be seen to have led to a “becoming-animal” in his description of acting like a fog in the War, or even a “becoming soil”. Ultimately it seems that becoming a human-soil assemblage (‘humus humain’) could be seen to imply something that is both deathly and lively/active and passive and it is interesting to note that, despite Bennett’s suggestion that ‘thing-power’ has qualities that are outside of the semiotic, etymologically the root hum- leads to the ancient Greek and later Latin humus for Soil and to the word human- implying the ancient conception that humans come from the soil. Given these meanings, ‘humus humain’ could imply that rather than simply desiring to die Masson in a state of being reborn through an assembly with the soil, or through an experiential realisation of the importance of states of becoming.

My Practice

 

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L:Chris Hamer, Untitled (flood) , Acrylic on Canvas, May 2015

R: Chris Hamer, Untitled (flood) , Acrylic on Canvas, August 2015

 

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Chris Hamer, Profile, Archival Print, 2012

 

By engaging with Masson’s work, through the theories of Breton and Bennett, I have considered various themes which can now be used to more fully explore human and non-human agency in relation to my own studio-based research. How much agency do I really possess when I am painting? Jane Bennett’s use of the notions of ‘assemblage’ and ‘becoming’ 

By engaging with Masson’s work, through the theories of Breton and Bennett, I have considered various themes which can now be used to more fully explore human and non-human agency in relation to my own studio-based research. How much agency do I really possess when I am painting? Jane Bennett’s use of the notions of ‘assemblage’ and ‘becoming’[22] could help explain my experience of the different agencies in the space under the bridge and in my paintings ‘of’ them. (NEED AN EXPLANATION OF THESE TERMS) The reduction in the dominance of my agency is demonstrated by my experience of my previous and current studio practice. When I first started painting with acrylic paint on canvas in 2008 I experienced a sense of frustration about my lack of control: this contrasted with the propensity of the paint to do its ‘own thing’. I struggled to ‘take charge’ of the materials that make a painting in order to make them succeed. As I gained more experience of painting in this medium it became apparent that it had to play more of an active part in the process, it partly dictated the parameters within which my actions took place. This ongoing relationship, or assemblage, with the paint can then be seen as an shifting exchange of the agency of the material of the paint, of me and of the assemblages in the other environments I encounter.

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Chris Hamer, Flood, Photocopied Page from Sketchbook, April 2016

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Chris Hamer, Flood, Photocopied Page from Sketchbook, April 2016

However there is a contradiction in my working processes: I have also produced drawings and photographs that are glued into sketchbooks (see example above), in order to assist in the creation of automatic my paintings. I have carried this out because I experienced a huge amount of anxiety in the competing oppositional nature of the spontaneous freedom which accompanies automatic painting and the needs for verbal explanation in academic research. It seemed as if the paintings were leading to processes that were ‘out of control’ and that academic convention required purposeful reflection. So I felt that I needed an intermediary space which would allow for the translation of the paintings into language- initially the imagery was integrated with writing. I also felt the need to escape the ‘trap’ of responding to ruination in the pre-existing ways that I was already familiar with. In retrospect I also felt that it was necessary to genuinely engage with disorder in the chaotic lack of structure in the swirling non-linear nature of the sketchbooks. Although this disorder would still imply a level of passivity on my part and a reduction of my role in creating an ordered, authored response I have found it a helpful means to ‘divine’ possible ways in which to develop my automatic paintings further. Because of the more pure automatic nature of my drawing practice forms emerge in a non-linear manner: they are not tethered by the constraints of the propensities of the material of the paint and allow for direct access to Breton’s unconscious.

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Author’s Photograph, Window of the Dice Lounge, Levenshulme, 2015

My working methods can be criticised because, on many occasions, I have broken free of the artificial boundaries imposed by the rational nature of academic research; I have looked outside of the space of Crescent Road. In retrospect it seems that Bennett’s theories can be used to explain why I find this so necessary: once I entered into the material assemblages under the bridge I found that other homologous assemblages ‘drew me into’ them. This can all sound rather puerile or ‘crazy’. A child, or a madman, might say that ‘the things made me do it’; ‘they made me break the rules’. To me this ‘crazy’, puerile quality seems necessary; necessary for my engagement with the ‘vibrant’ non-human agencies of paint and of ruination. If I use Breton’s unconscious to account for these transgressions the unpredictable agency of the irrational also comes into play.

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Chris Hamer, Untitled (Bridge), Acrylic on canvas, March 2016

After reading about aspects of Masson’s practice and Bennett’s theories I have been to more fully able to verbalise my experiences of these passive, receptive states, where it seems that I encourage or even allow the paint to do ‘its thing’. I have recently introduced silt, dust, brick, stone and glass particles of various sizes (collected from under the bridge) to the material particles of acrylic paint and acrylic mediums. (see this in thinner washes in the painting above and in the more impasto qualities in the painting below). This means that, in some ways I have partially returned to a state of unfamiliarity with the medium: the homogeneous quality of the paint visibly breaks up into particles and dries with unexpected modulated tones which, at the moment. I have little ability to predict or control the outcome or to verbalise an intention other than the intention to disrupt my ability to control outcomes.

 

 

could help explain my experience of the different agencies in the space under the bridge and in my paintings ‘of’ them. (NEED AN EXPLANATION OF THESE TERMS) The reduction in the dominance of my agency is demonstrated by my experience of my previous and current studio practice. When I first started painting with acrylic paint on canvas in 2008 I experienced a sense of frustration about my lack of control: this contrasted with the propensity of the paint to do its ‘own thing’. I struggled to ‘take charge’ of the materials that make a painting in order to make them succeed. As I gained more experience of painting in this medium it became apparent that it had to play more of an active part in the process, it partly dictated the parameters within which my actions took place. This ongoing relationship, or assemblage, with the paint can then be seen as an shifting exchange of the agency of the material of the paint, of me and of the assemblages in the other environments I encounter.

By engaging with Masson’s work, through the theories of Breton and Bennett, I have considered various themes which can now be used to more fully explore human and non-human agency in relation to my own studio-based research. How much agency do I really possess when I am painting? Jane Bennett’s use of the notions of ‘assemblage’ and ‘becoming’[22] could help explain my experience of the different agencies in the space under the bridge and in my paintings ‘of’ them. (NEED AN EXPLANATION OF THESE TERMS) The reduction in the dominance of my agency is demonstrated by my experience of my previous and current studio practice. When I first started painting with acrylic paint on canvas in 2008 I experienced a sense of frustration about my lack of control: this contrasted with the propensity of the paint to do its ‘own thing’. I struggled to ‘take charge’ of the materials that make a painting in order to make them succeed. As I gained more experience of painting in this medium it became apparent that it had to play more of an active part in the process, it partly dictated the parameters within which my actions took place. This ongoing relationship, or assemblage, with the paint can then be seen as an shifting exchange of the agency of the material of the paint, of me and of the assemblages in the other environments I encounter.

However there is a contradiction in my working processes: I have also produced drawings and photographs that are glued into sketchbooks (see example above), in order to assist in the creation of automatic my paintings. I have carried this out because I experienced a huge amount of anxiety in the competing oppositional nature of the spontaneous freedom which accompanies automatic painting and the needs for verbal explanation in academic research. It seemed as if the paintings were leading to processes that were ‘out of control’ and that academic convention required purposeful reflection. So I felt that I needed an intermediary space which would allow for the translation of the paintings into language- initially the imagery was integrated with writing. I also felt the need to escape the ‘trap’ of responding to ruination in the pre-existing ways that I was already familiar with. In retrospect I also felt that it was necessary to genuinely engage with disorder in the chaotic lack of structure in the swirling non-linear nature of the sketchbooks. Although this disorder would still imply a level of passivity on my part and a reduction of my role in creating an ordered, authored response I have found it a helpful means to ‘divine’ possible ways in which to develop my automatic paintings further. Because of the more pure automatic nature of my drawing practice forms emerge in a non-linear manner: they are not tethered by the constraints of the propensities of the material of the paint and allow for direct access to Breton’s unconscious.

 

My working methods can be criticised because, on many occasions, I have broken free of the artificial boundaries imposed by the rational nature of academic research; I have looked outside of the space of Crescent Road. In retrospect it seems that Bennett’s theories can be used to explain why I find this so necessary: once I entered into the material assemblages under the bridge I found that other homologous assemblages ‘drew me into’ them. This can all sound rather puerile or ‘crazy’. A child, or a madman, might say that ‘the things made me do it’; ‘they made me break the rules’. To me this ‘crazy’, puerile quality seems necessary; necessary for my engagement with the ‘vibrant’ non-human agencies of paint and of ruination. If I use Breton’s unconscious to account for these transgressions the unpredictable, irrational agency of the irrational also comes into play.

After reading about aspects of Masson’s practice and Bennett’s theories I have been to more fully able to verbalise my experiences of these passive, receptive states, where it seems that I encourage or even allow the paint to do ‘its thing’. I have recently introduced silt, dust, brick, stone and glass particles of various sizes (collected from under the bridge) to the material particles of acrylic paint and acrylic mediums. (see this in thinner washes in the painting above and in the more impasto qualities in the painting below). This means that, in some ways I have partially returned to a state of unfamiliarity with the medium: the homogenous quality of the paint visibly breaks up into particles and dries with unexpected modulated tones which, at the moment. I have little ability to predict or control the outcome or to verbalise an intention other than the intention to disrupt my ability to control outcomes.

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Chris Hamer, Untitled, Acrylic on canvas, June 2016

I respect the claims of psychoanalytic theory but, like Breton, I am not interested in pursuing originary meanings and, like Bennett, I do not wish to psychopathologise the vibrant material processes at work in my own perception, and in my own painting practice.[23] I do, however, feel an affinity for Masson’s attempting to empty himself of rational, overdetermined thought prior to painting sessions, because I regularly experience similar states. This means that one of the primary intentions I have before a longer session is to enter into a passive-yet-active, receptive state at some point during the activity of painting; so that I am open to the collapse of the boundaries between my human intention and the non-human agency of the materials. This means me ‘taking on board’ aspects of the ‘dumb’ nature of other non-human components of the studio, and of the internal and external spaces that I am exploring. In the paintings above it seems pertinent to note that there is often a repetitive quality in the structures formed from the lines, this could come from my need for a blankness rather than from what the academic David Lomas notes Freud would refer to as a repetition compulsion stemming from trauma in the automatist process.[24] Previously I had difficulty in writing about these processes because, as Bennett acknowledges, the English language does not lend itself to the decentering or collapsing of the distinction between subject and object[25]Whilst painting I become more ‘animal’ in my use of automatism and in my becoming more attuned to inorganic matter. These states are hard to describe or ‘explain’ because of the translation from the non-semiotic, non-human material processes (in both me and in the studio) into language.[26]

 

I find the new materialist notion that the exchange of particles is responsible for some of the processes[27] (REF NEEDED) at work in both my studio practice and in Masson’s paintings rather hard to accept. The claim seems outlandish; however, aspects of my painting (see above) can be explained by this concept: my body did not come into contact with the particles of the floodwater, but I did exchange particles with Herta’s arm when I laid a hand on it in the funeral home. I did touch the dustbin next to Herta’s home when I moved it in order to photograph it (see above). The common connection, the focal point between the different assemblages is me, my right hand, particularly my right index finger. This is the one that I used to draw and remove particles from the veil of chalky paint overlaid over an almost black ground on the painting above. New materialism can take the homology of particles one step further by describing the connections between any particles, even when not touching, through quantum entanglement[28] – particles located in different spaces or even times can effectively become the same particle existing in the same space and time. This means that even if it is just ‘me’ painting I can become involved in a whole lot of assemblages and a network of different rhizomes from anywhere or anytime in the universe. This could be an explanation for the connection being fostered by a quantum exchange of particles with the floodwater despite never having come into physical contact with it. Alternatively in a more ‘common sense’ way particles could have been exchanged by the action of wind at the time- removing the need for the ‘mystical’ aspect of the collapse of time and space.

So in these theories it seems that it is not just the conscious ‘me’ that creates or has agency in relation to ‘my’ paintings. It seems as if both human and non-human agency ‘desires’ something from me as much as I desire something from it. But is this not, as Bennett herself acknowledges, still merely an illusory projection of my subconscious desire onto the objects of the world? Is Jane Bennett merely rephrasing aspects of psychoanalytic theory? It seems that to progress away from anthropomorphic projection and into a more genuinely materialistic thinking I may have to consider another theorist’s body of work that deals with homology rather than Bennett’s analogy. I’m not sure at the moment which of these views of agency I agree with. If new materialist homology is used as a guiding principle then the principle of analogy can still be included- since the mind is intertwined in the materiality of the brain then it is composed of particles. The implications are that this could be more than a case of anthropomorphising projection; if the individual parts of assemblages are connected materially then they can be said to genuinely ‘take part’ in the creation of the work.

 

The automatic, chance nature of the marks on the dustbin next to Herta’s house could be said to have lent themselves to analogical thought: to my projection onto them. To use Breton’s theory, I initally experienced these marks as resembling a drawing of a landscape that my unconscious had projected onto it. After a period of written reflection on the nature of my experiences over the last year I now consider that I have been in an assemblage with the bridge and with the various of the agencies of ruination around it. I now see that the marks on the bin are materially linked to the space under the bridge. To the surrealists this would be an example of the marvellous nature of the irrational, or of automatism leading to the chance marks as the bin scraped against a wall, or even as a kind of ‘magical’ precursor of my later experiences. This ‘predictive’ aspect of the marks could be explained by the non-linear nature of time and space found within quantum entanglement of new materialist theory.

 

To Bennett this would be an example of the collapse of subject and object, of a return to a kind of anthropomorphising vitalism. My human agency is present in either theory in constructing semiotic meaning from this assemblage of marks that I observed in a state of becoming over a period of years.

References

[1] Masson cited In Rubin and Lanchner 1976:31

[2] Presumably the hallucinations came from both the morphine that he had been given for the pain from the bullet that had penetrated his chest, or from some kind of trauma-induced psychosis which would have been referred to as war hysteria or shellshock at the time.

[3] Lomas 2010

[4] It is useful to note here that earlier paintings by Masson featured symbols and objects associated with magic and that his mother was a Gypsy who strongly believed in magic. The ability of human or non-human agents to control the world figures strongly in these systems of thought and seem to link to the “enchanted” quality of the “sprinkled sand and earth. Masson cited In Rubin and Lanchner 1976:30-31

[5] Masson as an individual who was a soldier and an ‘authorial’ artist.

[6] The corpse, both landscapes and the material processes in his studio.

[7] Ades:1994:10

[8] These windblown particles are of a similar colour to the sand on the beach and the sand in the painting and are composed of silt mixed with sand.

[9] It is possible that Masson’s conflation of the beach and the ridge of the Chemin des Dames could also have been triggered by the fish he could have watched in the shallow, clear coastal waters of the Mediterranean having a connection with the chalk deposits revealed in the shell craters. These chalk deposits were formed under reasonably deep marine conditions and it is possible that they could contain marine fossils that could explain the fossilised appearance of the outlines of the fishes in a waterless sea.

[10] Bennett 2010

[11] he would later be expelled from the movement by Breton

[12] REF NEEDED

[13] Although not progressing to an originary meaning as would be the case in a psychoanalysis of Masson’s painting since it could be seen as evidence of the rational mind accepting and understanding the significance of the original experience (see Lomas:2000)

[14] This is further complicated by the introduction of the Freudian notion of the death drive as described in Lomas 2000

[15] Jane Bennett is most likely not included in this and I need to uncover why she is not

[16] The implications for this commonality lead to the startling observations regarding Quantum entanglement as described in Van Der Tuin 2015

[17] Bennett 2010:4

[18] Bennett 2010:5

[19] Bennett 2010

[20]Ades1994 and Rubin and Lanchner 1976

[21] Bennett 2010

[22] Bennett 2011

[24] Lomas 2000

[25] Bennett 2010

[26] I have avoided too much engagement with the decentering of the subject in language as this could be a whole project in itself, and could distract me from the exploration of human and non-human in material painted form.

[27] Ref needed

[28] Van Der Tuin 2015

 

Bibliography

Ades, Dawn André Masson 1994 Academy Editions London

 

Bennett, Jane   Vibrant Matter 2010 Duke University Press London

Bennett, Jane Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter  The New School 2011

www.you tube.com/watch?v=q607Ni23QjA

Lomas, David The Haunted Self: Surrealism Psychoanalysis Subjectivity 2000 Yale University Press London

Rubin William and Lanchner Carolyn 1976 André Masson Museum of Modern Art New York

Van der Tuin, Iris – Reading diffractive reading: were and when does diffraction happen? Part of the seminar Radical Methodologies for the Posthumanities   2015

 

 

 

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