Networks Reworked: An interview and conversation with Paolo Cirio. March 2018. On Screening Economies University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.


Scott Loren:

What are some distinguishing characteristics of your work? Is a signature identifiable in your choice and mobilization of medium, habits of aesthetic arrangement or recurrent conceptual politics of engagement?

Paolo Cirio:

I explore new modes of conceptualism, while also referring to early sociopolitical conceptual art. My work can also be very visual. Sometimes it even takes the form of photography. However, the works discussed here are deeply conceptual and visualized primarily with diagrams and flowcharts. I use these particular forms when my material is abstract and difficult to visualize with pictures or images. These works are characterized by flows of social processes activated by advanced information systems. However, flow in this context is not just about information flow, but also the social interactions generated across domains: social domains, economic domains, cultural domains and political domains often of global scale. As such I often talk about global information orders. How do you visualize global information orders considering that there is a particular power within that acts like it has agency and serves an agenda? For me, the best way to visualize such a thing is a diagram. A diagram can visualize the way I intervene and create in such an environment. That is how I came up with the artistic strategy of using diagrammatic language. The diagrams and flowcharts also refer to algorithms. A number of my works use algorithms to intervene in such systems. The diagrams are a form for visualizing and representing the abstract, quasi- or non-material elements relevant to this kind of art.

SL:

You claim elsewhere that digital information and communication technologies have “become the heart of the social order” (Cirio 2017). Can you elaborate on this statement with regard to economic presence and influence? 

PC:

I think this clearly applies at the interdependency between information systems and social systems of today. What I generally call information systems includes many technological systems and accordingly has many names. Digital information may seem to have priority because the digital is the main mode of computation for networking diverse technological and social systems together. To me, though, it is a set of information and communication systems in total that we are concerned with. For instance, by communication systems, I also mean airports: any kind of system that enables the movement of informational objects through networks. As such, there are many overlapping networks of information systems interconnected with social systems.

Increasingly, connection is made on the basis of digital network technologies. However, considering technology at the center is reductive. If these systems and networks are interconnected, they can influence one another. Still, independent subsystems also exist: the subsystems of the airport, the subsystems of global trade. Then you have the subsystem of the law, the subsystem of finance, the subsystem of the media. With that, I mean mass media: they are still out there. There is the subsystem of culture, which sometimes enables the artist to have influence. All these systems are now interconnected through networks and thus mutually influence each other. I don’t think there is a specific hierarchy. Some people say there is a stack. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the theory of stacks, but I don’t really believe this. Stack theory already takes for granted that there is a hierarchy: politics, technology, law. I don’t think what we have is a vertical system. I think it’s a network, and in a network each sub-network is able to influence other networks or even the entire system of networks. So when we talk about information and communication technology as the heart of society, it is a heart that is diffused in networks. My challenge as an artist is to address and engage these sub-systems as inclusively as possible; whether by abstracting the environment, making an intervention or by representing it. One of these systems is finance, the economy.

When you ask what the heart is, what the relation between technology, communication systems and finance is, we should recall in this context that finance started with the laying of submarine telegraphic cable between London and New York. That was the beginning of financial trading and the fact that traders could then exchange abstract financial instruments across borders. This was an unregulated communication system at the time, which facilitated the building of additional networks. Today, financial trading literally transpires through these kinds of communication networks. With trading transpiring through the Internet, they are not necessarily submarine telegraphic cables, but the systems are conjoined from the beginning. The communication networks involved also engage with the system of the law as with the system of the economy. As such, I would make a distinction between economics, finance and the law. In the distinction between economics and finance, finance consists of these real-life communication systems where abstract financial instruments and products can be exchanged. This is now, our present moment, and yet finance has its roots in an industrial era economy. The history of economics is one in which there is a passage from late-agrarian and early-industrial human labor, consisting to a large degree in material fabrication and processes where people made things, to a post-industrial era in which machines started to make things. All that labor – and this is concrete economics – had to reorient itself and quite literally find a new job. In part, that job became the abstraction of finance.

Through my studies, I came to learn that it was politics, in the form of policy and laws, that allowed finance to grow, particularly in the UK and the US. The accumulation of capital in the industrial era eventually generated extremely wealthy industries as well as wealthy industrialists. At the same time, it also generated unemployment as machines occupied the factory floor and performed the work. And again, at the same time, laws were made to enable the expansion of the banking sector. Here we have a shift from economics, or economics proper, to finance and finance economics, thus initiating the post-industrial from within the industrial era. To talk about the post-industrial, though, we also need to talk about the post-colonial. Post-colonialism is very important for considering the space of finance, or finance from a spatial perspective. Finance is also a spatial communication system. The moment of post-colonialism is the moment when colonial power, which is economic power, had to be relinquished. The UK, the major colonial powers in Europe and the US as well all had to give up the two-fold power of colonialism. Colonized peoples would no longer be subject to cheap labor or slavery in the same manner. They would be granted independence. In theory, this is a granting of economic independence. In practice, however, sovereignty is withheld through finance: in the turn from economics to finance, finance becomes an important means of extending control over any potential economic independence. We see this when we look at offshore banking.

Consider spaces and centers of offshore banking, how the UK and the US have maintained and even strengthened communication infrastructures. We are still talking about submarine cables, but we could also talk about the construction of airports. In the post-colonial era, the UK built and expanded airports just as they expanded the banking industry, including the regulation of national and international banking law, in the same spaces: these are examples of interlinked and interacting networks of communication along which information carriers move. That is how we end up with international financial centers that are connected in diverse ways and which rely on a layer of laws determined by countries with colonialist histories. As such, the colonized spaces and the people who inhabit them are still subject to the will of wealthy colonialist nations. Colonialism still exists, even if its expression has become subtler.

Historical developments have enabled the connection of these three spheres – communication, economics and law – creating a joint political sphere at the heart of the social order. My answer, then, is yes: if we look at finance, information and communication systems are at the heart. And yet I would want to return to the notion that, with their respective matrices of sub-systems and sub-networks, these complex systems and networks are all interconnected. And the connections themselves are also of particular interest.

Daniel Cuonz:

You said something that I find extremely interesting. You claim that these systems constitute overlapping networks, and they define themselves in communication with each other. This is in perfect opposition to Luhmann’s use of systems theory to describe social systems, where he claims that the systems do not communicate. Rather, the fact that they can be differentiated is dependent on their respective modes of discretion: a legal system alone has the functional procedures of a legal system, for example. And this feeds into Luhmann’s qualification of modern societies in which hierarchy does not structure the relations of co-extant systems. Now, are we to assume that network society, with its complex of interconnected systems, produces a return to hierarchized social organization? The implication in such a scenario would be that where religion held the place of the hegemon in pre-modern societies, Silicon Valley holds this position in hypermodernity. Is it not the digital deities to the West that take on the role of key-holders, enabling the widespread internetworking of systems in communion? This would be Silicon Valley as a passe-partout. Does occupying this role constitute a system above the other systems, or would you frame it differently?

PC:

Of course, there are major players in these systems and subsystems. But to give you a counter-intuitive example, look at crypto-currencies. These currencies are not made by Silicon Valley. Sometimes it is just one coder who makes an algorithm that seizes control over networks: networks stretching from Wall Street to Silicon Valley to tiny European mountain villages. This is where we see the lack of a rigid hierarchy, where one small network or system, or even a single instantiation of agency, can suddenly influence all the others.

Staying with Silicon Valley, we can also take Twitter for example. Twitter controls the flow of information between millions of people worldwide. At least this is what they claim. But then you have Trump. Trump seizes a significant portion of control of that flow, and that impacts the entire system. He is not part of Silicon Valley either. He is able to mobilize a particular system to his own advantage. And he knows how to manipulate that system; a system that was designed to manipulate communication. Twitter is designed for the communication of just a few words. In this sense, Silicon Valley imposes on users the meaning of communication by setting the parameters of function. Then you have an unforeseen element, something like Trump, with its own communication strategies, which takes control over that channel and manipulates. Here we have an example of an individual who can take over a vast network and expand it beyond its conventional parameters. Now, what goes through Twitter with that kind of facility, if we stay with Trump, subsequently moves on to mass media. This is yet another network; through it he can amass and exercise control over (and through) vision worldwide. Trump’s impact on flows of information through Twitter thus becomes highly visible to various groups even if they were not direct participants in the original system (Twitter). A further consequence of this non-hierarchical overlapping is that other politicians fall in line and begin using the same strategies. This is where we see hierarchies as diffused. Now everything is interconnected. One thing in one network can reverberate through the total network.

We are not really talking about anything special, to be honest. If we do in fact live in a network society, then theories of networks apply to our situation. We cannot apply nineteenth-century theories of the nation-state, with its notions of hierarchy and sovereignty. That mentality can be perceived in reference to a straight line, to the linear thinking of narrative discourse. It is no longer a straight line or a center that provides the point of reference, but the network. If this is the era of network society, I think we should look at society through theories of networks.

DC:

That is very compelling.

 

II. Representation

SL:

In “Aesthetics of Information Ethics,” you suggest that a better understanding of the ways in which information technology constitutes social order can be achieved “through a constant reflexive examination of what it [information technology] produces in the social sphere” (Cirio 2017). How does your work facilitate this kind of reflection?

PC:

I would need to make a comparison to other kinds of work. This text is mainly about theories of ethics regarding representation and intervention in art, but applied to the medium of information systems. Again, we are talking about very abstract ideas. It is like material that is hard to see, or that is not even material in a way. It is diffused in flows and constantly changing, and there are so many subsystems involved. As such, some artists or academics will address financial systems in a very abstract or detached way, detached from reality in that they don’t address what a specific financial system produces in a particular part of the world; maybe they fail to recognize a set of specific laws that allow a financial product to exist, or they don’t address a particular group of people. Interesting graphs might be used and discussed in interesting ways, but we are still far from the real situational impact that produces the possibility of such graphs in the first place. At the end of the day, these networks impact the social sphere; and when I talk about the social sphere, I am talking about personal experiences such as how much one can afford to pay for rent or food as much as I am talking about the potential loss of democratic rights, or even the freedom to communicate with one another. These practical and intimately personal situations are ultimately affected by the same networks that provide the materials and setting for my work. My view is that when we talk about such complex systems – technological systems, legal systems – we also need to address the very personal side of things. We must be cautious in abstracting or speculating on them, as they have very important social and personal consequences. As such, to achieve reflexive examination in my work I directly engage with people affected or affecting financial systems, or I try to address the legal regulations that can influence the impact a concrete system has on some group of people who might eventually become marginalized or impoverished.

 

SL:

You make a distinction between “aesthetics of information ethics” and “ethics of representation and information systems”, claiming that “representations of social and technological systems should engage with the dialectics of the construction of ethical value” (Cirio 2017). How would you specify your notions of representation and of value in this context?

PC:

First we need to make some distinctions. When it comes to the representation of information systems, the media (artists, academics and, in particular, journalists) tend to sensationalize and treat the systems as if they constituted a spectacle: a new power or environment. Elements like confusion, hype and fear are often used for this manner of address, or misconceptions might be applied to those systems. The ethics of representation is concerned with such issues: the way something is presented. Crypto-currencies are again a good example: they have been misrepresented by artists, the media and even by the financial system. We also want to distinguish between the ethics of information systems themselves and the aesthetics of ethics. The aesthetics of ethics is when you have social relations that the artist intervenes in or eventually produces. It is not something you can always visualize; it takes place across a dynamics of social relations that, in my case, is sometimes enacted through economic instruments and relations. The reactions generated – the interactions with audiences or institutions – are the real aesthetics: the relationships and interactions that constitute the aesthetics of ethics.

SL:

Is this the sight of or directly linked to representation?

PC:

Think about a painter. A painter has colors, a particular way of mixing the colors and of composing the picture. That is the aesthetic of the artist. Instead of colors and brushes as artistic tools, I have hundreds, sometimes thousands, sometimes millions of people, or bits of financial data related to institutions – proper banks, for example. I sometimes position them in a way where they can communicate with each other. Though in most of the cases they communicate to or through me. I might put them in an uncomfortable position or set of relations, allowing for greater or lesser degrees of control. These compositions of people (institutions, media, laws, cultures and economies), their interaction and reactions, are set up to create a particular kind of aesthetic. That is what I mean by an aesthetic of ethics. An aesthetic of ethics is usually relevant and present in performances. When performance art places the audience in an uncomfortable or unusual position, the reaction generated is that particular artist’s aesthetics. In my case, the performances, the interactions and the reactions are channeled through information systems; they are on the Internet and expand to other channels. In the systems that I use, the actors are sometimes algorithms, and algorithms as actors have particular waysof functioning in the system: they are part of the ethics of information systems. And then you have the ethics of the work [of art] itself.

SL:

Where is value in such a dynamic?

PC:

Value is a concept I address in this text [“Aesthetics of Information Ethics”]. It is a matrix and is highly relative. I am convinced that value is about context. Context and the politics of context have becoming very central for me. Context gives meaning to what you do, as well as where and how you do it. Context has an enormous effect on value, of information as much as of an artistic act. If value is relative, it is context that makes the difference. We might expand on the idea of value in relation to ethics. For instance, moral values are contextual to cultures, opinions and environments; however, I refer to ethical value as universal principles. Let us take the value of a life, for example. Assume you have a context where you must have an opinion about killing someone. In this context, value doesn’t really refer to your opinion. It refers to the actual subject of your opinion. You might have an opinion, but if someone is going to die, you’re not taking into account the element subject to the opinion, which is also the actual context that your opinion is ignoring.

SL:

Your example brings us again to the element of participation, which is so important in your work.

PC:

Yes. We addressed this earlier with the notion that most of my art is done in the interest of the public, meaning a general public. However, the audience has become very dispersed and fragmented, especially from the perspective of art. We discussed network theory earlier. Networks do not turn everyone into an audience. Your audience is not a total-network mass of people. It may be in some regards, but it also consists of very small groups. Fragmentation into social bubbles is exponential. In these networks, Silicon Valley companies take advantage of fragmentation to target audiences. For my work as an artist, I am concerned with how to reach specific audiences, with having a language that speaks to a specific audience, or with placing the audience in a situation that is common for a larger cross-section of people. Of course, I design the work to get specific reactions. A work is successful when a particular audience replies with engagement, with any sort of interaction with my work. For instance, in reaching out to bankers I use technical business language, whereas for a general audience I use more common forms of expression or popular narratives to achieve specific types of interaction. So integration of the audience is pretty important.

SL:

This leads nicely to the next question, which concerns mimesis. You work with large recursive systems: digital information and communication technologies, social groups, institutions and infrastructures. As you so nicely put it earlier on, these constitute information systems and overlapping networks. Within these, there is on the one hand the audience component. A person encounters your work and has a reaction. In perceiving and being in the presence of your work, one is also welcome to engage and becomes integrated into it. This constitutes one kind of recursion: the audience as integral to the aesthetic with the potential to generate a further audience that is also integrated into the aesthetic. On the other hand, there is the medial component: modes of distribution, medial contingencies and social contexts are present as central material and conceptual elements in your work. If we take the latter as the ethical dimension and the former as the aesthetics, to what extent do you draw on mimesis as a representational mode? Would you say that representations of dissemination, mediality and social impact in your artwork should subsequently activate reflection on that which the artwork critiques: flows of informational capital, for example, or recording patterns of individual behavior for repurposing as an economic resource? How much of what your work wants to critique does it also perform?

PC:

Not all of my works entail this kind of agency. Sometimes they are very conceptual. They are basically informative and seek to have an impact, but not all of them integrate agency. And sometimes they are agents with potential for agency in the framework given, but who do not act on the agency. When I run the algorithms, I call them performances, internet performances, for example. If we consider the nature of algorithms, the algorithm is an instrument that produces something; it is an agent. It processes information to make an outcome. The outcome is the agency producing the agenda, while the algorithm itself is the agent carrying the potential for agency inscribed in its agenda. Anyone who codes an algorithm has an agenda that gives the algorithm agency when it runs. You have the same situation when I intervene in these systems. Sometimes algorithms are schemes: legal schemes, economic schemes. True algorithms are codes. Due to the nature of true algorithms, which necessarily includes or adds agency, they produce similar kinds of reactions and outcomes. They impact the audiences we are talking about, or the systems that I target, or the institutions, and so forth. In this capacity, we can talk about representation and mimesis.

SL:

Could you say a bit more about the roles of the artist and the audience in this context?

PC:

With this particular type of art, which uses algorithms and networks – social networks, information networks – and where the material is the audience, many hundreds of thousands of entities or individuals with agency, representation can produce very practical outcomes. Talking about change or changing the world is always a pretentious thing, but these works do have practical outcomes: in the artistic sense, in the social sense, in the informative sense. So here we can talk about representation, but with agency.

In my role as an artist, I sometimes take risks that can put me at the center of the networks and relationships in these interventions. This is also an articulation of the power and agency in these systems. This kind of embodiment also applies to the hacker: one single person in a bedroom messing around with an algorithm that eventually becomes a major crypto-currency, or that eventually generates large leaks of sensitive information. One individual takes that role of agency throughout the networks, potentially globally. That same embodiment, to have a contrary example, could be Trump. One person with his phone and with his stupid tweets takes risks by saying the things he says, but with the ability to affect the network throughout. Trump is also an artist, as the hacker is an artist. You might not imagine me in this type of role, but I do reenact these kinds of scenarios. My role as an artist can be one of enactment. Such a role of enactment in contemporary culture is novel if you consider that one individual in a bedroom can start a revolution or make a political coup. This used to require guns, thousands of people taking to the streets, taking over important buildings, for which you might need the military behind you. Now you just need a guy like Trump or Assange and you can affect the entire political environment.

SL:

Excellent. It may have taken some time for phenomena like these to materialize, but I think this is the potential that Hardt and Negri foresaw at the end of Empire – this kind of readily accessible bottom-up revolutionary potential inscribed into the digitally dispersive medium itself; or, to use your language, massive intervention made possible by the interlinked systems and subsystems of network society.

 

III. The economic

 

SL:

For this last part, we want to consider possible meanings of the economic and of value your work engages in or potentially perpetuates. These can encompass conventional categorizations of economy and value, such as the bank-issued credit represented in your Basic Credit Network (p2pgiftcredit.com), or less conventional ones, such as the negotiation of power relations through aesthetic and informational economies as in Overexposed, for example. Assuming there is something like a conventional perception of economic value present or identifiable in your work, what are its characteristics? What conceptual and aesthetic places does it occupy? 

PC:

I don’t know about economic value; but I do think there are cultural conventions in the economic understanding of society or conventions in the understanding of economic systems that I challenge or question with my art. There is a common form of intervention or aesthetic in my art that tries to break down financial conventions into economic systems; to break them down into smaller subsystems. We live in a complex world where it is very hard to see things or, regarding finance, very hard to understand things. In my aesthetic, when it becomes most informative, I try to break down complexity into smaller systems. Within those smaller systems I try to identify what is wrong with the flow, what the bug is, if you like. In accord with a hacker ethics, I try to fix or expose the bug.

SL:

The ideological dimensions of your work become legible when you describe critical art production and reception as ethical practices insofar as they are “ultimately oriented to maximize and develop the common good,” and engage in “the making and understanding of a dignified existence for humans and the environment surrounding them” (Cirio 2017). By referring to and assuming a position in relation to specific notions of value in this statement – social value relative to community and responsibility, humanist values relative to individual rights, ecological value relative to perceptions of environment, cultural value relative to the contexts in which art might achieve particular impact – this statement itself already constitutes and contributes to an index for value. Your artwork explicitly participates in this type of value indexing when depicting intersections of digital media and economic praxes. But while your work engages in and incites reflection on critical points of intersection between economic praxes and information technologies, reducing it to a categorical dismantling (or rejection) of these would be a gross misreading. Why is that?

PC:

Let’s assume there is some wonderful new operation system. It is great. Everyone should be using it. Perhaps everyone is using it. It is very powerful. But there are some problems. There are security issues that could potentially disrupt all of the user’s work. The hacker steps in and says “OK, I’ve found the bug.” By exposing it or fixing it, the hacker helps to maintain or improve the system. This attitude is present in much or most of my work. Even if the work is very conceptual, like Open Society Structures or Global Direct, there is a practical active attitude that says “OK, we can fix it. We can come up with better solutions, better systems, better algorithms.” Even in the more conceptual projects that are highly interventional, like P2P Gift Credit Cards, the same is true. People subject to the credit card industry don’t really question their actions. They get a credit card, run out of money, and amass huge amounts of debt, especially in the US and the UK, where the credit card industry is highly unregulated. It is very different in continental Europe, where there are stricter regulations enforced by law. And here we see where a simple law as a system can have a great impact beyond abstract representations of the notions of debt and credit. In P2P Gift Credit Cards the language is very simple at the beginning. “Look,” I say, “This is free money. You can take it.” This is the language the audience is accustomed to. I use the same marketing language as the credit card companies to capture the attention and interest of a particular audience. In this case, the victims of credit card companies.

They take the card, and when they try to activate it for use, they are informed about the financial model that victimizes them as well as about possible alternatives. The process thus simulates a situation of convention, and then confronts the audience with unconventional practices. And the conventions are culturally specific. For example, interest is prohibited in Islamic banks. In this context, interest is treated as usury and is unlawful. It might sound crazy, as this makes it a very different financial system, but for Muslim banks – which serve 40 to 50 percent of the world – interest is prohibited. It is a sin. If a Muslim bank lends you money, it will never take interest on the loan. It will demand a flat fee for the loan. This is just an example, but it might encourage us to question why we have interest-based loans as opposed to fee-based loans. Audiences participating in a project like P2P Gift Credit Cards will begin to have a better understanding of interest as a concept with specific conventions attached to it. They will come away knowing more about financial regulations and the deregulation of the credit card industry.

Now, we return to the question of finding the bugs and fixing the system. If we look at the last phase of this project, Gift Finance ends in monetary policy that the audience designs. In the diagram presented here you can see that although I retained basic control of the credit card – the treasury, the lending and borrowing – I designed the algorithm in a manner that would allow everyone to participate without being subject to the banking trade. Credit cards are a useful instrument, but they should be regulated and used in better ways. This type of system critique is very different from the nihilism or the postmodernism of critical art in the 1980s, for example. I am not saying we should be against the system per se. I am saying systems can be improved. And by the same token, I do not think trying to improve a particular system even constitutes an ideology. I think we can even leave out the question of progress. I wanted to return to the idea of being proactive here to give an example of an economic or financial systems and conventions in my work and the aesthetic place they might occupy. Here we see a larger system within which a problem can be identified and improved, and we also see the integration of audience, the role of the artist and the work’s informative function. But in general, the improvement of a social or technological system shouldn’t really have any ideological connotations. That is why I refer to recent aesthetic sensibilities in social practices art in the U.S. and in investigative art, as can be clearly seen in the essay “Evidentiary Realism.” But I suppose it depends on what you mean by ideology. There are common goals throughout my work, but I am actually always against thinking of it in terms of an ideological dimension, even in terms of financial critique. I think this has been a problem.

In the late 1960s, when we started to see signs of reinvigorated globalization in the expansion of the geo-political complex, artists began to explore the representation of its systemic intricacies critically and creatively.  In the 1980s and 1990s we saw finance, centralized in London and Wall Street, become a prominent industry that affects world economies. At that time, artists and thinkers were not questioning what was happening. Finance was a kind of black box where money was being made. A lot of people were becoming rich. The fact that no one was really investigating it on its own terms played an important role. All of the theories and modes of analyses we applied to that world had actually come from or were designed to address the former industrial era. Marxism is the obvious example, but there are many others. This condition did not help us analyze and understand what was actually happening at the time. As a result, we have the dark age of the 1980s when Wall Street or the financial sector became very big and extremely influential. Then, in the early 2000s, the system collapsed. We have seen many crashes, but this was unique in the way it affected the West as a space of cultural value production.

That is why we are speaking now: that string of historical conditions generated a set of instruments to examine Wall Street and the financial sector, and to generate interest. Now, academics like you and artists like me scrutinize finance by breaking it down in order to better understand what is really taking place. My point is that if we talk about ideologies, no ideology could be sufficiently functional here. Ideology is too bound up in the past, not the present. You apply a set of preexisting understandings and values – they are preconceptions – to a system, but eventually they don’t work. There is a mismatch between the preconceptions of ideology and the actual conditions of the present system. That is why I resist ideology. Some scholars, Marxist scholars for example, apply ideology or philosophy to examine the financial sector, but I think the ideological approach has seen its time and I don’t think I use it. The means of production and intervention are now so diffuse and the playing field is so complex that the use of systems can turn out to be both for the good and be extremely dangerous as well. We might turn again to crypto-currency as an example: ideology would oversimplify the overall system. That is why I talk about ethics with regard to information systems and networks, but don’t think ethics and human rights constitute an ideology as such. They are, rather, something more dynamic; contemporaries of our times.



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