A conversation with Dr. David Gussak about his new book "The Frenzied Dance of Art and Violence." Gussak’s new book examines violence as a touchstone throughout the history of art from artists like Caravaggio who struggled with violent behavior, to artists like Picasso whose work was influenced by atrocities to the paintings and drawings of infamous serial killers. In our conversation, Dr. Gussak guides us through the psychological analysis of violence’s role in the art making process while also providing insights from his decades of professional experience in art therapy for the incarcerated.
Craig: [00:00:10] This is Art Sense, a podcast focus on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I speak with Dr. David Gussak about his new book, The Frenzied Dance of Art and Violence. Gus Sachs new book examines violence as a touchstone throughout the history of art from artists like Caravaggio, who struggled with violent behavior, including murder to artists like Picasso, whose work was influenced by atrocities to the paintings and drawings of infamous serial killers. In our conversation, Dr. Gussak guides us through the psychological analysis of violence, his role in the art making process, while also providing insights from his decades of professional experience in art therapy for the incarcerated. And now my conversation regarding the frenzied dance of art and violence with Dr. David Gussak. Craig: [00:01:15] Dr. David Gussak, thank you so much for joining me today on the Art Science podcast to talk about your new book, The Frenzied Dance of Art and Violence. That's an upcoming publication, so tell us a little bit about your book and where it started and how you got going. David: [00:01:33] It's it's well, actually may be a good idea to start from the beginning where it all came from, because I think, well, it took me about eight years to write this book. It really is a culmination of about 30 years of work as an art therapist and I've I've been an art therapist for for that long, and I began even before that, working with aggressive adolescents in Southern California, working with gang members and in a facility on a locked acute unit. And I saw that a lot of the work that they were producing was a way for them to facilitate connection interaction identity. And I had started working in a prison shortly after graduating with my master's degree, so I had been working a lot with violent and aggressive people and seeing that the art was a valuable means for them to redirect, sublimate their aggressive and violent impulses, create non-verbal means of expression and ways to connect and feel that there was a person that would accept who they were through the very art. I mean, that's, you know, that's that's 30 years of work, culminating in, you know, 18 words. But so so this book, The Frenzied Dance of Art and Violence, actually emerged from a conversation that I had with a previous editor from a book that was published and released in 2013, which was art on trial, art therapy and in capital murder cases in which I wrote about my experience as an expert witness for death row murder trial. And while I was speaking with my editor, Jennifer Perillo at Columbia University Press at the time, we started just talking like we always do, and she had discovered that I had been asked to do a series of lectures for to reflect on the work of John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer out of Chicago.Show More >
David: [00:03:34] And I had gone to Las Vegas to speak about this work and reflect on it and see what it may reveal, what it may reflect and and kind of explore the notion of. Of why such violent people may have created. And she was surprised when not only that he had done that work, but that there were a lot of serial killers and multiple murderers who had created a lot of artwork, and she had actually suggested at the time that there was a book in this. And quite frankly, I didn't want to do that. I thought that the notion of doing a book on the work of serial killers would kind of propagate the the very essence of what they wanted, which was an ongoing immortality, so to speak, that they were, that they that this would reinforce the narcissistic and grandiosity, narcissism and grandiosity. And so I said, you know, I just didn't think that was a good idea. But the more I reflected on that, the more I realized and I started digging deeper that although I knew for all these years that art in our therapy was beneficial for violent and aggressive populations, as I started digging deeper, I realized that there was already a natural relationship between art and aggression and, by extension, art and violence. David: [00:04:58] Ellen Dissanayake, one of my my favorite one of my favorite people. She's in what you might consider a cultural anthropologist wrote in some of her early works back in the nineties, which really fueled some of my early work, which was that there was a already an existing relationship between creativity and libidinal. And basically, what she said was that the impulses that drives some people to violence are the same impulses that drive people to create or drive artists to create, and that there have been lots of literature that do indeed link impulsive and aggressive tendencies towards towards art making. And so what I realize is that while I was always concerned about how art can help mitigate, redirect, sublimate, aggressive and violent energy, I'm also realizing that creative endeavors. Emerge from it and rely on those same aggressive, violent impulses, so I saw it as almost a frenzied tango, which I thought was just a two sided, you know, two sides of the same coin, two sides of the same dancing relationship. But then I realized that it was a lot messier than that. And so when I started looking at the work of serial killers, I was realizing that for them, art was a tool or a weapon and didn't set aside aggressive and violent tendencies and certainly wasn't fed by a sublimation of their energy, but was rather an extension of their grandiosity, narcissism and for lack of a better way of saying it. Further ways to attack the very people that look at the work. Craig: [00:06:41] It's my impression that you kind of peel away that onion by looking at artists from art history who expressed violent nature. Artists from art history whose work was maybe not necessarily inspired but you know took a certain energy from violence that had occurred in their life. And then the third, the third piece being these characteristically violent people who just happened to make art. Right? What do we see in terms of of overlap? David: [00:07:21] Well, the overlap is the and I think the way you just summarized it was beautifully said, so much better than the way I said it. But the overlap is that there is already an existing psychic energy and a drive that exists with the aggressive and in some cases, violent tendencies that drives a person to create that there's already a natural relationship between creativity and the and the drive to make art. Now, I don't I think there's the overlap in the case of those who. Whose byproducts of their of their narcissistic and grandiosity were products, I wouldn't necessarily say they were creative, but they were all exhibited through products that demonstrated their already existing psychic energy. And so when you're looking at historically, what I discovered, of course, were and this was actually kind of a lot of fun. As this project continued, I tried to keep somewhat limited because of the size of the book. I didn't want it to be an encyclopedia. I would start looking at artists who were considered violent by nature. And so, of course, absolutely Caravaggio fit in there and Chiellini fit in there. And then Dali was a no brainer. And then, of course, you know, Jackson Pollock emerged, but his work was much more of a a very controlled chaos and very much of a way to contain that, that frenetic energy that was released into violence, if it was unrestrained because of alcohol or drugs similar to Modigliani and then Richard Dodd, who had a mental illness. But then I started looking at those who used art as a means of of controlling and containing and feeling a sense of escape or safety in very violent surroundings. David: [00:09:13] And those were people like Goya who tried to make sense of the wars around him through that imagery. You had Beckmann, Max Beckmann and Felix Nussbaum. And but you also had Van Nath and Bill Traylor. And surprisingly, a lot of people were surprised that I included somebody like Norman Rockwell in there who's towards the later end of his career when he was unrestrained by having to do covers for the Saturday Evening Post. All of a sudden started really expressing the conflict that was going on in the world and in the country and and did it in such a way that was so captivating and almost. I hate to say it this way, but it was almost validating when somebody like like Bill Traylor, who had experienced slavery and Jim Crow and and was was held down because of the color of his skin and his artwork contained all of this energy and this reflection of all of this aggression and violence against him. And he dies in a pauper's grave because he's black. And then you have Norman Rockwell, who's as a witness, right, capturing the very same unfairness and horrors that trailer experience he's witnessing, but his art is given a lot more visibility because he's white and there's a... And so I'm trying to untangle some of those things, but there were, as far as I was concerned, two sides of the same coin. And and that made sense to me that there was these artists that, you know, that relied on this aggression and violence to create their natural tendencies. David: [00:10:50] And then there were these artists that used the art to escape. And then, like I said, all of a sudden, everything gets thrown out of kilter when I'm looking at the work of the serial killer. There's actually one chapter in there that that looks at the continuum along. If you take the segment of the Holocaust, many people do know that that Adolf Hitler was a self-professed artist. And but his art, very much like those are the mass murderers. The multiple murderers were devoid of emotion and they were technical and they were banal. They were, quite frankly, they were inhuman and he did it. And he made this art to try and further his own narcissistic and grandiosity because at that time, art was considered a viable, you know, it would be self validating. And so on the other side of that spectrum, you have these incredible artists that emerged who were victims of the Holocaust. You know, you've got the artists from the Terezin incident like Ungerer and, you know, and Troller and their work. And then you've got some of the works that were discovered and they were found in in Auschwitz and the ghettos like Wozniack and and their art was so much more expressive and so much more life affirming. Right. And and they were compelled to create knowing full well that if their art was discovered, they would be destroyed and yet they couldn't hold back. They needed this to dehumanize them, gain a sense of identity. When everything else was going to be destroyed, their art was fed by what was going on around them. Craig: [00:12:40] I'm sure you had to do quite a bit of research into the psychology and neuroscience in writing the book. But is there is there a particular part of the limbic system that that we see as being bought me? It seems like part of this is related to impulse control, which I guess would be the prefrontal cortex. Or is it? Is it something bigger? I mean, is it something that is more related to, I guess, you know, it's probably all over the place, right? Because part of this is, like you said, a grandiosity and narcissism. It probably just depends on which artists we're talking about and in exactly what, what their particular inputs and in psyches were. Right? David: [00:13:27] You know, that's a really interesting question, because I don't think it's necessarily has to do with the artist. I think it has to do with the person is looking at the art meaning or the person who is trying to theorize about this in the chapters. I actually break down the various theoretical and positions psychological and sociological concepts of where violence and aggression derives from. So there's a section in the introduction. The introduction is fairly lengthy, and it's called called the art of Violence, the violence of art. And it's about and it looks at the where art we're sorry, where aggression violence may emerge from from the neurological standpoint, the limbic system, the dopamine, you know, the. And you know, I have to be honest, it's been so long since I wrote that section that I was actually reading the book again just before this meeting and and trying to be reacquainted. And so but there are certainly some wonderful theoretical positions on how where aggression and violence resides in the brain, neurologically speaking and how art helps release and and express and mitigate some of those neurological storms that may exist. Some of my early studies really examined how art facilitated an improvement in locus of control moving from external to internal, which is, of course, a neurological and cognitive behavioral concept. Yet I also examined how violence and aggression and how art helps mitigate that through social theory and behavioral theory and psychodynamic theory. But what I eventually settled on, which is my own personal theoretical position, was relying on a social interaction perspective the very act of creating art, giving a sense of self. Using art as a means of of healthy social interaction. That accepting one's art from someone else. Mitigate the frustration and that they may experience through not being accepted by others, which, if unexpressed on an accepted maybe may result in aggressive and violent tendencies. So to me, social interaction was a wonderful umbrella to encompass object relations, psychodynamic perspectives, cognitive behavioral theories, neurobiological. So whichever psychological theory you subscribe to, the social interaction theory says that may be where it's come from, but this is how it can be mitigated and resolved. Craig: [00:16:04] You know, when I look at an artist like Picasso, I know that he's on your list. There are particular instances where his work was really influenced by acts of violence, and I think of it when he was a very young man. The events associated with his best friend, Casagemas, you know, committing suicide in in the course of an attempted murder. And then, of course, you know, probably one of the world's greatest paintings, Guernica, which is associated with the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. Maybe you could just kind of speak to, you know, some of the particular events that you you saw affecting some of these specific artists that you looked at and maybe how their work was fundamentally changed based on how they were affected. David: [00:16:54] First off, I think it's it's wonderful that you bring up Guernica that is actually Chapter seven called "Guernica: Painted from Violence, a Palette for Peace" in which two art educators use the Guernica template as a way to reach children all over the world who are dealing with aggression and violence in their countries of origin, who are experiencing a peace, shattering events and using the very model to help bring people together and create these works. So I think what you're hitting upon is became fundamental in the book later on as I was developing it, which is if I really, truly subscribe to a social interaction perspective, then I need to recognize that there are contexts in all of this where people are interacting not only with each other, but within the the time that they live in. So of course, when we talk about the Renaissance, people think the Renaissance was all enlightenment and wonderfully bright and airy. Quite frankly, it was a time of violence and chaos. And so when you have, you know, all the way up to the baroque period, so you've got Caravaggio, of course, in the period and you've got early on Donatello and Michelangelo and da Vinci, who were in and of themselves demonstrating violent tendencies. David: [00:18:09] And that was because of who they were and where they were. That was socially acceptable. Cellini bragged about his acts because again, it was what were construed masculinity and and strength in his own autobiography. And of course, Salvador Dali, who's living in a time that is utterly bereft of humanity through the development of World War II. And, you know, and and toxic masculinity and this tendency of celebrating his own sense of superiority, it becomes part of his identity and becomes part of his work. We don't even know if the things that he wrote about in his autobiography are true or not. It's just that he knows his audience, and he knows that the way to sell it is to present himself as this this toxic, violent and misogynistic person. Picasso, you know his is libidinal demonstrations through his art. I would say dovetail into his way of controlling or, you know, sublimating these aggressive and violent tendencies that he saw. It was just a different act of violence that he may perpetrate. Craig: [00:19:23] So when we when we look at the serial killers in the book, do you find that they were drawn to creating art or was the art something that was offered to them and something that they took up that offer and were kind of making it because it was something that they could do? Or were they really driven by a creative process? And what does their work? What does it reflect? Does that make sense as a question? David: [00:19:53] It makes sense as a series of questions, I think, because there's a lot to really untangle there because, you know, my colleague Jack Levine, who led me and who specializes in working with serial killers, and Catherine Ramsden, who have often corresponded with they specialize in serial killers. And even they, I think, would argue that there's really no way to tell what's going on inside their heads and that the art itself will not always reflect that. If I had to choose one of the multiple murderers who really was driven to create and did so as an accurate portrayal of what he was. Inside may have been Charles Manson, who long before he had been arrested, was trying to create music and create drawings and paintings. They were. Unusual, and they weren't what you would call esthetically pleasing, but I will say that he had tried to be known as an artist before he actually started, before he was actually arrested. Whereas I would argue that people like John Wayne Gacy, people like Rolling, people like Ng, even to a certain extent, Ramirez. But I think that's a different type of scenario. They took advantage of the already existing fascination that we have in the United States towards murder or actually worldwide towards memorabilia. This notion of that, we're fascinated by the artifacts of those that have killed others. I had a several conversations with Mirko out in Berlin, who ran a gallery where he collected works, artworks of of multiple murderers. David: [00:21:36] And the fascination that we have as a culture towards murderabilia is astounding. And I would, you know, and there's a section in this book that kind of takes that apart. And I would argue that people like Gacy, Ng, Rolling and Bowles took advantage of this fascination. Gacy's case, he did so to try and recreate a sense of self so that he would see more accepted as, you know, as a way to humanize his image. It didn't work. Obviously, his work was quite banal, but even like people like Rolling and Bowles, who saw that there was a fascination for this and this is just, of course, my own theoretical perspectives, right? I mean, who's to say what they actually thought? But their work, which is also bereft of real connection and emotion, continued to keep people at a distance, by the way it was done, but knowing full well that there would be an audience for it through the memorabilia. So there is a perpetuation of their own sense of superiority and grandiosity and control and power, which is really what all of this comes down to. So it's just such a so of all of the the artists that I saw who were multiple murderers. I would say the only person who I think genuinely tried to be an artist for artists sake and still did not succeed was Manson Craig: [00:23:00] In art criticism. We we often talk about the viewer share about how painting is completed by an artist with whatever intent, but the viewer brings their own baggage to viewing a work. As somebody who studies the world of psychology, what does it say about us that we're attracted to artists that are parsing this sort of trauma? What does it say about us that we're attracted to murderabilia? David: [00:23:35] You know, I think depending on the theoretical position, you could use all sorts of vocabulary. But certainly, I think what it does is that it reveals for us our own shadow side there. But by the grace of God, go I. There is the notion that the piece of work that we see what is separating us from them and there's that fascination of what is it that that person had that I do not have a vice versa. And we're fascinated by the way we almost become virtual rubberneckers when we look at the artwork of such people because we're fascinated trying to look for the message in this art. And the reality is when the art's not going to reveal who this is is the same way that you can look at these pieces and see that the next door neighbor may do a similar piece. We're fascinated by its own. It attracts us or reflects our own. Like I said, our own shadow, our own dark side. It's almost a release for some of us. You know, let them be. Let them be our avatars, so to speak. Let them be the the extension of our own psyche because they're the ones who are going to get caught and get in trouble for it. It's kind of dark. Can we? We should end this on an optimistic note. Craig: [00:24:49] Well, let's let's keep on talking about art therapy. I've been in the art world for for a long time and I never took an art therapy course in college. I think my audience would probably benefit from having somebody in your position kind of give us a thumbnail of the precepts of art therapy and what we know and how we use it for therapeutic purposes. David: [00:25:16] Oh, absolutely, that's a great question. And again, I want to stress that of all my books and articles that I've done, this is not an art therapy book. There's an art therapy chapter in it. The final chapter is an art therapy chapter, but but a colleague did indicate when I was talking about this work, it may not be an art therapy book, but it takes an art therapist to write it. And I would have to concur with that. And the art art therapy, which has been around for as a professional field for more than 50 years, but as a concept for 70 80 years. And this notion that that there's the process of art making, which is that that we can sublimate our energy or psychic energy into the art forms that certain materials and media may facilitate expression and fluidity and explosion or containment and safety and and and cognitive reflection and affective response and a kinesthetic energy that may provide a release or a sensory relationship to it that may tap into certain functions. And so the process of art making is extremely valuable and valuable. And on the other side of that, the other side of that continuum is the product. The final piece itself, which may on one level, have certain formal elements that reflect assessable material about what that person may be expressing or feeling at that time, as well as providing a catalyst for discussion by that the artist or the creator. Because oftentimes they may not even know what is going on inside them until they get it out, and they put it on the art form. And all of a sudden, upon reflecting on this art form, they see what that piece is reflecting back for them. Our job as our therapists are facilitators. We don't read the art. We don't put meaning on to the art it becomes. Although we're part of the transference relationship that we are just the facilitators to be the people that that help them along that journey of discovery. Craig: [00:27:26] As an art therapist, do you provide a prompt or is it just materials? Is there kind of a pathway that you kind of lead them down for their own sense of self discovery? Or is there a little bit more pointed prompts to kind of open some doors? David: [00:27:43] I'm going to say yes to all of that because because it really it really depends on who we work with. I mean, I specialize in working with prison inmates and and those in juvenile justice settings and gang members. And so I value the the nonverbal quality of the art making because of course, inside such institutions, any type of of admission of vulnerability and weakness or illness may be taken advantage of by others. And so the art provides a means for us working behind the mask that exists for them, for their own survival. So that's the process of art making, depending on how we may offer certain processes, certain suggestions, certain materials that may bring along the trajectory of care. But we have know I have graduate students that have come through this program here at Florida State, who work in all sorts of different environments, everything from preschool, all the way to hospice care, working in medical facilities, community centers, working in psychiatric facilities, substance abuse treatment facilities, everything in anything. We've been there and what we do is we adapt to the needs of our clients, the types of materials that will offer the perhaps the directives or the group dynamics that will will suggest or promote and through a trajectory, be it short term or long term, bring them along the art process to help facilitate healing wellness refreshment again, depending on your vocabulary or theory. Craig: [00:29:20] When you work with people in prison and they are new to art therapy, and in terms of those masks, do you see those first interactions, them making work that is has more machismo and bravado and over time become more vulnerable? Or are they open to that vulnerability? From the beginning. David: [00:29:44] That's an excellent question. There already is a style reminiscent of what we would call a jailhouse style. And so you've certainly seen those types of images that may very well, and we worked in women's prisons and men's prisons. But certainly, there is a consistent style that may be reminiscent of what you see as tattoo art or envelope art or or or handkerchief art. And it's something that specifically created what the very few materials that they have. And, you know, art making in prison, there's already a hierarchical structure in which the artist who has a marketable commodity is at a higher level. And so everyone wants to do art and everyone loves the art therapist. And who am I to say, you know that that that's not what this is about? And so they come into session and so early on, their work may be masked by that type of prison work, but as they're given permission, so to speak, or as they give themselves permission to slowly express themselves in a manner that is much more releasing, much more authentic, much more genuine, then they start to recognize the escape that they're feeling the sense of contentment or or control when everything else is being taken away. That's not to say that there aren't people who don't come into the session immediately launched into that. Certainly they do, especially if they've never done art before. They never done art. They don't know what to expect immediately. They may start experimenting with the materials, and this may start emerging right away. And then, of course, there's the odd few that maintain that defensiveness throughout the entire time that they're with us. And you know what? That's OK, too. If this does nothing else but gives them that one or two hours a peace of mind away from an environment that's that's unhealthy or anti therapeutic, then so be it. Craig: [00:31:41] One last question about about your book, and that is this type of books written with a hypothesis in the beginning. And then there's a lot of research and analysis in the course of challenging your hypothesis. Was there something that surprised you? Was there something that was unexpected that you weren't anticipating when you when you started the book? David: [00:32:04] Oh, absolutely everything. I mean, especially the work of the serial killers, you know, it really. I began this with this notion of it being two sides, right? And yet the serial killer work and these these extremely violent offenders, there's an interlock in the middle of that really takes apart this notion of sociopathy and psychopathy. And while I had done so much work with people of that ilk. I didn't realize that once I brought them into the conversation that it threw everything up in the air and it didn't work anymore. And so I had to be open from the very beginning that I don't know what I'm talking about. And you know, that's that's a lot easier than you think. Right? So and so I had to let it unfold and really allow the conversations and allow the art and allow the literature that's oftentimes wrong as well to kind of help play out what may be the end result. So the final section, the epilog, which which I think sums everything up, brings up two very salient points for me and things that ended up being antithetical to the very notion of of the work that I do. David: [00:33:24] And that is. There, I'm trying to I think I actually have have written it out, yeah, that one point is that aggressive and violent impulses are not always bad. And I think we as a culture like to think that such acts are unhealthy when in reality, many things that we have or many accomplishments that we incur wouldn't have happened without such aggressive and even violent drives. And the other part of that is our making is not always good. And you know that that cuts to the core because my entire career is built on this notion that aren't making is healthy and good. And make no mistake, art is not innocuous. Art is not safe, which means it can be dangerous as much as it can be beneficial. And that really kind of made me rethink a lot of the work that I was doing and making me realize how careful we have to be as an art therapist. As a culture, when we view and relate to the work that we see, Craig: [00:34:29] That's a really interesting point, which is did you consider art that inspires violence, which I guess would be along the lines of propaganda and and hate art? Right? David: [00:34:45] Yeah. You know, that's when I say again, I take that apart when the Holocaust chapter where I look at how Hitler used art as a weapon and as a tool to for propaganda. Because let's face it, well, we may use words that not everyone is going to understand. You're going to see an image and immediately recognize it. It's going to become a universal means of communication. And if you are the first person to communicate that and make that part of your life, that becomes a visual vocabulary that is shared that becomes what the new norm is. I mean, look at what occurred in Germany in the nineteen thirties with, you know, the the poisonous mushroom book of all this work that that connoted the dangers of Zionism and and and the Jewish people and and all of the works that that exaggerates racial stereotypes and and, you know, hierarchical value. And so, yeah, art can very well be dangerous and be used as a tool. Look what happens on television and movies and Facebook social media. We're bombarded by images as a reason. The mean is so much more powerful than a two or three written paragraphs. Craig: [00:36:00] It's still very powerful in our world today, living in very interesting times. And you know, I think some people are kind of facing some ebbs and flows of fascism, and a lot of times that has very strong imagery that goes with it. But I promise I wouldn't, you know, in this on a down note, but but doggone it, know this. David: [00:36:28] But but I don't think that's a down note. I think if we recognize that value and we recognize the potency of the of the visual expression, then maybe it behooves us to learn how to use that visual means of communication or learn to to unpack the imagery from others to to learn, to communicate and connect and reconnect and accept. Craig: [00:36:52] Yeah. You don't want that. Just hearing you say that makes me think of artist Shepard Fairey, who basically as we... He's repurposed propaganda, putting in more peaceful agenda through that same propaganda imagery. So there's a hopeful, hopeful way to end. Right? David: [00:37:13] Absolutely. And in the book is full of hope, I think. Craig: [00:37:18] Well, Dave, I really appreciate your time. The book is "The Frenzied Dance of Art and Violence", and when will it be available for for for purchase? David: [00:37:28] It will be available through Oxford University Press on, I believe, March 11th. I think prerelease might be March 2nd. So, yeah, so it's within a few weeks. Craig: [00:37:41] Great. Well, I wish you the best and I really appreciate your time today, sir. David: [00:37:46] Thank you so very much. I thoroughly enjoyed this and I I do enjoy your show. Thank you. Craig: [00:37:57] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to art since you can find the show on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rates show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. If you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read a transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to canvia.art and click on the podcast tab if you'd like to reach out to me. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
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