Ted Noten interviewed by Ana Campos

Published: 06.02.2017
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Ana Campos
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Interview part of the thesis Contemporary Jewelery as Art: A Philosophical Study by Ana Campos.

The PhD thesis was presented as a philosophy of contemporary jewellery. I analyse it as a world of reasons that are historically and contextually made possible. It proposes a specific identification regime that articulates ways of thinking and doing. It is a type of jewellery that distinguishes itself from other forms of art and other things.

This is the first interview of 3 conducted between 2011 and 2012 by Ana Campos. The other interviews are: Christoph Zellweger and Ramon Puig Cuyàs.


Versión en Español - Spanish version      View / hide description

Why did you choose jewellery and not another kind of art?
I must say I did not choose. It just happened. When I was about twenty-five or twenty-six years old, I started travelling around the world for almost two years. In Athens I met a German man who was making jewellery on the street. He was using silver wire, beads, shells and working only with very simple tools. One of them was to cut his nails. With it he could also cut wire. For some time, I sat beside him. I was watching, completely fascinated by his passion and délicatesse. He could make beautiful things with hardly anything. At one point he looked at me and said: do you want to learn this?  He actually taught me there on the street, how to make simple things like earrings and rings with silver wire. This is how and the reason why I started making jewellery. Until then, I had never thought about being involved with jewellery or art. There wasn’t any artistic tradition in my family. Art was not necessary. It wasn’t useful. It was rather considered to be something for alcoholics or crazy people. Later on I found out that my great-grandfather used to make pies and beautiful cakes, so he was the only one who was a little creative. In my case, after those years travelling I worked like that man for a few months. Here in Holland, I could make some money selling on the streets. Until now I have kept some of those pieces I made.  But at that time, after a while I felt the need to improve, I wanted to learn more. Then I went to the Academy of Applied Arts in Maastricht.

There you wanted to learn the technical side of jewellery, I imagine.
Yes of course. We learnt soldering, hammering, making teapots. It was useful to learn this. But after three years in the Maastricht Academy, again I wanted to go further and to express myself. I wanted to tell stories, to make political or social comments. I was curious. I was hungry to become an artist. That is why I decided to go to the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, in Amsterdam. First, they did not accept me there. They said: it’s too late! You are spoiled! You are brainwashed as a craftsman. If you want to be an artist you should not be a craftsman. That was their political philosophy at the time. Everything that had to do with crafts had to be pushed out of the system. Well, now, once again, everybody is saying that crafts should come back! 

A common idea among schools is that people who come from the crafts world just work with their hands, that they are not able think, to reflect.
That can be the risk of working with your hands. It can become an addiction just like a drug. If you work eight hours a day you become skilled and you will be able to make beautifully made things. After, when you go home you feel satisfied. Anyway, at the Rietveld there was also another thing. They told me: It’s too late, you followed a wrong program and you can’t ever be an artist anymore. This was almost a fascist expression! At that time, which was in 1990, they told me to start painting. Then, maybe we will accept you, they said. I replied that I didn’t want to paint. I also told them that I could reprogram myself. I wanted to make jewels with messages, or related to traditions, but jewels that would follow a contemporary language. Anyway, I started painting and did so for three months. Then I went back to face them again.

Do you mean you were going to another school?
No, the painting classes were in the Rietveld too. Well, in the end I was accepted into the Rietveld Jewellery Department. If until now I can find enough possibilities to express myself, there was no reason for this to have happened. In fact, even now I sometimes feel that I am fed up with the jewellery field. There is no challenge. There is no fight. There are no deep discussions about improving yourself or about how to develop the jewellery field. And most jewellers are easy people. Oh! Let me make ten pieces and then I will have a solo exhibition. There is no philosophical discussion in this field.

Do you mean that there are more philosophical discussions concerning the art world and about none concerning the jewellery world? And maybe that there is also more competition between artists than between jewellers?
Oh yes! But in the jewellery field we used to have more discussion too. It was like that in the Rietveld. I remember it well. We used to talk over nights about jewellery and about how to change it. But it looks like the only thing that people make now are brooches to show in vitrines. Now 95% of jewels are brooches.

The brooch came back, indeed. Onno Boekhoudt and Otto Künzli criticise jewellery from the seventies as being mostly miniatures of paintings and sculptures. On the other hand, these jewels where also made for the aesthetics of the body. Then these two aspects were overtaken due to deeper discussions about jewellery, at the time you mention. There was a change driven by their generation and yours. It first took place in Munich and Pforzheim. Later it was the time of the BOE group interventions that really fought against conventions. It continued with their students, that is to say with your generation. And then discussions slowed down, even if there are more and more jewellery academies. Is this happening because jewellers gave up or just let it go? Or because much has changed in the world after the 70’s and 80’s and people don’t get involved with such kinds of challenges or revolts anymore? Or is it because the art world has always been different from the jewellery world? Could it be these three reasons at the same time? What do you think?
There are several reasons for the jewellery field to still be in a minor position. First of all, it is a matter of character. The jewellery people have an encubierto character.

Do you mean they are not open-minded?
They are working all day at a jewellery bench. They file, they saw. There is a huge difference between working like this and working like a painter. If you work eight hours a day at a bench, how can you be somebody that is easy-talking?

That is interesting! So what do you think about somebody who is working on a computer all day long?
Sometimes they may have to retreat into a place for reflexion. Some jewellery people just think: Ah! It is nice you can craft jewellery in your house, in the kitchen. Jewellery also attracts people who don’t want to die for it. An artist must be ready to die for what he is doing. And most jewellers aren’t.

That is an antique and traditional craftsman's behaviour, repeating handwork, maybe in some cases trying to be creative while neglecting reasoning about what you do. It may also be a psychological thing.
It is a psychological thing. They are microscopic-focused. Jewellery has a small dimension. If you make a painting, a sculpture, a building, then you have different energy fields.  That’s why I consider it is a matter of character. On the other hand, it is a safe field. Very quickly you have something beautiful. Then you put a pin on the back of it and it becomes a brooch. It’s so easy!

This is dangerous. If one makes something to hang on the body, does it mean that it is a jewel? What meaning would this have?
Most people are not researching about jewellery, about where it comes from or about traditions in jewellery. I am very keen on going back to what jewellery was or has been. What was the reason for jewellery? Why did people make it and use it? There are so many stories and rituals connected to jewellery. But what I see is that most people don’t know anything about it. They come up with a few things joined together and they say it is a brooch! That has nothing to do with jewellery.

Maybe even with anything else that can be a self-conscious work or a reflexive attitude.
In my career I was lucky. I was also rebellious. That is my character. I come from the post-hippies. We were engaged in work, in sociological or political subjects. We wanted to change the world, to make a better world.

So, as I asked before, do you think that this sort of slow-down of implication has to do with contemporary world changes or with the current generation?
This generation has different problems. For us it was clear, we would question everything. We had conflicts between generations and we had sexual challenges, we had religious conflicts, and political conflicts. Now everything is possible and because of that impossible. Also everything is in the social media through the Internet. People design all kind of things on a computer, and among them jewels. More people can work on just one piece. This attitude is completely different and may also transform jewellery.

In your case, you teach computer design.
Yes I do teach in a design school, not in a jewellery school. I teach social media, that is how you can use the Internet in a design process and society related thinking.

Is it theoretical?
It consists mostly in talking. At the end my students should present the project of a product. It can be a computer program, a book or a manual, and not necessarily a chair or a glass. They must be awake and discuss what their projects involve. That is the problem – not only of the jewellery people – but one of the current times. By the end of the 19th century painters, musicians, writers, sculptors and jewellers used to talk and discuss subjects of common interest. It was not important if you where making music or jewellery. There was no hierarchical system.

They tried to break it down. That was the time of the so-called total art.  For instance, following William Morris, there was the fight of Walter Gropius, acting against different levels of arts or differences between artists and craftsmen and questioning the bourgeois way of thinking.
Ok, and artists were equal. So when it happened, Fabergé and Lalique were high-level craftsmen and artists. What happened? Why did we return to an opposition? Why isn't there discussion between disciplines anymore? And how come we became incestuous?

This term may concern contemporary jewellery.
Yes, the jewellery field is incestuous. Everywhere there are friends and enemies, and a huge gossip. Still, I keep wondering why we did lose our position within crafts. Again, I consider that the problem is due to a lack of discussion. It stopped.

Well, I know when it started and until when it went on, but I don’t know why it stopped.
That is something we should find out. Some jewellery people tried to start a dialog with fashion designers. No way! I tried it several times, but it always blocks. I can have dialogs with the design world and the art field. But still we come back to the same. Ted Noten is a nice guy, but is what he makes jewellery?  So still there is a prejudiced attitude in the art field against jewellery. To be honest, there is a lot of crap in the jewellery field, as there is also in the art field.

The followers of your generation are just followers, who mostly don’t deserve to challenge the world in the same way, unless something touched them deeply. What do you think about this? For instance, during the Schmuck in Munich we heard people who really have a voice commenting that some pieces are not jewellery because they are unwearable. They seem to be more concerned with this point than with the meaning of jewellery, that is to say about reflexivity and their role in symbolic communication. I think to myself and I ask for your opinion: could it be that jewellery went back to what it was before the seventies? Was it just a period when jewellers were concerned with challenging public space?
Do you remember the bag I made with golden rings in it? That was at the Schmuck about six years ago. They intended to give me the first price. But suddenly, a member of the jury opposed to it and said: this is not jewellery because you cannot wear it.

The question is wearability. It is returning as a main subject of contemporary jewellery.
That is not a criterion to me. It should be about jewellery. But to be functional or not, it is not a matter to me.

Do you mean it should be about the body or concerning the body, but not necessarily to wear on the body?
I don’t care if it is practical or not. I did not get that price because they said it was too conceptual. The whole Schmuck scene in Munich is very conservative. Everybody focuses on the Herbert Hofmann Prize and considers that it represents the truth. On the other hand, many say it is conservative, and that there are always the same people in the jury. Many also say that it is gossip. Meanwhile there are young satellite people who show different things. But still this isn’t enough.

That is right. There are also more and more satellite people that exhibit in informal places like workshops and studios.
At the same time, people who are not familiar with jewellery do not understand that we make jewels out of hair or plastic.

That is another point to focus on. When you say other people do you mean artists?
Yes, I mean artists too. If I go to the Stedelijk Museum, here in Amsterdam, and I find one hundred people, they have designed hair, designed glasses, designed cloths, designed underwear, designed cars and they have art in their houses. But they don’t wear jewellery, apart from some brooches. This is disgusting!

Brooches are ornaments. Your jewellery is the opposite of this.
My jewellery is barely ornamental. Another thing happens if I go to a painting exhibition. I see 10 paintings that I can see from a distance. If I go to a jewellery exhibition, there are little vitrines with 500 pieces in them. I have to take a close look at them. What is there to be seen? A brooch and another brooch… As a jeweller I can see that this one or that one is nicely made, because I am trained to see that. One the other hand, what do they communicate? Meanwhile, other people are not used to look for the meanings of jewellery or to look at jewellery as ways of communication.

I think that the boundary between art and jewellery as craft was never really broken.
Right. It was not.

Even other artists never understood jewellers’ intensions to introduce changes.
How can they understand that jewellery can be made out of hair or that found objects or stones can have a meaning? They don’t have references. If I look at a painting, which is new to me, I have references. I know Warhol, I know Rembrandt so I can compare and understand new meanings. I can say this is shit or this has quality. What are their references to understand a brooch? Nothing is written about contemporary jewellery. There is hardly any PhD, philosophical statements or essays that can be references to understand. This is the big gap. There are historical, chronologically written texts, about gold and diamond jewellery. This is not enough to understand this gap. To compare it, for instance, with the middle ages when jewellers had higher positions than painters. This was related with working with gold, with alchemist stories.  They could also travel widely carrying small bags and tools.

It is also important to consider that later jewellers, like Lalique had significant Maecenas. His Maecenas was Calouste Gulbenkian. Hoffman worked among rich people in Vienna. This may have helped gather great collections that later where historically studied.
The Church also did that with religious artefacts. The bourgeoisie collected too. But what was most important was the size of a diamond, and not aspects of the craft. This takes me to another question. People see a crafted piece made with hair, which costs 1200 Euros. If it would include a diamond or gold, they would not have a problem to accept it. But something else with gold and diamonds, with the same price on sale at a shop, can be resold for double the price or more. People take jewellery as an investment. This is bullshit!

At Christies or Sotheby’s this may be different, may it not?
I was at Christies a few weeks ago. I saw the same, diamonds and gold jewellery and the same kind of people looking at it. They were buying, not for the piece itself, but for the value of the materials. Jewellery was and is a hidden system to save and enlarge cash. It is hardly about aesthetics. If you go now to jewellery shops, where most people buy their jewels, is there design or aesthetics? It is always about a diamond is the girl’s best friend.

You argued about that sentence through jewellery.
In America when a man wants to marry he must give the bride a ring with a diamond that costs three times his salary.

His welfare will become a visible sign. That is the intention.
In this sense, jewellery has a dirty name. That is why artists say jewellery is about nothing. It can’t include meanings.

Jewellery that includes meanings, that has to be interpreted, it is too recent.
On the other hand, the first jewels had other kinds of meanings. A tooth from a lion could be an expression of individuality among a group. It was the first human expression of art and communication.

They meant to be indicators of identity and differences among a group of people. They had to do with feelings of belonging. They followed group codes and had strong meanings. Today’s jewellery follows this example, communicating through symbols, but without codes.
Anyway, other kinds of jewellery, like the jewellery made by Braque, Man Ray, are absolutely boring!  

But exhibitions that include this kind of jewels attract a lot of visitors. It’s approved by society.
It’s approved. They have an artist's name signed.

Why did so many artists make it?
Because they got paid for it! Most of these jewels are in gold and this is a magic material. Jewellery has also to do with vitrine trauma. I work differently. Did you see my robot film? I tried many things to put jewellery in different places than in vitrines and galleries. A gallery has to do with art, not with things or merchandising. Jewellery galleries are not real galleries. A gallery is a platform where you should find discussions and dialogs concerning new perspectives for the future. In most jewellery galleries this doesn’t happen. They are places to sell. So I gave up this system, even if some of my work is in some galleries.

Do you consider that the same is happening in today's art world?
Things are different, they are changing in the design field too. In the jewellery field people make exhibitions every two years in a gallery. Then they have pieces exposed in Stockholm, in Tokyo, in New York or in London, and that is as far as it goes. Recently the Amsterdam Historical Museum asked me to think about a project to set there. This museum has a huge collection of around 7000 pieces of antique objects, furniture and painting. I designed a wall where I set 7000 rings. Each ring says van ons [from us], because this museum belongs to the people of Amsterdam. This setting is in a museum depot. So, in this case visitors may make an appointment to visit the place, following a similar proceeding than if somebody wants to see or study an antique vase. In this case, when people see my piece they can take a ring from this wall setting.

You followed a similar idea in Lisbon when you made the St. James Cross Revisited. There was also this same idea of taking away. This carries a democratic intention, doesn’t it?
It is democratic in the sense that I try to communicate with people that don’t know anything about jewellery. I mean, if I put a piece in a case in an exhibition, I cannot in the same way, communicate with people what I think about jewellery. That is why I do projects like these, so that people understand that jewellery can be related to something rather than being a piece in a case to be seen.

You also created a website named St. James Cross Revisited. It’s also a different means of communication with people in more popular way, such as the Internet is now.
Yes, that is the idea. In the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art I did a similar thing with rings. But in this case people would swap rings. During three days, people could take a ring and leave another one there. After that the work was completely different. This was in an art exhibition, but I talked about jewellery.

In this case, like in the Amsterdam Museum, the rings setting has the shape of a pistol. You also use pistols in several other pieces. What’s the meaning?
It's an icon. I first used pistols when I bought some in a street in Amsterdam and made bags with it. Now, to me it's just a shape that comes back often and often.

These are not just reflexive works of art. They go a step further and also have participative intentions. Chew your own brooch also had the same characteristics.
Yes, this idea comes back all the time, like in the Mercedes Benz also. In this sense, they all include democratic and participative intentions. Lately I used Smartphone QR code tags. You scan this code and then on the Internet you can see the jewels. At this moment there is an exhibition being held at MMKA [Dutch Museum voor Moderne Kunst) in Arnhem, that explains the project Smartphone Jewels. This exhibition is advertised on posters in the streets in the city centre. If people go through the streets and find these codes, they can see that every one of them has its own story. They can see stories about blood diamonds, for instance. We also have a film about the BOE group. When all the tags are scanned the Smartphone user receives an individual code that can be exchanged for a 3D-printed Gun-ring at MMKA. So this is the kind of democratic work I make. And on the other hand I make the bags, which I sell for a lot of money.

Other artists follow a similar process too. Do you think these last, the bags, as jewels?
I think that everything that has a relation with the body, physically or mentally, is jewellery. Jewellery is not only earrings, brooches or bracelets.

Of course not. There were groups of people that would use pieces on the body to transform it for some cultural purpose.
Everything has a reason. Arab women still use a burqa not to show their faces. About my bags, people often ask me how I make them. I will not reveal it.

This is a kind of common meaningless question or comment that people love to make too often. It’s so well made! How did you make it?
It is important to me that something is well made. But that is not all, off course. That is why, as a member of the jury of Françoise van den Bosch, my opinion was that we should have given the prize to the jeweller New Zealander Liza Walker. She is just gluing things, plastics and so on. I don’t like her work. But I like her attitude. The point was to give the price either to her or to Daniel Kruger. Of course he makes beautiful things. But I considered that it would be preferable to give the prize to an anarchist person, so that young people get the power to free themselves and become different individuals.

That is interesting. In fact people who win such kind of awards become some sort of model and can encourage others, in this case through a freer and conscious route.
The first time I saw an exhibition of her work I thought: what is this? This is plastic and glue! But even if I find it terrible, it is a reflective point about jewellery. It includes points for discussion. That is what is good about her work.

Yes, and she is also provocative.
I was disappointed just a few times in my career. 

That is being lucky!
Yes! But once it happened, following the visit of a very rich man, who runs a jewellery shop here in Amsterdam. This man and I are different, but we are also like brothers, like very close friends. Once he visited me in the atelier and brought many diamonds. He brought a box with 50000 Euros worth of diamonds in it. He asked me to make acrylic necklaces and rings with real diamonds. I had made pieces with zirconium and other stones, because to me real diamonds do not have any meaning in this kind of pieces. Anyway, following his proposal I made pieces with expensive diamonds. I gave them the title Diamonds Revisited. This man works with very rich people. So he and I thought we would sell these pieces in five minutes, because they were beautiful, aesthetical and they had the language of jewellery. But it didn’t happen. People were astonished: diamonds cast in plastic?  How could you? They were blocked. We didn’t sell one piece. We made an opening here in the atelier with champagne and Russian caviar. But they could not cooperate with this idea. It was a scandal! They refused our attitude.

Diamonds are like sacred goods in the capitalist way of reasoning.
I have made and sold some pieces with fake stones. But those anybody would understand.

That is like working on an impossible borderline.
If you look at the Coco Chanel piece it is beautiful. But to them it was an insult.

I think that there is a lot of humour in your work. There is also beauty, but one that is on the borderline between art and daily commonplaces. It is provocative. One example of it can be your Tedwalk.
I am a terrible purist! When I did Tedwalk, then I studied how it should work. Everything I do shall be big. I realized that the clothes were important, and also, I wondered if I should consider asking old or younger people. I went to a fashion school and shared my questions. Afterwards I worked with students. I told them that I wanted clothes that would be non-clothes. I didn’t want cheap things. In fact, they enjoyed that project of creating non-clothes. They had to discuss what clothes are and what fashion is. A similar situation happened with the hair design. Everything was designed.

Yes, it was all designed, that’s easily understandable when you look at it. But what I see is that in some cases – again like in Tedwalk – there is a certain kind of beauty. In others beauty is absent or is not a concern, like for instance in the settings in the Amsterdam Museum or in Tokyo. When it happens, this type of beauty has to do with an artistic attitude or intention. But it is also coincident with other types of aesthetics, which is commonly connected to aesthetic medicine and body design, with designing yourself, with wearing make-up or cosmetics.
It is cosmetic, I agree. It concerns two things. Unconsciously, I do that. Sometimes people say that all I do is strategy. No, it is not. People, mostly from the jewellery field, also think that I am very clever and rich. In fact, I use humour and cosmetics. This is not to please people, but to make an entrance.

You say it is unconscious? It seems to be an intentional way to communicate. Do you do this so that people understand better on a first level and then go deeper into comprehension? So you join together cosmetics and humour following the same intention?
That is it, I think so. They are tools to communicate. They are not the final goal, which is hidden. My goal is critical and absurd, which is a more complicated stage.

You propose it as a public experience with two levels. Let's say, a package, which is cosmetics and humour, and the package content, which has a critical meaning. Is it so?
Yes, like two levels of possible interpretation. I often hear different stories about what people see in my work. At times I am surprised because I didn’t realize how far interpretations could go. 

Interpretations are also different, depending on who makes the arguments, a philosopher or a critic involved with the art world or somebody else. Is it part of your democratic way of facing art, emphasising different interpretations?
That is different. The democratic side has to do with making understandable work, showed in places where people get confronted with new jewellery ways. If you put a difficult piece in a vitrine in a museum communication doesn’t flow.

That’s probably why at times you show pieces in commonplaces or unexpected places, where people are not as used to deal with jewellery. Is it so?
Yes. But on the other hand I also show pieces that can have a function to a very small elite of art people. I make different things, depending on the context.

Maybe the shapes of your works are surprisingly different. But what is relevant is that you propose new experiences, you propose the participation of the public.
Sometimes I hear that my work is populist. I don’t agree.
Well, if you look in the first place it seems easier to understand. But this is a challenge, because if you look again it is not. So there is more than what you can see. You offer subjects to think about.
Ted Noten – Mainly a friend that considers it is populist, makes a very philosophical work, but also somehow autistic. These kinds of works are hard to compare, or shouldn’t even be compared.

If on a second level of communication you include matters to think about, you also include philosophical statements. The first level, with its humour, is like a cosmetic mask that the spectator has the chance to unveil. But now I would like to set another and different question. How important are crafts to you? You also use 3D printing.
3D printing is important. I am working now on a project that is called Seven Necessities, which is 3D printed. I use this process as a tool. This is a new craft, in the same way that the one that works with these digital processes is a new craftsman. This brings out again my rebellious side. A lot of people now want to go back in time. Richard Sennett says that the only way that humankind can be creative is by working with its own hands. Computer designers shape things, without touching materials and that is why some people consider that computer design has no soul. Let me tell you an anecdote. I once asked a girl to design an apple. She started to Google for pictures of apples before starting to make a 3D one. Then she showed me how it could be seen, while she was turning it around. At that stage, I told her to go and buy an apple, to look around it and feel what that real and single one was like. After learning how to look at it she designed quite a different apple. So for her it is not necessary to spend five years hammering and sawing like jewellers usually do. She is very young and from another generation. Her brains are different than ours, she can do multitasking. I am trying to find out more about this, instead of going back to those romantic crafts, which are a sentimental story. You cannot neglect new procedures as well as you cannot neglect new ways of thinking. We have to find new dialogs, between the craftsman who works with his hands and the new craftsman. 

Atelier Ted Noten. Amsterdam, 2011, November 1.


>> Read the complete thesis (Spanish)

PhD Doctoral Thesis: Contemporary Jewelery as Art: A Philosophical Study
Doctoral Student: Ana Maria Cabral Almeida Campos
Thesis Director:  PHD Doctor Gerard Vilar Roca
Language: Spanish

About the author

Ana Campos was born in Porto, Portugal, 1953. She is a jewellery designer, lecturer and was the coordinator of the Jewellery Art BA course and of the Post Graduation course at ESAD - Academy of Art and Design, in Matosinhos, Portugal (1995-2013).

She graduated in Communication Design at Fine Art Faculty, Porto University. She studied jewellery design at Ar.Co in Lisbon, and later post-graduated at the Massana School in Barcelona, with a scholarship from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Her post-graduate studies in Intercultural Relations at the Open University in Porto led to a Masters Degree in Visual Anthropology. Following this last, her Master dissertation, presented in 2000, is entitled Sky and Sea: Ramón Puig, actor in a new jewellery scenario. The anthropologist José Ribero supervised it.
In November 2014, she presented her PhD studies in philosophy at UAB, Barcelona Autonomous University. The philosopher Gerard Vilar supervised it. This thesis is entitled Contemporary jewellery as art: a philosophical study. In both her Master and PhD studies, she received the highest possible mark, concerning the mentioned universities: Master – Very Good; PhD – Excellent.

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