Friday 1 May 2015


Another behind-time exhibition review, continuing our mini-series on Modernist art and the city 

“The minute I touched New York,” Berenice Abbott reflected, “I had a burning desire to photograph this city of incredible contrasts.” And of course she wasn't the only one. This exhibition showcases eighteen instances where such a desire has ignited, (as the show puts it) “the symbiotic relationship between photography and the architectural subject.” Of course there's a style of painting which goes with a type of landscape. But photography seems inherently suited to the city. While nature is sliced and segmented by the shutter, cities come camera-ready. Paintings of cities can feel like when court sketches get shown on the news, a strange juxtaposition of archaic form and new context. (George Bellows, featured in the previous instalment, and LS Lowry, to come, made a virtue of this juxtaposition, just as Bellows painted cars and horse-drawn carts in the same scene. But they're the exception rather than the rule.) We tend to pass through cities rather than stand and look at them, an experience better caught by the snapshot than by the easel.

If this exhibition features no less than eighteen photographers, reader be aware this write-up features what could be described as less than that. Some that is indifferent will be skipped over, but a fair amount of good stuff will also be bypassed. It'll be a drift through the streets not a route map. Where not otherwise stated, quotes are from the curators. Please keep your tickets with you at all times. Refunds will not be given.

The Socialised City

Though the exhibition uses the term 'architecture' in its title and throughout, there's actually something of a distinction between 'architecture photography' (as in portraits of buildings) and 'city photography'. And it's the difference between photographing the trees and photographing the wood. And the afore-mentioned Berenice Abbott is very much in the latter camp. Not for nothing is her most famous image 'Night View New York City' (1932, up top). Her subject matter is the city, even if she only conveys it through sections of it at a time. The city is an assemblage, not an accumulation of disconnected buildings, but an entity in and of itself.

Like many images of this era they're perhaps hard for us to frame in retrospect. The past was perhaps never a more foreign country than Abbott's New York. We have come to use the city first as an amplifier term, a synonym for bigger and badder. (There's a reason why Bowie didn't write 'Suffragette Hamlet'.) Then on top of this comes the conception of the city as the embodiment of capitalism. Babylon was a city. So therefore the city is Babylon. Last year, for the first time in history more than half of the world's population came to live in urban areas, a statistic which is easy to read as another signifier for the triumph of neoliberalism.

So at least since Expressionism the City in art has become an apparently self-contradicting combination of cutting-edge modernity and the basest savagery, exemplified in the title of the early Brecht play 'In The Jungle of the Cities'
(1924). This sense is enhanced for us in the the UK, where the financial district is even dubbed 'the City'. (The recent Occupy protests, taking place not too far from this exhibition, effectively brought back the 'Stop the City' terminology of my youth.) But its equally enhanced for New York, home of the financial district to the world's biggest economy, often seen as as the epicentre of capitalism. So radical art's mission becomes to expose the poverty behind those gleaming Broadway signs, and all the rest of it.

Abbott arrived in New York only in 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash – pretty good timing to be looking for poverty to expose. And at times she did just that, with works such as 'Encampment of the Unemployed' (1935). She largely worked for Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, a rare incubator for socially progressive art in America. But that's not the heart of her work. Mostly she saw the city from quite a different perspective.

We can see this, quite literally, in the (to quote Richard Martin of 'Apollo') “dazzling angles and sharp contrasts” of 'View Of Exchange Place From Broadway New York' (1934, above). Sweeping avenues pull at us, so uncongested to our modern eyes, a web of connections free from the clutter of the past, in a view which feels inviting and celebratory. As Abbott's Wikipedia entry states she “intended to empower people by making them realize that their environment was a consequence of their collective behavior (and vice versa).”

Baudelaire lamented, in a poem laced with classical symbolism, “the old Paris is gone (the shape of a city changes faster than the human heart can tell.)” Whereas Abbott champions this very thing, exulting in “the city that is never the same but always changing”. The photos are dated to the very day like journalism, but human figures can be remote if present at all, as if the changing city itself is what she seeks to capture. As with Bellows, some of her images are literally of construction. New York had first been colonised in the Seventeenth century, and was both sizeable and strategically important from the Eighteenth. Little of that is here. All is gleamingly new, as if the new city has just over-written the old, soon to disappear itself under the next wave of innovation. It's only a couple of decades behind, but a long way indeed from Bellows' “kettle perpetually on the boil” with “paint as real as mud”.

And she was not alone in this perspective. In the recent Royal Academy 'Building the Revolution' exhibition of Modernist architecture of the Russian Revolution, we saw how “the buildings are virtually porous - bursting with openings, held together with criss-crossing gangways or connecting skyways. The show speaks of ‘wide corridors intended to promote social interaction’. …[they’re often] built around a central cylinder housing the staircase. Again and again the emphasis is on buildings which are light, open and airy.”

The term 'Constructing' in the tile of course implies Constructivism, and many of Abbott's photos have a collage-like quality akin to Constructivist photographers such as Rodchenko. See for example the (to use her earlier phrase) “incredible contrast” between two building fronts in 'Glass Brick and Brownstone Fronts, East 48th Street' (1938). And even her fixation with the signage of advertising, in photos such as 'Columbus Circle, New York' (1936, below) should be seen as less a critique of consumerism than a celebration of their, to again quote Richard Martin, “everyday exuberance”. As the curators note, “advertising [had begun] to present itself as a new form of urban iconography, supplanting formal civic sculptures”.

Again, if counter-intuitively, this relates to Soviet modernism. As Owen Hatherley pointed out in 'Militant Modernism': “Constructivist architecture made a fetish of the extraneous, and adverts, banners or radio masts can be found as features of most of the original plans.” If much of that bold and creative new expression was currently being shackled to the selling of goods... well, that condition was doubtless temporary. The point was that it was bold, it was innovative, that we could now shout from the rooftops without even opening our mouths. And soon that ability would be in the hands of the people.

Of course the differences are significant too. The Soviet architects' aim was to rebuild a city, and with it a society, while Abbott's was to photograph an existing one. But the parallels are striking, and aren't coincidental. There was then an evolutionist dimension to radical thought which saw the city as something which inherently socialises us – almost as a crucible with the power to transform us. Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto how urban migration had “rescued a great part of the population from the idiocy of country life”. (That infamous and much maligned word 'idiocy' is actually a poor translation of the German term closer in meaning to 'idiosyncrasy', meaning isolation, provincialism, disconnection from the wider world.)

In Kapital he developed the theme: “The transformation of scattered private property, arising from individual labour, into capitalist private property is, naturally, a process, incomparably more protracted, arduous, and difficult, than the transformation of capitalistic private property, already practically resting on socialised production, into socialised property.” Upton Sinclair titled his 1906 expose of life amid the slaughterhouses of Chicago 'The Jungle'. Yet ended it with a socialist meeting where they boldly cry “the city is ours!”

Modernism Comes Home

And if we already know that the city didn't become ours, and have spent recent decades backtracking somewhat on the notion of the inevitability of communism, its notable how much those wide avenues still carry into the succeeding spaces of his show.

The Case Study House Program occurred in post-war California, where houses were built and then not only made into open homes for public viewing but photographed. The houses we are looking at are therefore essentially adverts for themselves. Jacob Shulman took the “sumptuous architectural photographs [which] advertised a post-war American lifestyle”. After the sharp black-and-white of Abbott's work, things burst into technicolour. Human figures, played of course by models, are placed more prominently and are mostly to be found dressed for dinner or clutching consumer durables. It's a classic case of product as identity.

And yet so much of Abbott's empowering, enabling city remains. There's the same inviting sense of open space, with glass and water as endlessly recurring features. Take 'Case Study House 9' (1949, above), shot at such an angle the lounge already looking expansive enough to play football on, then adding the wall-spanning French windows onto the garden. Its the porous buildings of modernist architecture meeting the California sunshine, the refusal of a rigid distinction between inside and outside.

But there's a crucial difference – what was once to do with the whole city, with socialising humanity, is now relegated to the domestic. Its like an optical illusion where space is simultaneously opened up and abstracted. If you don't see any old-style picket fences in these photos, that's because you don't see any neighbours to peer over them either.

Not for no reason is Shulman's most famous image 'Case Study House 22' (1960, above), in which the occupant of an upraised glass box gazes down onto the city lights below. (In many ways reminiscent of Abbott's 'Night View New York City'.) And there's not one suggestion in the series of a house actually located on a street, the place we tend to come across them. The optical illusion relies on the sleight-of-hand inherent to commodity production. When you buy a product, whether a house, a blue suit or an orange sofa, you know it's mass-produced, one of thousands. But you focus on this one being yours, this product being – in some magical way – an expression of you. The image is splendid isolation in a nutshell.

Yet its perhaps not entirely honest just to criticise from this perspective, and then close the book. These images are designed to seduce the eye and they succeed. You feel if you lived in one of those dream homes you'd start to live an unencumbered life, gliding across those apertures, unclogged by clutter. You would probably think differently, certainly more clearly, once your daily life was so unconstrained. (Frankly, I'd rather live in one of those pads than the place I do.) They represent the post-war economic miracle, where it wasn't just that capitalism seemed to have overcome its contradictions to give you everything it had always offered. Its even subsuming what socialism had to offer into the bargain.

And arguably the images are seductive that the whole exhibition has been designed in this California-style manner. It's open-plan while containing a series of 'pods' dedicated to each individual artist, easy both to pass through and to linger in. And this design, by Office KGDVs, was often praised by reviewers. As Rowan Moore put it in the Guardian “they make of it a little city, allowing glimpses as if of other people’s apartments into galleries on the other side of the show.”

The Plan Prevails

...whereas Lucien Herve perhaps exemplifies the other half of where Abbott's vision went. After the war, Corbusier designed the new Indian city of Chandigarh, and (in one of many collaborations) personally invited Herve to document the result. Nehru described the plan as “unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation's faith in the future”. Fine words, indeed. Clearly taken early in the morning, with correspondingly long shadows, the photos evoke a fresh feeling, the dawning of a new world.

And yet... Only the most blimpish Brit would seek to decry Indian independence, or claim it was ever as authoritarian as Soviet Russia. Yet something is badly missing. Abbot's work was dynamic in every sense of the word. We make the city as the city remakes us, in a positive feedback loop. Yet if Shulman has taken the dream and run off with it, Herve is left with the plans. Frankly it feels as if Shulman has captured the soul and Herve is busily propping up the corpse.

If socialism could then be thought of as the next step in evolution, it was also seen as interchangeable with planning – thinking out what worked for people, as against the 'anarchy' of the market. And this is socialism-as-planning at its most reductive, a built environment whose hard edges we are expected to rearrange ourselves around - and the result is a machine clearly not built for living in. You look at the High Court of Justice (1955, above), and feel like you stand as much chance of getting justice from it as milk from a concrete cow. They're mostly reminiscent of Well's film version of 'The Trial' (1962), an urban environment which exists only to anonymise us.

Reframing The Familiar

If the last three photographers existed in a continuity, the next group have strongly similar aesthetics. Abbott had been so taken by a historic New York she spoke as though she felt unable to do anything but document it, an artist and their muse. Whereas what interested Ed Ruscha and his contemporaries was “banal and pedestrian architecture”, which he captured through a “no-style snapshot aesthetic, showing a single object with nearly all contextual details eliminated”. Art can show us something new, something hitherto unimagined. But art can also show us things we've all seen before, but in a way which makes them appear as new.

And, much like the city in general, photography is ideally placed to do this. We use the term 'photographable' as a synonym for memorable. But photographs, formally speaking, document. Photograph a bare brick wall and the lens will diligently record every lump and crevice.

The focus here is thrown on liminal spaces, places you'd normally merely pass through. Stephen Shore, for example, took roadtrips around smalltown America in search of “the prosaic and the mundane”, and made his images into greeting postcards. He'd even stuff these into the spinner racks of the tourist shops he'd pass. Because after all, why bother photographing the memorable? Chances are, you'll remember it anyway.

In Ruscha's case he shows us things from literally a new angle. Or at least ups the ante on Abbott's high-window shots. He took a series of aerial views of parking lots, empty in the early morning, their partition lines becoming abstract compositions. (And at the margins the surrounding grid-plan housing which will later disgorge its cars over these spaces.) See for example '500 W Carling Way' (1967). Here we're a world away from Abbott, from constructing worlds to places already constructed – at a scale beyond our everyday experience. But with their almost eerie sterility, inhabited and yet not, they're just as far away from Shulman's images of post-war abundance. They're actually closest to Herve, but centre what to him seems an almost accidental effect.

Yet, while it might be tempting to try and make Ruscha into a social critic depicting urban alienation, that feels like shoehorning. His aesthetic isn't built around an argument he's advancing, but serves to frame a question – can we find such places sublime, like our forefathers did oceans and mountains? It's Duchamp's problematising questioning of art thrown over the urban environment. I found myself half-seriously comparing them to the Nazca desert lines. In both cases, we know they're there. In neither case does that particularly help us in reading them.

Photo Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Bernd and Hilla Becher worked on “the architecture of industrialisation”, which they described as “anonymous sculptures”. In perhaps the epitome of photography as cataloguing they'd capture objects flat-on, in isolation, displaying the accumulated results in juxtapositional grids. (In the example above, water towers.) And, like Abbott's buildings, you need to see the images assembled like this before you get the picture. It's like the way biologists catalogue insects. When seen together, there's a huge variety of construction styles you'd never otherwise notice. But they're perhaps more like the way folk culture items can be displayed – fastidiously removed from their surrounding culture and function.

Sean O’Hagan writes in the Guardian, of their “documentation of the fast-disappearing industrial architecture of the Rhine-Ruhr region of their native Germany” (my emphasis), as if they’re folklorologists of industrialism, framing a once-living culture in their fixed dispassionate lens. Those pipes, ducts and water-towers were once part of some functioning system, now they’re wrenched away to be pinned to some foreign index system like butterflies in a book. There does seem something almost stereotypically German about the deadpan quality of their work; as with a Brecht and Weill sprechtsang vocal, the more dispassionate the surface the more numinous the content becomes. Its almost like the Zone in Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’, there comes to be something compelling about the detritus, you come to feel there's some meaning which is currently eluding you.

O’Hagan has also remarked on “the underlying sense of loss and melancholy that emanates from these photographs”, and perhaps they rest upon an irresolvable ambiguity. Do they signify an aesthetic to this industrial world of valves and gears, something which we never saw until it was too late? Or do they rely on the decay for their effect? Could we only stop and contemplate them when they stopped being of use to us? Like a twist on the old Bauhaus doctrine, form could only emerge once function was over.

The Future That Never Came

While with the rest of the exhibition, a strength is the way it so frequently takes us out of Europe and North America. Guy Tillim's images, for example, are of post-colonial Africa. 'Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique' (2008, above) opened in 1954 and closed a mere eight years later. It was another twelve before Mozambique gained independence. It looks so dilapidated you at first assume it must be a ruin, then notice the washing hung by squatters along those bold curves. “How strange,” comments Tillim, “that modernism, which eschewed monument and past for nature and future, should carry memory so well.” The images have a Ballardian quality – even down to the empty swimming pools. Built within the living memory of many, its still as strange to us as a Mayan ruin.

Evocative as they are, one weakness of these images is that they tend to see squatting merely as a symptom of dilapidation. Whereas squatters themselves tend to see the process as a means towards gaining a roof over their heads. It’s the very failure of the planners’ intent which gave these squatters a home; however squalid conditions might be, had it remained the intended luxury hotel they would probably be sleeping in the streets. Wikipedia comments “there are only two common rules... Respect one another. And, the Grande Hotel is open to anybody who wants shelter.” (It also suggests that things were at their strangest while the hotel was still open, filled with staff poised to open doors to never-arriving guests, a cross between 'The Shining, 'Waiting For Godot' and a cargo cult to Western luxury lifestyles which were never going to straddle the globe.)

However Iwan Baan's pictures of the Tower of David in Caracas take a different tack. This 45-storey squat, originally intended as a 'flagship project' for a bank headquarters, has perhaps become iconic, with an episode of Homeland set there. Baan, however, managed to gain access to the inside of the Tower and tells more of the squatters' stories. As Victoria Sadler of the Huffington Post puts it, his images challenge our preconceptions of squatting as living in squalid conditions”.

Writing in the Guardian he commented “At first the tower was just a construction site: no elevators, running water or electricity. But... nowadays its more like a village – a self-contained community in the sky. It has its own economy...the ingenuity is incredible. These people have absolutely nothing, but they find ways to get by.”

We first see a flat-on image of geometric windows, which frame signs of individual habitation (above). The next wall is a grid of rectangular images inside the building, as if we're peering close-up through some of those windows. Like some impromptu, haphazard, sledgehammer version of the Constructivist aesthetic holes in walls become passageways or serve as shop kiosks. But my favourite image is perhaps the most ubiquitous one (below). A weightlifter works out on an open roof, the cityscape stretching away behind him. Yet two figures stand either side of him, as casually as if they were in a basement gym. Baan comments “there's no handrail so you feel like you're floating above the city.” Like many of the images in the 'Pioneers of the Downtown Scene' show of urban New York art, its almost a superhero image – the combination of peril (the precarity of being so close to so huge a drop suggesting a symbol of the precarity of squatter life) with the human figure so dominant over the environment, standing over skyscrapers.

The Landscape of Neo-liberalism (A New Architectureless Kind of Architecture)

But what about the world since Modernist architecture. We don't, after all, just live in ruins. We may want to ask - who can explain our own world to us? Reviewing an earlier exhibition devoted to the Bechers, O’Hagan commented “this is a requiem for a lost world and shows that, through the passing of time, even that which was once considered purely functional and even ugly, can attain beauty.” Will we ever feel that way about what's around us now?

Two Bas Princen images perhaps capture the landscape of neoliberalism the best. 'Mokattam Ridge (Garbage Recycling City), Cairo' (2009, above) is a vast picture, taken so the city seems to recede into infinity. Yet at the same time it feels stifling, garbage encrusting the rooftops - sometimes piled high, sometimes just scattered debris, yet combined with roof furniture, satellite dishes and other signs of life being lived. Abbott's city looked ever-evolving, constantly over-writing itself. This looks like creation and destruction existing in some strange symbiosis. Its as conflicted as any of Dali or Miro's Spanish Civil War paintings, a city trying to breath while simultaneously stuffing its own throat with garbage. Many of the buildings look half-finished, tarps spread over roofs, columns holding up nothing. One way of reading the image would be as a Tower of Babel where humanity ruined itself without God having to get involved, each storey of the buildings representing an era in history - culminating only in detritus.

'Cooling Point, Dubai' (2009, above) features a black cube like a Borg spaceship combined with the '2001' monolith, in complete contrast to the pale sandy earth around it. Surely this was plonked down, never raised up. In a Muslim country, its almost a parody of the Kaaba in Mecca. Those blue-overalled figures presumably work in it, but seem entirely disconnected. Is there even a doorway among all that blackness? It exposes the contradiction at the heart of neoliberalism. We're constantly told this is not merely the way things happen to be done now, still less something decided upon, but that things have to be this way. Society as it's run right now is a true reflection of our essential nature, a point to which the rest of history had merely led us up to. And yet we see in its architecture not even a twisted reflection but a kind of imposing absence, simultaneously alien and blank-faced, a pristine sheen with nothing behind it. Whether intended by Princen or not, its one of the most Marxist images of the alienation of labour I've seen lately.

It became almost a commonplace to say that occupied Iraq and Afghanistan became the epicentre of the modern world, an almost collage-like clash of values where all the old certainties had been swept away (perhaps symbolised by the looting of the museums) and free market values were imposed at gunpoint. In an almost complete reversal of Abbott, they’re of environments which cannot possibly join up, like a jumbled collage made up by the real world waiting for some photographer to happen by.

Simon Norfolk's 'Bullet-scarred Outdoor Cinema at the Palace of Culture in the Karte Char District of Kabul' (2001/02) and 'Unfinished Speculative Property Development Near Kabul Airport' (2010/11, both above) essentially belong together. The first is in some ways a harsher image than a bullet-ridden human body would be, suggesting not just people but our very sense of society (an outdoor cinema as a place where people gather together) has been destroyed. As, on gaining power, the Taliban attacked and closed cinemas there's no real indication which side committed this. (Though bullets might suggest a fully-fledged battle, and hence invasion.) 

The second is in some ways a successor image to 'Cooling Plant, Dubai' in it's image of a building plonked arbitrarily in a flat landscape. It suggests less a world in flux than trapped in some between state. In the half-light, the off-white building looks almost like some kind of mirage. But the blurred, slow-focus figures look ghostly, like the residue of some time when children still played in public space. 'Part Wedding Cake, Inspired By Bollywood But Reverential to Greek Classicism, It Represents a New Architectureless Kind of Architecture' (2010/11) has a title which essentially performs my job of translating these images into descriptions. The world depicted is a mixture of fairy tale opulence and actual debasement.

If, ever-implicit in Abbott's New York shots, lay the idea we were looking at the world's powerhouse of that era, of course today this has shifted to China. (Or shifted back there, depending on how far back you choose to take your history.) Rather than there be something at odds between the free market and authoritarian political systems, China is ascendent by combining both. So its not altogether unsurprising if some of the most memorable images come from Nadav Kander's images of the Three Gorges Dam project, which displaced over a million people.

In 'Chongquin XI, Chongquing Munipality' (2007, above), fishermen stand before and below a gargantuan bridge. The bridge recedes into misty distance, like something from classical Chinese Painting. The division isn't between the natural and the artificial, but between the grand and the human scale - a scale so disproportionate its almost like an image from 'The Borrowers'. 'Bathers, Yibin, Sichuan' (2007, below) recalls George Bellows' '42 Kids', as covered in the previous instalment. Yet even Bellows allows the image to retain some sense of exuberance, the children pallid but playing, leaping into the water. The bathers here are bunched onto a stump of rock before a grey and uninviting river, the factory chimney above their heads suggesting its only going to get greyer.

Corinna Lotz of 'A World to Win' writes: “There are shades of Whistler’s Battersea Bridge and Casper David Friedrich’s yearning views into the distance. Superhuman constructions tower over tiny human beings who try to carry on with their lives. The eerie beauty of Kander’s images is in stark contrast to the horror of eco-degradation.” And indeed the industrial sublime of Turner is here.

A catch-all definition of the sublime might be that which is too vast to truly take in, and yet we cannot stop looking. Yet the Romantic sublime came from a religious era, where the vastness of nature became a metaphor for the unboundedness of God. These city pictures (and not just Kander's) reverse this. Man-made environments appear as so otherly to us, so beyond our sense of scale yet alone our influence, that we're rendered stupefied. We feel apart from what we made.

In the new corporate world, buildings don't just contain but are themselves billboards for brands. Here in Brighton American Express sponsored the new football stadium, which means whenever anybody mentions “the Amex” as a landmark their brand has been inserted into everyday conversation. Similarly, Owen Hatherley has called the London skyline “both logo and icon.” Also writing in the Guardian, Ian Martin lamented:

"Just look at London’s privatised skyline. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so cartoonishly tragic... The utter capitulation of London’s planning system in the face of serious money is detectable right there in that infantile, random collection of improbable sex toys poking gormlessly into the privatised air... I loathe its banality... I loathe its monstrous, bullying scale. It’s Gulliver big. End-of-level-boss big. Its stupid anything-goes-now size mocks us.”

But even the monstrous regiment of the London skyline doesn't convey the true banality of the evil we live among. Its grandiloquent, Brobdignigian nature is virtually misdirection. On the train home from the exhibition, I couldn’t help but compare the landscape of South London to the show. And while there may never have been a time when Croydon has thrilled the senses, nevertheless the distinction is striking. They are grand in scale, in fact grander than ever before. But they are grand only in scale, they are as anonymous as they are imposing. Buildings once evoked the same response in us as of mountains and lakes. Now those glass-and-steel sheens are like characterless faces, like an Ozymandian sculpture to the excess banality of evil. We feel only the sublimation of the sublime, never the transcendence. To put it bluntly, the big stuff nowadays only makes us feel small.

The conception of the city as ever-changing, as always over-writing itself, repeats as farce. These buildings are simultaneously so grand and so bland they can all too easily be replaced, but only by another variation on the same non-theme. They're so chillingly ubiquitous your eye can barely fix on their shriekingly bland facades before falling off again. And how can you start to consider an alternative where you can't even notice what's there to begin with? Our landscape now affects us like Valium. The Romantic painter Caspar Friedrich once commented the artist needs to feel the connection to his subject or, “his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead”. Which is about as accurate a description of the landscape of neoliberalism as we’re likely to get.

Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...

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