In the course of examining a number of key concepts in New Materialism, eco-criticism, and feminist philosophy, Melanie Doherty delves into Jamie Skye Bianco's digitally generated "postnature writing." Doherty's rich knowledge of contemporary ecofeminist debates helps to contextualize Bianco's hybrid performance-based works that draw upon a database of philosophical texts and landscapes, like the Salton Sea and Dead Horse Bay, that have been marred by histories of human misuse.
Note: this essay is a part of a "Gathering" on the topic of Digital and Natural ecologies.
Jamie Skye Bianco's #clusterMucks are "algorhythmic" works of performance art focused on eco-disaster sites where the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman cannot easily be parsed. In her live performances, Bianco combines digital videos taken at sites such as Dead Horse Bay in New York and the Salton Sea in California with readings of algorithmically generated texts in order to explore our theoretical blindspots. Like Bruno Latour's hybrids and Donna Haraway's naturecultures, the eco-disaster sites Bianco selects for her #clusterMucks are chimeras that function as the equivalent of plastiglomerate, the recently-coined term for plastic-infused volcanic rock that may well mark the geological boundaries of the Holocene and the Anthropocene. Human actions, plans, legislation, and detritus sprawl across #clusterMuck sites, remixing their idiosyncratic ecosystems through unique forms of writing. What Bianco records is not nature writing like the land-use almanacs of Aldo Leopold or the Cassandra-cry of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, but something that quite literally gets to the noisy material processes of both human and geological writing. Her performances capture events taking place both at the level of the geographical sites themselves and in the ways they are coded and circulated in technomedia. Using not only digital video but also the logic of database and algorithm in her work, Bianco explores resonant layers of posthuman, ecocritical, and materialist feminist theories in her #clusterMuck performances. While Leopold, Carson and other nature writers offer powerful texts which remain essential to the ways we think contemporary ecocritical theory, Bianco's #clusterMucks take aesthetic license to represent postnature writing, or what Bill McKibben warned as "the end of nature as a space outside the human" (6).
#clusterMucks are a mixed palette of human and nonhuman actants. The hashtag of a Twitter feed in their title underscores how Bianco uses technomedia ecologies to explore geographical sites. In both cases, the internal logics of media ecologies and natural ecologies exceed and remix the human. Just as automated media content aggregators work beyond the scope of human intentionality in online ecologies, so does the detritus of the 19th-century trash dump in Dead Horse Bay, or the complex dynamics of industrial agriculture pollution behind the creation of the Salton Sea. The collision of media ecologies and natural ecologies plays out in the scenes of eco-disaster sites displayed during Bianco's live performances as well. The accompanying texts, remixed randomly by algorithm, draw from the work of an array of contemporary theorists working in various fields including new media, affect theory, ecocriticism, speculative realism and materialist feminisms. At times, the algorithmic texts exhibit an eerie logic: like weather systems or moments of insight in human thought, they occasionally coalesce into meaning, but often more reliably dissolve into noise.
The tension between residual cultural positioning and the fractaling chaos of dire ecological outcomes pervades the performance pieces. Just as the algorithmic writing combines intentionality and randomness, the eco-disaster sites Bianco selects for her #clusterMuck works are arguably the result of both intentional and unintentional forms of geoengineering. Both Dead Horse Bay on New York City's urban coastline in her piece #bottlesNbones and the Salton Sea in California for #saltON sea are sites that emerged from an odd combination of over-planning and lack of planning on the part of human actants. For example, "Dead Horse Bay" is an inlet in New York City's Jamaica Bay that has been radically changed by human intervention for centuries. Essentially a garbage dump through the 19th- and early 20th-century, the site gets its name from the now-defunct glue manufacturing and animal rendering plants that once lined the coast and regularly dumped their effluvia of horse carcasses and industrial waste into the bay. Over time the site transformed as the accretions of human trash were covered with silt and returned to an uneasy balance with the local ecosystems. Parts of the bay became Floyd Bennett Airfield in 1927 and the site maintained its industrial presence until it became the Gateway National Recreation Area in 1972. According to a 1999 New York Times article, despite the strata of trash dumps and industrial waste, much of the area had "returned to nature": "Jennifer M. Wolff, a ranger at the bay, says she sees red-wing blackbirds and raccoons along the inland trails, while skimmers, great egrets and terns appear by the water. From time to time, horse bones wash up on the shore. 'I mainly see leg bones,' Ms.Wolff said. 'Leg bones and ribs'" (Schneider). In 2010, the same area was subject to a decade-long project to dredge the bay in preparation for the new post-Panama Canal "supertankers." The city began to use the remaining "muck" from the bottom of the bay to build up the small channel islands which had been eroding for decades due to the industrial use and environmental changes (Roberts). This "rebuilding" of the islands can be read as a form of geoengineering, albeit based on economic demands rather than environmental ones.
Either way, Dead Horse Bay carries an inherent warning about the utopian optimism of geoengineering as a last-ditch environmental fix, as just two years later in 2012, Hurricane Sandy would sweep through the bay and wash away many of the newly rebuilt "muck" islands. Storm Sandy also unearthed trash from the 19th-century dumps and industrial sites and mixed it with 21st-century waste blown in from the New York and New Jersey coastlines. The result was a cacophony of human detritus mingled with the restored ecologies of the recreation area: beaches and grass marshes littered with 19th century bottles and 21st century plastics tossed among birds' nests, horse bones, and crab shells. This is the landscape that Bianco's digital video records for the viewer.
In #saltONsea, a similar logic of accretion and randomness sets the tone for the performance piece. Bianco's camerawork pans southern California's Sonoran Desert where the Salton Sea emerged when the Colorado River flooded the low-lying lakebed over 100 years ago. The site famously peaked in the 1950s as a plastic pink-flamingo haven of Winnebagos and suburban sprawl, a tourist destination that offered ersatz-lakeside luxury. The water supply of the Salton Sea has since dwindled, becoming increasingly saline and toxic from human overuse and the run-off from industrial agriculture. Massive algae blooms and fish kills led to a rapid exodus of the local population in the 1960s and 70s. Although there have been some remaining hold-outs who live along the Salton Sea, a group of craggy individuals who identify with the decaying romance of the place and live alongside the poor farmers who mark the region's largest population growth in the past few decades, the area is largely deserted. There are also those who have tried to save it, who work with various environmental organizations to deal with issues like the growing problem of the mass migratory bird deaths caused by the toxic exposed lakebed. But ultimately the site is becoming increasingly more alien and inhospitable each year. The 1950s-era abandoned gas stations and chevroned neon signs no longer hold their appeal as they crumble into the sand. As Stan Stenner from the National Audubon Society describes it, the Salton Sea is "a microcosm of the world. Everything will be increasingly managed as we leave fewer natural resources" (Barringer).
In Bianco's work, these sites clearly act as local microcosms for the global future. Both Dead Horse Bay and the Salton Sea are synonymous with what Ursula Heise calls "synthetic ecologies," referring to the resurgence of interest in Martian landscapes in contemporary science fiction, particularly depictions of Martian terraforming as "a step beyond [a] postmodern questioning of the natural" (468). Heise cites the work of Philip K. Dick, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, and Kim Stanley Robinson as articulating worlds which portray "the emergence of new, synthetic ecologies that combine human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate, planetary and extraplanetary, biological and technological elements in such a way that these distinctions themselves gradually cease to perform meaningful cultural work" (468-469). For Heise, the science fiction worlds of these authors mirror our current moment in which we have come to understand that we may well be "a human society that will live its future life in Martian ecologies, no matter the planet" (469). Just as Bill McKibben suggested in The End of Nature, we exist in a new form of nature now, one that has become fully bounded by the human. Within our own world, humanity has begun to render the earth itself a hostile alien landscape. In other words, forget Mars: our own planet Earth is already becoming our largest terraforming project.
In a similar way, human decisions clearly play a part in the creation of both #clusterMuck eco-disaster sites, such as accidental rerouting of the Colorado River that created the Salton Sea, or the use of industrial debris-filled harbor "muck" that built up decaying islands in Dead Horse Bay. As the video landscapes of #clusterMucks unfold, Bianco's presence also becomes apparent. We see her hands or hear the crunch of her footsteps on plastic, shells, and sand. These sounds and images continuously position her not simply within the landscapes, but as a complicit actant in the ecological disasters themselves. We might easily be watching a YouTube video documenting an alien planet, only there's nothing extra-worldly about these spaces: they are at once intimately human and starkly hostile "alien" locations, rife with household trash, industrial effluvia and fading signage. These are eco-disaster sites that also function as unintentional earthwork art, and the eerie familiarity of their cinematic Martian terrain resonates with the viewer.
Along with their algorithmic logic, the Twitter hashtag keyword title, "#clusterMucks" draws attention to what digital media theorist Lev Manovich calls the "database logic" of new media. Instead of the focus on narrative formats popularized at the height of print culture, with the premium placed on recreating the aesthetics of human "interiority" and psychological subjectivity, Manovich sees the logic of the database and navigable virtual spaces as the main modes of digital media. As he notes, "Many new media objects do not tell stories; they don't have beginning or end; in fact, they don't have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise which would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other" (192). In many ways, the collections of detritus at Bianco's selected eco-disaster sites speak for themselves. There are no obvious beginnings or endings to these locations or the social, political and environmental problems that surround them. The elements that compose the eco-disaster sites resist cohesive or linear narrative arcs. While Bianco brings her body and voice into the performance pieces, the algorithmic logics, randomness, aleatory footage and found objects in her work overwhelming suggests that narratives from a human perspective will not capture their layered complexities. There is no simply story behind the ecological devastation that we witness.
Bianco undermines traditional narrative form through her use of database logics and algorithmic randomness. Just as the intermingling of trash from past and present provides an index of human impact in the videos of the eco-disaster sites, with each bottle and bone acting as a keyword or search term, the algorithmic writing of the accompanying text underscores the material and nonhuman nature of writing itself. And just as the dead fish, abandoned boats and irrigation ditches of California's Salton Sea offer a poetry of decay, the algorithmic texts suggest that writing itself also has an element of the random encounter, more akin to finding driftwood on a beach than broadcasting deep human intentionality. The #clusterMuck performances combine chaotic and viral elements that underscore complex systems, and Bianco uses these resonances to explore how human and nonhuman elements are fully imbricated at the eco-disaster sites of Dead Horse Bay and the Salton Sea. Her works show that writing itself is postnatural: a strange mix of the material and the potential, the virtual and the actual, or signal and noise.
Beyond the question of writing, however, Bianco's performances also question what contemporary models of eco-feminism might look like, and push eco-feminist theory beyond reductive biological essentialisms. As Donna Haraway and others have long argued, there is no clear line between nature and culture, and there is clearly no inherent "natural" link between woman and nature in eco-feminist inquiry. Further complicating things, the logic of patriarchy permeates not only the eco-disaster sites in Bianco's work, but also some of the theories that she invokes and remixes. In a recent call for papers for the upcoming 2015 annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Angela Last and Kathryn Yusoff have pointed out the limited number of women recognized in the fields of geophilosophy, drawing comparisons to similar male-dominated contemporary experimental philosophical fields, such as Speculative Realism: "Considering that geophilosophy is often presented as an almost exclusively male domain despite its many claims to a diverse and inclusive discourse, the provocation of a feminist geophilosophy session offers an opportunity to think about imperative alliances between feminism and geophilosophy." They call for work that does not simply engage with "matter and inorganic life" and argue "anthropocenic thought must strive to rethink the relation between territory and earth and grapple with the emergence of a geopolitical field that is constituted by the geologic underpinnings of life and power" (Last).
Bianco's work underscores similar concerns: there is no neat dividing line or clear "outside" to patriarchy, and her performances' critical engagement with the mediation of these eco-disaster sites through digital videos and algorithmic logics further challenges us to reconsider the modes and methods of feminist inquiry in a hypermediated age. In other words, even as we approach a topic like geology or ecology through a lens that purposefully critiques cultural and semiotic constructs, that strives for a "nonhuman" position, there are still so many ways that information remains inscribed and prioritized along patriarchal lines. By highlighting these aspects in her performances, Bianco's postnature writing offers insights into the difficulties of identifying subtle forms of patriarchal positioning as we navigate both big data and a small planet.
There are layers of criticism and complicity in Bianco's most recent #clusterMuck: "The Aquatic Anthropocene: Dissolving Life in Water." Its video combines a bit of a laugh of the Medusa tossed in with a sense of despair. Terms borrowed from key texts on posthumanism, speculative realism, affect theory, object-oriented ontology and other contemporary theories float over the stark panoramic shots of the eco-disaster sites at Dead Horse Bay and the Salton Sea. For example, in the first half of the video shot at Dead Horse Bay, beyond the superimposed phrase "agential realism" borrowed from Karen Barad, we see a curve of the beach covered in trash, bottles, rusting cans, old tires, and seaweed. The word "performativity" hovers over a deflating Mylar balloon heart bouncing on the surf with a smiley face on it. "Speculative" labels a time-lapse shot of the bay, "anthropocene" titles a series of close-ups zooming in on a chunk of unnaturally blue foam, and "phenomenology" describes Bianco's hand as she picks up the bottle of nail polish that matches her own nail color. "Hyperobject" labels pink goggles and a flat tire.
Figure 1. Images from #clusterMucks.
Similar terms label an array of scenes shot at the Salton Sea, beginning with a black screen and the word “withdrawal,” referencing, perhaps, Graham Harman or Timothy Morton's version of object-oriented philosophy. Then, "ontology" labels a small building bearing signage for "Salt-Free Drinking Water/Aqua 2000," "correlation(ism)" syncs with images of dead fish on the banks of the lake, "affect" floats over a moving shot that skims over a calcified beach, "object oriented" leads into a view through a barbed-wire fence to a water treatment plant and holding tank, "queer" connects to a pan of a sandy expanse with decaying buildings, "nonhuman" shows eyeless fish, and "actant" defines a decaying building with a derelict piano in what once was perhaps a cozy suburban living room. The terms not only echo Lev Manovich's concept of the primacy of the database over narrative, but also underscore the ironically frenetic staking of claims and coining of terms among the very theorists who are simultaneously proclaiming the necessity of shifting focus away from human in order to focus on more democratic material and ecological realities. As the digitally superimposed words float over scenes of ecological devastation, the effect is one of profound, poignant, and at times humorous disconnect. There's a pointed and ironic critique here, suggesting that the very theorists drawing attention to the problematic primacy of the human cannot themselves avoid the pitfalls of human ego. To create terms is to attempt mastery.
Yet, while at times at odds with the ecological devastation on screen, the database logic of the superimposed terms also becomes a sort of fugue, recalling Manovich's description of databases as "collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other" (192). The litany of words not only points to the logic of the database rather than narrative, it also underscores a frustrating sense of repetition and absurdity that happens when all terms are leveled and democratized, rather than organized into narratives with actions and outcomes. The selected words may highlight complex theories that have moved to bridge disciplinary gaps between the sciences and the humanities. For example, Karen Barad's "agential realism," is defined as "an epistemological-ontological-ethical framework that provides an understanding of the role of the human and nonhuman, material and discursive, and natural and cultural factors in scientific and other social-material practices, thereby moving such considerations beyond the well-worn debates that pit constructivism against realism, agency against structure, and idealism against materialism" (26). Barad, a feminist theorist who holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, offers an approach that seeks to form interconnections between science and the humanities, but thoroughly traces the pitfalls and difficulties of these moves in her extensively researched Meeting the Universe Halfway.
Other terms come from more contentious movements and sources, such as object-oriented philosophy and its various arguments for a flat ontology that places all "objects" on equal footing and rejects a transcendental position for the human. Some theories arising from this movement, however, have been critiqued as too reductive in their treatment of both science and cultural critique. For example, Timothy Morton's Hyperobjects has enjoyed popular reception beyond the realm of academia as it offers a response to global ecological crises through topics as diverse as Twin Peaks, quantum physics and My Bloody Valentine. He compares his concept of the hyperobject, large non-human scale phenomena, most notably global warming, to a Magic Eye picture: "you realize that all the little squiggles that you thought were individual squiggles are actually distributed pieces of a higher-dimensional object that seems to emerge when you do that crossing-your-eyes thing" (49). He reminds us "global warming is real, but it involves a massive, counterintuitive perspective shift to see it" (49). Fair enough, but in her review in Critical Inquiry, Ursula Heise asks if the category "hyperobject" actually draws a theoretically valuable distinction for readers. Morton claims "In a strange way, every object is a hyperobject" (201). Yet, Heise point out, "If scale makes no difference, and global warming is not as a matter of principle different from 'pencils, penguins, and plastic explosive,' [according to Morton's reading of a flat or object-oriented ontology] what useful work does the concept of the hyperobject do?" (Critical Inquiry). Although there are rich intersections to be explored via such studies, it clearly becomes difficult to do justice to the many nuances in disciplinary differences between the sciences and the humanities. Science is the lingua franca of our current moment, but how well do academics minimally trained in the sciences translate it? As Bianco's videos of the eco-disaster sites appear to ask, where does this increasingly anxious conversation turn into action?
We can also look at early moments in the recent evolution of object-oriented philosophy and note its difficulty marshalling support from feminist theorists. Initially there was something of a petulant shrug from some OOP theorists, chalking up the silence from feminists to a lack of interest. In his blog account of Donna Haraway's Q&A session at a 2010 conference on Speculative Realism at Claremont Graduate University, for example, Graham Harman "paraphrases" Haraway as observing "Not enough girls in speculative realism which makes her mad, but she's still curious and seduced by it. [Note: Girls welcome!!!]" (Harman). While it's unclear if the term "seduced" was Haraway's or Harman's, his anxious aside, "Girls welcome!!!" sums up the tension and the general tone of the moment.1 Harman observes “Haraway was a bit more condescending than necessary about speculative realism," adding, without a sense of irony, “most of us really like her stuff.” He also notes that she herself heavily influenced the movement. It has become clear in subsequent years that the resistance to certain variants of object-oriented philosophy from feminist theorists, many of whom have long argued for a move toward increased objectivity and materialist inquiries, did not stem from disinterest in the “object-oriented” push to decenter the human. Rather, the resistance came from a more fundamental concern that the emphasis on staking claims, coining terms and creating a "movement" in certain strains of Speculative Realism and OOP simply echoed familiar patriarchal logics of domination in troubling ways. Clearly, many materialist feminist "girls" (and boys) were already practicing the basic logics of OOP. The work from materialist feminists such as Luce Irigaray, Donna Haraway, Isabelle Stengers, Val Plumwood, Staci Alaimo and Catherine Malabou not only pre-dates object-oriented movements, but they had already been actively thinking material inquiry and a shift away from the primacy of the human in a way that also included nuanced discussions of race, class, gender and queer theories, rather than dismissing them as an outdated aspect of the linguistic turn of postmodern cultural studies. Because the basic work of all feminist theory contains an implicit critique of patriarchal modes of discourse, perhaps some feminist theorists simply recognized and distanced themselves from the types of problematic rhetorical strategies in object-oriented philosophy that reproduced such discourse.
Other aspects of patriarchal discourse include the push for mastery of a given topic, and the pervasive trope of disembodied vision as a model of epistemological inquiry, long a point of contention among feminist inquires into cultural and scientific production. Donna Haraway has stressed the importance of "situated knowledges," or knowledge that draws from embodied and standpoint epistemologies, rather than potentially misleading claims to a pure technoscientific "objectivity" that often houses other hidden social and cultural biases. She specifically discusses the political power of technologies of vision that often function as metaphors for discourses of mastery. For Haraway, "The eyes have been used to signify a perverse capacity - honed to perfection in the history of science tied to militarism, capitalism, colonialism, and male supremacy- to distance the knowing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of unfettered power. The instruments of visualization in multinationist, postmodemist culture have compounded these meanings of dis-embodiment" (188). The narratives of mastery include not simply militaristic vision, but all instances of mechanized and digitalized vision cut from the body. Embodied knowledges here seem at the opposite end of the spectrum from the disembodied extensions of the human. As Haraway argues, "A map of tensions and resonances between the fixed ends of a charged dichotomy better represents the potent politics and epistemologies of embodied, therefore accountable, objectivity" (194). Here, embodiment equals accountability, but Haraway's feminism is not reductively biological. For Haraway, "Feminist embodiment, then, is not about fixed location in a reified body, female or otherwise, but about nodes in fields, inflections in orientations, and responsibility for difference in material-semiotic fields of meaning" (195). Through the metaphor of mapping, Haraway has already articulated what many New Materialist theorists are struggling with today: a balance between the powerful insights afforded by sociocultural and linguistic postmodern schools of thought and a new mode of materialist inquiry.
Rather than an aesthetics of distance, disembodiment and mastery, #clusterMucks take some of the most compelling aspects of competing New Materialist theories and create an aesthetic of embodied knowledge. At each unique live event, Bianco positions herself as one of many actants in the complex ecologies she records, calling to mind Stacey Alaimo's concept of trans-corporeality. For Alaimo, "trans-corporeal subjects must also relinquish mastery as they find themselves inextricably part of the flux and flow of the world that others would presume to master"(17). Similarly, Val Plumwood uses the term "mastery" in a specific mode of ecofeminist inquiry that directly connects problems with the semiotic and cultural to problems in the environment. As she notes, "the deep structures of mastery are buried in the foundations of western intellectual frameworks and conceptual history . . . the explanation of what is happening to the earth and its complement of life is also to be found in this problematic, in the logic of mastery, now being seared into the biosphere of an entire scarred and wounded planet as well as across its sociosphere" (190-191). For Plumwood, it would not be a productive theoretical move to replace semiotic critique with material critique-the two are deeply interconnected. Similarly, instead of a position over and above the eco-disaster sites, or even behind the camera lens, Bianco's live performances emphasize the inextricability of the human and nonhuman. Yet while there is power in drawing connections between feminist projects and ecological projects, there are also places to be wary of drawing easy alignments. While there are many points where issues of patriarchal oppression can be connected to both struggles in feminist theory and the misuse of world resources, essentialist depictions of women as innately connected to the natural world are unproductive. As Lorraine Code argues in her study of the epistemological intersections of ecological and feminist thought: "In their commitment to honoring complexity, ecofeminism and ecological thinking require sensitivity to detail, to minutiae, to what precisely-however apparently small-distinguishes this woman, this contestable practice, this social intervention, this place, this problem of knowledge, this injustice, this locality from that-just as biologically based ecologists distinguish this plant, this species, this rock pool from that one" (17). It is precisely this attention to the individual uniqueness of each element, each actant, and each embodied experience, along with a critique of the power of semiotics and cultural positioning, which gives materialist feminisms their critical efficacy.
Yet there are inherent tensions here between the specificity called for in such ecological and feminist critiques and certain modes of digital theorizing that put a premium on the ways that experience is commodified, standardized, and quantified through technical systems and Big Data. In 2002, N. Katherine Hayles asked in Writing Machines: "Why have we not heard more about materiality?" (19). In light of the recent materialist turn in the humanities, her question sounds almost ironic just over a decade later, and it reminds us of the broad shift that has taken place in just a few short years. Modes of inquiry that move away from the linguistic turn and the language games of postmodernism have gained popularity, but aspects of these movements have also been criticized for glossing over nuances of political, social, economic and embodied difference. Many of the debates that fall under the materialist turn are also not new; as noted, they have long been the focal point of feminist, ecological and media theorists. As we continue to encounter the truly fragile and finite nature of our world through increasingly devastating ecological crises around the globe, we will continue to turn to artistic and philosophical work that critiques how media circulate affects, how nonhuman elements present themselves, and how dynamic natural systems are not always predicable via human measurements.
In the end, #clusterMucks engage in aesthetic inquiry and algorithmic logics that reject the imagined primacy of human subjectivity and the semiotic, yet they also point to our continued and very human desire for narratives about these ecological crisis points. At the most pessimistic end of the spectrum, Bianco's work conveys a sense of futility. The theoretical terms superimposed over the eco-disaster sites read as entries in a rapidly growing database of nonhuman and eco-critical theories, yet the stark landscapes at the Salton Sea and Dead Horse Bay, in their mute material complexity, appear to undercut the very idea of that database. While there may indeed be an intense conversation unfolding at the level of academic theorizing, with many levels of complex interdisciplinary debates and interpersonal conflicts, just how are these theories sutured to nonhuman realities? As ecological disasters get worse, the discourse will get louder. The most basic problem, our recurring habit of seeing nonhuman events and objects through the lens of the human, still lingers strikingly on screen. We may need to move beyond the linguistic turn, but there's a stark and ironic disconnect in Bianco's videos between words and things.
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