Judith Scott’s What is Property?: An Inquiry into Principles of Dependency, Propriety and Self-Possession of an ‘Outsider’ Artist | Soyoung Yoon

Obstinacy is not a ‘natural’ characteristic, but emerges out of destitution. It is the protest against expropriation reduced to a single point, the result of the expropriation of one’s own sense that interface with the external world.
Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt, History and Obstinacy, 1981

The artist Park McArthur asks: “Could we consider Judith Scott’s work as ‘institutional critique’?”1

In a recent retrospective of Judith Scott’s work at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014~5, sculpture no. 27 is distinct in that, as the exhibition label tells us, it is “the only completely monochromatic work [Scott] made.” [Figure 1] In contrast to other works of the exhibition, this untitled sculpture is not bound together with yarn, thread, fabric, and other fibers of bold, vivid colors. It is constructed out of paper towels. Scott recovered the paper towels from a restroom or kitchen at the Creative Growth Art Center, when she temporarily found herself without her usual supplies. The paper towels are pulled, twisted, and tightly knotted together, to assemble a complex three-dimensional shape that at first blush suggests a triangular clam of considerable heft. Each knot, and the precise gesture and the pressure of the grip that it necessitated, is accentuated by the taut stretch of the paper that has become more brittle over time, as the sculpture itself has become more impenetrable and unyielding in its closely-woven density. Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt spoke of the significance of the development of the precision grip as a capacity of labor, the gripping of tools, levers, handles, knobs, buttons, and switches, through which the hand had became a sophisticated organ of perception “over the course of a long chain of relays.” They also point to the grip of the midwife as she assists the child’s movement through the birth canal. “Labor,” Kluge and Negt argue, “not only consists of commodity production, but also engenders social relations and develops community. It possesses OBSTINACY. Its product is HISTORY.”2 And what I would add here is not only the history and community behind — beyond — Scott’s labor of pulling, twisting, and knotting, but also its obstinacy, the persistence of her art, by any means necessary.

My first encounter with Judith Scott’s sculptures was also conditioned by a call for a different mode of critique: a now-iconic photograph of the artist and her work by the photographer Leon Borensztein, selected by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick for the frontispiece to her book, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003).[Figure 2] In the introduction to Touching Feeling, Sedgwick describes how Scott’s work functioned as both a catalyst and a model for Sedgwick’s book, a work characterized by its “structural recalcitrance.”3 The book is a collection of disparate essays that is also “a distinct project, one that has occupied a decade’s work, which has nonetheless, and with increasing stubbornness, refused to become linear in structure.”4 The writing of the book seems to twin Scott’s own method of working: a congealing of a persistent, even obsessional, engagement over ten years, a process with a gravitational pull towards select objects (in Sedgwick’s case, select theoretical texts), which functioned not so much as signposts as bodies of mass. (“I’m fond of observing how obsession is the most durable form of intellectual capital.”5) And if the writing is a congealing of sorts, it is also a loosening, which accompanies Sedgwick’s decreasing sense of definition in her vocation as an academic, an intellectual, and a writer: to hold on is also to let go, so that “ideally life, loves, and ideas might then sit freely, for a while, on the palm of the open hand.”6 The completed book then materializes a particular form of stubbornness. And Sedgwick adds in a parenthetical aside, “yes, I’m a Taurus.”7 This essay will be in part an homage to such forms of stubbornness or obstinacy in Judith Scott’s work — and to Scott, who was born on May 1, 1943 and thus was a Taurus too — from an admiring Capricorn. For we Capricorns are also a stubborn people. And I will return to this stubbornness and its particular implications for perceiving and experiencing the work of Scott’s work, its mass, its gravitational pull.

For Sedgwick, Borensztein’s photograph is significant in the way that it speaks to the relation between Scott and her completed work. Emphasis is placed on the nature of this “and” as neither a proprietary relation nor a relation of linear causality between artist and work, between “subject” and “object”:

For me, to experience a subject-object distance from this image is no more plausible than to envision such a relation between Scott and her work. She and her creation here present themselves to one another with equally expansive welcome. Through their closeness, the sense of sight is seen to dissolve in favor of that touch. Not only the artist’s hands and bare forearms but her face are busy with the transaction of texture. Parents and babies, twins (Scott is a twin), or lovers might commune through such haptic absorption. There is no single way to understand the ‘beside-ness’ of these two forms, even though one of them was made by the other.8

Borensztein’s photograph of Scott and her work, and Sedgwick’s reading of their “beside-ness,” addresses a particularly prominent question that has framed the interpretation and reception of Scott’s work as “outsider art”: the challenge and difficulty of mediating between “formal analysis” of the work on the one hand and its “biographical and historical context” on the other. It is a challenge that is not singular to Scott’s work nor Scott as an artist. We can situate the interpretive challenge posed by Scott’s work within the continued debates about the politics of abstraction versus representation, of formalism versus realism — as well as with a questioning about the very definition of the political, and the questioning about who has the “right” to abstraction, who bears the burden of representation as if it were a birthmark, every mark but a mark of an over-determination by history, by identity. In the interpretation of Scott’s work, the challenge of mediating between “formal analysis” and the “biographical and historical context” is exacerbated by, on the one hand, the thickly-textured abstraction and opacity of Scott’s work and, on the other, the opacity of her thoughts and feelings as much as they were not spoken nor written, an opacity that seems to be doubly-confirmed by the “facts” of Scott’s biography, the lived experience of her developmental and physical disability.9 Judith Scott (1943–2005) was born with Down syndrome. She was deaf and largely unable to speak. She was institutionalized for thirty-six years, before joining the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, CA, in 1987, where she would produce her entire body of work in the following seventeen years.

The politics of this biography was forcefully foregrounded in the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, where Catherine Morris, the co-curator of the exhibition, observes that even “run-of-the-mill curatorial decisions” like from which vantage point to install the work became the very matter of feminist curating. “Why all this hand-wringing in order to implement these fairly anodyne display structures? And why describe what may be a rather overdetermined process of analysis to get there?,” Morris asks. “Because one of the biggest challenges to presenting the work of an artist whose voice was sharply circumscribed by her life experience is to avoid adding layers of interpretation that can calcify into a narrative fable.”10

What does the work mean? What does it want of me?: In an eloquent review of the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, the critic Sarah Lookofsky begins her account with a reference to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince (1943) and its opening story of a scene of mis-recognition [méconnaissance].11 The narrator, as a child of six years old, is fascinated by adventures of “the primeval forest,” particularly the story of a boa constrictor that swallows and digests its prey whole. The child draws a simple picture of the snake ingesting an elephant, and asks the adults: “Are you afraid?” The adults answer: “Why would I be afraid of a hat?” They follow up with the very grown-up advice to lay aside such drawings for “geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar.” The child stops his drawings and his dreaming; this is a coming-of-age story. And for the now-grown-up narrator of the Little Prince, the drawing of the boa constrictor swallowing an elephant continues to function as a talisman of sorts in search of the innocence and wisdom of childhood lost. First, let’s consider how Lookofsky underscores her experience of the restlessness of Scott’s work as a “shape-shifting between things like hats and processes like boa constrictors swallowing elephant.” There is the perception of a morphing from the being of the banal to the radical dissolution or becoming of the extraordinary. Noun becomes verb with an absurd, exultant leap in scale. Second, let’s underscore our own experience of estrangement, the laughter and the shiver, at this becoming: “What does it mean? what is it trying to tell me? what is it asking of me? what does it want of me [che voui?]” In the general reception of Scott’s work, with a recurring regularity, there is an all-too-quick deflection from “what does it mean?” into “what did she mean?” Dare we acknowledge — and linger longer — with our own discomfort, embarrassment, even fear, that this is not for me, that it wants nothing of me, that “I” might not exist for this work? Are you afraid?

In a 2013 interview between Kevin Killian and Joyce Scott, Judith Scott’s twin sister, included in the accompanying catalog to the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, there is another moment of an all-too-quick deflection, when we cut from the story of Judith Scott’s “asylum years” in Ohio, from the age of 7 to her years at Oakland’s Creative Growth Art Center, from the age of 43, on April 1, 1987, that is, her “productive” years as an artist:

KK: I’m too upset to go on with the asylum years. Now let’s move on to the cheerful part, after you brought Judy to live with you, and in 1987, when she encountered the artist Sylvia Seventy in a workshop at Creative Growth.

JS: Yay!12

Listen to the modality of the cut. We have approached the part of the interview where we are working through the records of Scott’s institutionalization for 36 years, first at the Columbus State School, formerly known as the Ohio Asylum for the Education of Idiotic and Imbecilic Youth, and then at the Gallipolis Developmental Center. The interview conveys the sister’s initial horror at reading Judith Scott’s records when she became Scott’s guardian. The records indicate the violence of the asylum’s repeated attempts at disciplining Scott — the taking away of her crayons (because she was mis-diagnosed as “too retarded”), the repeated evaluations that state she was “a bad child,” the pulling out of all of her teeth, the numerous application of antipsychotic drugs (“…as pharmaceutical guinea pigs…” “Yes, just like people in prison”), as well as the disturbing absence for over twenty years of any records regarding Scott. As the facts accumulate, there is an abrupt shift of direction and affect, a cut: “I’m too upset to go on…Now let’s move on to the cheerful part…” The cut is rendered emphatic with an exclamation mark that speaks not only for the interviewer’s relief but also for our relief, the relief of the audience, cueing us that this is a story with a happy ending. My aim here is not to query with the ending itself, but rather to linger longer with the movement of that “yay!,” acknowledge our desire for a happy ending and how it propels a particular “narrative fable” of resurrection and redemption. The fable is of a “metamorphosis” — as John MacGregor, the critic of Art Brut, entitles his 1999 book about Judith Scott. “We can see what most outsider stories actually are,” Hilton Als says, “replications of the Christian stories of suffering, shot through with the dark and light of redemption and belief.13” It’s a type of story-telling in which the desire for an ending speaks to a need for deliverance — a deliverance that is also a disavowal.

In a panel discussion that accompanied the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, Park McArthur proposed a question that initially was counter-intuitive: “Could we consider Judith Scott’s work as ‘institutional critique’?” Turning to the aforementioned section of the interview between Killian and Joyce Scott, McArthur emphasizes how Judith Scott’s institutionalization is accounted for not only through the records but also through the absence of records: the destruction or withholding of Scott’s records of twenty of the thirty-five years that she was institutionalized. If institutions speak to and of themselves via the keeping and destruction of records, McArthur suggests in Scott’s work a mode of “institutional resistance” — if not institutional critique — via “a sort of resistant form of living in the institution of Columbus State School and outside of it”:

Instead of baby pictures some people have medical records, instead of home movies some people have diagnostic charts, instead of scrapbooks some people have immigration court hearings, instead of personal diaries some people have future work yet to be done. One of the things that artists do is that they bring the means of producing recording closer to themselves even if this means a production that has to be done by stealing the means of production or demanding it or by taking it by kind of any means necessary.”14

I’d argue that accounting for such resistance necessarily intertwines with a lingering-longer with the story of institutions, organizations, associations, and the material conditions of Scott’s lived experience, not only for the persistence of the effects of her “asylum years” in her work, but also the work that would not have been possible without the infrastructural and structural support of organizations like the Creative Growth Art Center and family members and caregivers such as her sister. As a mode of critique, such accounting urges a method of seeing, of reading, which (re)discovers the “record” of a life, of lives, in our very perception of the work’s shape, proportion, weight, entwining and clash of colors and textures, movement of binding and unbinding. As we busy our faces with the transaction of texture, as Sedgwick might put it, we find or rather are found by the “document” of a resistant form of living, which is not so much an expression of self as the art of a particular embodiment of political and social conditions that render some more “disabled,” more “precarious,” than others. “My art is more optimistic than I am. I tend to bitch and complain, but I keep proselytizing,” McArthur quotes from the artist Hannah Wilke, “I have always used my art to have life around me. Art is for life’s sake. Politicizing its preciousness pleases me.”15

In contrast to a model of determination inherited from idealism, especially from a theological view of our relation to the world, which presumes “an external cause which totally predicts or prefigures, indeed totally controls a subsequent activity,” Raymond Williams proposed that there is a necessity to consider a different mode of determination that is concomitant with the experience of social practice, “a notion of determination as setting limits, exerting pressures.”16 Following Williams, the question is not how Scott’s institutionalization defined her (or not), but how her institutionalization set limits and exerted pressures in her work — and how these limits and pressures were embodied as forms of stubbornness, stubbornness that is a product both of her institutionalization as well as of her resistances against it.

Near the end of the interview, Killian and Joyce Scott discuss Judith Scott’s discipline as an artist, drawing attention to her daily diligence, describing a work-schedule that had been shaped into the regularity of a typical work-week. Scott, we are told, was “an artist who worked five days a week and six hours a day.”17 The interview portrays an artist who not only made work but worked. And her sister Joyce adds, if Judy was diligent at work, she was also sociable after work, taking care of those she lived with, enjoying her “downtime” in the evenings and over the weekends. In short, she was “a good worker,” a productive subject. However, the interview, almost despite itself, also hints at a certain excess in Scott’s self-discipline, the suggestion of a difficult and uncontrollable intractability, a stubbornness that could but be stopped with the threat of violence: “She had a strong sense of routine, very common among people with Down syndrome, so during her workday you’d almost have to put a gun to her head to stop.”18 When does the work stop? Does it ever end? Does it have an end, a purpose?

In Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt’s History and Obstinacy (1981), recently translated into English in 2014, stubbornness is a property that bears a dialectical relation with capital’s expropriation of the senses. Described at times as the missing half of Marx’s Capital, History and Obstinacy focuses on the development of living labor and the interiorization and reproduction of the logic of capital at the level of habits, desires, gestures, and expressions. As Devin Fore clarifies in his incisive introduction to the English translation of History and Obstinacy, it’s a shift of focus shared by others such as Michel Foucault and his contemporaneous lectures on bio-politics, and they reflect a decisive shift in the strategy of capital “from exploitation to ‘imploitation,’” that is, “exploiting the inner resources of the living subject.”19 The question is “Can capital say ‘I’?” For instance, there is the long history (of “hundreds of years,” “thousands of years”) of the development and appropriation of “the capacity for learning, discipline, the capacity for abstraction, punctuality” — as well as the repression and atrophy of undervalued capacities and senses. The latter senses, however, do not simply disappear. It survives and persists, as stubbornness. Capital’s expropriation of the senses both produces and is countered by obstinacy, by history:

For every trait that is capitalized, another is shunted aside. As a result, alongside a primary economy of labor traits established through the historical mode of production there emerges within the human subject a secondary black market economy where isolated from the authority of the ego and capital’s logic of valorization repressed and derealized traits take on a intransigent life of there own.20

In History and Obstinacy, there is another story of childhood, not that of the innocence and wisdom of childhood lost (as in the case of The Little Prince), but that of a stubborn child from the Brothers Grimm.

Once upon a time there was a stubborn child who never did what his mother told him to do. The dear Lord, therefore, did not look kindly upon him and let him become sick. No doctor could cure him, and in a short time, he lay on his deathbed. After he was lowered into his grave and was covered with earth, one of his little arms suddenly emerged and reached up into the air. They pushed it back down and covered the earth with fresh earth, but that did not help. The little arm kept popping out. So the child’s mother had to go the grave herself and smack the little arm with a switch. After she had done that, the arm withdrew, and then, for the first time, the child had peace beneath the earth.21

Kluge and Negt underscores the obstinacy of the child’s behavior, its persistence in the diminutive, concentrated form of the little arm popping up again and again, in spite of or rather because of the repeated attempts at restraint. And these attempts speak to the violence of a “primitive accumulation” that functions as a primal scene, repeated over and over again, for the reproduction of capitalist subjectivity.22 “The discipline experienced by the obstinate child even from beneath the grave is the moral answer to a previously unsuccessful collective expropriation of the senses. Had it been successful, it would not have necessitated persecution that goes to the bone. Such a traumatic horror lasts for centuries in the ranks of society.”23 Obstinacy then is a form of “protest,” which is both the result of and persistence against such expropriation of the senses.


At the end of the interview, Killian and Joyce Scott discusses Judith Scott’s habit of stealing in her appropriation of this and that found object, objects that are folded into her weaving, wrapping, bundling, that is, her de-forming of the banal into the exuberance and liberation of the barely-recognizable. [Figure 3] X-ray examinations have been deployed to reveal what is hidden within the sculptures, as if the obscurity, the seeming lack of meaning of the work would be answered by a secretive nature. To this particular “narrative fable,” this hermeneutics of truth, I would add a rejoinder: let us resist being mother, resist smacking the little arm with the switch, that is, resist the desire to deflect, resolve, and answer the question that the work seems to pose again and again. For a while at least. And in lieu of an ending, I pause this essay with a projected fantasy of my own. If the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had declared that “property is theft!” in his What is Property?(1840), then this “stealing” by Judith Scott is a radical, anarchic refusal of the very logic of appropriation and privation — as well as of the notion of private property that undergirds the sense of property in my own self, my identity.24 And let us enumerate here some of the items that Scott’s work was found to have swallowed and digested: an ex-husband's paycheck, keys, a wedding ring.25 These are the very markers of our social reproduction swallowed, remade, rendered uncanny. It is in this sense —via this fiction—that I would like to think of Judith Scott, born on May 1, 1943, thus a Taurus but also born on May Day, as resistant, defiant, and in protest.

1 Park McArthur, Panel Discussion: “May 1, 1943,” with Trina Rose, Soyoung Yoon, on January 8, 2015, in conjunction with the exhibition Judith Scott—Bound and Unbound, Brooklyn Museum, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn, NY (October 24, 2014—March 29, 2015).

2 Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt, History and Obstinacy, ed. Devin Fore, trans. Richard Langston et al. (New York, Zone Books: 2014), 73. “That precise feeling with which a person in China, Europe, or the United States tightens a screw (‘it fits,’ ‘like a glove,’ ‘it wiggles,’ ‘has clearance’) is a characteristic that all workers mutually recognize, but that evolved over the course of a long chain of relays,” 73.

3 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2003), 2.

4 Sedgwick, 1.

5 Sedgwick, 2.

6 Sedgwick, 3. “I don’t suppose it’s necessarily innocuous when a fully fluent, well-rewarded language user, who has never lacked any educational opportunity, fastens with such a strong sense of identification on a photograph, an oeuvre, and a narrative like these of Judith Scott’s. Yet oddly, I think my identification with Scott is less as the subject of some kind of privation than as the holder of an obscure treasure, or as a person receptively held by it….But in acknowledging the sense of tenderness towards a treasured gift that wants exploring, I suppose I also identify with the very expressive sadness and fatigue in this photograph. Probably one reason Scott’s picture was catalytic for this hard-to-articulate book: it conveys an affective and aesthetic fullness that can attach even to experiences of cognitive frustration…” Sedgwick, 24.

7 Sedgwick, 2.

8 Sedgwick, 22-23.

9 See for instance John M. MacGregor, Metamorphosis: The Fiber Art of Judith Scott (Oakland, CA, Creative Growth Art Center: 1999). Note the rhetorical turns resorted to in describing Scott’s work in this summary of Metamorphosis: “Judith Scott, a sixty year old woman with Down’s Syndrome, has spent the past fifteen years producing a series of totally non-functional objects – obsessively wrapped, knotted, braided fiber masses revealing hints of concealed scavenged objects, pieces which loom large and wraithlike or sit as small tightly wound secrets. Her works, to us, appear to be works of Outsider Art sculpture, except that the notion of sculpture is far beyond her understanding. As well as being mentally disabled, Judith cannot hear or speak, and she has little concept of language. There is no way of asking her what she is doing, yet her compulsive involvement with the shaping of forms in space seems to imply that at some level she knows. Does mental retardation invariably preclude the creation of true works of art? Is it plausible to imagine an artist of stature emerging in the context of massively impaired intellectual development?” http://creativegrowth.myshopify.com/products/metamorphosis-the-fiber-art-of-judith-scott

10 Catherine Morris, “Introduction: Judith Scott and the Politics of Biography” in Judith Scott: Bound & Unbound, ed. Catherine Morris and Matthew Higgs, exhibition catalogue to Judith Scott—Bound and Unbound (Prestel and Brooklyn Museum: Delmonico Books, 2014), 11. “There are photos that document Scott working in the studio which, while confirming her single-minded devotion to her craft as well as her sense of humor, offer few clues for presenting the completed object beyond the way she chose to have her pieces sit on a table as she worked. We know Scott turned her objects as she worked on them, but did she prefer some vantage point for looking at them? In some cases, it does seem clear that pieces have a front and a back, but if such a work is largely flat, as are several significant examples, can we hang something on the wall that the artist never put there?…”

11 Sarah Lookofsky, “Judith Scott: Brooklyn Museum,” review of Judith Scott—Bound and Unbound, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY, artforum.com / critic’s picks https://www.artforum.com/picks/id=49604

12 Kevin Killian, “An Interview with Joyce Scott,” in Judith Scott: Bound & Unbound, 42.

13 Hilton Als, “Sideshow: A Revival of ‘The Elephant Man,” The New Yorker (December 22 & 29, 2014) http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/12/22/sideshow-2

14 Park McArthur, Panel Discussion: “May 1, 1943,” with Trina Rose, Soyoung Yoon, on January 8, 2015, in conjunction with the exhibition Judith Scott—Bound and Unbound, Brooklyn Museum, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art (October 24, 2014—March 29, 2015). For the discussion, McArthur presented this statement with a slide that juxtaposed the image of a discharge record from Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, NC, which closed a few years ago, and an image from On Kawara’s postcard series. The discharge record is a facsimile from 1978, with headers and stamps of various bureaucratic departments, and includes descriptions of the discharged patient under the following headers, “statistical information,” “brief hospital course,” “condition on discharge,” “physical diagnosis,” “admitting psychiatric diagnoses,” “final primary psychiatric diagnosis,” “secondary diagnosis”; the record includes one direct quotation of the patient: “I have been trying to kill myself.” On Kawara’s postcard is from 1969, and it too has headers and stamps of various bureaucratic departments; it also includes one direct quotation from the artist, “I got up at 4:28 p.m.”

15 McArthur; Quotation from Marvin Jones, Interview with Hannah Wilke, “Politicizing Art: Hannah Wilke’s Art, Politics, Religion, and Feminism,” The New Common Good (May 1985), 11.

16 Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” New Left Review 82 (November-December 1973), 12. Williams also adds that there is a limitation in the

17 Killian, 43.

18 Killian, 43.

19 Devin Fore, Introduction to History & Obstinacy, 19.

20 Fore, 35.

21 Kluge and Negt, 292.

22 See Karl Marx on “primitive accumulation” in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1977); See also Jason Read, “Primitive Accumulation: The Aleatory Foundation of Capitalism,” Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Summer 2002), 24-49. “What ‘primitive accumulation’ reveals is that there is no mode of production without a corresponding mode of subjection, or a production of subjectivity. The ‘economy,’ as something isolated and quantifiable, exists only insofar as it is sustained by its inscription in the state, the law, habits, and desires.” Read, 45. As Read and others question what are the contemporary equivalents of “the commons” that are destroyed and privatized through new and continued forms of primitive accumulation, they emphasize that “it is increasingly the power of life itself, the capacity to reproduce and live, from the genetic code to the basic necessities of existence, that like the feudal commons, is increasingly coming under the rule of ‘absolute private property.’” Read, 46. The need then for a continued and renewed form of protest in and through where we insist again and again “Art is for life’s sake. Politicizing it’s preciousness pleases me…”

23 Kluge and Negt, 292.

24 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government (1840). “If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery? and I should answer in one word, It is murder!, my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argume

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