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And the Winner Is…

Monday, 17. February 2020 0:56

The Academy Awards marked the end of the awards season for films, but not the end of the discussion and controversy surrounding the awards and the films, actors, and directors who did and did not get nominated or who did and did not win this or that award. Coupled with that are the discussions of who or what film should have won this or that award, and there is discussion of the snubs and the possible reasons for them.

There were two lessons to be taken from this year’s award season. The first is that nominations, wins, and snubs are political as well as aesthetic.

Artists who do not work in film understand that the various awards shows are simply spectacles attached to juried film contests. Unlike standard juried art shows, however, film awards programs are fostered by a series of advertisements not unlike electioneering. The reason is, of course, the potential income that winning such awards can bring. Still, at the bottom, the awards are nothing but grandly publicized juried contests with a great number of jurors.

As such, they are subject to all the vagaries of any juried show. Each juror has not only a personal aesthetic which informs his/her judgement, i.e. what is artistically worthy of an award, but a personal political view as well. That political view may include any number of considerations of what is politically appropriate at the moment with respect to the contestants and the milieu in which they work. Of course some of these considerations will overlap juror-to-juror; some will not. Multiply these concerns by the number of jurors and it is easy to see why some films rise to the top and some do not in any particular year.

Awards are voted and announced and then there is great indignation that someone’s choice did not win. However, if pressed, that person cannot tell you why this film should have won over the one that was chosen. The second lesson to be learned is that many film enthusiasts cannot articulate why they think one film is better than another one; they just think it is.

Perhaps the first problem to acknowledge is that comparing films is like comparing apples and roses and tricycles. Films are one-off creations, much like any handcrafted artifact. Yes, there are series and franchises, but each film is expected to stand on its own just like each painting or sculpture or photograph is expected to stand on its own.

If we are to compare a film about a “members of a poor family who scheme to become employed by a wealthy family” and a film about “a stand-up comedian…whose history of abuse causes him to become a nihilistic criminal” and a film about “two young British soldiers during the First World war who are ordered to deliver a message” we must have some sort of set of standards as to what makes a film good. Most people seem to have that, but are unable to articulate it. When questioned, they simply say, “It was just better.”

So my two take-aways from this year’s film awards seasons are: (1) these awards shows are simply hoopla associated with juried contests for films. There are hundreds of jurors, and they all come with their own aesthetics and political positions which influence their votes. (2) Non-jurors (and perhaps jurors as well) also have their own aesthetics and political positions with regards to the evaluation of film, but they cannot articulate their standards.

We should take these two considerations into account the next time we submit pieces to juried shows; it is likely that responses to our work will incorporate them.

Category:Aesthetics, Audience | Comment (0) | Author:

Change Just One Thing

Sunday, 2. February 2020 23:54

Most pundits agree that to be really creative, we must step outside our comfort zones. Some even argue that “being an artist is about living in the uncomfortable zone.” Even writers who take issue with this idea think that to be creative in our comfort zones we must regularly get out of them to gain “new experiences and learning,” and to be more productive. Regardless of what we read on the topic, it seems that having something fresh and different in our environments can be of great service to both our creativity and productivity.

At the same time, we read over and over again that to be creative and productive we should be working in comfortable places and adhering to a fairly strict routines. How are we to reconcile this opposition of views?

The most obvious way to do this is to change something within our comfortable places and strict routines. The easiest thing to change is something physical. The rationale for this approach is that we become very accustomed to having things in certain places—to the point that we don’t have to think about them. If we move something, it is still present and useful, but it is in a different place and that creates a newness in the environment that can sometimes have surprising results.

As it turns out, several people have mentioned doing this very thing over the last several weeks. One is a theatre artist who decided to move a salt lamp that was on a very small table beside a recliner. Suddenly the very small table was able to hold a book and a coffee cup, and a new reading nook had been created. This changed where she did some of her reading, which, in turn changed some of her reading habits and general traffic patterns. She is still getting used to this new reading place and is tracking how many other changes will flow from just this simple modification.

A photographer I know who has two “changeable” walls in his home. He says that he changes out pictures on these two walls at irregular intervals, and that those changes are so powerful that they transform the spaces, which in turn causes his thinking to change when he’s in those rooms. This, he claims, makes the environments more creative.

Another photographer I know does essentially the same thing with wall calendars. She says that the changing of several images once a month spark ideas that she would not otherwise have had.

And yet another person, a writer, says that in the past he has had trouble getting to end of non-fiction books. What he did to overcome the problem was to move the current non-fiction from his reading spot or bookcase to a very conspicuous place where he would have to pass it regularly. This would discomfit him and he would be compelled to pick the book up and proceed toward the end.

What all these people have in common is that they changed a very small part of their environments, and those changes provided just enough newness or difference to make a creative difference in their work. A small change is enough to push us just a little outside our comfort zone for a short amount of time, so we can have the best of both worlds.

All we have to do is change just one thing. Try it.

Category:Creativity, Productivity | Comment (0) | Author:

Finding the Rhythm

Sunday, 19. January 2020 23:02

Sometimes we have difficulty beginning a new project, even if it’s a project very similar to one we have done before. The reason for this difficulty can be any one of many. The trouble begins when we just jump into the project, not taking into account any differences from projects we have worked on before. Sometimes all goes well; other times there is a significant mismatch between our approach and the project. Things do not go well at all—at least until we figure out that the problem is that every project has its own rhythm, and we, the artists, must match that rhythm in order to make any headway.

This was brought home to me this week. There were five projects on my plate: one older one and four new ones. One was completed successfully; two were begun successfully; two were begun less successfully.

Project number one was beginning a course that I teach every semester. (Yes, teaching a course is a creative project—at least from my point of view.) From the first minute, I fell into old patterns, making such adjustments as necessary for the new group of students, and the semester began quite comfortably—for that course at least.

The second project was beginning a course that I hadn’t taught in four years. The material was the same as it had been; even the text was the same. The first day of class, however, seemed to be very much a muddle. Ideas did not flow. Nothing seemed to connect. Everything was so disjointed that I cut the class time short and used it to prepare for the second class meeting. When that class came around, I moved into the material and very quickly found the rhythm that would work for the material with this particular group of students. So, after a stumble, the course seems to be beginning successfully.

Project number three was casting and beginning the rehearsal process for a musical. The first night of auditions was more than a little weird—everything seemed off. The musical director and I decided we could make a show, but things did not feel quite right. The second night of auditions was a little better. Then came callbacks where we really began to see what we had to work with. So we cast and had the read-sing-through. It was very unsettling. We have not yet found the rhythm for the rehearsal period. However, having identified some of the issues, I have hope.

Project number four was a photo editing project, the kind of project that I have done thousands of times. The editing of this session had been problematic from the beginning. My usual workflow was not as smooth as it normally is for some reason I could not determine. About half-way through, I modified the workflow and things ran more smoothly, but not as smoothly as I would have liked. Finally, as I neared the end of the project a pattern of work emerged that caused the editing to really run efficiently. I had finally found the correct rhythm for the project and was able to complete it.

The fifth project is, of course, this post. The beginning was difficult, but once the organization suggested itself, a flow with a steady rhythm quickly developed, and that led to a writing period that was much briefer than I had anticipated.

In reviewing these projects, I have been able to discover the factors that prevented an easy flow from the outset. It was, of course, different for each project, proving that virtually anything can throw off one’s creative rhythm. Whether the causal factor can be discerned or not, we must make every effort to find and follow the rhythm inherent in our artistic projects.

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It’s That Time of Year

Sunday, 5. January 2020 21:40

No, not that time of year—rather, it’s that time of year when we begin to de-decorate from the holidays, or re-decorate, depending on who we are. Most of us only do the former, returning our post-holiday environment to “normal.” Few of us think about what de-decoration means in terms of our thought and creative processes.

There is little question that the holidays affect us mentally. Just google “holidays mental impact” or “holidays brain.” Interestingly, the vast majority of articles that turn up on either of those searches have to do with negative mental impact of the holidays, whether it’s depression or stress or anxiety or seasonal affective disorder. Occasionally there is an article that focuses more on the positive. Whether we perceive the holidays as a time for loving and celebrating and giving and socializing with friends and family or a time for depression, stress and anxiety, it’s time to put those things behind us and transition (back) to the non-holiday world.

Although much has been written about how holidays affect us as people, there is little written about how the holidays impact us as artists. Are we more or less engaged with our art? Is it a time for increased creativity or increased productivity, or is it a time for sidelining our creative thoughts and processes?

Regardless of how the holidays affect us as people and as artists, we are, at this time of the year, engaged in the transition out of the holidays and into something else. Our environment may be changing: we may be de-decorating, removing holiday decorations and restoring our rest-of-the-year décor. Others of us are re-decorating, removing winter holiday decorations and decorating with post-holiday winter décor. (There are those of us who are so conscious of their personal environments that they decorate for every season and every holiday on the calendar.)

Whichever way we approach the decorating opportunities, what is important is that this is a period of transition. Some of us are packing away the stress and anxiety that accompany our winter holidays. Others of us are putting away a happy time of socializing with family and friends, of gratitude, of giving and receiving. How we approach that transition may be as different as what we are transitioning from: it might be a time of reflection; it might be a time for reviewing what we have done and not done during the holiday period; it might be a time for reexamining and reevaluating our past work in general; it might be a time for taking inventory. Or it might be a time for looking ahead; it might be a time for actualizing those creative ideas that appeared during the holidays; it may be a time for reinventing ourselves; it may be a time for just moving forward.

Irrespective of how our holidays went or how we see our future, we must understand that how we handle of the transition can be of great impact—on our creative as well as our personal lives. Assuming that we decorated even a little bit, in de-decorating we are changing our environment, and there can be no question that environment impacts creativity. Perhaps instead of simply restoring that environment to the old “normal,” we should take some time to consider, then, going forward, take steps to make our environments more conducive to creativity.

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Broken

Sunday, 22. December 2019 22:24

America, it would seem, is broken. Every day there is another headline about this or that being broken. It’s to the point that there seems to be nothing that isn’t broken. Here are just a few examples:

But these are all political and social systems. We in the arts may or may not be interested in those programs. We should, however, be interested in the following list.

While American theatre in not classified as “broken,” it might as well be. In most locations, professional theatre, if it exists, is far from affordable, thus there are websites like BroadwayForBrokePeople.com, which doesn’t secure inexpensive seats, but does provide links to digital ticket lotteries.

For those of us in the arts who do not work on Broadway or have our work auctioned by the big New York auction houses, things sometimes appear to be broken on our level as well. It is difficult to find representation, or paying gigs, or gallery space, or win at the crap-shoot that is the juried show system, or just sell a piece now and then.

The point, of course, is that everything seems to be broken. No matter where we turn, this system or that industry or program is broken. For example, just a couple of days ago, the Wall Street Journal announced that clothing sizes are broken. Clothing sizes! What’s next?

A better question might be, “What’s not broken?” And the answer is “creativity and art-making.” Neither of these is broken. In fact, it’s a good time for those of us who are creative and interested in making art. There is an abundance of material about and from which we can create. And there are people who are interested in what we do, even if they can’t afford to purchase our work. And performers can find outlets; even if they are non-paying or low-paying ones, still they exist.

And while some systems and programs that impact us are broken, the one that is our primary outlet is not. We can still produce art; we can make things; we can perform; we can create. We need to remember that even though giving birth to works of art can sometimes be painful, it is also a great joy. And we need to remind ourselves that we have the power to present a point of view, the power to share our ideas and feelings, the power to make people feel, the power to change minds, the power to change lives. Art itself is not broken, and never will be. And that is something to celebrate!

Category:Creativity | Comment (0) | Author:

The Gift of Unstructured Time

Sunday, 8. December 2019 21:55

Americans reportedly work more than workers in any other developed country. Some would say that our work ethic is the result of Puritan influence; others might blame it on our no-holds-barred capitalism. Whatever the reason, we spend a lot of time working.

And if we are artists, it’s even worse. Because we like what we do, we tend to spend an enormous amount of time working. Added to that is the pressure to produce, particularly in the current social media environment. Jonas Jödicke has described the present-day pressure to produce this way:

 

So we work. And some of us try to follow the advice of so many successful artists from Khaled Hosseini,  to Julia Cameron and work with discipline, which means working on our art at a set time every day or working a certain amount of time every day. And many of us work at our art literally every day. Working with discipline often requires schedules and organization. And, as anyone who is a regular reader of this blog knows, I, for one, am a great believer in schedules, organization, structure, and lists. For anyone similarly disposed, this bent of mind facilitates the further structuring of our work time.

And structuring our work time can lead to structuring our other time as well, particularly if we are busy.  This leads to structuring all of our time. And while such structure might make us remarkably productive and organized, it can also have a deadening effect on our creativity. We find ourselves locked into our schedules and operating much like machines. What to do?

The solution sounds oxymoronic. We simply need to schedule unstructured time.  That is, we need to periodically set aside an amount of time during which there is no structure, during which nothing is scheduled. We can then use this time to think, dream, create, play the guitar, play with the cat, wash the dishes, weed the garden—or all of the above. That’s the point; it’s a time during which nothing is planned. This can be scary the first time, particularly for those of us who are schedule- and list-driven. And there is the fear of being bored, but creative people can always find something to do, and the discovery of new things to occupy us is one of the positive results of unstructured time. Once we accept the idea of unstructured time, there is yet another danger: planning what we will do during our scheduled unstructured time. This, of course, negates unstructured time. Once we plan what we will do, the time becomes structured. And even if we are addicted to being busy, we can busy ourselves during our unstructured time—just doing unplanned things. It’s like kindergarten recess for creatives.

How much unstructured time we need is an individual matter. Some of us need some every day. Others find once a week satisfying. Still others may need unstructured time only once a month. Length of time also varies with the individual. Whatever our particular needs, having that block of unstructured time will have a positive effect on our creativity and overall disposition. And that’s a gift worth giving ourselves.

Category:Creativity, Productivity | Comment (0) | Author:

Talk About Your Work

Sunday, 24. November 2019 22:55

Remember when you were in that class and the instructor asked you to explain your work? Remember how you thought, “It’s art; I can’t explain it.” And then you took that other course and the instructor asked you to do the same thing, and this time you thought, “If I could explain it, I wouldn’t have had to paint [photograph, sculpt, compose, write] it.” But it only got worse. They kept asking you to explain what you were doing and, worse than that, they asked your peers to critique your work and say what they thought you were trying to communicate and how well you accomplished that.

It didn’t matter which art you were studying; the teachers were always asking for rationales for the choices that you made. They never let you get away with, “I’ll just let the work speak for itself.” And they continued to ask your peers what they thought about your work. And sometimes you learned that your work did not say exactly what you set out to say, at least to other people in the class.

As is often the case, the teachers were correct in their push to have us articulate our work. Even though we hate doing it, articulation forces us to put our work into prose, which forces us to think about the art differently. This is particularly useful for work that may be mysterious or ambiguous or may not be clear to the viewers/listeners. Probably this was not apparent to us when it was happening in school. The fact is that there is always something to be learned from articulating our work.

Please note that this has nothing to do with the talking about our work that agents, advisors, and gallerists tell us to do. That is a sales technique. And we’re really talking about something different:  the story of how the idea came and the process of making the work rather than an attempt to explain the work itself.

Many artists make articulation part of their process. For example, I know actors who, as part of their technique, walk through all the actions they will perform in a show, but they talk to themselves as they do it. I also know stage directors who have conversations with their assistant directors for the sole purpose of hearing themselves evaluate the things they are doing to shape the show.

Recently I found another use for talking about my work. Some photographs were not quite what I wanted them to be, but I couldn’t put my finger on the precise problem. I had a friend look at them, and he pointed out a couple of things that I had thought about, but did not realize the full impact of until I heard it in words. Then I realized that I could have done it by myself. All I had to do was start talking about what was right about the image which, of course, led me to realize and be able to verbalize what was wrong with the image. Hearing it in words makes all the difference.

So now I talk to myself—even more than I used to—but now I talk about the art and how it works, or doesn’t. It sounds simplistic, but it takes editing out of the world of feelings and ideas and puts it into the world of reason. And that helps, and anything that helps make the work better is worth a try.

Category:Creativity, Criticism, Productivity | Comment (0) | Author:

Stay Open

Sunday, 10. November 2019 23:10

One of the most difficult things for student actors to learn is to keep inventing. It seems that as the blocking (the pattern of movement) and the line memorization become solid, there is a tendency to want to also solidify their readings and business. As they solidify these aspects of their roles, these actors tend to close themselves off to other possibilities.

One supposes that this is because they come from backgrounds in church plays or high school where the philosophy of production was to rehearse until they got it “right” and then repeat that for the performances. A number of directors, myself included, believe that that approach is a formula for producing stale theatre; we believe rather that actors should create their characters anew at each performance and that rehearsals create the stable structure that allows this to happen. This approach works best if actors stay open to new insights and ideas and realize them on the stage.

Yet they continue to stop inventing as the rehearsal process moves along. And that’s a shame because trying one new thing, even toward the end of a creative process can generate new concepts and open never-before-thought-of understandings that can only enhance and enrich the creation—if the artist is open to it. Actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, quoted in Austin Kleon’s recent blog post says, “Really be as naïve as possible, you know as ignorant as possible, because then you can keep yourself as wide open as possible for anything that could be of help, could be of use…”

The need to stay open applies to artists other than actors as well. Artists are notorious for tunnel-vision, particularly as they near the end of a project. But along with that single-mindedness, artists need to remain available to other ideas that may appear along the way. Ask any musician who does jazz improvisation; sometimes a new riff comes because one person in the group played a single note differently.

And this idea is not restricted to performing artists. A photographer may note the particular way a model turns or notice something in an image during post processing that s/he had missed before and suddenly new doors open up. The painter may slip and make an unplanned brush stroke and then realize that it was not a mistake, but one of Bob Ross’ “happy accidents.” A writer can mistype a word and suddenly realize a direction that s/he hadn’t thought of before. These opportunities would have been missed had the artist resisted a new idea because s/he was too close to finishing the work.

And many of us focus not only on the work, but on finishing the work—particularly as we get closer to that goal. Unfortunately, this state of mind works to our detriment if we refuse to let new intuitions into our creative process

As for finishing the work, Pablo Picasso has famously said that to finish a work is to “kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow…” The natural extension of this idea is that all art should remain unfinished, and since it is unfinished, new directions and modifications are always possible. Just thinking about our works this way can give us the freedom to continue to explore and invent, even as we move toward completion of a project. In other words, thinking this way gives us what we need: the ability to stay open to new ideas and insights all the way through the creative process.

Category:Creativity, Theatre | Comment (0) | Author:

The Nipple Effect

Sunday, 27. October 2019 23:07

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I look at a lot of images. Lately that has been mostly on Twitter and Instagram, and occasionally Facebook. Some of the images I look at are nudes. Over time, I have observed an evolution in those types of images specifically and other types of images as well. For the moment, let’s deal with nude images.

All three of these platforms have restrictions on “adult content.” Definitions are somewhat similar but treatment is different. Facebook restricts images of real nude adults where nudity is defined as “visible genitalia except… visible anus and/or fully nude close-ups of buttocks unless photoshopped… uncovered female nipples except….” The “excepts” include breastfeeding, birth-giving and after-birth moments or health-related situations or “an act of protest.” Instagram’s restriction includes “genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples.” Both platforms exempt photographs of paintings and sculptures, but that exemption seems to be unevenly applied. Twitter says that you cannot share adult content within live video or in profile or header images. However, Twitter does allow “consensually produced adult content within Tweets if you mark the tweet as “sensitive.”

All of these rules, of course, limit the photographic images that can be posted. Limitations are not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes having limits actually makes the artist more creative. And certainly, even though it seems that these platforms are public forums, they are really commercially owned, and the owners are within their rights to set the rules to be whatever they want them to be (although one would wish that they are applied even-handedly and objectively). And one could certainly question why only female nipples are forbidden, but again, the owners can set their own rules.

In response to these rules, Photographers who do nude work must modify their images. The ones I have observed have taken three primary paths of response: (1) they push as far as they can and end up being banned (2) they pixelate or otherwise cover nipples and genital areas; (2) they pose models so that the offending bits of her anatomy are concealed—sometimes quite awkwardly, creating images that deny their own story-telling. (3) They restrict their postings to those they know are safe.

Sometimes photographers evolve, first trying one approach, the adopting another so that they can stay online and garner as many “likes” as possible. This, in my mind, becomes problematic from an integrity of art perspective. Those artist are essentially tailoring their art to fit the platform. And that is smart—if what is important to the artist is the continuation online and the collection of “likes.” Certainly, some photographers are savvy enough to monetize the number of “likes” they receive. Otherwise, they are modifying their style and content of their work to suit platform censors simply for vanity.

And this trend is not limited to photographers doing nude work. If you look long enough you can observe that photographers are tailoring all images to fit he platform. For example, images that might be square or landscape in orientation are rendered in portrait orientation. This is particularly true on Instagram, where almost every image is optimized to the platform’s ideal image format. That means that aesthetics other than the platform’s don’t matter; the artist is giving up his/her autonomy for the sake of platform optimization.  (Twitter, incidentally, is much more forgiving, rendering all images initially in landscape mode, but allowing all proportions when a viewer clicks on the image.)

Social media are here to stay and have become the primary way many artists become known. However, we must be careful that we do not become slaves to what we think are the most obvious choices in marketing ourselves on social media. We must maintain some artistic integrity and remain true to our individual artistic aesthetics. Otherwise what we are “selling” on social media is not really representative of who we really are as artists. As David Bowie said, “I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations. They generally produce their worst work when they do that.

Regardless of the ego appeal of “likes,” we do not want to lose our uniqueness as artists to the seeming demands and expectations of social media. There are better choices.

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Tiny Adjustments

Sunday, 13. October 2019 22:27

On Twitter earlier this week, Andy Williams posed the question, “Photographers: Do you MAKE a picture or TAKE a picture?” Ansel Adams, one of America’s great photographers, answered the question years ago when he said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” I must agree. Of course, every photographer wants to take a good picture, but that’s only the beginning. Adams made prints from his superior negatives, but not without a bit of darkroom magic to enhance the picture. Today, when most photography is digital, we strive to get a good capture, and then we turn to computer software to do our digital legerdemain to improve our images.

It is at the computer that a number of decisions are made which can make or break an image. One of those is the decision on how to crop the image, i.e. deciding what to keep and what to discard. Several years ago, I posted about the importance of framing, determining what information stays within the borders of an image and what gets left out. It’s a task that most photographers do instinctively without overthinking the process.

However, I have a colleague, a fine art photographer, who has developed a process of making 5×7 prints of certain images and attaching them to his refrigerator with small magnets. “It allows me to think about them over a period of time,” he says of the process. “I find that it makes my work better.” He pins the images to the refrigerator where they will stay for sometimes a month while he considers what will make them better. Sometimes he decides to reject them entirely, but usually, he will make cryptic marks, noting what modifications he wants to make in the image. In answer to my question about the process, he said, “These are the problem children. Most images are easy to edit in the computer, but some are more difficult to get exactly right. I find it hard to see exactly what they need unless they are on paper and I can study them off and on for a while. As far as the decision goes, I just look for what will make it better.”

He is a firm believer in creating the best image he can imagine and ruthless when it comes to adjusting what stays in the image and what gets cropped out. This sometimes means making images which do not fit any standard frames; he says that he gave up on standard sizes long ago, and is concerned only with making the best possible image. The other day, I got to see the current collection of images in his kitchen. One long, thin image had a mark slightly less than 1/8 inch from the top with some words I couldn’t read. In answer to my question about what it was, he said it was where the image needed to be cropped. “But that’s a tiny amount,” I said. “Yes, he said, but it will make the image better. The new crop line removed just a little less than 2/100 of the overall height of the image, a tiny adjustment if there ever was one. However, he made that adjustment and reprinted the image. It was indeed better.

And so it is with all art. Tiny adjustments can make a piece radically different: an actor changes one line, which then cascades into an entirely different performance. The addition of two measures completely alters the nature of the musical composition. Minute brush strokes modify the meaning of a painting. The examples are endless.

But to be clear, this is not about perfection; it is about using (usually small) adjustments to make a piece the best it can be. And it’s about understanding that making such adjustments might allow us to reclaim some projects that we had before considered failures.

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