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Associations Through (Re)Mediations:
The “Cut and Paste” Aesthetic and Transparency
Elise Takehana*

Abstract

The graphic user interface and the desktop metaphor it executes work towards
concealing mediation by naturalizing its functionalities and appropriating or
remediating older media and the sense of space they produce. Viewing the computer
or the interface as tools neutralizes the medium to an impartial conduit and
undermines the motivated and limited nature of mediation. What we encounter with
this view of media as instruments is an aesthetic of transparency or immediacy that
mediation renders impossible. It is this act of attempted erasure and simultaneous
demarcation that I will explore further in this paper, in particular, the traditions of
painting that have migrated to the aesthetics of the graphic user interface. New
media, such as the computer, teeter between an aesthetic of transparency that asks
the viewer to look through a medium and a blatant display of its mediation which I call
the cut and paste aesthetic. This cut and paste aesthetic pushes the viewer to look at
the medium and the surface. This dichotomy has a history in painting that spans from
the representational and perspectival works of Renaissance painting to Modern art
and the collage and montage aesthetic that highlights mediation and the juxtaposition
of disparate objects. It is this bizarre juxtaposition to impose the perhaps privileged or
desired viewing of three-dimensional representational space onto a necessarily
mediated two-dimensional space that the computer screen creates which I will here
analyze using Antonello da Messina’s St. Jerome in his study, René Magritte’s The
Human Condition I, and screenshots of the Mac OS X and Windows Vista desktop.
How and why the revolutionary techniques of Modern art have been appropriated as
ordinary in the graphic user interface becomes an important marker of human
experience and reality perception in the digital age.

_______________________
* Ph.D. Student in the English Department of the University of Florida. Masters of Arts at
California State University San Bernardino with a thesis on Chuck Palahniuk's novel Invisible
Monsters and the mass mediated nature of the Postmodern United States. Work principlely in text
production and literary theory.

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The graphic user interface and the desktop metaphor it executes work towards
concealing mediation by naturalizing its functionalities and appropriating or remediating
older media and the sense of space they produce. In many ways, the computer and its
interface are viewed as tools or means towards an end much like Richard Lanham’s
discussion of the Greek alphabet. Lanham cites Eric Havelock’s conclusion that a highly
literature culture needs an alphabet that is not viewed aesthetically but functionally; that
the letters would be “a transparent window into conceptual thought” (Lanham 4). The
medium, in this case the written letters, should be as inconspicuous as possible to allow
the reader to concentrate on the meaning that arises from a combination of non-
aesthetic letters. This desire for transparency is equally applicable to the computer and
its interface which Søren Pold makes obvious in “Interface Realisms: The Interface as
Aesthetic Form”. While Pold explicitly poses the computer interface as the medium for
digital art, he stresses that the interface also acts as an obstacle or interference occuring
between the user and the task at hand. Here the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What
You Get) acronym becomes extraordinarily accurate to the user who only sees the
interface. He goes on to cite Don Norman’s “Why Interfaces Don’t Work”. Norman, a
usability expert, is frustrated with mediation, saying: “If I were to have my way, we would
not see computer interfaces. In fact, we would not see computers: both the interface and
the computer would be invisible, subservient to the task the person was attempting to
accomplish” (Pold par. 5). Viewing the computer, the interface, and the alphabet as tools
neutralizes the medium to an impartial conduit and undermines the motivated and limited
nature of mediation. What we are encountering with Havelock and Norman is an
aesthetic of transparency or immediacy that mediation renders impossible. It is this act of
attempted erasure and simultaneous demarcation that I will explore further in this paper,
in particular, the traditions of painting that have migrated to the aesthetics of the graphic
user interface. New media, such as the computer, teeter between an aesthetic of
transparency that asks the viewer to look through a medium and a blatant display of its
mediation which I call the cut and paste aesthetic. This cut and paste aesthetic pushes
the viewer to look at the medium and the surface. This dichotomy has a history in
painting that spans from the representational and perspectival works of Renaissance
painting to Modern art and the collage and montage aesthetic that highlights mediation
and the juxtaposition of disparate objects.

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Before we move on to discuss traditions of painting and their remediation onto
the computer environment it is important to remember that the medium is a frame of
reference within a particular space. The medium acts as a mark or cut that limits space
and the expression that can occur therein. George Perec’s discussion of the walls of his
apartment in Species of Spaces (39) provides an excellent analogy for an expression
within a space that brings about a concealment of mediation therein. Hanging a picture
on a wall causes one to forget the wall that mediates the painting as well as the painting
that mediates some supposed scene. The space of the apartment is appropriated as
natural and normal. The occupant stops looking at the wall and the paintings on it, hence
neglecting to acknowledge the mediation of the space s/he inhabits. Similarly, the
mediated space of the canvas limits painting, as does the space of the window and the
screen on the computer desktop. The viewer forgets such markings of mediation only to
look through media onto an image of space. This naïvety continues until those media
impose their presence by breaking the seamless space of the image they create or
display.

It comes as no surprise that the idea of the window should be used to essentially
look through a medium. Perhaps the graphic user interface designers at XEROX PARC
were unaware of the implications of using windows to display applications, documents,
and files, but the conceit of the window as a certain representational space is a defining
principle of Renaissance perspectival art. Leon Battista Alberti first described this type of
constructed space in his premise, “On Painting”. What became known as the Albertian
window was a certain marking of space where the artist would create a rectangle and
regard it as a window in which a scene would appear. This window conceit is one
technique that promotes the concealment of mediation though the window alone is not
sufficient. The scene within the window has to be as realistic as possible hence the artist
would labor over the perspectival elements of the work and smooth his/her brushstrokes
to create a seamless surface (Bolter and Grusin “Remediation” 319). Although there are
marked differences between viewing Antonello da Messina’s St. Jerome in his study and
a reproduction of the painting available online (such as disparate media, modes of
production, and levels of access), there still remains a commonality in how the
representation of space and the act of mediation in this image is viewed in similar ways.
While Antonello uses oil paint and perspectival methods to create a dimensional and
realistic space, the computer reproduction of the painting uses a matrix of pixels (a
contraction of “picture” and “elements”) of countless colors and shades. As they were

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executed, both methods work to erase the medium that presents the image hinting at a
transparency, immediacy, and realism that defies the concept of an image as an artificial
representation. The edges of the canvas and the window of an application used to open
an image of St. Jerome in his study are both still present even if the viewer is looking
through the medium to gaze at the image therein. By looking through the Albertian
window of perspectival painting and the application window of the graphic user interface,
the viewer is overlooking the mediated quality of the scene within these windows.

While Renaissance perspectival art attempts to achieve a realism that hides
marks of mediation, Modern art aims to expose and exploit such markings to force the
viewer to acknowledge mediation and the falsity of realism and immediacy in painting.
Modern art largely does not attempt to create realistic images of the outside world as
Antonello da Messina’s St. Jerome in his study has done. Much of Modern art exposes
the process of painting in order to create art objects rather than representations of
something outside of art and its media (Bolter and Grusin “Remediation 349). Crucial to
the idea of the computer’s remediation of painting are these changes that took place
between the representational space of a work such as Antonello’s and the space of
Modern art that announces its mediation. In a way, St. Jerome in his study upholds
Havelock’s convention of making the medium itself as aesthetically inconspicuous as
possible by letting the canvas break a window frame to naturalize mediation, aligning the
perspective as accurately as possible, and smoothing the brush strokes. This allows the
viewer to look through the medium and largely ignore its presence. Modern art
encourages the viewer to look at the mediated qualities of a work by emphasizing the
surface of a painting or the process of its production. Richard Lanham uses Roy
Lichtenstein’s large pixel - like paintings as an example of art that exposes its own
mediation (43). Rather than presenting a smooth and realistic representational surface,
Lichtenstein chooses to accentuate the composition of the comic book image. The way
the viewer regards each of these types of images from Renaissance and Modern art is
both an important distinction and a key mélange of experiences of looking at and looking
through media and the oscillation between such viewings that arise again with the
graphic user interface which has appropriated this way of seeing from Modern art.

Examining Richard Lanham’s at and through modes of viewing alongside the
conceit of the window is critical in thinking about how the window of the graphic user
interface is viewed and how that viewing has been largely appropriated from and

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naturalized by conventions of Renaissance and Modern painting. Before turning to the
graphic user interface window let us first examine the windows of Antonello da Messina’s
St. Jerome in his study and René Magritte’s The Human Condition I.

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Antonello da Messina’s St, Jerome in his study 1470s René Magritte’s The Human Condition I 1934

In examining the windows of each painting it is significant that the edges of the
window frame in St. Jerome in his study are only partially visible. The edges of the
canvas cut the window frame implying a privileged and central view. In so structuring the
representational space, Antonello exemplifies the way of viewing that the Albertian
window pushes for: a constructed space where the image should reside therein. The
numerous windows in the background of the cathedral add to the dimensional quality of
the painting by implying that space continues on outside of the main scene of the image.
St. Jerome in his study poses several windows inside of one major window that becomes
one painting with a dominant and singular view.

While Magritte uses framing and the window in his The Human Condition I, the
effect is contrary to the singular view of Antonello’s painting. The window frame of The
Human Condition I is not cut by the edges of the canvas but positioned on an interior
wall. It is clear that the window is carefully posed as a frame of viewing that is artificial
and limiting. The red curtains that frame the window spectacularize the view outside the
window as the Act Curtain does a stage. The arch of the window, while it harkens back

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to da Messina’s arched window, is also reminiscent of the proscenium arch of the
theatre. While the viewer of St. Jerome in his study looks through the main window onto
a seemingly endless and largely symmetrical scene, the viewer of The Human Condition
I feels an intense confinement in looking at the window and its asymmetrical qualities.
Not only can this viewer see the entire window but also the scene within the window is
not a deep, endless, and seamless space. Inside the window of Magritte’s painting is a
painting of the scene that one would supposedly see through that window. This
construction of space makes the viewer aware of the painting’s mediated scene. The
window feels flat because the viewer is aware that the scene in the window is the
surface of a painting. Because the edges of the painting are subtle such as the exposed
unpainted right edge of the canvas, a small overlap of the painting onto the curtain to the
left of the canvas, and the easel that holds up the painting, the viewer can oscillate
between looking at the painting of the scene and looking through the window at an
almost seamless scene. Beyond the at and through that complicate the painting is the
question of varying vantage points and their limitations. The portion of the canvas that
overlaps the curtain shows the viewer of the Human Condition I what is hidden from
him/her by that curtain. This marks the limitation of both mediation and human vision by
showing a small portion of the unavailable and implying the infinite amount of unknown
information.

Another important differentiation between the immediacy and transparency of St.
Jerome in his study and the mediated quality of The Human Condition I is the angle of
the windows in each painting. In Antonello’s piece the viewer’s line of sight is
perpendicular to the window frame in the painting. Magritte’s wall with the window is
perhaps at a ten to fifteen degree angle in comparison to the bottom edge of the canvas.
The view outside the window in Magritte’s painting is askew to the viewer and the slant
of the wall in comparison to the canvas pushes the viewer to feel the presence of the
room and not roam through the space of the window. While the viewer of St. Jerome in
his study is urged to walk through the window, the viewer of The Human Condition I feels
compelled to turn slightly to the left and walk parallel to the wall the window is on. The
seemingly unlimited space inside the window and the room are one and the same in St.
Jerome in his study. To the contrary, the space in the window and the space in the room
are separate and confining spaces in The Human Condition I as the viewer does not see
the window as an avenue of escape nor does s/he see an outside of the room. Here it is
critical to note that Antonello places the viewer of his painting outside of a building

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looking into a window while Magritte poses the viewer inside of a room trying to look out
of a window. Antonello’s window opens up a representational space that disregards the
medium while Magritte’s window exposes the confines or limits of mediated space
pushing the viewer to look at the surface instead of being seduced by a false depth. This
insistence to return to or remain at the surface is what both defines Modern art and
becomes a pivotal element of digital art and computer graphics as Jay David Bolter and
Richard Grusin have asserted in their book, Remediation. They state:

[T]he artist (or multimedia programmer or web designer) strives to make the
viewer acknowledge the medium as medium and to delight in that acknowledgement.
She does so by multiplying spaces and media and by repeatedly redefining the visual
and conceptual relationships among mediated spaces – relationships that may range
from simple juxtaposition to complete absorption. (Bolter and Grusin Remediation 41-2)

Manipulating, and not simply representing, media and mediated spaces and their
relationships to one another becomes the premise of digital art which holds onto
conceits of representation and the Albertian window from Renaissance art, sees its
conceptual birth in Modern art, its blossoming in collage and montage techniques, and
its maturation and most successful materialization in the digital era of the computer.

At times it may seem natural for the viewer of a single graphic user interface
window frame to look solely at the image inside that window and hence look through the
mediated quality of the computer environment. Graphic user interface designers have
continued to attempt to erase such obvious markers of mediation as evident with the
style of the upcoming Windows Vista release where the window frames or entire
windows are themselves transparent glass. It is a bizarre juxtaposition to impose the
perhaps privileged or desired viewing of three-dimensional representational space onto
a necessarily mediated two-dimensional space that the computer screen creates but that
is the visual conceit that designers have labored towards. However, when looking at the
below screenshots of Windows Vista and Mac OS X, it becomes impossible to deny that
the WIMP model of the computer interface is working with the collage and montage
tradition that revolutionized Modern art and film of the early twentieth century.

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“Gadget glass” Windows Vista Mac OS X

However, the collage or montage like qualities of these screenshots are not
working with the same goals and ambitions as collage and montage works of artists such
as Pablo Picasso or Marcel Duchamp.

The collage and montage pieces of Modern painting work to expose the two-
dimensional space of the canvas (Landow 167). By gluing chair caning to a painting of a
chair, Picasso juxtaposes a physically existing item with a representation of an item. The
chair caning’s presence announces the representation of the chair as purely unreal as
well as the lack of depth that the canvas as a physical object has. The physical object
within the representational space of the painting then serves two roles, where it becomes
part of the representational space and asserts its separation from the unreal
representation. To summarize, the physical object both represents the image of the
painting allowing the viewer to look through the space, and it presents itself as an object,
pushing the viewer to look at its physicality and separation from the space of the painting
(Landow 157). This oscillation is much like the viewer’s experience with Magritte’s The
Human Condition I where at times the painting in the window appears as the scene
within the window and at other times as simply a painting.

The montage-like arrangement of windows on the desktop of the graphic user
interface tries to work as a depth model for the space rather than reducing the space to
a two-dimensional representation as montage and collage do in painting. Unlike collage
and montage in painting, there is no physical object posed on the screen of the
computer. Every window and everything in each window is a visual representation of a
string of zeros and ones. While they may look like a collage or montage, overlapping

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windows in the graphic user interface have lost the strong contrasting value of real
versus representation and of three-dimensional versus two-dimensional space. Lev
Manovich explores this difference between montage in painting and “montage” in the
computer environment. Montage in painting attempts to correlate and juxtapose various
senses and experiences to highlight differences and relationships between elements.
This is not the case with the computer environment. Manovich asserts that computer
multimedia do not work with this view of montage. Instead the computer “follows the
principle of simple addition. Elements in different media are placed next to each other
without any attempt to establish contrast, complementarity, or dissonance between
them” (143). The mediated space of the graphic user interface then uses montage - like
aesthetics not to define difference and announce mediation, but to absorb and
naturalized mediated space. The user also becomes embedded into this normalized
mediation and stops questioning disconnects in how manipulating virtual space with
metaphors from real space do not equate. Where in painting, montage pushes an
awareness of different spaces, dimensionalities, and media, the computer appropriates
and legitimizes the acts of cut, copy, and paste by making them into shortcut commands
that can move one media onto or into another with ease and continuity (Manoff 313).

The prominence of a montage-like appearance of overlapping windows in the
graphic user interface can be attributed to the way the computer and the graphic user
interface fulfills a certain desired expression (Lanham 51) that blurs the definition
between the at and the through which we discussed first with the differences between
Renaissance perspectival art and Modern art and second with the real versus virtual and
three-dimensional versus two-dimensional oppositions that collage and montage in
painting accentuate. This characteristic desire of new media for both an aesthetic of
transparency and a cut and paste or heavily mediated aesthetic plagues collage and
montage work in painting and film as well as the graphic user interface of the computer.
Film-maker Jean Luc Godard pushes for the use of multiple images and montage
techniques in film first because he asserts that simple and singular images no longer
exist and second, that juxtapositions that both separate and unite visualize mediated
spaces and sensual interactions with those spaces. Godard calls these mediated spaces
a “’vague and complicated system that the whole world is continually entering and
watching’” (Manovich 152). Here again we are looking at the conflict between wanting to
look through media, which Godard sees as “entering” a space and a looking at media,
which he calls “watching”.

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This simultaneous desire to both look at and through leaves its mark on the
graphic user interface. Being able to run several different applications and manipulate
multiple media in these applications poses a necessary model of multiplicity onto the
graphic user interface. Perhaps it is for practical reasons that new media such as the
computer work towards continuity. Such a bombardment of different programs, functions,
media, tools, and spaces would be overwhelming without some sense of cohesion or
ability to form associations between all these different elements. What the graphic user
interface tries to do is simplify the expression or representation of complicated and
multiple images and spaces with a supposed continuity and transparency that utterly
defies and works against the abilities and expressive qualities of digital media. The very
nature of the graphic user interface and the ways in which its users interact with it,
prohibit the computer desktop from being seen as a continuous, transparent, and
singular view of a scene. The user must always be able to differentiate a window of one
application from another in order to work efficiently with a computer. Why the graphic
user interface leans towards erasing difference and opposition while collage and
montage painting, trompe-l’oeil works like Magritte’s The Human Condition I, and
principles of filmmaking like those of Godard uphold them is a significant question to ask
of both designers and users of these graphic user interfaces.

One potential explanation for the prevalence of the glossy and seamless
appearance of the graphic user interface could lay in the turn that popular cinema has
taken. Cinema strives to conceal markings of the production process and smooth the
transitions between edited and composited portions of a film. The process of editing and
recombining scenes becomes a key element in cinema’s push for continuity, as Adrian
Miles makes clear in his essay “Cinematic Paradigms for Hypertext”. He states: “In
‘classical continuity cutting’ the function of editing is defined in terms of a concealment of
the constructed nature of film and narrative, and to present a seamless fusion of events,
character, and movement” (219). The fact that the film is a product and largely a
manipulated one is hidden from the viewer in order to maintain the conceit that the film is
a simple recording of reality rather than a recombination of disparate scenes or a
mélange of digital elements and “real” recordings. The problem for cinema then
becomes the edges or borders of mediations and how they should blend in order to
conceal their posed and constructed nature (Manovich 155).

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What is interesting about the space of the computer desktop is that it tries to
uphold both a transparency and seamlessness while so obviously exhibiting its mediated
quality. Media that work towards transparency such as many blockbuster films with their
smooth cuts and edits or Antonello’s St. Jerome in his study and the Albertian window
conceit, strive for a realism by denying mediation. Other media highlight mediation and
multiply its instances and appearances to create what Jay David Bolter and Richard
Grusin call “a feeling of fullness, a satiety of experience, which can be taken as reality”
(“Remediation” 343). While the graphic user interface still uses the window as a
constructed view into a field of information much like Renaissance perspectival art, it
also allows the user to see several windows at once on the same desktop along with all
the tools and functionalities available to that user. The computer desktop has juxtaposed
the looking through and looking at in order to be aesthetically pleasing and provide a rich
user experience while being as functional and expressive as possible. The computer
interface frames an experience of a certain reality as any medium does (Manoff 320) and
as we have seen, borrows and alters ways of viewing and framing from other media.

Perhaps it is because the computer interface relishes remediating spaces and
various mediated experiences that many critics, such as Jay David Bolter, Richard
Grusin, and Lev Manovich, have stressed that computer graphics and the space of the
interface do not strive for a realism that imitates the outside world but rather a
photorealism that looks to eliminate the difference between one medium and another
(Bolter and Grusin “Remediation” 324). Turning to the photograph as the epitome of
reality overlooks the nature of photography as a medium that does not simply record
reality but that frames, limits, filters, and edits a singular encounter that may or may not
accurately depict the experience of the photographer. The reason why designers and
users of the graphic user interface dismiss photorealism’s displacement of realism is the
same reason why they also look through the graphic user interface window or the
Albertian window to see only the image or information depicted therein. Mediation has
become appropriated as a normal and, perhaps in some instances, a seemingly unaided
sense of viewing an environment (Manovich 200). Rather than being a revolutionary
change in ways of seeing and framing reality that the exposure of mediation was in
Modern art and collage and montage techniques, exhibiting mediation in the graphic
user interface is minimized to a consequence of the desired functionalities of the
computer as a machine. What was the fascination with the surface and the medium has

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shifted to an obsession with limiting the user’s sense of mediation while not
compromising the functionalities and operations of the medium.

That being said, the computer environment promotes and calls for a delicate and
elegant balance of mediation and transparency. Lev Manovich poses the DJ as the
quintessential figure for the simultaneous functionality and aesthetic quality of
recombination that the computer environment and digital expression make available. He
asserts “The essence of the DJ’s art is the ability to mix selected elements in rich and
sophisticated ways” (135). The DJ pulls from an archive of music and sounds to paste
together a new work that is its own original and a combination of previously existing
elements. The work of the DJ is both posed as a composition and a combination that
simultaneously looks through its process of production by becoming a singular song and
looks at the elements of that production by examining, working from, and compositing
various snippets of sound. What has come up in digital art and the aesthetics of the
graphic user interface is a constant play on remediation and recombination that has
been largely appropriated as normal or natural for the space of representation in the
digital age. What the exposure of mediation in Modern art and collage and montage
works of painting and film has stressed is the lack of a singular or privileged view of
space. Such an all-encompassing view of space and the collapse of mediation and
reality that we see in St. Jerome in his study is not the aesthetic of the graphic user
interface which acknowledges and manipulates multiple, diverse, and disparate spaces.

While perhaps designers and users of the graphic user interface look for familiar
experiences and views of space and orientation that have been appropriated with the
prevalence of other media such as painting or film, we have past into a new paradigm of
spatial experience, reality production, and prevalent remediation in the digital age of the
computer. It becomes impossible to dismiss the mistranslations between media and the
bizarre juxtapositions and contradictions with arise in the space of the graphic user
interface. Mediation and remediation have become so common and thus naturalized that
the differences between transparency and mediation have become less apparent. In the
digital age mediation has come to support a desired transparency in the graphic user
interface and other digital expressions through the very means that Modern art and
collage and montage works used to expose and accentuate mediation. How and why the
revolutionary has been appropriated as ordinary in the graphic user interface becomes
an important marker of human experience and reality perception in the digital age.

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Although disorientation seems to be the mode of experience in navigating through
physical spaces (Montello 264) and even in mediated spaces as I have laid out here,
examining and questioning the assumptions and discontinuities that have plagued
remediation in the graphic user interface may point to this shift towards an aesthetic and
framed experience of mediated reality that somehow attempts a transparency alongside
a less conspicuous though absolutely necessary mediation.

Works Cited

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Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Madison.
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journals/postmodern_culture/v015/15.2pold.html>.

Works Consulted
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Boechler, Patricia M. “How Spatial Is Hyperspace? Interacting with Hypertext
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