A day at the archives… Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir

Ylenia Olibet, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

15 November 2019


Sitting in one of the biggest writing rooms of Concordia University’s library in Montreal, where I spend most of my days doing research as a doctoral student — a Proustian trick of memory takes me back to the two months I spent in Paris this past spring. In a state of scholarly reverie, I think back, reflecting and re-elaborating on the archival research conducted in May and June at the Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir (CASdB).

The CASdB is a feminist audio-visual archive, located in a small apartment of the elegant 28 Place Saint-Georges in Paris, right at the foot of Montmartre. 19th century buildings circle the quaint place, with a fountain laying at its centre. All of this, and the Theatre St-Georges, where Truffaut shot some of the sequences of Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro, 1980), constitute the Parisian urban background in which the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir currently finds itself. However, with the bobo[i] atmosphere of the square, the role and meaning of the feminist archive is ironically enhanced, as its vault of subversive material is tucked away in a historic building within a trending hotbed of Paris. The existence of this archive is known mostly to the people who work there and or to feminist locals and tourists, queering Place St. Georges by means of the center’s mission to challenge a canonical and dominant history, bringing forth a counter-history of the feminist struggle, encased by this archive. The collection of feminist and LGBTQ militant videos preserved at the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir plays a crucial role in documenting and sustaining the cultural memory of the women’s movement and of feminist struggles, thus helping to institutionalize and integrate feminist historiography in France.

Figure 1: 28, Place St George, Paris. The Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir is located on the fourth floor of the mansion that was the residence of the famous French courtesan La Paiva in the XIX century.

The origins of the center are a part of the same media history as that of the 1970s, which saw women and feminist militants able to take on video technology in order to document the activities of the feminist movement and to create experimental work. This largely became possible given the flexibility of the new filmic medium. Instead of the heavier, outdated film equipment, the ease of video-taping allowed for these projects to emerge despite the lack of solid infrastructure available throughout the transition from film to video in the industry, especially for women (Jeanjean 2011). In 1982, Carole Roussopoulos, Delphine Seyrig, and Ioana Wieder, founders of the video collective Les Muses s’amusent in 1974, spawned the CASdB in collaboration with and thanks to the support of both grassroot feminist collectives as well as institutionalized feminist groups. The mission of the Centre was to archive, and support the production and dissemination of feminist and queer militant films and videos. In practice, since 1982, the centre has been active in promoting feminist works, as well as devising and instituting a distribution infrastructure built to circulate such work.[ii] Moreover, the center’s distribution and exhibition practices, which take place mainly through community-based screenings, expands the archival function of the CASdB beyond one solely of preservation. Similarly, CASdB organizes educational activities in schools and prisons, using the resources of its catalogue to inform of the necessity to deconstruct gender stereotypes in media. Finally, today, the center has established a partnership with Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the official French state archive, to digitize the videos of its collection. Through these operations of “remediation” and “recontextualization,” which Brunow finds characterizing contemporary archival practices across several European film archives (2017:98), CASdB creates a collective audiovisual memory, a testament to the feminist cultural and political militant experiences from the late 1960s onward.

The main collection of the archive is made up of feminist and LGBTQ videos made in France, including Sois belle et tais-toi ! (Delphine Seyrig, 1976) and more recent No Gravity (Silvia Casalino, 2011). The archive also stores books, distribution catalogues, programs of feminist film festivals and cultural events, journals on feminist film theory, like the Sorcieres and Les Cahiers du GRIF, film paratexts (such as posters and catalogues featuring said films), as well as dossiers on feminist filmmakers. Furthermore, the CASdB houses a special “metatextual” collection of documents that together reassemble the origin story and overall history of the center. This variety of collections, thus, provides a reservoir of primary sources that not only allow for historiographic research on the women’s movement in France, but also, more importantly, helps retrace the very establishment of feminist film culture. The audiovisual texts, indexed in their digital database, remain the primary focus of the centre, with digitization fast becoming the CASdB’s leading task. Through its collection of militant videos, contemporary documentaries and experimental videos, the centre plays a crucial role in substantiating the legacy of women’s and queer cinema. Archival research at the CASdB enables one to get to know the formal strategies involved in video-making within militant feminist media production as well as the ability to retrace the work of women in the film and video industry at large.

Seeing as my doctoral research tackles the genealogy of transnational feminist film culture, when conducting my field work at the CASdB, I was particularly interested in looking for the paper trail of exchanges, collaborations, and correspondences between different locally-situated feminist groups and artists that were active in fostering the engagement of women with media technologies and providing platforms for the circulation and exhibition of women’s films and videos. Thus, I divided my archival research between looking through boxes of feminist journals and film paratexts as well as watching videos catalogued in the database of the Centre. The militant practices documented and archived at the CASdB bring to light the complexity and the variety of experiences that characterize the women’s movement and practices around feminist film- and video-making.

The documentary videos I encountered demonstrate the establishment of feminist circuits of solidarity — both at the level of grassroots politics and of theoretical conversations, since the 1960s. For example, the documentary Manifestation à Hendaye-5 octobre (Anne-Marie Faure-Fraisse & Isabelle Fraisse, 1975) exposes the experience of a march organized by French feminists to support Spanish women protesting the Francoist dictatorship. The film lingers on the moments of discussions among the participants after the march, who reflect and make explicit the links between the feminist movements and antifascist struggles. On the other hand, footage from American Feminism (Beauvoir et les Québecoises) (Luce Guilbeault, year unknown) and Flo Kennedy, portrait d’une féministe americaine (Carole Roussoupoulos and Ioana Wider, 1982), captures the commitment of militants from various contexts to create feminist theory through conversations with other feminists from different contexts, foregrounding what Adrienne Rich would call “politics of location” (1989), instead of a universal feminist discourse.

During my residency at the Centre, I was given a desk and access to a hard disk that stores most of the digitized videos of the catalogue. As I was watching videos at the computer or browsing amidst the boxes containing posters, brochures, and catalogues — I was sharing the work space with Anna, the person in charge of distribution, Annette, the accountant, and the interns, Aliénor and Peggy. Nicole, the director of the center, would sometimes join us, too, if she was not giving educational workshops on gender stereotypes or travelling the film festival circuit. My conversations and exchanges with these archivists and administrators about feminism, film, theatre, and feminist queer spaces around Paris became as important as the archival objects and audiovisual texts that I was studying. In this respect, conducting research at a small archive like the CASdB allows for the researcher to work tête-à-tête with varying feminist media practitionners. In this way, it becomes clear that the archive is not monolithic, static, nor neutral, but an active assemblage — performatively brought about by the work of people (Ghani). Especially if considering the case of a feminist (counter-)archive, the collaborative methods of working as well as horizontal decision-making across the collective at the CASdB points at the affective labour involved and required in the functionality and maintenance of the archive. Immersing into archival research at CASdB gave me access to substantial historiographical media, but also functioned as a training session for developing feminist methodologies of labour, research, and collaborations.

Link to Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir website: http://www.centre-simone-de-beauvoir.com


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Nicole Fernandez Ferrer, Anna Dzhangiryan, Annette Gourdon, Aliénor Grancher, and Peggy Préau for all their assistance and lovely conversations! Thanks in particular to Nicole and Anna for re-reading the piece.


[i] In the young and colloquial register of French, this term designates the French Parisians “hipsters”. The term is a portmanteau of the words bourgeois and bohemian.

[ii] A very accurate reconstruction of the history of the centre was written by Joelle Bolloch. Her Historique du centre, from which factual information in this paragraph is drawn on, is available online at: http://www.centre-simone-de-beauvoir.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/HistoriqueCASdB-Mai2017.pdf .


References:

Brunow, Dagmar. 2017. “Curating Access to Audiovisual Heritage: Cultural Memory and Diversity in European Film Archives.” Image & Narrative 18 (1): 97-110.

Ghani, Miriam. 2015. “What We Left Unfinished. The Artist and the Archive” in Dissonant Archives. Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East, ed. Anthony Downey. London: British Academic Press. 78-120.

Jeanjean, Stephanie. 2011. “Disobedient Video in France in the 1970s: Video production by women’s collectives”. Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 27: 5-16.

Rich, Adrienne. 1989. “Notes toward a Politics of Location” in Blood, Bread, and Poetry. New York: Norton. 210-231.


Ylenia Olibet is a PhD candidate at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. Her doctoral dissertation focuses on contemporary feminist film culture in Quebec from a transnational perspective, under the supervision of Professor Rosanna Maule. Her research is funded by the Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Societé et Culture. She is the co-editor in chief of Synoptique – An Online Journal of Film and Moving Images Studies. She is also affiliated to the Global Emergent Media Lab where she currently curates the Works-In-Progress workshops series.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Producing a binaural radio play for telling the history of 3D sound recording

Stefan Krebs, Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH)

29 October 2019


The following paper was presented in the session “Best practices in alternative (academic) publishing on media history” at the 2019 IAMHIST symposium in Dudelange.

In 1973, binaural stereo was introduced to the German public at the International Broadcasting Fair in Berlin. Based on the invention of artificial head microphones (also called dummy head or Kunstkopf microphones), binaural stereo provided facsimile sound recordings that enabled listeners, when listening with headphones, to experience the spatial acoustics of the original recording situation. During the fair, Berlin-based radio station RIAS broadcast the first binaural radio play, “Demolition”. Radio listeners and journalists praised this first binaural radio drama for its “super stereo” quality and the highest fidelity ever heard. Despite this remarkable response, German broadcasting stations were reluctant to adopt binaural stereo, and most sound engineers refused to use Kunstkopf microphones. They alluded to certain technical shortcomings of binaural stereo in general, and to the issue of available microphone models in particular. However, the rejection of binaural stereophony by the radio industry was in fact based on contemporary listening and recording practices rather than on the actual technical shortcomings of binaural stereo.

This, in brief, is the story told in the radio play “Splendour and misery of Kunstkopf stereo [in German: Glanz und Elend der Kunstkopf-Stereophonie]”, which I want to present today as an alternative approach to historical storytelling. The production of the radio play was part of a broader research project, funded by the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR), on the failure of binaural stereo. The project combined ideas from the history of science, media and technology with models of path dependency from innovation studies.

Before I tell you more about the radio play, let me first explain what binaural stereo is. “Binaural” simply means “with both ears”. The term emphasises that our “normal” auditory experience is shaped by the fact that we listen with two ears. Human spatial hearing largely depends on binaural listening, since our perception of the direction and distance of a sound source is shaped by tiny differences in time and intensity between the two ear signals. Binaural stereo, or 3D sound reproduction, means that a sound is recorded, transmitted and reproduced in such a way as to deliver the same auditory signals to listeners’ ears as they would have received in the original recording situation, giving them the impression of being present during the actual recording.

Binaural sound reproduction can (only) be achieved through Kunstkopf recordings and headphone reproduction. A Kunstkopf is a manikin with microphones in his ears. I say “his”, because all commercially available artificial heads are designed with the physical properties of an average male head. Artificial heads for sound recording have been well known since the 1930s, and the term “Kunstkopf” was coined by researchers at the Philips Laboratory in Eindhoven in 1939. In around 1931, researchers at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, constructed the first artificial head microphone. They used a manikin’s head and mounted microphones on the cheeks, roughly where the ears would have been. Capturing sounds with this type of microphone and reproducing them with head receivers provided what they called “true auditory perspective”. In 1934, Bell engineers J. C. Steinberg and W. B. Snow defined “true auditory perspective” as sound reproduction “which preserves the spatial relationship of the original sounds”. During the winter of 1931-32, Bell engineers Karl Hammer and W. B. Snow developed a full binaural system. It consisted of an artificial head, nicknamed Oscar, a set of amplifiers and equalisers, and 32 pairs of head receivers, which “ideally” reproduced “in a distant listener’s ears […] exact copies of the sound vibrations that would exist in his ears if he were listening directly.” Philips engineers developed another Kunstkopf in the late 1930s, but all early Kunstkopf systems suffered from the still immature state of microphone technology, for example the fact that microphones were too large to actually mount inside the ear so they were instead placed on the cheeks.

It was only in the 1960s that various research groups in Germany started to build new artificial heads. At the outset they had different research agendas and experimental set-ups: for researchers at the Heinrich Hertz Institute in Berlin and the Institute for Technical Acoustics at the Technical University of Berlin, the Kunstkopf was a technical means to investigate room acoustics, while scientists at the Third Institute of Physics at the University of Göttingen used a Kunstkopf to study human spatial hearing and engineers at the Institute for Electrical Communications Engineering at RWTH Aachen University deployed their binaural system to investigate binaural hearing aids. Artificial heads captured sounds for subjective listening tests but were also used for electro-acoustic measurements. Researchers conducted localisation experiments with music, speech, noises and pure tones, measured ear signals and impulse responses, and computed auto- and cross-correlations of ear signals and head-related transfer functions.

Different experimental versions of the Berlin Kunstkopf from Plenge, Wilkens and Kürer, 1976 (Courtesy of Ralf Kürer)

In around 1967, Georg Plenge, Henning Wilkens and Ralf Kürer from the Heinrich Hertz Institute in Berlin started to build their Kunstkopf model for acoustic research, but during their experiments they realised that binaural technology had the potential to fulfil the old high-fidelity quest of bringing the concert hall into the living room, or, as they put it, of transferring the domestic listener into the concert hall. They collaborated with the well-known microphone manufacturer Neumann and in 1973 they presented the Kunstkopf KU80, which was also used for the recording of the first binaural radio play mentioned above.

During the research project “Failure and Success of Dummy Head Recording: An Innovation History of 3D Listening”, based largely on traditional archival research and some oral history interviews, Andreas Fickers and I discussed the idea of conducting a small media archaeological experiment using old Kunstkopf technology. “Experimental media archaeology” extends the traditional discursive approach to media archaeology with hands-on experiments. Inspired by John Ellis’ ADAPT project, we also thought about reuniting historical actors with historical technology. Unfortunately, we were unable to reassemble the production crew of the first binaural radio play. So we decided instead to turn ourselves into the experimenters and to produce a binaural radio play on the history of binaural recording. During my research in the historical archive of Bavarian Broadcasting Munich, I met one of the radio editors, Werner Bleisteiner, with a special interest in Kunstkopf history. I told him about our idea for a historical re-enactment and he invited us to record it in one of the large radio play studios using old equipment from Bavarian Broadcasting.

The radio play was accompanied by a slideshow with historical images and photos from the production process that also provided English subtitles (Courtesy of Andy O’Dwyer)

The three-day recording session took place in Studio 9 of Bavarian Broadcasting in November 2016. I had written the script, Andreas agreed to speak – or rather to play one of the two main characters –, and the second protagonist was played by a professional stage actor, Stephan Wurfbaum. A former sound engineer who had made the first binaural recordings in Munich in the 1970s, together with the retired chief engineer of Neumann who developed the second Kunstkopf model in around 1980, agreed to assist us as historical and technical advisers. Werner Bleisteiner was the producer and a young sound engineer, Christian Schimmöller, was responsible for the recording and technical editing.

The storyline of the radio play “Splendour and misery of Kunstkopf stereo” is very simple. A journalist meets a media archaeologist to discuss the failure of Kunstkopf stereo in the 1970s. They meet in a recording studio where they investigate an old Kunstkopf – which we actually used for the recording. The radio play explains why 3D sound reproduction failed to revolutionise radio listening in the 1970s and, at the same time, lets listeners intuitively experience the fascinating effect of 3D sound reproduction.

The radio play was first broadcast by Luxembourgish public radio station “radio 100,7” on 11 June 2017, and we also presented it at several events for academic and non-academic audiences, including the Forum Z on “The future of storytelling in history”.

Participants at the IAMHIST symposium listening to the binaural radio play (Courtesy of Andy O’Dwyer)

I will close with some remarks on producing a radio play as a new approach to historical storytelling. First, the radio play tells a fictional story that is based on traditional historical research. It combines a very basic explanation of Kunstkopf technology with the historical narration of Kunstkopf stereo in the 1970s and interpretations of its failure to revolutionise radio listening.

Second, media history is also a history of the senses. Listeners’ subjective experience, past and present, is difficult to describe and evoke by means of a written account. Telling sound history through sound, by drawing on the “sonic immediacy” of listening to (reproduced) sound, can help generate new historical knowledge about past media practices.

Third, the advantage of a radio play is that, in using binaural technology, we can tell the history of 3D sound recording through a 3D radio play. The radio play enables listeners to experience the immersive quality of 3D sound reproduction for themselves. The binaural sound also draws listeners deeper into the storytelling and helps to evoke the historical fascination with the technology.

We do not claim that the radio play offers listeners an authentic historical listening experience, but we hope that re-enacting the experience of listening to binaural sound reproduction as in the 1970s can help to inspire their historical imagination.

You can listen to the radio play on the C2DH website, where you will also find a slideshow with English subtitles here. Please do not forget to use headphones!


Bibliography:

Krebs, S. (2019). Zwischen neuem „Hör-Gefühl“ und „Psychoterror“: Ost- und westdeutsche Diskurse zur Nutzung der Kunstkopf-Stereophonie im Hörspiel. In M. Hessler (ed.). Technikemotionen. Ferdinand Schöningh (forthcoming).

Krebs, S. (2017). The Failure of Binaural Stereo: German Sound Engineers and the Introduction of Artificial Head Microphones. ICON. Journal of the International Committee for the History of Technology 23, 113–143.

Krebs, S. (2017). „Glanz und Elend der Kunstkopf-Stereophonie“. Eine technik- und medienarchäologische Ausgrabung. In Fickers, A., Haude, R., Krebs, S. & Tschacher, W. (eds.). Jeux sans Frontières? Grenzgänge der Geschichtswissenschaft (p. 57–69). Bielefeld: transcript.


Stefan Krebs is Assistant Professor for Contemporary History at the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH). He studied history, political science and philosophy at the universities Aachen and Aix-en-Provence. He received his PhD in the history of technology from RWTH Aachen University. As postdoc, Stefan Krebs worked in projects on the cultural history of car sound design (Eindhoven University of Technology); listening practices of engineers, scientists and physicians (Maastricht University); and the innovation history of Kunstkopf stereophony (University of Luxembourg).


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Report: IAMHIST Master Class, January 2018, National WWII Museum, New Orleans

Richard Legay, C²DH, University of Luxembourg

15 October 2019


I had the chance – and pleasure – to take part in the IAMHIST Master Class, organized in New Orleans in January 2018, which was a fantastic way to start the year for a PhD student. I am working on the history of commercial radio stations and the experience of the event was, in my opinion, very fruitful. For me, a few elements explain this success: the way IAMHIST organised the Master Class, the benefits of having the National WWII Museum as a host, and the incredible chance of being able to spend some time in New Orleans. The whole trip, as a Public History lecturer at the time, took another dimension through the multiple experiences of Louisiana’s history and culture.

Streets of New Orleans

The Master Class is an event truly dedicated to young scholars who have the opportunity throughout the day to present and get feedback on their research. The main benefit, in my opinion, is that IAMHIST senior members who take part in the event have a wide range of interests and backgrounds. The heterogeneity of the group, with people coming from various countries and disciplines (archives, film studies, press history, etc.), is one of the most interesting features of the network. I see myself as a specialist of radio history, and I was thrilled to discuss with a colleague sharing my interest (the history of the BBC German Service), however getting feedback from scholars working in other neighbouring disciplines was very enriching. I consider it as a perfect way to broaden horizons and to confront your research material to new perspectives and ways to look at it.

My presentation focused on the early stages of my work. I introduced the audience to the actors I am focusing on: commercial radio stations, more precisely Radio Luxembourg (both the English and French services) and Europe n°1. Working on the ‘longer Sixties’, I am interested in the relationship between these stations and popular culture in a transnational context (France, Britain and Luxembourg mostly). At the time of the Master Class, I was still planning to have a wide range of research axes, however, I have now centred my research on the hypothesis that these commercial radio stations shaped a transnational imagined community of listeners. Furthermore, they did so through the development of a soundscape specific to them, and a transmedial radio culture, in which the stations’ own radio magazines (Salut les Copains and Fabulous 208 for example) played a key role by enriching the listening experience with textual and visual elements.

I learned a lot from the comments received, as they were very constructive. One example of how fruitful the Master Class was for me is a comment made on my use of ‘transnationalism’. It was pointed out to me that it might not be adequate to rely on that concept, as it does not really apply to my work – something I fundamentally disagree with. Even if I did not change my mind, I realise now the importance for me to explain and justify the use of such a term. I conduct my research at the C²DH and alongside two doctoral research groups (Docteuropa & PopKult60), in which my colleagues and I embrace transnationalism as a core concept due to the nature of our research. This might lead, as the Master Class revealed, to skip, sometimes, further explanation and definition of the conceptual tool. There will be, for my thesis, some work needed to present and justify my use of transnationalism in my research. I think this anecdote reveals one of the core features of the Master Class: the possibility to get out of some sort of ‘comfort zone’ by meeting new scholars who will bring new inputs and challenge some aspects of your work. Overall, the environment of the Master Class is very welcoming and supportive, something young researchers like myself can really appreciate. I will encourage, in the future, other early career scholars to attend the next editions of the Master Class if they can.

Another benefit of this Master Class was having the National World War II Museum, one of the biggest historical institutions of New Orleans, as a host. The museum really stands out by its size and its number of annual visitors. The galleries display an impressive number of artefacts and cover many aspects of the conflict. Even if one does not necessarily engage with the main narrative of the museum, it is rather interesting to notice the evolution of the exhibitions. Mostly focused on interviews of veterans at first, they now integrate difficult questions. Segregation and racism in the army for example, but also the role of women during the conflict and the existence of internment camps for American citizens of Japanese origins. The Public History enthusiast in me considered the visit to the museum to be a very rich experience. The museum seems to try to engage the audience in various forms, through the use of ‘dog tags’, little electronic tokens that tell you stories about a specific person of your choice throughout the conflict, or through an unusual 4D movie/documentary, starring Tom Hanks, that left me (and other IAMHIST members) rather puzzled. I did not necessarily approve of all choices made by the museum, but I cannot say I was not impressed by its displays. I truly think the museum staff came up with some very powerful ideas and they know how to engage with their visitors. I will certainly remember the experience for a long time, and have already used it in some lectures on Public History.

View from inside the museum

View from outside the museum

Spending a few days in New Orleans and discovering its charms was truly the cherry on the cake. It is likely that the benefits I mentioned above are true for every edition of the IAMHIST Master Class, but I think it will be hard to beat New Orleans in terms of location for the event. Not only the food is fantastic and the music omnipresent, the city is filled with history and its lieux de mémoire are numerous. Many colourful houses reflect the very complex architectural blend of the area, while the French influence is still strong in many aspects of the local culture, but something in particular marked me the most. My hotel was located on Lee Circle, where there used to be a statue commemorating the Confederate general. The City Hall took down the statue recently as part of a wider movement in the USA that triggered heavy discussions in the public sphere as well as interesting debates in Public History. I have been curious about these commemorative issues for a long time, and here I was, facing an empty pedestal, subject of so many controversies, right outside my hotel! I could not believe the odds of staying there.

View from inside the museum, with Lee circle and its empty pillar in the background

I think it is rather clear I enjoyed my experience of the IAMHIST Master Class, and, once again, I highly recommend it to anyone who is considering applying for the next editions. It helped me shape my research, but it was also enriching in other aspects, both socially and culturally.


Richard Legay is a PhD candidate who joined the C²DH in November 2016. He is conducting research on the Transnational History of Popular Culture and Commercial Radio Stations in Western Europe in the 60s, with a focus on Europe n°1 and Radio-Luxembourg in France, the United Kingdom and Germany.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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