Tag archive for » creativity «

The Importance of Structure

Sunday, 6. June 2021 23:10

Another blogger I know was recently having trouble with a post. The problem it seemed was that he could not get the material arranged so that it would make sense to his audience. He told me that he had tried four or five different approaches to the material, and nothing seemed to work. When I asked him how he was structuring his material, he said, “I just write it. I don’t worry about structure.” There, I thought, was his problem.

Often when art does not “work,” the reason is lack of structure. Structure, of course, is “the arrangement and relationship of the parts.” Structure comforts the audience and lets them know that the piece is organized, and they can understand it because the piece has a form which will lead them through the work, regardless of how complex it might be. Without structure our ideas, no matter how good, can be understood only with great difficulty.

Structure does not just happen; it has to be created along with the work of art. How a creator achieves structure depends on the type of work involved. Structure for narrative arts is usually found in the plot and/or character; those are the things that hold the whole together. Plot provides a support to undergird the whole, whether that is a short story or a novel.

In some rare cases what holds a narrative together is simply an idea or theme; works that rely only on theme often have a far more tenuous structure than those relying on plot or character. They may be far more difficult for an audience to follow. Still, any structure is better than no structure.

There are also non-narrative pieces such as essays or non-fiction. These also require some sort of structure. Often we find that the author will approach the material in a narrative form, presenting a story. There are, of course, forms of argument and logic which can be used to structure a non-narrative piece and can provide a very solid structure for the presentation of ideas.

All that can be said about written work can also be said about visual and plastic arts as well. Here, logic and argument do not apply. What does apply varies with the work. There is a theory that every piece of visual art should tell a story. In those cases, the sorts of structure used in narrative come into play, except far more subtly.

But what about those pieces of art that don’t tell a story or those called “meditations”? These non-narrative works, whether written, spoken, or visual offer thoughts on a subject or try to create a mood. Regardless, unless there is some underlying structure, something to hold everything together, then we are left only with disparate disconnected elements.  If the work is visual or plastic, often the structure can come from the principles of composition. These principles are not the only source of support, but they go a long way in providing cohesion.

But what If the meditations are in written form? Perhaps the idea can hold the piece together. But structure can also come from putting the meditation into a formal structure. For example, the author might put the meditation into a sonnet form and thereby provide the work with an external structural foundation. Or the author might frame the written piece using one of the forms of logic or argument so that the audience is guided from part to part and does not have to wander around among disconnected ideas.

No matter how grand or original or new our ideas might be, we must still provide a framework for our audience’s understanding. We must give them the structure to support our ideas, our images, our art. So, upon embarking on a new project, we would do well to first consider the structure that will support the work. If we develop solid underpinnings, our work will benefit.

Category:Aesthetics, Audience, Creativity | Comment (0) | Autor:

Collaboration with the Audience

Sunday, 23. May 2021 22:56

Neil Gaiman, in his book of essays and introductions, The View from the Cheap Seats, says that “no two readers will ever read the same book, because the reader builds the book in collaboration with the author.” In another place, he discusses other aspects of this collaboration, noting that “you bring yourself to a book, and children are capable of imbuing words with magic that not even the author knew was there.” He takes the idea further in citing an instance of someone remembering the excitement of a particular scene in a book, only to find, upon returning to the book, that the exciting part had been supplied by the reader. Gaiman goes on to say of the reader in a different circumstance: “then, perhaps, you will come back to it [a book] when you’re older, and you will find the book has changed because you have changed as well, and the book is wiser, or more foolish, because you are wiser or more foolish than you were as a child.”

This is not a new idea; it is one of the fundamental tenets of post-modernism. Gaiman, however, develops the concept further than most, boiling it down to the notion that each reader “builds the book in collaboration with the author,” and is likely to build a different book each time that reader comes to the book, even though the text remains the same.

You may have experienced Gaiman’s ideas yourself, finding that a book or poem or play that you had experienced was not the same as you remembered it. Or you may have had the experience of discussing a painting or performance with someone and wondering if they really had seen the same thing you did, so different were their impressions.

This notion of collaboration gives considerable power to the reader. The trick for the author is, of course, to create a narrative that will engage the imagination of the reader regardless of what the reader brings to the book.

The same is true for other arts as well. Whatever the art, audience members bring their preconceptions, feelings, and imagination to the interaction with the art work and thus build the meaning and impact of the work in collaboration with the artist. And sometimes, like the children Gaiman noted above, imbue the work “with magic that not even the author knew was there.”

If that is the case, how does the artist then create for her audience? She can make some assumptions about what response her work is likely to get, depending on what sorts of responses she has gotten previously. That, however, is no guarantee. She can, of course, manipulate her materials so that she has a fair idea of what reaction the work is likely to get. The fact of the matter is that she has no idea what the audience members are likely to bring to the collaboration.

So what we as artists to do? Exactly what our hypothetical artist above finally does: manipulate the materials so that we have a fair idea of the reaction the work is likely to get, and then put it out into the world without further expectations. The audience will bring what they bring, and while all the collaborations will be unique, there is likely to be enough similarity that we can judge our “success” or lack thereof. And if our audience finds things in our work that we didn’t know were there, so be it.

Perhaps the best that we can do is create work that simply satisfies ourselves, release it into the world, and then see what our audience makes of it.

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Make the Leap

Sunday, 11. April 2021 21:16

Sooner or later all of us arrive at a metaphorical cliff in our creative lives. We are effectively blocked from going forward—unless we make a leap. What that means exactly is up for discussion. Google says that “to make a leap means to make a choice decision or commitment without any logical reason to do so. To make a leap can also mean to jump and spring forward with force or energy. To make a leap can also mean to commit to a change in the way that you think or in what you do.” Whether or not such a move has a logical reason, it decidedly involves the idea that forward progress requires a commitment and change in the way we think or act that is somewhat out of the ordinary.

Such a move necessarily involves risk of some sort. Otherwise, it’s just another step forward or a short jump “over an obstacle.” “Making a leap” definitely involves the possibility of failure. It is not like Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff where there is no possibility of getting to the other side. It is more like this image, where there is the possibility of success but the danger of failure as well.

And what does failure mean in this context? It means that, like Wile E. Coyote after the fall, we have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and climb back to our place on the heights, perhaps learning something along the way. Although it may feel like it at the time, it is not the worst thing that can happen. We may learn about new tools, new techniques, new approaches as we climb back to, not necessarily where we were, but to hopefully some higher place in terms of creativity.  So while taking the leap and failing can be considered a setback, it can also be considered an opportunity.

But what if we succeed in making the leap? Then we can move on to new levels of creativity. Our work can take different directions and make advances, perhaps that we had not foreseen. The momentum of our leap can carry us forward to creative successes we had not imagined. And we can continue forward until we reach the next metaphorical cliff. But, having made one leap successfully, we will be mentally better equipped to make that leap as well, thus ensuring our continued creative evolution.

Possibly the worst thing we can do is to stop on the cliff and decide not to take the risk of making the leap. Then, not only are we blocked from moving forward, but we are, for all practical considerations, stuck on the edge. We may continue to produce the same sort of art that we have produced before, or we may become depressed and despondent because we feel that we cannot move forward. In that case, it is likely that our work will suffer, that we will produce less creatively or that we will cease to produce at all.

So—if we are interested in moving forward with our art—there is really no choice. We have to acknowledge the risk, then make the leap. It is the only way we will be able to move forward creatively. It’s a risk well worth taking.

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It’s the Making that Matters

Sunday, 14. March 2021 21:58

In his book Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad, Austin Kleon describes his two-year-old son’s approach to drawing as a model for the artist because it displayed “a kind of lightness and detachment” from results: “he cared not one bit about the actual finished drawing (the noun)—all his energy was focused on drawing (the verb). When he’d made the drawing, I could erase it, toss it in the recycling bin, or hang it on the wall. He really didn’t care.”

A similar approach is exemplified in an episode of the Amazon Prime television series I Love Dick. Dick is an enigmatic icon-cowboy-sculptor who sponsors fellowships for artists and scholars in Marfa, Texas. In this particular episode, an intoxicated Dick discovers that his brick sculpture has been broken into three pieces. Instead of exploding with anger the way Paula the curator did, he instead takes a moment, considers, and arranges the three pieces into a new configuration. Smiling with satisfaction, he looks at his new creation and then changes the date on the label. (Dick does not name his pieces.)

In both cases it’s the making that matters. In the section cited above, Kleon goes on to say that “art and the artist both suffer most when the artist gets too heavy, too focused on results.” He continues with example of Kurt Vonnegut who advocated making art and then destroying it in order to keep the artist’s approach to the work light and detached. Then, of course, there is the story of the art professor who, in every beginning ceramics class, would have students destroy their first finished pieces to drive home the point that it was not the product that mattered.

Both film and stage directors will sometimes spend months shaping and molding performances to create the best work that they can, but then, instead of dwelling on the finished product, they move on to the next project. Indeed, the only time directors revisit already-done work is when they want to better what they’ve already done. One example of this phenomenon is Francis Ford Coppola and his revisions of The Godfather, Part III, Apocalypse Now, and The Cotton Club. Again, it’s the making that matters.

In the most extreme case, some artists want some, if not all, of their work destroyed. This includes Franz Kafka, John Baldessari, Claude Monet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Aubrey Beardsley, and Francis Bacon. In these cases, nothing but the making mattered; the product mattered not at all.

Certainly, I am not suggesting that we take things to the extreme. What I am suggesting is that we move our focus from the product to the making of any project that we might be attempting. By doing so, we can maintain a healthy detachment from the results and concentrate on those things that are necessary to craft that project.

Concentrating on the making rather than the result changes the way that we think about the project. It frees us to really dig in and focus on the details of the project; it allows us to exploit the full extent of our creativity rather than just focusing on the outcome. It allows us to lose ourselves in the project and do our best work. It’s the making that matters.

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Hang on to your Dream

Sunday, 28. February 2021 21:08

We all start out with dreams. Some are grand; others more humble. But we all have them. We want to accomplish; we want to become famous; we want to live a certain lifestyle; we want to do this or that with our lives; we want to discover things; we want to be recognized; we want to publish. Then, as we go through life our dreams change due to circumstances or choices that we make. Sometimes they are worn away completely. Some people call that “growing up.” Others say it’s “just being practical.” Still others say it’s “coming to terms with reality.”

Whatever we call it, it’s not a good place to be. We, as humans need something to look forward to, to aim for. The “First Lady of American Cinema,” Lillian Gish has said that “a happy life is one spent in learning, earning, and yearning.”  We need that yearning for the dream, the goal, in order to keep going. Consider the writers who have received rejection after rejection, only to have those books finally published and become best-sellers.

And our dream really doesn’t have to be “practical.” How practical is it to endure over a hundred rejections of a book and still keep trying? It probably isn’t, but a number of authors have done that. Dreams may not even have to be realistic. But they do need to be. We are pretty well lost without something to aim for, something to hope for. The absence of dreams causes some people to become depressed and despondent, and often they don’t realize that having voluntarily or involuntarily given up their dreams is the cause.

But what if you do realize that that has happened, that your dreams have disappeared. If they have disappeared because you have achieved them, rejoice! If there is some other reason they are no longer guiding you forward, you might want to discover what happened. In either case, you will probably want to think about what else you might want. Even though you might have achieved your initial dream, you may find that life without something to strive for is a bit empty. And it doesn’t have to be something grandiose. It could be something quite simple. What is important is that it is something that you do not have and would like to. On the other hand, dreaming big should not be frowned upon; grand dreams can lead to grand accomplishments.

And what if it’s impractical or unrealistic? So what? It certainly doesn’t’ need to be either of those things to be functional in the sense of giving you direction and meaning and stimulating your creativity. No matter how far out of reach a dream seems to be, it can be motivating and inspiring. And that’s what most of us need to keep going—something to aim for.

So if you’ve lost your dream, look around for something that you might turn into a new one. If you still have your dream, hang on to it!

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New Project, New Beginning

Sunday, 17. January 2021 21:08

Let’s face it, routine can be very comforting, and I have gone on record as being in favor of routines. Many artists praise routines, citing the regularity inherent in a routine as a way to ensure that the work gets done. And I am still of that mind; establishing a daily routine is a sure way to maintain artistic output.

But routine can be more than working at our art at certain times of day. It can also include an approach to the work that we do the same way every time. We develop a way of working and then apply it to all projects as they come along. For example, all of our writing projects might develop along the following pattern: idea, preliminary research, outline, more research, write from beginning to end, edit, proof, publish. And that may work for us—every time. However, it might make all of our writing more or less the same. Some would say that is a good thing, because it leads to stylistic consistency. And that may be true, but it seems to me that once a writer, or photographer or director or actor or composer or choreographer or painter or sculptor has found their voice, that style is going to come through regardless of the artist’s approach to various projects.

A worst case scenario is that by approaching each project the same way, we allow our creativity to take second place to convenience: we know how to do it this way so why consider any other approach? So routine can take us to places that are less than desirable.

How to avoid this problem? First recognize that every new project is just that: a new project which invites at least the consideration of a new methodology. Perhaps if the first step in beginning a new project was looking at the project to determine what approach would work best, we might find what really determined the methodology for each project was the project itself. This would allow us to break out of the “do it the same way” mold and bring the full force of our creativity to the project. The result might be better, more interesting projects.

And that’s one of the wonderful thing about projects: they are all at least a little different, and they all are self-contained, even when they might be related. So taking the time to evaluate the approach for each project might open us to possibilities we would never have imagined if we had stayed in our one-method-fits-all approach.

A couple of artists I know work this way. One is a photographer who says, “Every shoot is the same in that you have to have the equipment ready, but beyond that every shoot is different. The models are different and you’re looking for a different outcome, so you have to approach each shoot differently.” A writer says, “I look at each project differently. Sometimes I write from the beginning to the end; other times I write the core of the piece first, then fill in the rest. The material dictates the approach.”

It’s an approach we might consider adopting: since every project is unique, make the approach to that project unique as well. Every new project can be a new beginning—directed by our creativity.

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No Small Parts

Monday, 23. November 2020 0:13

Constantine Stanislavski famously said, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” And while most directors and acting coaches firmly believe that, most actors, of course, do not. That’s primarily because actors look at the size of the role from an ego perspective; they are counting lines or stage/screen time. Directors, on the other hand, look at the role from a functional point of view, and understand that every role in a well-written show is absolutely necessary, and each contributes to the telling of the story.

Recently I was reminded of this truth when I was watching the second season of the science-fiction series, Counterpoint. One of the lead characters was in a serious predicament and there seemed to be no way out. Suddenly, his secretary, Milla, appeared, provided him with a solution to his problem—that she was the mole everyone was searching for and how he was to handle the situation and then obligingly killed herself with his gun. She, of course, was not the mole, but the problem was solved. Given that this was almost a Deus ex machina, one might question the writing. But the character, played flawlessly by Mirela Burke, was well established; she had appeared in five episodes, often bringing a message or tea or some other secretarial duty. And in the universe of Counterpoint, there is a sleeper agent behind every street sign, just waiting to be activated, so her suddenly becoming an active agent was not all that surprising.

What was significant was that this character, whom most would consider a very minor supporting character, managed in four lines (10 sentences) to turn the plot in a completely different direction and save the character we were worried about. The whole thing took precisely 49 seconds, and she managed to solve the mystery of a missing recording as well. It was amazing. The acting was good. The whole thing worked beautifully.

It served as a reminder of how important the things that most people consider small can be. As in this example, the whole plot pivoted on what most people would consider a “small part.” In most cases, the import of the “small part” does not jump to the fore as it does in this instance, but these roles are important nevertheless. Someone has to serve the wine. Someone must announce the visiting royalty. Someone must give Romeo the poison. Someone has to fall through the ice so George Bailey can save him. The list is endless. Small parts are not just important; they are necessary.

It is the same in many arts. The brush strokes in the clouds on a plein air painting fall into this category; as does the cat in the corner of the photograph; as does that scrap of blue at the right side of the collage; as does the mole on the chin of the witch’s makeup; as does the flourish at the end of the dance routine. How many characters there are in the chorus of a musical matters, as does every detail in the costume of those chorus members. And, just as in the case of the “small part,” small details, those tiny parts of all of the art we create, are not just important; they are essential.

Category:Creativity, Theatre, TV/Film | Comment (0) | Autor:

Relax Your Face

Monday, 9. November 2020 0:11

It’s been a very tough, very tense week—at least around here. Of course, you may be asking, “What week isn’t these days?” And, of course you would be right. Almost every week is tough and tense. It’s difficult to get things done, much less be creative. There are just too many things we can’t control that impact our lives. So the tension builds, and we have very few ways to dispel it.

Some try exercise, thinking that a good workout will relieve not only physical tension but mental tension as well. There is something to be said for that. If a person is both physically and mentally committed to a particular exercise regimen, engaging in that exercise will certainly relax the mind if not the body. Some people practice yoga, which also purports to engage the body and the mind and the spirit, and to some extent it does. Like any other exercise, while a person is doing it, the mind is engaged in the poses and not in the day-to-day worries that plague it. Some people meditate, that is, they focus their concentration on something other than the problems that assault us daily. Meditation is said to relax the body as well as the mind, and so is just as useful for relieving stress as any exercise program, although not perhaps as useful for toning the body.

Those activities, along with a number of others, are really useful for maintaining for general stress control, but they involve time and commitment and may or may not impact the momentary frustrations and pressures that get in the way of our creative work on an hourly basis. We all know that we should just let those things go, but doing that is far more difficult than saying it. Should we rant and vent our frustrations or should we somehow attempt to not let difficulties get to us? Is there some other thing we might try to deal with stress and tension? It turns out that there is: relax your face.

Yes, I know that sounds silly, but it’s not. The first person who ever told me to relax my face was a yoga instructor who was not talking to me specifically, but the whole class. I thought it was silly too—until I tried it. Then I noticed that as I relaxed my face, other tension left my body. I have since heard it from other yoga instructors, who sometimes say, “Soften your face.” It means the same thing: to consciously relax the muscles of the face.

Evidently, we hold tension in our faces, and when we consciously relax those muscles, other muscles in our body respond as well. Personally, relaxing my face also tends to relax my neck and upper shoulders. And it doesn’t take very long at all.

Does it generate as much relaxation as a yoga session or thirty minutes of meditation? No. But it does work, and it is nearly instantaneous. Give it a try. When you are struggling a problem that is causing you stress or tension. Stop. Take a moment and relax your face. It can make a huge difference. Just that little relaxation can make your work a bit easier and sometimes can facilitate creativity by removing that temporary stress block.

Let me know how it works for you.

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A Process of Discovery

Monday, 26. October 2020 0:07

Austin Kleon’s blog post for October 15 is entitled “Art takes you where it wants you to go,” which is a paraphrase of a statement by 93-year-old quilt artist Laverne Brackens.  Kleon goes on to quote other artists:  textile artist and print maker Anni Albers, poet Ciaran Carson, quilt artist Bisa Butler. All say pretty much the same thing, as does Kleon himself. The materials lead the artist, not the other way around.  If you examine the writings of other artists you will find much the same idea repeated over and over.  And it doesn’t matter much which materials an artist is working with.

For example, sculptors in wood or stone must work with the grain of the material if they are not to risk destroying the piece before it is realized. Naturally, working with the grain will require some changes be made in the finished product, so the resultant work is not so much a work of the sculptor’s imagination as it is a cooperative effort of the sculptor and the material.

Actors also often bend to the material. Upon first reading, they may think they know the character and exactly how the lines need to be delivered. However, once those actors delve into serious script analysis and exchange dialog with their colleagues, new readings emerge; the character morphs because of the influences that were not apparent in the first reading. It’s called character “development’ for a reason, and the actor often ends up with a performance that is very different from the one they envisioned when they first picked up the script.

Filmmakers and stage directors have a similar situation. The actors who are cast determine which way a character will go, which, in turn, influences which way the film itself will go. For example, Rebecca Onion writing for Slate.com points out that by casting two very attractive people who are nearly the same age as leads, the producers of the new Rebecca on Netflix have dramatically altered the dynamic between the two main characters from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, and with that single change have altered the meaning and substance of the artifact.  Another issue in film and stage is that the chemistry that does or does not develop among the actors as they work can also influence the outcome of the final product. A good director will often get what they want in terms of a final artifact, but they may have to arrive at it a much different way than they planned.

And of course we are all familiar with Bob Ross’ “happy accidents” in painting. Painters not only have to work with accidents, happy and otherwise, but must deal with the viscosity of the paint, with the surface of the substrate, not to mention humidity and temperature—and the condition of the brushes and knives. So there are a number of factors that can influence the outcome as well as the artist’s intention.

Almost all photographers will acknowledge the contribution of a good model to the outcome of a shoot. Sometimes, the photographer not only gets what they want but many other excellent images as well—all because of the ideas that the model brings to the shoot. Sometimes the best images are completely unexpected and are the direct result of collaboration between model and photographer.

Writers, whether they are poets, writers of fiction, or non-fiction authors consistently talk about how they think they know where they are going, but the words lead them in a different direction, and the stories, and essays and articles turn out differently than their creators originally imagined. The written work becomes organic and takes on a life of its own. The writer sometimes just keeps putting words down to find out where they are going.

Most artists, regardless of the medium in which they work, agree that when the artist listens to the material, the results are far better than when the writer tries to force their will on the material. That’s because the creative process is not what many people think it is; rather, the creative process is really a process of discovery.

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Pivot

Tuesday, 1. September 2020 0:04

If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us thus far, it’s that things are not going to go right. And it’s not just the things that we expect to go wrong; it’s things we didn’t even see coming. No matter what art we are engaged in, we have to be ready to pivot. Some would say that this is just a variation on Bobby Shaftoe’s advice to “display adaptability,” but it’s more than that, or at least it seems that way. Things change and plans fail at a dizzying speed these days. Not only do we have to plan for normal contingencies, but we must plan for the extra-ordinary, and we must be able to do it quickly.

And sometimes that requires a whole new way of thinking, primarily because many of us are now working in uncharted territory. Even artists who are used to working alone are denied their normal in-person social network, or if they still enjoy that luxury, it is changed by the necessity for masks and social distancing. Things are even more difficult for collaborative artists. In addition to normal preparation, photo shoots, for example, now require immense preparation for health and safety reasons. This may include considerations that impact the work, such as lens choice, allowing the model their safe space and still getting the work done—so the pandemic influences the art, perhaps in subtle ways, but the influence is there nonetheless. Other choices for shoots are little better, risking the safety and health of photographers, models, and assistants, or postponing the shoot until who-knows when.

Theatre, perhaps the most collaborative of the arts, brings in a whole new set of issues that can overwhelm the savviest of producing organization. First is the choice of whether to attempt some sort of live performance with not only socially-distanced performers, but a socially-distanced audience as well. Most of us realized that this is not a practical solution. Then we pivot to some sort of virtual performance. And that brings with it a whole host of new considerations and problems. It begins with securing virtual performance rights. Since the agents who control the rights to live performances were, before April of this year, not in the business of granting streaming rights, they have had to pivot to incorporate that into their businesses. Because the process is new and because it requires decisions to be made out-of-house, it can sometimes delay a decision on rights acquisition for weeks.

Then there are the technical considerations: what platform or what combinations of platforms are the best for presenting theatrical fare like we have never done before? For many of us who have worked long in live theatre, there is much to learn—just in order to know what to try and what to reject. Sometimes, the most desirable approaches must be rejected because there is no way to employ them without exposing the performers and technicians to danger. And even after those choices are made, there are difficulties that come up for which we are not prepared: there seems to be no end to connectivity issues and timing problems and scheduling difficulties—because everyone involved in the production is dealing with all of those issues in their own lives, issues that are extra-ordinary, even after months of self-quarantining and coming to terms with the new facts of life.

So we have to be ready for nearly any eventuality—all the time—which means that we must be twice as prepared as we normally are, and prepared for brand new twists and turns. And yes, it can be immensely stressful. But art is what we do, so we, like any good basketball player, must be ready to pivot—sometimes with no notice at all.

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