A couple months ago we visited Harvard University participating in the Annual Meeting of the Comparative Literature Association. On this occasion we also met Daisy Nam, the Assistant Director of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts (CCVA). Excited to stock some of the last remaining copies of intercalations 01 & 02 in the “Consumer Research Center,” the new bookstore she had just recently initiated, Daisy asked to record a conversation with us. In the two hours sitting around a table designed by Martin Beck, Etienne managed to sell the better part of our little stack of books to incoming, well, customers.
I am posting the beginning of the transcribed and edited interview here. To read the whole conversation, please follow this link to the CCVA’s page.
DN How did you get started with intercalations?
AS We were at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) as part of a workshop the SYNAPSE International Curators’ Network organizes every two years. In 2013, the topic was the Anthropocene. There were eleven international curators taking part; everyone involved was very interdisciplinary and had quite versatile practices. During the workshop, Etienne and I both gave presentations about our respective publishing practices. At the end of the workshop, we both were approached by the HKW to propose a concept for a publication series.
ET When initially thinking about the series, we didn’t want to have all six books directly address the Anthropocene; it’s not so interesting to repeat this theme so many times. We were also trying to think about knowledge infrastructure andhow certain visual economies that exist in the Anthropocene can be re-narrated in terms of the archive, of futurity, and of agency.
DN How did you arrive at the book-as-exhibition format? Were there other exhibitions on the Anthropocene that you found unsatisfying?
AS Well, maybe not exactly in the way that you’re asking. When we were working at the HKW, the The Whole Earth exhibition was on; the show articulated a certain legacy of the Whole Earth Catalog as a kind of book laid out in a space. K. Verlag works from the opposite direction, maybe; we try to use the architecture of the book as a space of exhibition. It just so happened that the host institution had a major exhibition on that triggered similar questions. It was fortunate and serendipitous, which allowed for the concept of book-as-exhibition to become legible and present in a much stronger way than the two of us would have triggered by ourselves in the workshop.
ET And K. was already working on this idea, the book-as-exhibition.
AS Yes, from the beginning the premise of the press has been to interrogate the polymorphic relationships between artistic, curatorial, and editorial agencies—starting from the question what an exhibition catalogue does or doesn’t have to be, Charles Stankievech and I have both we have been exploring the book-as-exhibition concept for a while now.
…continue reading here
& thank you to Daisy!
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I am pleased to announce a new collaboration between Etienne and myself going online tomorrow, 1 February.
Sara Giannini’s Unfold: The Volume Project is an experimental online library of “folders,” for which Sara has commissioned a series of colleagues as content organizers and reorganizers. Very much inspired by intercalations 1: Fantasies of the Library, Unfold is the second part of Sara’s previous project, VOLUME, she curated in 2013 at the Beirut art space 98weeks.
Our intervention is titled “The Lesson of Zoology: A Physis is being organized…” It follows Sara’s own collection presented as “Unfold #1″ where she departed from an intensive reading of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcade Project. The other guest curators of later instantiations are, in order of appearance, CAMP (Mumbai); Kris Dittel in collaboration with Onomatopee (Eindhoven); Alessandro Ludovico (Bari); and Lara Khaldi & Yazan Khalili (Ramallah).
We are very happy that, for our collection, we could host Rich Pell and Lauren Allen from Pittsburgh’s Center for PostNatural History as collaborating contributors. Among many other elements, each of our 9 folders contains one publication from the CPNH’s archive that has never been presented publicly.
Below is a short interview Sara did with us about the Lesson. You can read the introduction to our project, which we co-wrote with Walter Benjamin himself, here.
The Literal Intimacies of Zoology: Reading Through the Folders of Colonial-Science
Sara Giannini in conversation with Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin
Sara Giannini First of all, I would like to thank you for being a part of Unfold. I am thrilled to delve into your selection for Unfold#2. It is both exciting and intimidating because all the materials I have organized for the project will be so closely read and appropriated by your intervention.
Since the launch of Unfold in September 2015, I have been going back to the problem of legibility and its ties to collecting. Etymologically, reading and collecting [“legere”/”colligere”] stem from intimately gathering together. I think that the practice of reading is the essential comportment of the project on several different levels: from Benjamin’s citing labour in The Arcades Project to my re-reading of it through the artistic contributions which repurpose projects for the specific space of the folder, and from the further readings which I commissioned, to those enlivened by the reader/viewer/user.
With these remarks in mind, I wonder how you read Unfold#1?
Anna-Sophie Springer & Etienne Turpin We read as we would in any other space, whether physical or digital, which is to say, promiscuously. If Walter Benjamin saw himself as a rag-picker in the history of the catastrophe called capitalism, we are, similarly, just scavenging through the ruined debris of the ivory tower, which is not without certain charms for the collector. Unfold presents a form that aligns with our style of inquiry, and we were excited to present a collection that can unfold for your readers as they work through The Lesson of Zoology.
Image: Stereoscopic image of taxidermy collection overlaid into a 3D image. Courtesy of the Center for PostNatural History, Pittsburgh.
SG While doing research for Unfold I was very inspired by your intercalations: a paginated exhibition series co-published by K. Verlag with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. In your own words, the series is conceived as a curatorial-editorial device “enabling explorations of the book as a form of exhibition architecture,” where the concept of “intercalation” reflects the importance of juxtaposition to reconfigure boundaries and categories. Clearly there are many resonances with the way I envisioned the structure of Unfold, as both an archival and publishing space based on “counter-point” formations of different contents, through the folder-form. How would you describe these parallels? How do you relate the ideas behind the series to the proposition you have made through Unfold?
AS & ET The intercalations series is a modest attempt to articulate exhibitions through the form of the book. In the first volume, Fantasies of the Library, we tried to show how the library is not merely an assumed repository of given knowledge, but that it is itself a construction for knowledge transmission that has any number of promiscuities and alliances with its outside. Libraries are never a given; like concepts, they must be made. So, our question was: how, in the Anthropocene, can the library be re-made from its history as a space for assembling other types and styles of knowledge? This seems quite close to the Unfold project, although in our previous books, we were very committed to the form of the book because the codex is not an exhausted format, even after several millennia. In Unfold, you wanted us to think through the form of the folder. The digital folder, the hyperlink, the drop-down menu, these are structures which not only shape our knowledge by modulating accessibility, but which change possibilities for replication and derivation. This is different than the modulation of the codex as a paginated mode of revelation. But, of course, the relationship to Unfold is that by exploring, tinkering with, and excerpting in a bibliomanic ecstasy, we can reveal how the structures of these media affect the nature of our thinking and our affinities with certain knowledge relays.
Image: Taking mouse measurements. Photograph from The Mouse Newsletter. Courtesy of the Center for PostNatural History, Pittsburgh.
SG Unfold is primarily concerned with modes of sharing and thinking across disciplines and “habitats,” responding to the reformulation of modern institutions of knowledge such as the library or the encyclopedia. Your current research and curatorial interest in natural history and scientific knowledge within colonial apparatuses has informed your selection for Unfold#2, which deals with the modern taxonomy of knowledge and bodies. How would you describe this aspect of your work?
AS & ET All of our work deals with taxonomy because knowledge requires, by definition, organization. Whether that organization is emancipatory or colonial has been a matter for the librarians of Empire to decide through the order of their stacks and the structure of their folders. What is a file? It is an index of the structure of knowledge in a given order. So, what can we unfold from the files of zoology? The Lesson of Zoology is a lesson in the ordering of nature toward the end that we now inhabit, called the Anthropocene. Total chaos and total control, simultaneously. Does the scientific will to knowledge afford us any vestige of emancipation? This is a question worthy of intense inquiry, as we cannot simply dismiss this history as colonial, because it constitutes our present; at the same time, we cannot accept this colonial inheritance without an anxious trepidation given the violence it has enacted and enabled. So we must work through it, that is, we must unfold it to find what we can use.
Image: Stereoscopic image of a botanic garden greenhouse overlaid into a 3D image. Courtesy of the Center for PostNatural History, Pittsburgh.
SG Your curatorial text for Unfold#2 is entitled The Lesson of Zoology: A Physis is being organized … I am interested in hearing more about the relationship between Benjamin’s writings in the Arcades Project and your method of selection.
AS & ET We think the best answer we could give is our introduction, as the text attempts to appropriate Benjamin’s provocation in One-way Street, titled “To the Planetarium.” Are we not, now, in the planetarium? Benjamin’s interest in the vestigial aspect of history was influential on our structure, but we also wanted to experiment with the idea of the “ordering of physis [nature]” which he describes so well in that text. What is The Lesson of Zoology if not an image of the ordering of nature? It is an image meant to circulate and proliferate the correct ordering of “Man” and “Nature.” Anna Tsing’s “Earth Stalked by Man,” included in our introduction folder, denaturalizes this Man, and we take that process of denaturalizing the colonial relationship between Man and His Nature as a point of departure from which we intend to unfold another logic and other possibilities. In our contribution to Unfold, we aren’t trying to make a new structure, or to introduce some aleatory position, but, within the ruin of natural history and its colonial ambitions, we want to reconsider what can be reappropriated. We remain in an Enlightenment heritage as we continue to recycle our files. We are still in the folders of modernity, so to speak. But, in reorganizing their relations, there are many affinities and assemblies that suggest other trajectories for knowledge, collaboration, and emancipation. They are to be discovered, or discredited, in the folds and folders themselves.
SG My last question returns to my first one about legibility. Do you envision any particular mode of reading for your collection?
AS & ET We only envision intimacy. Reading is so procedural, always moving from one page to the next, beginning to end. But, in Unfold, through the lateral movement, the schizophrenia of the structure, and the possibility for exploration, pleasure, and discovery, the approach might be best described as a becoming-intimate with the lessons and the ruins of zoology. And, why not since it is a science that has already so intimately constructed you as the reader?
Access the folders of The Zoology Lesson from 1 February by following this link: unfold.thevolumeproject.com
If you would like to receive announcements of the later UNFOLD editions drop Sara an email to email@example.com
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My last post from mid-September made a transition from the HKW’s spring and summer theme of Ape Culture towards the Haus’s new thematic of 100 Years of Now, launched in early October. The short piece was built around a concept Anselm Franke discusses in a recent interview: “the now of recognizability.” While filing through my notes from the presentations of the SYNAPSE 2015 curators, today I found what might be the actual phrasing by Walter Benjamin, which Rachel Thompson cited it in her talk at the July workshop:
“The past can be seized only as an image that flashes up in the moment of its recognizability, and is never seen again.”
Inspired by this subtle connective resonance, I decided to revisit all of the presentations and report some more about the ideas developed during the workshop. To recapitulate: the SYNAPSE 2015 workshop (30 June – 4 July) was the third gathering in the bi-annual series. Like at previous editions, it hosted eleven emerging curators and curatorial thinkers, this time a group of individuals working around human-animal relations and the nature/culture divide. The selected participants, David Ayala-Alfonso, Juan Canela, Silvia Franceschini, Sophia Gräfe, Agnieszka Klepacka, Renan Laru-an, Joan Legalamitlwa, Sofia Lemos. Caroline Picard, Jenna Sutela, and Rachel Thompson, thus spent a jam-packed week in Berlin, visiting institutions and attending lectures by invited “mentors” as well as introducing their own projects and methodologies in half-hour presentations. Unsurprisingly, these individual papers produced the most interesting relays and engaged discussions. In the session with papers by Sofia, Agnieszka, and Silvia, for instance, “dust” became a recurrent theme inspiring ideas about steering the conceptual attentiveness of the curator towards the smaller, more distributed and volatile matters of bigger questions.
Another session (with complementary talks by Rachel Thompson and Sophia Gräfe) reflected curatorial practice through the lens of movement and temporal composition in the context of the moving image. While Rachel’s presentation departed from the cinematic-essayistic montage as a constellation of things and thoughts brought together by images, sound, and text, Sophia’s case study underscored some of the problems inherent in the unifying gaze of twentieth-century scientific film. So, where one approached film through its capacity for kaleidoscopic multiplicity, the other emphasized the hidden existence of multiple planes of meaning by unpacking a seemingly homogenous film-object. And whereas more traditional curatorial frameworks such as exhibition making or the gallery played a mere minor role in both these presentations, the relationship between the “world” and the “image”, the deterritorialization of perspectives, and modes of production of visuality could not be more relevant themes for a discussion among curators in the “Anthropocene.”
Speaking first, Rachel introduced her own epic essay film, Extinction Number Six, in which the anthropologist and gamelan musician confronted the monumental, yet heterogeneous cultural and colonial history of Indonesia. Unfolding across more than two hours in length, this work traverses episodes from Java’s colonial, mystical, and paleontological past, weaving together local princely mythologies with stories about the 1815-eruption of the volcano Mount Tambora (which in 1816 Europe caused the so-called “year without a summer” inspiring literary works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) and the Belgian biologist Eugene Dubois’s eccentric unearthing of the Pithecanthropus Erectus (the long missed “man-ape” also featured in Ape Culture), and Suharto’s military coup of 1965, which subsequently unleashed an anti-communist genocide (brought into the public eye by filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer).
The question, how to navigate such a vast and heterogeneous archive—a veritable “labyrinth of linkages”—without having to artificially force these partials into a single, linear interpretation or reading, Rachel explained, became a central methodological problem in making the work. Ultimately, it was a combination of theories of both the literary essay and the filmic montage, which led her to develop and settle on a strategy of “fragmentary wandering and ambulatory inquiry.” Extrapolating from this personal experience as author-maker, and by citing Michel de Montaigne, Theodor Adorno, and Chris Marker as her conceptual allies, Rachel subsequently formulated a view of the curatorial as a “horizontal montage” in which scholarly and artistic pursuits can co-exist, allowing for the open-ended, tentative, and constellational thinking through of materials. Indeed, curatorial assembling is interesting to her, she said, precisely because it allows “to multiply the power of a given thing and change the viewer, reader, or listener’s encounter with these things, whether textual, temporal, or sonic.”
To get a glimpse how language and images in Extinction Number Six are appropriated and rescued as disparate shards, and used to assemble something “more akin to an itinerant microstructure rather than a lasting edifice,” visit Rachel’s website weirdweatherproductions.com. A new written composition by Rachel on her Indonesian research will moreover be published in Reverse Hallucinations in the Archipelago, our third volume of SYNAPSE’s paginated exhibitions series, intercalations, coming soon.
The conceptual and methodological opening argued for by Rachel was thereafter echoed dialectically by Sophia Gräfe, a young academic trained at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar and the Humboldt University in Berlin. Presenting her research on the historic German science project, Encyclopedia Cinematographica (1952–94), a gigantic comparative film archive of natural history recordings, she directed our attention towards a hidden stasis embodied within this specific type of moving image playing back animals in locomotion.
Focusing on the live movement of all kinds of animals, scientists such as Konrad Lorenz considered the EC able to provide more comprehensive insights into nature than traditional, perpetually static scientific taxidermy specimens, which indeed tend to give little clues about ethology, or animal behaviour. Problematizing their role as neutral evidence, however, Sophia critiqued the alleged scientific objectivity of these “filmic specimens,” by reminding us that they too originated from the same scientific gaze and will to knowledge as the stuffed objects in museum collections, thus making none more life-like than the other. Rather, by emphasizing the recordings’ object status as split between the material model on the one hand and the document on the other, Sophia argued that also the living animal captured on celluloid ultimately merely provides a frieze-dried glimpse of “nature”—locked into place (and into the archive) by anthropocentric vision.
The transformation of the world into images and the biopolitics of the infosphere at the heart of both of these presentations is focalized in a recent essay by film scholar Irmgard Emmelhainz entitled “Images Do Not Show: The Desire to See in the Anthropocene.” Discussing cubism, experimental film as well as more recent digital imaging and data visualization techniques, she asks a question that is most relevant also to our reflections in SYNAPSE:
“[H]ow can we transform our relationship to the indeterminant and deterritorialized multiplicity of diverging points of view to provide a heightened sense of place and thus allow for the possibility of collective autonomous subjectivation, and a new sense of politics, and of the image?” (138)
From their two vantage points, Sophia and Rachel’s analyses about the aesthetico-political role of film both pushed curatorial work as a mode of image production towards the realization of something, which Emmelhainz, with respect to Godard, has called “a conception of the image as a promise of flesh.” (138) That is, whereas the flattened filmic specimen of the Encyclopedia Cinematographica archive now prompts a sense of alienation best summarized in one participants’ question—“But where is the animal?”—the performative proposition of essayistic meander of works such as Extinction Number Six, albeit forever fragmented and temporary, can be seen as an attempt to invigorate “vision as a critical activity.”(138)
[Reports on two more sessions coming soon.]
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Two more volumes of Synapse’s intercalations: paginated exhibition series are coming out this fall.
Anna-Sophie Springer, Etienne Turpin (eds.)
intercalations 3: Reverse Hallucinations in the Archipelago
Berlin: K. Verlag & Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2015. With contributions by George Beccaloni, Lucy Davis, Fred Langford Edwards, Matthias Glaubrecht, Mark von Schlegell & The Slave Pianos, Anna-Sophie Springer, Rachel Thompson, Etienne Turpin, Satrio Wicaksono, and others.
In English, € 15.99
Reverse Hallucinations in the Archipelago reflects on the changing role of colonial natural history collections in the current ecological crisis called the Anthropocene. The volume features a long essay, “The Science of Letters,” by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin, which considers in parallel the histories of scientific publications and personal letters sent by European naturalists from the tropics in order to discern a schizophrenic dilemma at the core of the colonial-scientific project. Alongside the essay, the book includes a science fiction graphic novella by Mark von Schlegell, Iwank Celenk, and The Slave Pianos (with Punkasila) about a futurist entomological meltdown. Photographer Fred Langford Edwards presents a series of works documenting tropical specimens held in the natural history collections of the British Natural History Museum, while artist Lucy Davis uses DNA tracking and oral history to retrace the path of teak furniture from Singapore to Indonesian plantations. Also featured in the collection are interviews with the director of the Wallace Correspondence Project and entomologist George Beccaloni, and the geologist Satrio Wicaksono, who discuss, respectively, the history of biological specimen collecting and a drilling project in the Malay archipelago which recently obtained 300 meters of soil samples containing 700,000 years of Nusantara climate history. To compliment these collections, filmmaker and anthropologist Rachel Thompson adds a two-part composition relaying the Javanese osteo-mythology of the Dutch paleoanthropologist Eugène Dubious. Finally, the volume includes an original translation (from German) of a text by Matthias Glaubrecht, Director of the Hamburg Center for Natural History, which outlines the maddening rate of species extinction in the rapidly transforming Malay world.
Anna-Sophie Springer, Etienne Turpin (eds.)
intercalations 4: The Word for World Is Still Forest
Berlin: K. Verlag & Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2015.
With contributions by Sandra Bartoli, Shannon Lee Castleman, Erle Ellis, Dan Handel, Katie Holten, Eduardo Kohn, Ursula K. Le Guin, Yanni Alexander Loukissas, Abel Rodriguez, Paulo Tavares, and others.
In English, € 15.99
The Word for World Is Still Forest takes its title from Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1972 novella as an homage to the forest as a turbulent, multinature ontology. Moving from concepts of the forest as a thinking organism to the linear monocultural plantations that now threaten the life of global forests, the volume includes interviews with anthropologist Eduardo Kohn on perspectival multinatural semiotics and ecologist Erle Ellis on the taxonomy of anthromes, or classification zones of anthropogenically-modified landscapes. Curator Dan Handel presents an excerpted exhibition on “wood” as a vital element of forest mythology and the driver of industrial resource management. Media designer and data curator Yanni Alexander Loukissas adds a series of reflections on botanical metadata from Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum. An original typography of tree forms from artist Katie Holten’s tree alphabet reconnects the paper of the book page to its forest genealogy. Brazilian architect and urbanist Paulo Tavares contributes an annotated visual composition on Amazonian human rights violations and indigenous struggle, highlighting the hybrid literacies required by resistance movements fighting illegal logging and plantations. Shannon Lee Castleman also addresses illegal logging in her photo essay on the incremental harvesting practices in the diminished tropical forests of Indonesia, while Italian landscape architect Sandra Bartoli offers a little known history of the ancient trees of the urban forest known as the Berlin Tiergarten. Columbian elder and shaman Abel Rodriguez contributes an interview with the Tropen Bos International Colombia forest conservation group, alongside a series of his drawings of medicinal plants used for botanical conservation efforts. Finally, the book includes an excerpt of Ursula K. Le Guin’s original text.
At the end of this month, the HKW will launch their new extensive programming theme, 100 Years of Now, which will set the Haus’s tone for the next two years:
“100 Years of Now combines diagnoses of our times with scopes of action, explores the potentials of the past, and unlocks alternative futures. Until 2018, HKW will be probing the countermovement to the dictatorship of the moment.”
This post links to a few texts I’ve recently read that resonate with the new cycle.
In his short book, 24/7 (Verso, 2014) Jonathan Crary analyzes how capitalism has produced a state of hyperconnectivity that never stops. Arguing for the value of human sleep, he critiques the production of a certain timelessness, a continuous present, in which both the sense of part and future are eroded. If you haven’t yet read this little book, I strongly recommend it if you want to take off one afternoon. But be warned, for it is not a very refreshing read. Focusing on the control and surveillance mechanisms of technological culture, the text gives very little space to hope, emphasizing much rather the feelings of contemporary anxiety we all seem to embody so well these days.
While addressing very similar issues as Crary, the recent essay of Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid—”Living in the Age of Permawar“—I found capable of powerfully producing a sense of mutual solidarity. More strongly so than Crary’s piece, which really manages to drive home its points about the intensification of loneliness vs. collectivity and actionability at the center of his concern. Regarding the roles and states of the “Now,” both of these texts are great food for thought.
Regarding a current situation in-between a past and a future, there is Eleanor Robertson’s short article in the Guardian. Like many of my past blog posts, her text deals with the relationships of humans to monkeys. But the point of her piece is to remind us of the differences between the species, arguing that the one thing to really do if humans wanted to save chimpanzees, would be to leave them and their habitats completely alone. This is a great idea, but one which we know is difficult to impossible in today’s mad world in which conservationists have begun often to work from and towards so-called “Anthropocene baselines” (the conditions of an ecosystem given its exposure to anthropogenic transformation) rather than “historical baselines” (the state of an ecosystem before human influence).
Regarding these questions against the background of the curatorial work at the Haus, you should really take a look at the interview between HKW curator Anselm Franke and our fellow Synapse member Etienne Turpin included in the open access anthology Art in the Anthropocene (Open Humanities Press, 2015), which Etienne co-edited together with Heather Davis (who will be giving a talk during the first days of 100 Years of Now). Entitled “Fates of Negativity,” Etienne and Anselm discuss all of Anselm’s previous exhibition projects at the HKW up until Ape Culture from this summer.
Drawing an arc from The Whole Earth exhibition (2013) to Ape Culture—and talking about consequentiality and inconsequentiality that the aforementioned texts are also all dealing with—they coin and discuss a critical concept, which they call “The Now of Recognizability”:
“When primatologists tell you that for decades now we have been realizing, step by step, that there are cultural properties in ape populations, they will say, in the same breath, ‘but it’s too late.’ This is what I think is really important to listen to and to understand when considering the characterization of the ‘now of recognizability.’ To be attuned to its possibilities and negativities, to this too-late-ness, is very practical; of course, they know as scientists and activists that the ape habitats will be destroyed. Barring some revolution or catastrophe that they cannot even believe in, and given the expert calculations, it’s impossible to save the apes’ forests. So they operate in this strange double register of knowledge; it brings to mind this old anthropologist figure, who feverishly records as much as he can before it all goes away, as its going away.”
But, read for yourself!
I have extracted the interview from the open access PDF and made it available directly here: ow.ly/SeDf7
Video: Excerpt from Christian Marclay, The Clock (2010)READ MORE AND COMMENT
Post by Anna-Sophie Springer
In Peter Høeg’s fantastical novel The Woman and the Ape (1996), an advanced simian civilization has infiltrated human civilization. Albeit more hairy than humans, their intelligence and character have allowed these beings to blend in undiscovered, often working in high political and social roles to make positive changes for their own, anthropogenically endangered ecosystem far away. The book (which often verges on the sentimental and didactic and is built around an interspecies love affair), portrays these apes as a kind of anthropoid future civilization, for the apes turns out to be more ethically advanced and altruistically developed than humanity.
In the “real” world, so-called Primate Archaeologists dedicate their research on studying the material traces of primate intelligence. They traverse the tropical forests searching for tools and other evidence of monkey sleights of hand.
I have mentioned apes’ dexterity in one of my earlier posts, but now would especially like to point you to this new reportage on primate evolution by Colin Barras published on the BBC website. The central scientific thesis reads “Chimpanzees and monkeys have entered the Stone Age.” This is not only interesting because we customarily associate the Stone Age with the deep time of human evolution, suggesting that non-human anthropoid species are catching up to us. But also because many of the great ape tools scientists gather in the forests are not even made of stone, but rather of wood or other plant substances: This might have to do with the circumstance that stones are not easily available to species spending much of their life in and around trees. “Plants are ubiquitous in primate habitats but stones are not,” says Michael Haslan from the University of Oxford’s Primate Archaeology project Primarch, who is quoted in the report.
So, while orangutans, bonobos, and gorillas are only employing tools from organic materials, some other species including the macaques I’ve mentioned in the earlier post as well as chimpanzees—indeed our closest genetic cousins—have been observed to use stone tools for things such as opening nuts. According to the studies references in the article, however, only a small number of west African chimp communities have adopted this behaviour, but they might have been already been doing this for several thousand years back.
Similarly to the invention of agriculture occurring simultaneously in different parts of the world around 10,000 years ago, Haslan believes that also “the Stone Age primates are so widely scattered across the evolutionary tree that they must have each come up with the technology independently. We have multiple inventions of the same behaviour.”
Speaking of same or similar behaviour—and connecting back to the questions of care raised by Peter Høeg’s story—I have also for some time been meaning to share this video of a group of elderly lab chimps that are released into a North American forest reserve where they are said to see the sky and feel grass for the first time in their lives—as well as apparently being able to touch each other.
All images: Stills from King Kong, USA 1933 (directed by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack)
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Interview with Willie Shubert by Anna-Sophie Springer
A few weeks ago, I met Willie Shubert in Jakarta and he told me about his current work with two environmental journalism platforms, Ekuatorial.com, which focuses on Indonesia and Infoamazonia.org, which gathers reports and data about deforestation issues in South America, mainly Brazil. Given the two projects’ explicit emphasis on the importance of good storytelling and open source and open data, it seemed like a great idea to do a short interview together for this blog.
Willie himself is Senior Project Coordinator for Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. As a coordinator of a global network of environmental journalists, he helps make tools that enable people to connect with each other, find material support, and amplify their local stories to global audiences. In his previous position at National Geographic Magazine, he coordinated translation for the magazine’s thirty-two local language partners. He holds a degree in Geography from Humboldt State University, California with concentrations in cartography, environmental economics, and Chinese Studies. Outside of work, he devotes his time to the development of a free school dedicated to community building through education and to collaborative mapping and audio projects. He is also an expert in Balloon Mapping.
AS What is Ekuatorial.com and when was the platform started?
WS Ekuatorial is an environmental news site focused on the oceans, forests, and natural disasters of Indonesia. Launched in January of 2014 as a collaboration between the Earth Journalism Network and the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists, Ekuatorial uses the methodologies of GeoJournalism to combine storytelling with data visualization in order to contextualize events within the broader patterns of environmental change.
AS How does the site work?
WS At the most basic level our goal with Ekuatorial is to put local news into the context of the truly massive ecological change that Indonesia and the wider world are currently undergoing. We want to understand how local manifestation of environmental change is connected to this context. To do this Ekuatorial.com relies on two key communication methods: storytelling and data visualization. We collect available data from government agencies, satellites, and community organizations and organize it into a set of visuals that provide a common evidence base for the network of storytellers contributing their content. Each story is submitted from a network of reporters living in environmental hot spots and then geo-located and tagged by the core team in Jakarta. The result is an exploratory platform that enables people to interact with stories in a non-linear way and discover perspectives that they might not be familiar enough with to find otherwise.
AS What are some of the main themes the platform focuses on?
WS If there is an overarching theme to the platform it is environmental transformation. Environmental journalists are constantly grappling with a topic of such depth and scale that no single story will ever be able to convey the reality of the current situation. This is why we use data to help put each story in its big picture context. Similarly, no data visualization is nuanced enough to communicate the complex forces driving these changes. GeoJournalism is an approach we’ve designed to tackle this conundrum by interrogating data and using the classic journalistic method to answer questions about why the patterns look the way they do.
AS What is the relationship to the journalists who produce the original content?
WS We take a networked approach to journalism. Ekuatorial has created syndication relationships with websites throughout Indonesia to aggregate their stories and distribute them to global audiences. One example of how this relationship plays out is our partnership with Global Forest Watch. GFW is a site dedicated to monitoring the status of the world’s forests and it is used by governments, business, and concerned individuals throughout the world. Ekuatorial publishes a stream of local stories on this global platform so that people using that site get their news directly from people who understand what is happening on the ground because that is their lived experience. Journalists in this regard are participating in a system where data from satellites is being verified from the ground through storytelling.
AS What is the goal of the site and to whom is it addressed?
WS Our goal is to provide a common space for people communicating about environmental issues in Indonesia to share their perspective and contribute to the documentation of evidence so that appropriate actions can be taken. Our audience is first and foremost an Indonesian one and our analytics show that to be the case. In audience surveys we’ve found that people who visit the site are primarily the general public with significant segments of journalists, organizers, and academics.
AS What is your own role in the development of Ekuatorial?
WS My responsibility as an organizer of a global network of environmental journalists is to support the growth and maturation of the community. In practice, my work varies from project to project and can be as simple as introducing network members who are interested in a common topic or as in-depth as joining a collaborative team. For Ekuatorial, I have been working with Ekuatorial’s managing editor Clara Rondonuwu from the research and design phases of the project.
AS When we met you also showed me another platform Internews is involved in called Infoamazonia.org. While Ekuatorial focuses on the Southeast Asian archipelago, Infoamazonia covers the loss of the Amazon forest in South America. Can you give a short summary of that project and explain how data and written stories are used there side by side.
WS Ekuatorial is in many ways a sibling site to InfoAmazonia and that is a natural relationship for projects focused on understanding and communicating about forest change. Not only do the sites share common topics and methodology but also technology. The project got its first spark when journalists in Indonesia saw InfoAmazonia and thought how it could be adapted to tell their stories. The team who built Ekuatorial included team members from Brazil and as is often the case with open source technology projects, elements from Ekuatorial ended up being integrated back into InfoAmazonia. We hope that these sites as well as the communities behind them end up growing up together.
AS Is this the vision for Ekuatorial, too?
WS There is certainly a unifying set of conditions that contribute to a common vision for the approach but as a website, Ekuatorial differs from InfoAmazonia in similar ways as Indonesia and the Amazon differ. Ekuatorial has a major focus on ocean topics as well as natural disasters since those are key parts of the Indonesian experience. I think that this vision is simply a product of the journalism network itself. Being part of a community of environmental journalists who share a common interest and challenge yields opportunities for ideas to be share across vast distances in meaningful ways.
AS This interview is going to be published on a blog of an international network of curators. Most of us approach environmental, or more-than-human urgencies from a background in art or aesthetic theory. How could cultural producers like those from our network interface with your group’s platforms and possibly distribute both the material and the issues the sites are highlighting?
WS It’s interesting you mention aesthetics theory because without a doubt the visual properties of cartographic presentation and the connotations they have with objective truth have been an important element of the appeal of GeoJournalism. Artists and designers have had a leading role in developing the visual identity of Ekuatorial and InfoAmazonia. Similarly networks like Synapse and the Earth Journalism Network share quite a bit in common as well. If the arts is responsible for cultural production and media responsible for the production of news/information, we both are at our best when we are focused on producing truth. Understanding how these approaches compliment each other is leads to meaningful collaboration.
That said, we recognize that it is becoming increasing difficult to produce information that has an impact on culture. Media is a very fractured space and so we have been thinking carefully about how we facilitate the distribution of information with technology. We try to make it as easy as possible to use Ekutorial’s maps and data in many contexts. One example of this is the sharing features of the sites, which allow the audience to remix the layers into a custom presentation and then share them with an iFrame embed code.
AS One of the most compelling aspects of Infoamazonia is the interactive deforestation timeline you showed me at desmatamento.infoamazonia.org. Who is behind the research of this timeline and are more of these planned—also regarding Southeast Asian ecosystem losses?
WS Thank you, the story was compelling enough to influence the national conversation about deforestation policies in Brazil. The Desmatamento project was a collaboration between a team of journalists, designers, software engineers, and academics who each brought a unique attribute to the team. As the skills for storytelling change, we have increasingly seen that the characteristics of the teams that produce these sites adapt as well. In regards to Southeast Asia, we have projects that are currently in development. I’d be happy to do a follow up interview as they come together.
All images: Landsat visualizations of global forest loss from 2000 to 2012 (red). From earthenginepartners.appspot.com
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From 29 June until 4 July, the Haus der Kulturen hosted an intense SYNAPSE 2015 workshop on the theme of “Ape Culture.” For the workshop, a group of eleven up-and-coming international curators participated in a dense programme of lectures, performances, and museum and gallery visits at different spaces in Berlin. Like in the last SYNAPSE workshop two years ago, the programming at the HKW again alternated between presentations by the new SYNAPSE members themselves and talks by invited “expert” speakers—including the artists Rachel Mayeri and Coco Fusco as well as curators Chus Martinez and Cord Riechelmann, who all presented aspects of their ongoing work.
Image: The SYNAPSE 2015 curators Jenna Sutela (Helsinki, Finland), Caroline Picard (Chicago, USA), David Ayala-Alfonso (Bogotá, Colombia), Sofia Lemos (London, UK), and Joan Legalamitlwa (Mafikeng, South Africa)top—top row—and Silvia Franceschini (Milan, Italy) Juan Canela (Barcelona, Spain), Renan Laru-an (Quezon City, Philippines), Rachel Thompson (Cambridge, USA), and Sophia Gräfe (Berlin, Germany) —bottom row—during a visit to the Tieranatomisches Theater. Photo by Etienne Turpin.
With its focus on human-animal relations and nature-culture questions, the workshop couldn’t have been timed much better. For, it was on 1 July 1858 that the famous and paradigm-changing Darwin-Wallace paper, proclaiming Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s independently formulated theses on the theory of evolution by natural selection, was read out loud for the first time to an assembly of gathered naturalists at the London Linnean Society.
Image: Scan of Wallace’s personal copy of the Darwin-Wallace paper as it was sent to Wallace in the Malay archipelago; courtesy The Wallace Correspondence Project.
Now sometimes called “Evolution Day,” it was on that day 157 years later that during our workshop we listened to three brilliant presentations by Agnieszka Klepacka, Sofia Lemos, Silvia Franceschini, who all have found unique angles from which to approach natural history institutions through curatorial interventions. As it happened, all three of the presentations also argued their points through references to either Charles Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace.
Having herself in 2014 curated an exhibition project at the Krakow Botanical Garden Museum which was inspired by A.R. Wallace’s essay “The Importance of Dust,” Aga Klepacka spoke from the perspective of a curator smuggling contemporary art into historical display galleries. Taking the figure of Wallace as her conceptual starting point, Aga said, was interesting to her because the explorer represents an “ecclectic thinker,” thus allowing for a great spectrum of different directions from which to further explore his legacy. Indeed, while in his earlier lifetime, Wallace (1823–1913) had roamed the world as a collector of natural history specimens, the same man later dedicated himself to the advancement of socialist politics, the riddle of life on other planets such as Mars, as well as writing about mesmerism and land reform. A tireless individual, he published 22 books and nearly 750 essays—”The Importance of Dust: A Source of Beauty and Essential to Life” (1898) being a late piece, which was also included in the Haus der Kulturen’s recent publication Grain Vapor Ray: Textures of the Anthropocene.
Image: Installation view of The Importance of Dust (2014), Botanical Garden Museum, Krakow, with work by artist Mateusz Kula. Courtesy of Aga Klepacka.
Dust as a conceptual keyword came up again in the talk right after by Sofia Lemos, whose curatorial thinking for her new project in partnership with the Berlin Medicinal Museum turned out to be partly inspired by her encounter with a particular passage of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle (1839). Here, Darwin describes noticing peculiarly fine dust particles coating the scientific equipment of the ship even while navigating thousands of miles away from any major landmasses. Upon collecting the dust and sending it in small parcels to the microbiologist Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg at Humboldt University in Berlin, Darwin learned that this aeolian dust consisted of micro-organic particles—many of which sweet water organism—travelling through the atmosphere between the continents. Interested in the “exhibition-as-research and research-as-exhibition,” Sofia explained the dust as an example for thinking about the relationships between materiality and discourse where “how to see and what to know” becomes an important question.
Image: Dust samples collected by Charles Darwin while navigating on the Atlantic in 1834.
Silvia Franceschini, who was the third presenter in this session, also explored the relationship between civilizational narratives and the rise of the museum, questioning especially the contemporary role of evolution displays and natural history exhibitions more generally. In addition to discussing her own curatorial work, for instance in the framework of the Kiev Biennale and against the background of the current political violence in Ukraine, Silvia presented an interesting case study of one lesser known natural history museum: the State Darwin Museum of Moscow founded in 1907 by Russia’s first taxidermist, Alexander Kohts (1880–1964), and run by himself and his wife, the zoo-psychologist and passionate Darwinian, Nadia Ladygina-Kohts (1890–1963).
Based on the Kohts’s private specimens collection, the Darwin Museum was the first and only natural history museum in Russia and dedicated to illustrating the main principles of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Remarkably, according to this entry in the Encyclopedia of Science and Learning, Ms. Kohts also curated the first-ever exhibition devoted to the evolution of behavior and moreover founded the Zoopsycholoy department at the museum in order to deepen the study of animal cognition.
Regarding our interest in Ape Culture, it is worth re-narrating from Silvia’s presentation that Nadia Kohts conducted a series of experiments on animal learning with an infant chimp named Jony whom the Kohts had adopted and who lived for three years with the couple as their child. The results of living and studying Jony were published in books such as Chimpanzee Cognition (1923) and covered questions and observations regarding emotions, locomotion, bodily expression, reasoning, etc.
Image: Nadia Ladygina-Kohts with chimpanzee Jony. Photograph taken by A. Kohts in 1914; courtesy of the State Darwin Museum in Moscow, Russia.
But it was less the complex familiarities between the larger primates, which occupied and permeated all of the presentations that day. Rather, the main questions and something, which we also discussed together in the wrap-up session, were guided by a desire to find ways so that curatorial research and exhibition making can produce scenarios for “good and bad encounters” and possible futures. However, there was some concern that the exhibition alone—due to its representational character—might be a conservative, possibly limiting format for such experiences. In fact, it was through the recurring metaphor of dust—as well as familiar bodies such as clouds or mist, and their relationships to gradient states of visibility—that someone pushed further: how then can curatorial agency be engaged to confront our inherited civilizational narratives while remaining attentive to the rhythms, iterations, and general movements of the less stable and more minor and dust-like qualities?
In the words of Alfred Russel Wallace: “The overwhelming importance of the small things, and even of the despised things, of our world has never, perhaps, been so strikingly brought home to us as in these recent investigations into the widespread and far-reaching beneficial influences of Atmospheric Dust.”
More reports to follow …
Image: Scirocco dust which had travelled from Genoa to Lyon in 1846 as seen through Prof Ehrenberg’s microscope. Illustration reprinted in Klingan, Scherer, et. al., Grain, Vapor, Ray: Textures of the Anthropocene (2014), 85.
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With only one more week to go until the next SYNAPSE workshop focusing on human–animal relations, here is a newly released scientific article that’s worth reading!
Under the long title “Accelerated Modern Human–Induced Species Losses: Entering The Sixth Mass Extinction,” a team of scientists from universities such as Stanford, Princeton, and Berkeley have published data, diagrams, and analyses that you might have already come across in a more popular version in case you’ve read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction (2013).
Image: Athanasius Kircher’s Noah’s Ark
The article (19 June 2015) in Science Advances is open access and available in PDF format from here. The Independent has also published a short summery that you can read here. But I haven’t come across the “walking dead” expression in the original article, which the journalist here claims the scientists have called humanity…
If you want to learn more about Kolbert’s view on the issue, here is an older interview with her from National Geographic. Meanwhile she’s been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the book in April and there’s been quite a few other interviews as well.
For an introduction to four more books on the subject of contemporary extinction as well as the concept of de-extinction—bringing extinct species back to Earth through genetic engineering—I found this recent interview with the evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro pretty interesting.
Finally, in my Twitter feed Naomi Klein just posted this radio podcast with Naomi Oreskes and some other climate change scholars discussing Pope Francis’s 184-page encyclical “Laudato Si.” Oreskes herself was invited to the climate change conference the Vatican held last year and in the recording she says although she initially didn’t “exactly know what this was about” she now feels it’s turned into a “very exciting moment.”
Only yesterday, The New Yorker published what Elizabeth Kolbert’s got to say about the encyclical, too.
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EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN APE
And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.
The mere invention of fire, the cornerstone of the whole cultural edifice, as the fable of Prometheus so well expresses it, presents insurmountable difficulties in our conjectures about man in a crude state of civilization.
In my prior post on human–ape relations, I took cues from the roles monkeys have played in art, mythology, and evolutionary theory, with themes of communication and empathy crystallizing toward the end of the piece. Although verbal language has been considered one of the crucial factors distinguishing the human from other animals, countless studies and examples underscore that nonhuman species such as apes are indeed quite capable of complex communication, too, even if spoken words are not among these being’s skill sets.
Another trait differentiating humanity is our mythological ability of making and controlling fire. Similarly to the human’s evolutionary monopoly on verbal language, so far, there is also no other species known that actively masters fire. But a recent chimpanzee study now claims that apes do indeed favor one of fire’s cultural products—cooked food. In the context of the HKW and SYNAPSE’s current focus on human–ape scenarios, the evolutionary conclusions scientists propose from these gastronomic observations are interesting fodder.
As the only fire-makers in the world, humans have also logically been considered the only species on this planet habitually preparing and eating cooked food. Apparently not a single tribe or society is known that didn’t or doesn’t cook, and there are many foods a chimpanzee can eat that we would find hard to digest or outright harmful, unless we’d transform their chemical properties first through the application of thermodynamics. Already Charles Darwin praised the evolutionary significance of relating fire and cooking in The Descent of Man:
[The human] has discovered the art of making fire, by which hard and stringy roots can be rendered digestible, and poisonous roots or herbs innocuous. This discovery of fire, probably the greatest ever made by man, excepting language, dates from before the dawn of history. These several inventions [weapons, tools, traps, etc.], by which man in the rudest state has become so pre-eminent, are the direct results of the development of his powers of observation, memory, curiosity, imagination, and reason.
More currently, also Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham studies the role of fire in human evolution. Going beyond its socio-environmental conditions of building and dwelling (warmth and light), he associates fire quite directly with the cognitive skill of thinking. Expanding on Darwin’s argument, Wrangham contends that it was precisely a benefit of cooked food, which led to the bigger brain and body sizes of hominid species. Because consuming cooked nourishment is easier to digest, releasing calories and nutrients faster and at less metabolic “cost” than raw foods, scientists like Wrangham see a rather direct metabolic relationship between fire and human cerebral evolution—ultimately enabling what philosopher Friedrich Schlegel has called “the whole cultural edifice.”
According to an article on the history of cooking in Smithsonian Magazine, a number of differences in human versus ape body shape can be traced back to individual species’ eating habits and are most visibly reflected in the torso:
The calories to fuel the bigger brains of successive species of hominids came at the expense of the energy-intensive tissue in the gut, which was shrinking at the same time—you can actually see how the barrel-shaped trunk of the apes morphed into the comparatively narrow-waisted Homo sapiens. Cooking freed up time, as well; the great apes spend four to seven hours a day just chewing, not an activity that prioritizes the intellect.
Above: Proboscis monkeys at the feeding station in Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Borneo, photo courtesy https://passthefishsauce.wordpress.com
Ever wondered why essay writing makes one so hungry? In contrast to apes “just chewing” away, “[a] human body at rest devotes roughly one-fifth of its energy to the brain, regardless of whether it is thinking anything useful, or even thinking at all. Thus, the unprecedented increase in brain size that hominids embarked on around 1.8 million years ago had to be paid for with added calories either taken in or diverted from some other function in the body.”
Adapting to cooked food afforded our fossil ancestors with that additional energy needed.
But since when exactly did they begin to play with fire?
The art of using fire by our forebears has been described as more groundbreaking for human evolution than the introduction of agriculture in the Holocene around 11,000 years ago. However, it turns out that the earliest use of fire continues to be subject of debate, not least because “no actual hearths are found until the appearance of Neanderthals at the end of the Middle Pleistocene.” But some palaeontologists have claimed extremely ancient archaeological clay finds from the Stone Age period as evidence for fiery beginnings reaching as far back as the “Lower Pleistocene”—or those critical 1.8 million years ago referred to above.
Moving forward into the Anthropocene, it is hardly surprising however to learn about a recent study with chimpanzees that complicates a notion of human exceptionalism based on the gastronomic. Interested in understanding whether our closest relatives possess the cognitive-psychological skills required to cook, primatologists Felix Warneken and Alexandra G. Rosati, conducted a series of experiments in a chimp sanctuary in Congo. Based on the general question, if the animals would manifestly recognize a difference between raw and cooked food, Warneken and Rosati furthermore asked if a positive result of this first problem would inspire any additional significant behavior.
Above: Ferdinand van Kessel, Festmahl der Affen [The Monkeys’ Feast], 17th. c. Wikimedia Commons
According to their article published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the two authors report that their test subjects did indeed seem to prefer cooked over raw vegetables when presented with a choice. To determine furthermore whether chimps could comprehend the relationship between a vegetable in its raw and cooked state, they devised a test based on two bowls. If food was placed inside the bowls, after a short delay, one container would dispense it raw (the way the ape originally placed it inside), while the other bowls would dispense a chunk of the same food but cooked. The scientists explain that when given the choice, the apes almost always went for the “cooker” even though that meant both letting go of the obtained slice and accepting a waiting period until receiving it back. Rather than devouring their food instantly—so far considered the normal behaviour of chimpanzees—the test portrayed the apes as more mindful eaters than numbly chewing automatons.
Above: One of the short test videos showing a chimpanzee handing over its food to have it “cooked.”
While Warneken and Rosati’s study doesn’t question our unique relationship to fire, their conclusions seem to support such evolutionary hypotheses, which positively assume the cognitive abilities of very early hominid species for making culinary use of fire. “The logic is that if we see something in chimpanzees’ behavior, our common ancestor may have possessed these traits as well. If our closest evolutionary relative possesses these skills, it suggests that once early humans were able to use and control fire they could also use it for cooking,” said Warneken in the Guardian. Affirming Wrangham’s thesis, cooking—and thus the use of fire—has potentially indeed existed for many hundreds of thousand of years longer than commonly believed.
From a more simple perspective, the observation that chimpanzees have a clear sense of liking one dish over another—and that that preferred dish first ought to be prepared a bit—is definitely one more compelling example for our primate cousins’ cognitive similarities to ourselves.
But where there is good food, good drink mustn’t be lacking. Like us, monkeys (and other animals) also have been observed to indulge in some booze, at least occasionally. Extrapolated from such behavior, a theory termed the Drunken Monkey Hypothesis suggests an adaptive benefit of alcohol consumption in evolutionary deep time, potentially stimulating a hominid being’s appetite and thus increasing their calorie intake. Just this last week a long-term study of seventeen years was published about a group of forest chimpanzees in Guinea, which is regularly getting drunk together on fermented palm tree sap. To access the drink, the apes have been observed to form little spoons out of leaves.
On that note, happy Saturday night and Cheers!
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