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First Language: Words as Raw Material in the Works of Dafna Kaffeman and Sivan Scheffner

“People scatter everyday into the wind, deliberately and inadvertently, words materials aplenty”.

H. N. Bialik11 Hayim Nachman ...

In the beginning God created the world in words. The concept of language as a raw material in world-building is found in many areas of Western thought – religious, philosophical and critical: in Kabbalistic Jewish mysticism and hermeneutic theory, in literary and the philosophy pf language, in psychoanalytic theory and in the discourse of French critical theory. Whether language is seen as a means of revealing the world or as an obstacle that obscures it, whether it seems to describe phenomena in the world, or claims to be constituting them, whether its concatenations are attributed with supernatural powers or whether they are plain and transparent, its presence as a material in the world is undeniable. Language consists of fixed foundational elements, which are interrelated in a repetitive pattern arrangement; it is built as a web of solid and flexible connections; it exists as a form that has volume and sound in the visual and social space that surrounds us.

Dafna Kaffeman , “I loved her very much” from the series Mantis Relgiosa, 2010
Flame worked glass, photo by Erik Tschenow, embroidery on handkerchief, 70-50-7 cm
Courtesy of Lorch+seidel Contemporary, Berlin

What is language and its power as a material in the creator’s hand? How does it affect other materials in its environment and what opportunities does it provide the creator? This paper seeks to point out the language as a charged, raw material in the oeuvres of two local Israeli artists, Dafna Kaffeman and Sivan Scheffner. The former is a senior faculty member in the Department of Ceramics and Glass Design at Bezalel, a well-known and esteemed glass artist, participating in exhibitions in Israel and worldwide. The latter is a young artist, an outstanding graduate of the ceramics track in this department, who has just begun her independent career and has already had several exhibitions. The paper seeks to show that, despite the distance between them – generational, material and technological distance – both treat language in principle and philosophically as a significant material in their practice. This material is used in their work as an object of research, and it drives their research and creative projects from the beginning of the process to its products. Kaffeman sets out from an archive of botanical concepts and news quotes that she collects and maintains; Scheffner’s work is based on the lexicon of the professional concepts of ceramics. The lexicon of the concepts – the scientific, the journalistic, and the professional ones – serves both as a reflective material, revealing the mundane aspect of language. This exposure allows them to inquire about linguistic regulation and the cultural regulation derived from it, to undermine and criticize it, but also to relish it. The paper seeks to show how the banal regulation of the language – the general and casual common use of it – stimulates and guides the material and technological undertakings of the two artists. The result is the design of complex operating spaces, which simultaneously deconstruct and preserve the cultural baggage of language.

Sivan Scheffner, Now and Again, 2018. Stoneware. Size in cm: (each unit) H22, W30, L13

The paper will begin by describing the philosophical worldview by which the artists’ work practices and their relation to language will be examined. The paper will then review the characteristics of the oeuvre that each of the artists has produced so far, materially, technologically and thematically. Subsequently, the paper will focus on three practices that express the philosophical-critical stance of the artists towards language and the questions they ask about it. These practices – citation, transcription and metaphor – enable the artists to evoke the arbitrary nature of language while at the same time to glance through its materiality.


The Material of Language

The notion that language is a key raw material in the construction of the human world has characterized Western philosophical thinking from the late 18th century. In contrast to the Aristotelian position, which regarded language as a direct path to the world, the philosophers of Romanticism identify language as a material separate from the world. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Essay on the Origin of Languages (1781) and Friedrich Nietzsche in “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1873) argue, each in his own way, that language does not reflect things in the world, but expresses a regulating social framework, to which we mistakenly ascribe objective validity.22 [1] Jean-Jacques ... This position rejects the theory of verification, dating back to Aristotle, and reflecting the onslaught romanticism on the conception of truth in the Enlightenment in general. Instead of a truth based on conceptual and categorical language, Rousseau and Nietzsche seek to reveal the creative, authentic, intuitive origins of the language from its inception.

According to Rousseau and Nietzsche’s position, language is nothing more than the processing and abstraction of the experiences preceding it. Language grows from primal experiences, which are basically metaphorical. The pre-linguistic human experienced the world as a multitude of impressions and images. Over time, these images have become defined and regulated categories, abstract and cold concepts. The initial encounter with the world was forgotten, the experiential dimension eroded, and language became a petrified and alienated material. Such a position fits the spirit of romantic thought about its idea of ​​authenticity. Inspired by Kant’s philosophy of the mind, man is seen as struggling to understand the world as shaped by his image. Man forgets that the things presented to him are metaphors he has created and mistakenly considers them as pure objects. Recognition of the metaphorical origin of language is also a discernment of the authentic potential beyond social consensus.

Nietzsche calls the language “prisonhouse”,33 Gilman, Blair, ... and Martin Heidegger, in his book Being and Time (1927), calling it “idle chatter”.44 Martin Heidegger, ... Language, in its institutionalization as the language of all, is a material that masks. This material not only has nothing to do with the world, but it also separates man from the world outside the boundaries of his language, alienating man from his world.55 A similar approach ... A similar idea was drafted by H. N. Bialik in 1915 in his essay “Revealment and Concealment in Language”: “It is clear that language with all its combinations does not introduce us at all to the internal core, to the absolute essence of things, but, on the contrary, itself blocks access to them”.66 Bialik, ... Language as mask is a dark material that isolates man, cutting him off from meaning and fills him with anxiety: “No word is the total annulment of any question, but what is in it? – Concealment”.77 Ibid.

Heidegger distinguishes between “idle chatter”, which is the general language belonging to no one, and authentic language.88 Heidegger, ibid., ... Language as “idle chatter” does not reveal things in themselves but conceals them. Man understands the world around him through his language but cannot appropriate it to himself. Compared to the general language, Nietzsche and Heidegger point to the language of poetry as the authentic language. Poetry both exposes and releases while illuminating and concealing what we call “world”. It provides a basis for human existence because by through it man relates to the world around him and to himself. It establishes the world in which man exists and from which he derives his own meaning.99 Ibid. The essential distinction between the general language as a concealing material and the language of poetry as exposing what is hidden also appears in Bialik’s essay. The language of poetry is the search for the “unique aspect” and not the “common aspect” of things, for the words that “flutter [..] become extinguished and ignited, sink and shine, drain and fill, lose their soul and find it again”.1010 Bialik, ... Compared to the general language, the language of poetry is the way to “think an entity”. It is an effort to go beyond the common language, the self-evident, to subvert the transparency of the language and to reflect its materiality and artificiality. It is an effort to go beyond the functional use of language to where the being is present, to the impression of the immediate experience. This effort places man in a position of radical wonder, which frequently questions existence. It is a position of attention and responsibility.

The distinction between the general language and the language of poetry is also a methodological distinction between the functional use of the language and its reflective use. Functional use refers to the verbal messages of the language and takes them for granted, whereas reflective use seeks to question language itself and undermine its authority; the functional approach focuses on the communicative capacities of words, while the reflective stance questions their paradigmatic power, the patterns and the conditionings they generate, and the way in which we are trapped in them. These questions deconstruct the transparent relationship of language with the world and offer a possible construction of novel sets of meanings. It is a critical, inspired act that offers an original opportunity to the artist who chooses it. It allows not only to formulate philosophical insights but also, and most importantly, to embark on a new undertaking in material and technique. Subverting the orders of language is relevant not only to the orders of the cultural, social and national language, but also to those of the professional, material, and technological language. Dafna Kaffeman uses language as charged raw material, following which she begins a material and technological attempt; Sivan Scheffner wanders from the technical action to the name of the action, giving it new material and technological content.

The Language of Material

Since her beginnings as a glass artist, Dafna Kaffeman has been seeking an expressive language for images from an organic world. She employs lampworking as her main technique, which allows her to give the traditional raw material a personal and intimate touch. She creates tiny glass organs, which she assembles and combines with other materials. Initially, she created an illusion of continuous and fuzzed surfaces by incorporating glass into soft materials such as silicone and foam (as in the series I Was Trained Hunting Wolves, 2004).1111 Dafna Kaffeman, ... In recent years she has converted the material sequence and the tactile illusion to a sequence and illusion of another kind. Since 2004, even before she became acquainted with the realistic lampworking of 19th-century glass artists Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, she has been producing with the burner glass “transcripts” from the Israeli botanical and entomological world.

Dafna Kaffeman , Homeland Plants,2019
glass made plants and insects, and reproduced treated paper, size 200-90 cm , courtesy of the Israel Museum , Jerusalem

Beginning with the Persian Cyclamen series (2006), Kaffeman has used a verbal archive as a material that has a central presence in her works.1212 Dafna Kaffeman, ... She places charged phrases from Israeli news under the delicate glass creatures and puts up series of assemblages. These enigmatic, allegorical scenes take place in an environment of soft materials (felt, paper, embroidered cloth napkins), which carry an internalized cultural baggage. The wildflowers and arthropod insects are sometimes associated with them symbolically or ironically and sometimes in a seemingly arbitrary manner. The assemblages formulate unexpected encounters between images and words, between mutually foreign materials (glass, fabric, thread, paper) and contradictory ones (hard and soft, shiny and opaque, fragile and flexible), between different techniques (lampworking, embroidery, writing, drawing) and between different types of objects (handkerchiefs, plants, and insects) that also have different volumes (two and three dimensional). The transcriptions, the objects (ready-made), the words and the concepts are always citations. Most of them rely on the prior cultural knowledge of the viewer (of the fields of flora and fauna, nationality and tradition), and others are based on news sources.

In contrast to Kaffeman, Sivan Scheffner looks for an expressive language for images derived from the ceramic work process. Already in her graduation project (Unconsciously Skilled, 2017) she identified the creative potential inherent in technical action per se. In the course of introspection into the elements of manual clay work, she sought to isolate the human gesture and freeze it in time. Since then, every time she detects a routine and transparent action in the work process, she stops, allowing the material to rest and stabilize. Then, with great effort, she empties the randomly created object, and molds it or replicates it by other means. Scheffner transforms the action – or more precisely the name of the action – into a series of objects that are processed and duplicated.

Sivan Scheffner, Second Nature, 2018. Stoneware. Different Sizes. Left piece in cm: H12, W20, L16

Like Kaffeman, Scheffner produces transcripts and sets them up as series. As with Kaffeman, the source – perceived as a natural, organic state – is preserved out of context. Much like the lampworking, which allows Kaffeman to be close enough to touch the glass, Scheffner’s intimate contact with the ceramic material is preserved, fixed in its transient, raw state. The relation between the passing, exclusive moment, and the name of the ordinary, determinative action causes Scheffner, as with Kaffeman, to assume a tense, ironic position between words and things. This irony is intensified by the great effort invested in creating and exceeding the transcript: the two artists invest a great deal of energy to produce an image that seeks to resemble the original but not to be identical to it. This is the space between the thing and the word, between the desire to use language and the desire to relinquish it.

Citation

“Sometimes you test the strength of the chain by its weakest link”.

Dafna Kaffeman1313 Kaffeman, ...

In the Persian Cyclamen series, Kaffeman used citations from the news reports about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and embroidered them on cloth napkins. In the Mantis religiose (2010) series, she asked reserve soldiers to embroider the citations. In the Red Everlasting (2008) series, she gave Norwegian embroiderers, women of a village on the Isle of Utsira, to embroider citations relating to the Second Lebanon War, in letters undecipherable to them.1414 The series was ... While the words allowed her to plant the works in a social and political space, the practice of citation posed a philosophical question as to the artificial face of language.

Dafna Kaffeman,” Sometimes you test the strength of a chain by its weakest link”, from the series Persian Cyclamen, 2006, Flame worked glass, photo by Erik Tschenow, embroidery on handkerchief, 37-37-4 cm
Courtesy of Lorch+seidel Contemporary, Berlin

Citation serves Kaffeman as a distancing effect: more than it points at a source, it empties it of any content. The words used in a particular context are repeatedly translated into a series of actions that take them out of context: the citation is taken from the speaker and the context of news and stored in the archive created by Kaffeman in the studio; it is selected from the archive and written on canvas in pencil; the drawing is embroidered with a thread by a foreign man or woman who does not understand the meaning of the text and even its signs; it is translated for an audience who do not speak Hebrew or Arabic (but a translation offered).

The distancing effect transforms the words cited from transparent to opaque material. Citation is not just a word and the word is not just content. The disconnection of the citation from the source enables one to ignore its meaning or to attribute an incorrect meaning to it. Kaffeman revives the distinctive material presence of language, restoring its power as an image, deconstructing the obvious connection between the world and the word. Delaying the translation allows the viewer to experience an undecipherable experience, and to deal with the unmediated impression. When the viewers find an explanation, they experience the agitated sense of surprise. The citation distances the testimony but at the same time allows it to be relived. The horror, which the words hide, is intensely revealed.

Sivan Scheffner, 1350 gr. (Medium dinner plate), detail, 2018. Stoneware. Installation size in cm: H14, W140, L15

Compared to Kaffeman, Scheffner cites names of mechanical actions from the ceramic workshop, such as throwing off the hump1515 A technique of ... and 1350 g. (medium dinner plate).1616 A common weight of ... These are common expressions, finely polished by time, words whose “content was eaten away and mental power dissipated or got hidden”, according to Bialik.1717 Bialik, ... Scheffner extracts concepts out of the banality of everyday life and isolates them. Her dwelling on the casual, obvious language is an opening for her to breach boundaries: it leads to a subversive, surprising act. Scheffner cites the ceramic field’s operating conventions in reverse: she places the marginal, technical detail at the center of the work rather than the functional purpose for which it is used. Thus, in the series “1350 g. (medium dinner plate)”, she showcases the clumps of clay (whose original weight was 1350 g) rather than plates; in the Puddles series, she collects puddles of excess casting material and obviates the casting itself; in Muddle, she dries used muddy material taken from the recycling bucket; in her work Testing Matter she uses simple glazing tests, casting them hundreds of times over in porcelain. Scheffner undermines the common linguistic hierarchy: she transforms professional citations from transparent language into living material in the world.

Kaffeman and Scheffner use citation as a central practice in their works. Citation, as an act based on the use of an external source, characterizes their linguistic, visual, thematical and technological body of materials. The titles of the works, the thematic materials and the visual imagery are always imported from another source. The source, or its image, is found in the spoken, social, political, cultural and professional language around them. It is taken from a paradigmatic order, from the prisonhouse of language, it is used by the artists as a basis or as an opportunity to transcend language, to question it reflectively, to reveal its presence, to propose an alternative order. Scheffner uses the transparent language as a starting point for complex action, giving it material content. Kaffeman dwells on the words that will pass and be forgotten and she immortalizes them. Resistance to the casual nature of language produces, for both artists, a dynamic of lingering and doubling. It manifests itself in the serial structures, the citation layers and the strenuous creation of transcription (replicas).

Transcript

“Deconstructing a plant to its components/deciphering the secret and unfolding it, a stuttering-like repetition, an attempt to decode something that cannot be decoded”.

Dafna Kaffeman1818 Dafna Kaffeman, ...

“I do a lot of work and then hide all of it. This is a Sisyphean work, to preserve the thing as it is”.

Sivan Scheffner1919 Quoted from an ...

Sivan Scheffner, Testing Matter, 2017. Porcelain, Installation Size in cm: H150, W55, L55

Both artists produce transcripts and offer them as basic units that enable a new regulation. They put material and technology at the forefront. Both put enormous effort into creating the transcript. Kaffeman chooses complex images of the Israeli fauna and flora. She is required to dissect them into their components and assemble their tiny limbs by lampworking. It is a painstaking, Sisyphean work that accompanies the handwork of drawing and embroidery. Scheffner, too, spends many hours working on the transcript. She identifies fleeting, latent moments in hand-working the clay, preserves them as images and embalms them with strenuous work. In order for her to fire them in their exact form, she empties them, taking care not to damage their integrity, hiding carefully the scar she creates. To maintain the image as it is, she makes unconventional technological connections between wheel work, emptying, molding and casting.

Dafna Kaffeman, Detail (wasp circle) from “The Rule of Law”, 2020, Flame worked glass, repreduced and treated text, photo by Elad Sarig, now showing at New Glass Now , Corning Musuem , NY Seeds of the Land , Israel Museum Ticho House , IL

Both artists produce transcripts that are very similar to the originals but also exceed them. Scheffner performs internal, hidden manipulations on the transcript, the traces of which she blurs; Kaffeman suggests that the key to understanding her work is the gap between the plant and its material copy, the point where she knows she will never be able to copy the complexity of the original as it is.2020 Dafna Kaffeman, ... The transcript does not attempt to be identical to the copied original and to define it, but to be its possibility. The conscious move for both artists seeks to be like the original but different from it; the effort invested in material and technology is aimed at making an image and not the thing itself. In this way, the transcript surpasses language and becomes a live, one-off event. The transcript is a metaphor, both in the conventional meaning as a lexical deviation, and in the sense that Rousseau and Nietzsche gave it: an initial, wondering impression that preceded the abstract word.

Metaphor

“she strives to expose the superficially obvious, to render the invisible perceptible, and without leveling accusations, to unmask the merely aesthetic.”

Clementine Schack von Wittenau2121 Clementine Schack ...

“I found out that there are many vanishing opportunities in the process – special, intimate moments between the creator and the material – which, the more you advance toward the outcome, they are erased. The viewer does not remember to see them. I saw beauty in them, and I realized how important they are in the artwork. They do not receive the honor they deserve. When I became aware of that, I started seeing it everywhere in the studio. I work on one thing, then I discover another thing. It fascinated me. I wanted to preserve it”.

Sivan Scheffner2222 Interview for the ...

With both Kaffeman and Scheffner, the transcript’s goal is not the source but the language that constitutes it. The transcript does not seek to repeat the original or to be like it, but rather seeks to shake the thing off its name and put the naming into question. The name, the word, the sentence, the scientific linguistic concept, the professional act – all are seen as part of a dormant web of meaning that needs to be agitated. The acts of distancing from the source – the citation, the translation, the technological effort, the link between the political and the entomological, the title that is incompatible with the series or the assemblage – all shake language from the casualness that clings to it, expose its materiality, seek to reconnect to the think itself: to the authentic, natural moment (Scheffner), to the living thing behind the trite words (Kaffeman).

The desire to “return to then things themselves” – to use the phenomenological phrase used by Edmund Husserl in 19012323 Edmund Husserl, ... – is the desire to recall the sense of experience. This initial experience, according to Rousseau and Nietzsche, lies in the metaphorical, pre-lingual stage. Rousseau argued that the origin of language is a metaphor, and that literal language is nothing but a pruning and rationalization of figurative thought.2424 E. F. Kittay, ... Nietzsche, too, claimed that language originally was based on metaphors created from primitive, sudden, intuitive impressions.2525 Gilman, Blair, ... According to him, each metaphor is individual and unique and evades any interpretation. Once humans stopped creating such metaphors and began using conventional metaphors, the abstract structure of language was erected. This structure exhibits rigid regularity and an air of cold sternness, like mathematics.2626 Ibid. By this approach, the literal, conceptual language, which describes everything equally, constitutes man in self-alienation. Returning and reopening the place in language means shedding literal language.

Dafna Kaffeman, Red Everlasting, from the series Red Everlasting, Flame worked glass, photo by Erik Tschenow, embroidery on handkerchief, 50-50-4 cm
Courtesy of Lorch+seidel Contemporary, Berlin

Nietzsche regarded the motive for the creation of metaphors as the most basic and authentic desire, the undoing of which means the obliteration of man himself.2727 Ibid. p. 254. This desire is constantly confusing the categories and concepts. It exposes the wish to shape the existing world as a multifaceted, irregular, non-coherent, exciting and new like the dream world, and is therefore mainly present in mythology and art. Moreover, in Heidegger’s thinking, the language of poetry is seen as an authentic act that allows one to reveal Being.2828 Heidegger, ibid., ... The essence of man, according to Heidegger, is the ability to exceed himself to serve as a place for the revealing Being. To enable the world to be revealed to man, one must transcend language.

The transcript, as an essential object of Kaffeman’s and Scheffner’s works, is always a metaphor: it enables the artists to go through and go past language, to overstep it and subvert it, to deconstruct it and restore it to the primordial impression. The transcript brings together the familiar and regulated with the individual and one-off material expression. That is the reason for its being exciting. It allows the viewer to linger, to perceive language as material, to encounter the first impressions from which it emerged.

Sivan Scheffner, One Bull’s Herd, detail, 2017. Installation Size in cm: H80, W400, L30.

Compared to the indifference induced by ordinary speech, the deviation from the language is surprising and astonishing. The metaphorical act allows contact with what is not regulated. It seeks to expose the dynamic dimension of being, the occurrence, the event before it becomes definable. This goal carries great responsibility. It requires the artists to give up certainty, and to adopt instead a position of attentiveness and responsiveness.

“Who knows, perhaps it is appropriate for man, that he inherit the shell of the word without its content, so that he would fill it, or add to it, every time some of his power and shines in it the light of his soul”.2929 Bialik, ...

Dafna Kaffeman and Sivan Scheffner identify language as an isolated raw material that underlies the world order of man. They seek to evoke the regulatory material and at the same time challenge its presence. It is an ethical and aesthetic position. It questions the cultural regulation derived from the linguistic regulation, and it seeks to provide an opportunity for what has been buried with the dead language.

 

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1. Hayim Nachman Bialik, “Revealment and Concealment in Language”, Divrey Sifrut, Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1954, p. 24 (Hebrew).
2. [1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages, trans. John T. Scott, Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College, 1998; S. L. Gilman, C. Blair and D. J. Parent (eds.), “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense”, in Friedrich Nietzsche on Rhetoric and Language, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
3. Gilman, Blair, Parent, ibid., pp. 246-257.
4. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962, pp. 203-210.
5. A similar approach was expressed already in the 4th century BC by the Taoist philosopher Lao Tse, who defined language as the “concealing block”. This approach later permeated Zen Buddhism. See: Fung Yu-Lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, New York: Macmillan, 1948, pp. 94-97.
6. Bialik, “Revealment and Concealment in Language”, p. 26.
7. Ibid.
8. Heidegger, ibid., pp. 203-210.
9. Ibid.
10. Bialik, “Revealment and Concealment in Language”, pp. 30-31.
11. Dafna Kaffeman, “I Was trained Hunting Wolves”, Solo Exhibition, Heller Gallery, New York, USA, 2004.
12. Dafna Kaffeman, “Persian Cyclamen”, Solo Exhibition, lorch+seidel contemporary, Berlin, Germany, 2006.
13. Kaffeman, “Persian Cyclamen”, ibid.
14. The series was created as part of the Bakatze (On the Edge) project – exhibitions of six international artists held in the Norwegian city of Stavanger, as part of the European Cultural Capital events in 2008. Originally, the series comprised ten assemblages with a political-social message that were displayed at the lighthouse on Utsira Island in the North Sea.
15. A technique of creating serial vessels on the wheel.
16. A common weight of the material for making a plate on the wheel.
17. Bialik, “Revealment and Concealment in Language”, p. 25.
18. Dafna Kaffeman, “Sketch”. In Mantis religiose, lorch + seidel Gallery, Exhibition Catalog, 2010, p. 51.
19. Quoted from an interview I had with Sivan Scheffner as part of my research for this paper, Tel Aviv, 19.11.2018.
20. Dafna Kaffeman, Mantis religiose, lorch + seidel Gallery, Exhibition Catalog, 2010, pp. 56-58.
21. Clementine Schack von Wittenau, “Under the Sign of the Praying Mantis”, in: Dafna Kaffeman, Mantis religiose, lorch + seidel Gallery, Exhibition Catalog, 2010, p. 11.
22. Interview for the paper, Tel Aviv, 19.11.2018.
23. Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, Dermot Moran (ed.), 2nd Ed. 2 vols. London: Routledge, 2001, p. 168.
24. E. F. Kittay, Metaphor: Its Cognitive Force and Linguistic Structure, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987, pp. 4-6.
25. Gilman, Blair, Parent, ibid., pp. 246-248.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid. p. 254.
28. Heidegger, ibid., pp. 203-210.
29. Bialik, “Revealment and Concealment in Language”, pp. 25-26.

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