A couple of week ago, i was back at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd., Adam Zaretsky and Waag Society's temporary research and education institute in Amsterdam.


On the menu that day was a Tissue Culture Lab headed by tissue engineering artist Oron Catts. Catts is the co-founder and Artistic Director of SymbioticA, the Art & Science Collaborative Research Laboratory, at the School of Anatomy and Human Biology, UWA. He is also the founder, together with Ionat Zurr, of the Tissue Culture & Art Project.

Wikipedia defines tissue culture as follows: the growth of tissues and/or cells separate from the organism. This is typically facilitated via use of a liquid, semi-solid, or solid growth medium, such as broth or agar. Tissue culture commonly refers to the culture of animal cells and tissues, while the more specific term plant tissue culture is used for plants.

I'll come back to the hands-on wet lab in an upcoming post. For now, here are some notes i wrote down during a talk that Oron Catts gave to kick off the workshop. His presentation, which put our workshop into a historical narrative, was titled An alternative timeline for regenerative medicine - A biased history.

As HG Wells wrote back in 1895, life is becoming something for us to engineer:

'We overlook only too often the fact that a living being may also be regarded as raw material, as something plastic, something that may be shaped and altered.' HG Wells, 1895

In 1885, Wilhelm Roux removed a portion of the medullary plate of an embryonic chicken and maintained it in a warm saline solution for several days, establishing the principle of tissue culture.

The first successful human transplant was a corneal transplant performed in 1905 by Eduard Zirm in Olomouc, Czech Republic.

In 1907 zoologist Ross Harrison successfully perform the first partial life entity. He demonstrated the growth of frog nerve cell processes in a medium of clotted lymph.

In 1913, surgeon, biologist and eugenicist Alexis Carrel grows cells in culture for long periods -fed regularly under aseptic conditions. In 1912, Carrel took tissue from the heart of a chicken embryo to demonstrate that warm-blooded cells could be kept alive in the lab. This tissue was kept alive for thirty-four years -- outliving Carrel himself -- before it was deliberately terminated. His experiments horrified his contemporaries. It has sometimes been said that his lab in Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research inspired Hollywood's Frankenstein.

Interestingly, this practice of fragmenting the body and keeping the cells alive was called "Artificial Life" at the time.

In 1913, Ross Harrison noted the epistemological contradictions regarding tissue culture:
'...it seems rather surprising that recent work upon the survival of small pieces of tissue, and their growth and differentiation outside of the parent body, should have attracted so much attention, but we can account for it by the way the individuality of the organism as a whole overshadows in our minds the less obvious fact that each one of us may be resolved into myriads of cellular units with some definite structure and with autonomous powers'

Eduard Uhlenhuth wrote in 1916 "Through the discovery of tissue culture we have so to speak created a new type of body on which to grow the cell."

Dr. Martin A. Couney's exhibit at the Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago, 1933-1934

The first premature baby wards in the US were part of a freak show called "Oddities of Life."

From the 1910 till the 1930, tissue culture starts to be regarded as science by scientists. They start to see an utilitarian end to it, it's not just a curiosity anymore.

1948 saw the first animal cell line established (mouse). Those cells tcan be considered the oldest living parts of a mouse.

0aahenreitett8.jpg1951 first immortal human cell line established. HeLa. The cell line was derived from cervical cancer cells taken from involuntary donor Henrietta Lacks, who died of cancer that year.

The cells were propagated by George Otto Gey without Lacks' knowledge or permission and later commercialized. There was no requirement to inform a patient, or their relatives, because discarded material, or material obtained during surgery, diagnosis or therapy was the property of the physician and/or medical institution. This issue and Ms. Lacks' situation was brought up in the Supreme Court of California in 1990 but the court ruled that a person's discarded tissue and cells are not their property and can be commercialized.

HeLa cells are termed "immortal" because they can divide an unlimited number of times in a laboratory cell culture plate. It has been estimated that the total number of HeLa cells that have been propagated in cell culture far exceeds the total number of cells that were actually in Henrietta Lacks' body. The cells traveled around the globe- even into space, on a satellite to determine whether human tissues could survive zero gravity- and have been used for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits". HeLa cells have been used to test human sensitivity to tape glue, cosmetics, and many other products (source.)

Cell lines are usually dehumanized but the story goes that one night, a surgeon working with HeLa cells realized that he was working with a person's cell while he was having dinner with a relative of Henrietta. Neither Henrietta nor her family had given permission for the cell line. They wanted her contribution to science to be respected and her cells to be sort of 'rehumanised.'

HeLa cells

1954, the field of tissue culture becomes more standardized.

"I have sought to strip from the study of this subject its former atmosphere of mystery and complications. The grey walls, black gowns, masks and hoods; the shining twisted glass and pulsating coloured fluids; the gleaming stainless steel, hidden steam jets, enclosed microscopes and huge witches' cauldrons of the 'great' laboratories of 'tissue culture' have led far too many persons to consider cell culture too abstruse, recondite and sacrosanct a field to be invaded by mere hoi polio." P.R White, The cultivation of animal and plant cells, New York, Ronalds Press 1954.

Joseph Murray performed the first successful transplant, a kidney transplant between identical twins, in 1954.

Joseph Murray performs the first ever live organ transplant (image)

1978, Louise Brown, the world's first baby to be conceived by in vitro fertilisation.

Publication of Langer, R & Vacanti JP, Tissue engineering. Science 260, 920-6; 1993.

Eastern Mud Salamander, Pseudotriton montanus

We are becoming salamanders: our bodies can repair themselves and regrow lost parts using their own resources. In the '80s, repairing the body was more mechanical, people would picture prosthetic limbs, heart pumps and mechanical organs. 10 years later, the image is the one of a body that relies on cells that have been engineered into 3D objects.

Previously: Image of the day, September programme of the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics and Day 1 at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics: Seed broadcasting workshop.

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Warf! Régine from wmmna is blogging about dog portraits now!? She's completely lost the plot, poor girl!

One sunny morning, when i was in Amsterdam, i walked by Foam, the city Museum of Photography. You know me by now: i see a photo museum, i want to get in. There were a couple of exhibitions to see, the one that blew me away for the rest of the day was Paradis, the first major retrospective of the work of Dutch photographer Charlotte Dumas. Dumas makes shockingly moving portraits of animals.

Untitled (King) 2009. © Charlotte Dumas

It was at the Rijksakademie that she made her first series of animal portraits - five police dogs - which grew from a fascination with the portrayal of controlled aggression. In subsequent years several series emerged focusing on subjects such as police horses (Four Horses), army horses (Day is Done), wolves (Reverie), and more recently street dogs (Heart Shaped Hole). The relationship between man and animal forms a constant indirect element in her work. Dumas prefers to photograph animals with a close connection to humans and whom fulfil an important role for us: animals that have been tamed or trained by humans and which serve a particular purpose, whether in an actual task or by their appearance. Each of these animals lives in a human environment, generally in captivity. Dumas employs traditional formats, invariably placing the subject in the centre, portraying moments of concentrated calm. The psychology of portraiture plays a key role in this.

Untitled(Reward), 2009 © Charlotte Dumas

Her portraits of stray dogs depressed me beyond words but Dumas sees hope in them. If you're in Amsterdam or around, you know what you should do...

Untitled (Vincennes 1), 2006 © Charlotte Dumas

Check out the interview that Brooklyn Rail made with the artist.
Charlotte Dumas - Paradis runs until 22 November 2009 at Foam_Fotografiemuseum in Amsterdam.

If you happen to be in Amsterdam over the next couple of weeks you might want to walk or bike and see the exhibition of Muzi Quawson's work at the Annet Gelink Gallery.

Muzi Quawson, The Stone House, 2009

Muzi Quawson, Set in Time, 2009

Set in the most boondocks boundaries of Glasgow, Northeastern Montana (USA), Quawson's new film The Old Home examines "the nature of existence from society's outsiders." Her camera silently follows Ivar "Duke" T Pederson: an aging cowboy who incarnates an Old American West that mirrors almost too well our most used and abused clichés. On several occasions over the last two years Quawson stayed with Duke either in his Mid-Western bungalow or out there in the vast open fields with his cows and his dog, exploring the American West and its detachment from modern day civilisation.

My grandmother was smart and witty but she was madly in love with John Wayne. She would catch every single opportunity to watch western movies. It put me off cowboys forever. Yet, I sat in the gallery and watched The Old Home twice, it's breathtakingly beautiful.

Muzi Quawson, Horses, 2009

In another room of the gallery, a slide show entitled The Hissing of the Summer Lawns (2008) accompanies a run-of-the-mill family from Georgia, USA.

See The Old Home at Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam, through October 17, 2009.

I never do event announcements on this blog. I guess that would make some people happy but i can't find the time to blog about every single event i'd like to share with you. I'm not even sure my blog is the best place for that so i'd rather make exceptions to my "no call no announcement" rule once in a blue moon. Here's this semester's exception.


You might remember that back in May i was throwing seedballs all over Amsterdam along with Adam Zaretsky, the Waag society and other eco-enthusiast.

The VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd. comes back to town in September and this time the focus will be biology and bacterial transformation. VASTAL is a temporary research and education institute that Zaretsky has created in Amsterdam following an invitation by the Waag Society. The lectures and workshops aim to show the public what it means to work both artistically and scientifically with living organisms and materials. VASTAL also aims to make this form of art-science accessible for a broader audience and invite them to discuss the ethical and aesthetic issues at stake.


Sadly i can only attend the September 15 sessions but i hope you'll overcrowd the school. Here's some details that Adam Zaretsky kindly forwarded to me:

Friday 11 September - Alt-Biology: Solar Transgenics, Synthetic Biology, Nanotech Biomimicry, Post-Natural History and Green Biofuel
Lecture with Huub de Groot and Rich Pell

Huub de Groot is a Professor of Biophysical Organic Chemistry at Gorlaeus Laboratories, Leiden University. His research on producing Solar Biofuels from Microorganisms has consistently been focused on appropriate and sustainable hi-tech replacement of fossil fuels. By engineering green bacteria whom can collect sunlight with high efficiency conversion to chemical energy, we may have a source of cheap, clean and ubiquitous energy. While working with plants and algae Huub is also interested in engineering carbon nanotube latticeworks of super bio-solar battery structures which mimic the very efficient light harvesting 'antennas in disarray' found in green bacteria. As a possible infection/effect of Huub's continued collaborations with Rob Zwijnenberg (art-philosopher) of The Arts and Genomic Centre and the artists in residence, which his lab welcomes, Huub has proposed a Genetically Modified Solar Transgenic Art-Sci fish project intended for collaboration and future research.

PostNatural Organism of the Month: E. coli x1776

Richard Pell, a professor of art at Carnegie Mellon is one of the founding members of the Center for PostNatural History. Rich will speak about the Center's investigations into the geographic placement of transgenic plants and animals and the cultural and ecological effect on their cartographic areas through such museum displays as Transgenic Organisms of New York State and Strategies in Genetic Copy Prevention. Rich will also speak about Synthetic Biology and his role as a iGEM Judge.

Tuesday 15 September - Tissue Culture Lab
Lab with Oron Catts

What does it mean to grow disembodied cells from a former organism? Why do people want to keep samples and parts of beings well fed and free from contamination? How is a cell line kept alive and healthy after isolation from the living or the dead? This is a hands-on wet lab for public practical and experiential tissue culture technique. We will isolate primary tissues (bone marrow, scar tissue, muscle and, possibly, embryonic stems cells) in a sterile hood and then incubate them separately from their original corporeal context. The emphasis is on zombie fetish rites versus the general living rights of the undead vampiric matrix.

Growing Politics: Tissue Culture and Art meets Urbanibalism
Lecture with Oron Catts and Matteo Pasquinelli

Oron Catts is co-founder and director of SymbioticA will speak about the politics of tissue cultured artworks also known as semi-living extended body artworks. With such challenging projects as Victimless Leather, Semi-Living Worry Dolls and Disembodied Cuisine, Oron continues to challenge conventional readings of tissue culture as well as the general culture of eating, using and explaining life politics.

Matteo Pasquinelli is a writer, curator and researcher at Queen Mary University of London. He wrote the book Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons (2008) and edited the collections Media Activism (2002) and C'Lick Me: A Netporn Studies Reader (2007). He writes frequently at the cross of French philosophy, media culture and Italian post-operaismo. His current project is a book about the history of the notion of surplus from biology to knowledge economy and the environmental discourse. In Amsterdam, together with Katrien Jacobs and the Institute of Network Cultures, he organized the Art and Politics of Netporn conference (2005) and the C'Lick Me festival (2007).

Matteo will be presenting "Parasitic life, fermenting yeasts and cybernetic DNA: The art of living matter versus biodigitalism." Before the discovery of DNA, chromosomes were considered containers for an obscure fermentation activity. Today biotech hobbyists have reduced 'life' to a predictable copy-and-paste of numeric codes. How does the so-called bioart cover the parasitic and decaying process at the basis of life and the negative entropy of the cell that was discussed by Erwin Schrödinger in 1944 together with his prophetic hypothesis of a genetic code? Matteo Pasquinelli shows how there is more know-how in the most ancient practice of fermenting ambrosia than in contemporary bioart.

Saturday 19 September - (De)Mystified DNA: Sequencing Lab

Join us for the random creation of a sequence of DNA. This lab is about understanding the Genetic code and the online freeware available to 'read' DNA. Our sequence is arrived at through chance. We will then creatively explore software options like BLAST for finding where the random sequence is already embedded in the genomes of sequenced nature. We will also explore the online tools of plasmid design including DNA text to flesh online ordering and the anatomy of a DNA sequencing machine. As a group we will arrive at a symbolic reading of our chance strand of potential life alteration. Discussion in risk assessment in both chance based and knowledge based systems of hereditary difference production.

(This is not a Wet Lab)

Registration is possible via info at vastal dot eu. There are limited number of places available, so be in time! All courses and lectures will be in English.

Previously: Day 1 at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics: Seed broadcasting workshop.

0aasportatailll.jpgVASTAL, VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd., is a temporary research and education institute that Adam Zaretsky has created in Amsterdam following an invitation by the Waag Society. Zaretsky, currently artist in residency at Waag, will give lectures and workshops on Art and Life Sciences. The School was born with the objective of showing the public what it means to work both artistically and scientifically with living organisms and materials. VASTAL also aims to make this form of art-science accessible for a broader audience and invite them to discuss the ethical and aesthetic issues at stake.

The May session are dedicated to EcoArt. September will focus on biology and bacterial transformation in particular. November will tackle embryology, zoology and body art. There will be labs and courses on hybrid DNA isolation, discussions on ethical issues, non-human relation explorations, but also radical food preparations and field trips to the slaughterhouse, the pet store and the zoo.

People tend to divide the world into separate categories: ecology, food, non-human species, body, etc. If you try and mix them together (in practice or theory, for example by asking questions such as "Do plants have feelings? Conscousness?") , people get nervous. Yet the workshop is going to study these five topics one after the other and then mix blend together in the final session of the classes. I could only participate to the first day of the Eco Art session but i do intend to come back in September for the lectures and workshops on bio-ethic, bioart and DNA sequencing.

Brandon Ballengee, DFA 19, Io
Scanner Photograph of Cleared and Stained Multi-limbed Pacific Tree frog from Aptos, California in Scientific Collaboration with Dr. Stanley K. Sessions. MALAMP titles in collaboration with the poet KuyDelair.
Courtesy the Artist and Archibald Arts, NYC
Private collection, London

Tomorrow Tuesday 26, Andy Gracie and Brandon Ballengée are going to give EcoArt lectures at 20.00 at Waag. This is going to be good, take my word for it.

Adam started the workshop by a lecture, reminding briefly a few points:
- Bio art has only just started existing. There's no manifesto written by bio artists, just a desire to remind us that we are alive;
- Bio artists invite us to look behind the curtain of life;
- Engaging with life never comes without some controversy, whether you are an artist or a scientist;
- We need people who are not scientists, who do not work for corporations but who are creative individuals ready to get their hands 'wet' and dirty and shape their own opinion about the way scientific development is going to leave an imprint on our life.

Screenshot from a Wired article

Adam recommended the reading of an essay he wrote back in for the CIAC's magazine dedicated to Bioart. See also the Live skype talk he gave at the Retool the Earth conference in Brussels on October 2008.

That's it for the quick intro on bioart. Then came a few words about the topic of this month at VASTAL: EcoArt. EcoArt is just another name for a series of practices that exist for decades. They have also be known as ecovention, land art, earthworks, environmental art, ecological art, etc. A great place to get an idea of the breath of projects that can be labeled as Ecoart is greenmuseum.org. Adam named a few of his favourite projects. One of them is Buster Simpson's Hudson River Purge. The performance addresses the problem of acid rain with giant limestone antacid tablets which neutralize the pH of the Hudson River. The river is like a gigantic human organism suffering acid indigestion, only a big pill will alleviate its pain. However, no matter the size of the pill, the source of the problem persists.

Hudson River Purge, New Notes, Esquire, November 1983. Photographer Roger Schreiber

0arewildingamnjer.jpgA book Adam found important for the reflection on our relationship to landscape and nature is Rewilding North America by Dave Foreman.

According to the book, the biggest ecological threat of our time is mass extinction of animal species caused by humans. Recent discoveries in conservation biology call for wildlands networks instead of isolated protected areas. The final section describes specific approaches for designing such networks (based on the work of the Wildlands Project.) A first step would be to re-introduce African and Asian megafauna in western North America - that includes lions, elephants, cheetahs, and camels- to create a facsimile of species that disappeared from the continent some 13,000 years ago. These large mammals need to roam and the parks and natural reserves humans have conceded them are clearly not sufficient. They need to get out of the borders. Wildlands Networks proposes to connects the parks together through corridors accessible for non-humans. Areas of shared use by humans and wildlife would have to be implemented as well as animals will inevitably run into shopping malls, golf courses and railways while migrating from one wild areas to another. We need to de-program ourselves from our own culture in order to be able to deal with this new kind of living conditions.


For the hands-on part of the course, Adam teamed up with Theun Karelse from FoAM & FoAM Lab Amsterdam. Our assignment of the day was to create sculptures made of earth, fertilizer, clay and seeds and distribute them throughout the city of Amsterdam.


The workshop is in fact inspired by the practice of seedballing that aims to return native and often vanished flora species to cities and suburbia. The most eco-friendly version of seedball, developed by Masanobu Fukuoka, consists in mud-and-clay balls that contain a mixture of organic compost and different seed species meant to complement each other.

Key ingredients included bone powder and blood flour

We set up our working space right in the middle of the organic market on the Nieuwmarkt.


Adam, Lucas and Lipika from Waag kicked off their shoes and mixed the clay, fertilizer and seeds with their feet wine stomping-style while the rest of us started making sculptures and rolling little balls. Almost immediately people came to us, asking what we were doing, putting on gloves and helping us shape seed balls.

Enrolling passersby

Once we had collected enough seed balls we went on a guerrilla gardening walk to spread them in the city in places where they might thrive. The workshop was actually a crash version of seedballing as the balls should be left to dry for a couple of days before being released in the urban wilderness. When the rains come, the mud and clay will break apart, exposing the seeds to elements that lead to their growth. In each location whichever seeds are best suited thrive in their protected mud starter-home.

The 'seedballed' sites will then be mapped by Theun and added to google maps of urban edibles.


The workshop was a great success, its simplicity attracted all sorts of passersby and the majority of them were happy to go pass the fun of seeing us getting covered in mud and enter a more in-depth and meaningful conversation.



Here's my flickr set of the event.


Related stories: How to Save the World in 10 Days at Vooruit in Ghent, Dangerous Liaisons and other stories of transgenic pheasant embryology.

The last session of Positions in flux: On the changing role of the artist and institution in the networked society (see previous posts) discussed the impact of the open source culture on art production and its presentation.

Jaromil and Marcos Garcia discussing with moderator Josephine Bosma

The open source movement is driven by the idea of collective, process-based, sustainable production and improvement. In software development this strategy has already proven to be valid; however can this model be applied to other products such as artworks or even exhibitions? In how far does the open source model differ from other forms of artistic collaboration? Is there a new role model for both the artist and the curator in the future? Which (economic) value and impact has expertise in open source production? How could institutions and organisations respond to this trend? How could institutions and organisations respond to this trend and create public domains?

Jaromil. Photo Nimk

Jaromil made my blogger's jpb a piece of cake. I was planning to write down the notes i took during his presentation but, hey! look! he did it all himself and i recommend the lecture. Jaromil gave the lowdown on free software and open source, the way they are (mis)perceived, their strengths/weaknesses and the new challenges ahead.

Denis 'Jaromil' Roio is the main author of the GNU/Linux Live CD Dyne:bolic as well as of a number of audiovisual tools. He is also an artist who has exhibited internationally. Based in Amsterdam, Jaromil is active on open source R&D in art and multimedia for the NIMK, adjunct lecturer (year 2008) for the Media Design MA at PZwart / WDKA in Rotterdam and the Digital Environment Design MA at NABA in Milan.

Marcos Garcia. Photo Nimk

Hop! Next speaker was Marco Garcia from MediaLab Prado in Madrid. Now most of you have probably heard of the fantastic workshops and talks (btw, have a look at the videos of some of the latest talks: Susanne Jaschko's talk about Fluid Architectures, a round table with Anab Jain, Yashas Shetty (if you have to see just one, fast forward to his talk, it's fantastic), and Sunil Sudhakaran. Plus, if you speak spanish, there's Marta Peirano's presentation of her book El rival de Prometeo (The Rival of Prometeus) and a talk by architect Andrés Jaque) they organize.

Medialab Prado's activities focus on themes such as interactivity, data visualization, the Commons and network culture theory and audio-visual and sound creation.

Marcos started his presentation by mentioning how important Christopher Kelty's book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software has been important in the shaping of what Medialab Madrid is today. He referred particularly to Kelty's notion of 'recursive publics'--social configurations that realize the Internet's non-hierarchical, ever-evolving, and thus historically attuned logic, creatively updating the types of public spheres previously theorized by Habermas and Michael Warner, among others.

One of the most interesting issues raised was "Should we change old institutions to make them more in tune with the OS mouvement or should we create new ones?"


Marcos exemplified the spirit of Medialab Prado by detailing Interactivos? This series of production-oriented workshops that question the notion of interactivity and combine production, learning and exhibition in 15 days. There has already been 20 interactivos workshops all over the world (Mexico, New York, Lima, Salamanca, etc.) Artists/designers/creators selected for the workshop come with their project and Medialab Prado helps them realize it. The production is open right from the beginning. The workshop goes beyond the tools (Arduino, Pure Data, Processing, etc.) and make the technology and the whole building process accessible to people who are only beginners. The fact that participants come from so many different backgrounds and culture (Medialab Prado's workshop are held in english and open to people from all over the world) means that there is a unique environment, each one comes with their own way of solving a problem. Workshops are accompanied by group discussions, expert presentations, open debates and each project is documented online.

Joasia Krysa, founder of KURATOR, has a particular interest in an emerging discourse and practice that links curating with software and networks. Some of her most recent curatorial projects include openKURATOR, an open submission and presentation platform developed by KURATOR. She is the editor of Curating Immateriality (Autonomedia, New York 2006) and lecturer/researcher at the AZTEC (Art Science Technology Consortium at the University of Plymouth.

Krysa explained that if curating can be conceptualised as a system with its own underlying code and sets of protocols then OS curating would imply an open access to those protocols. It would also suggest a possibility of development through a collective process. A few exemples of such curating include C@C Computer Aided Curating, 1993 - 1995, Runme.org in 2003, unDEAF in 2007 and softwareKURATOR (v1) in 2009.


The last speakers were Femke Snelting and Renée Turner from De Geuzen, a foundation for multi-visual research and the collaborative identity. Since 1996 they explore female identity, narratives of the archive and media image ecologies. Exhibitions, workshops and online projects operate as thematic framing devices where the group investigates and tests ideas collectively with different publics. Characterising what they do as research, their work is open-ended, values processes of exchange and promotes critical interrogation. To be honest at that stage i stopped taking notes, i just sat on my chair and enjoyed their presentation.

Some of the projects they discussed: DIY paper dresses, Female Icon Impersonators and a series of works around the ideas of person of Guy Debord.

Image on the homepage: Positions in Flux symposium by Olga Westrate.

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