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SPACE AND THE ARTS > LES RENCONTRES > WORKSHOP 2005 - YVERDON, MAY 2005 > Earth and Space Sciences for Computer Art Works

Earth and Space Sciences for Computer Art Works

Tania Fraga

University of Brasilia, Brasil
R. Dr. Cesario Motta Jr, 454, ap 1401, São Paulo, SP, Brazil, 01221-020

It is difficult to imagine that a handful of residents of a small planet circling an insignificant star in a small galaxy have as their aim a complete understanding of the entire universe, a small speck of creation truly believing it is capable of comprehending the whole. Murray Gell-Mann (Apud John Bouslough, 1989: 5)


The paper Earth and Space Sciences for Computer Art Works searches for the articulation of Earth and Spatial sciences with interactive computer technology by means of art works, in order to create interactive computer installations and performances. The physical and mathematical theories for the understanding of space-time cosmology are allowing artists to look for functional metaphors to describe new materials, new morphologies, new ways of thinking the art world, as they feel stimulated to apply this collective knowledge base to their works. The artists, as metaphors´ creators, gather hypotheses, conjectures and intuitive perceptions, without the intention of demonstrating them, as scientists do. They are creators of poetic realms and of new means for their exploration, leapfrogging the cognitive constraints of the human senses. They transform scientific phenomena understood or even observed by means of special equipment into sensorial experiences.

The reverberations of these theories in the art world provide the examples discussed in the aforementioned paper:

1. Aurora 2001/2003: Fire in the Sky 1 is a dance perofrmance, imagined using concepts from Space sciences as metaphors, which organize a journey from the Sun towards the Earth through the Auroras. The journey is based either on the vortices of “ejected solar plasma”, or on scientific concepts such as the “magnetosphere”, the “proton storm” and the “solar wind”, conceived as clouds of coloured dots vibrating on the screen, immersing the performers into interactive poetic versions of the physical phenomena;

2. Hekuras - Karuanas & Kurupiras is a work in progress. It creates interactive journeys, which change the cognitive universe of the interactor into dream realms exploring cognitive realities inaccessible to their senses. The journeys make use of Earth science concepts such as “serapilheira” and “metabolism of the forest” 2 as the bases for the construction of their many realms, carrying the interactor from the Amazon towards the Rainbow through different, non-linear routes, emphasizing the interconnectedness and interdependence of terrestrial life with the Sun;

3. M_branas is an art installation based on the idea of extremely thin two-dimensional surfaces with twisted shapes called branes by physicist Stephen Hawkings. M_branas produces a metaphor for these vibrating membranes whose thickness is almost non-existent, creating visual figurations of these unfathomable cosmic space-time fluctuations;

4. Responsive rubber membrane is another art installation. It applies the same principles stated above, for the creation of a responsive artificial organism controlled by computer. It uses materials produced by nanotechnologies – nitinol, a memory shape metallic alloy – integrated with rubber membrane produced by small communities from the Amazon.

Key words: Interactive computer art, nitinol, responsive materials, virtual reality, Java 3D, VRML


Humans´ conceptual view of the universe is continually changing as new facts are discovered. Since the birth of theoretical cosmology in the beginning of 20th Century questions such as “What is the shape of space?” “Does it contract or expand depending on matter density?” “Are there many different forms of space? “Is it possible that huge stars may collapse in on themselves as a single point of infinite density – a singularity – where the concepts of space and time as we have known up until now disappear?” “Does space curve back on itself near black holes bending light rays, swallowing all light and matter around them?” “Where does all matter go?“ Is it transferred to other universes?” are not simply theoretical playthings or science fiction but questions related to observable physical facts. The complexity humans perceive around them is probably an expected result of their cognitive apparatus being capable of perceiving only projections of lower dimensions of a universe of much higher dimensions (Kaku, 1994).

In this context, the role interactive computer art may play in the establishing of new ways to conceive reality is of paramount importance. The concept of what means to be human or natural during the last century also has undergone continuous change, culminating, in the art field, with the emergence of an artistic ethos based essentially on the role of consciousness. Dynamic processes and complex interactions integrating humans and machines have become the environment of art works, displacing the construction of mechanical objects. There are many artists open to experimentation with such processes, amalgamating scientific procedures with the cognitive domain of human life (Ascott, 2000: 2). It is thus that artistic and scientific knowledge plus ecological and technical environments come together for the exploration of interactive computer art works, articulating different fields of a collective knowledge base on trans-codifications of signs.

Therefore, the aim of this paper is to raise a few potential uses for these interactive computer art works, leading to the creation of interactive installations and live events that allow the complementary interaction between mind and computer. It also aims to inquiry about the use and transformation of scientific ideas into sensorial experiments. In working with scientific concepts such as matter, space and time it is stimulating to discover that on the microcosmic realm matter becomes a seething foam of meandering waves; on the macrocosmic domain space-time variations turn into a broad phenomenon where different shapes of spaces and time warping create weird universes; and, finally, that around heavy bodies space is capable of bending light rays, altering time in ways impossible to grasp by common sense. To turn all these concepts into something meaningful it is necessary to comprehend, at least from a theoretical point of view, unusual types of topologies, fractal and non-Euclidean geometries.

Exploring collaborations such as described above have resulted in the art works Aurora 2001/2003: Fire in the Sky, Hekuras - Karuanas & Kurupiras (work in progress), M_branas and Responsive rubber membrane. These art works aim to change the cognitive universe of the viewers, inviting them into dream realms, or into cognitive realities otherwise inaccessible to their senses, by means of new practices and new ways of making things.

The journeys as allegories for diving into computerized virtual worlds have started at the beginning of the year 1999 with the creation of The Xamantic Journey 5 as a result of a post doctoral research at CAiiA-STAR, UK. In the year 2000, the idea of extending the concept of journeying in cyberspace, applying it in work for the stage, was carried out with the creation of the interactive cyber-scenarios for the dance spectacle Aurora 2001: Fire in the Sky (Fraga, 2004: 111-122). From this performance followed Fertility: two Seasons 6, a live event created with an intimate dimension in view, aiming to advance the understanding of the gestual language necessary for the performer-computer interaction. From them sprung Karuanas, 7 a performance presented in open rehearsals, and TechnoPathos 8 a short theatre piece.

Interactive computer graphics hold the tools used in the creation of the journeys by means of computer languages such as VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language), JavaScript and Java 3D. The three-dimensional realms outlining these journeys allow the active participation of the interactors in installations, in performances and in live events. The journeys´ modular data structure allows choices between diverse combinatory collections of cyber worlds, creating virtual niches. Interactors, using a wireless mouse 9, manipulate them in real time, exploring the process while composing visual figurations (Artaud, 1995) at each interaction, providing movement to the cyber worlds, which change according to their actions. The computer languages used in the construction of the cyber-scenarios possess built-in procedures for the creation of a number of sensors and controls which, when activated by the interactors, carry out the actions for which they were programmed. These actions can cause movements and trigger animations; they may control artificial organisms; they can establish changes in shapes; they can play music or perform any other action they have been programmed for. The interactors are invited to metamorphose the cyber-worlds interactively on the installation space or on the stage. The cyber-scenarios offer the participants poetic actions of diving into multidimensional and non-linear space-time realms as sensorial experiences.

These processes integrate the actions carried out by the interactors with those processed in real time on the computer. They incorporate randomness, thanks to the complexity and non-linearity of the cyber-worlds´ data structures. The resulting images, projected onto screens inside the installation space or over the stage, compose singular scenes at each interaction. This kind of cybernetic experiment allows for the interactors to feel themselves immersed in constantly shifting, virtual environments. The radio wireless mouse works as an unsophisticated device, an interface between the interactors´ body and the cyber-worlds, becoming a body extension and allowing interaction. The technological environment created for these works uses two or three multimedia projectors and two integrated computers –– one used as backup –– and is simple enough for easy transportation on tour around the world.

The Works´ Content and Context: The Cyber-scenarios 10

The content of these art works, as stated before, is based, chiefly, on the imparting and reinvention of dreams and myths overlaid onto scientific and contemporary cosmologic concepts re-elaborated by means of metaphors and allegories (Fraga, 2000).

Direct experimentation with computer languages allows artists to take possession of them anthropophagically, to digest them and to transform them. This attitude is in agreement with the Brazilian, cultural and artistic tradition which, as the theoretician and professor, Dr Arlindo Machado says, results in a gigantic “cannibalism” of all cultures that make up Brazil and which has been learnt from the native peoples who believed that they took possession of the knowledge and power of the person they devoured (Machado, : 1993). It is worth noting that today, knowing how to use information is a form of power. Consequently, artists need to “devour” the incommensurable amount of information that exists nowadays transforming it into knowledge applied for the development of human sensitivity. In this way they can make certain aspects of life emerge, which could otherwise be only truly expressed through the subtlety of poetic synthesis.

In the 17th century, Sir Francis Bacon established the empirical bases of scientific research. These bases permitted the development of contemporary science. A great surprise is in store for anyone studying the innumerable writings of this great thinker. Together with the premises he put forward as being indispensable for the Advancement of Learning (Bacon, fac-simile) one finds ideas that have been abandoned and forgotten for the last 300 years. Sir Francis Bacon used a pyramid as a metaphor for knowledge. At the bottom of this pyramid was all the knowledge it is possible to acquire, either by logical reasoning or by empirical research. At the top of the pyramid were the forms of knowledge related to philosophy and metaphysics. Linking the two parts of the pyramid was poetry – metaphorically understood as being a ladder, interconnecting its top and bottom (Apud Fraga, 2004: 111-122).

Anyone can appreciate that Western science has developed and freed itself from the restrictions placed upon it by the superstitions, fanaticism and ancient religious dogmas. In this struggle, metaphysics, poetry and the arts, all of which encompass different expressive manifestations – mental, textual, visual, aural, gestual, odoriferous and tactile – were relegated to marginality. Metaphysics here is understood to be the area of knowledge, that seeks to comprehend the abstract qualities and the indescribable aspects of the human cognitive universe, qualities that extrapolate the field of science. Physicist Max Plank said that “science cannot exist without some small portion of metaphysics (…) the old doctrine which teaches that there are realities existing apart from our sense-perceptions, and that there are problems and conflicts where these realities are of greater value for us than the richest treasures of the world of experience” (Apud Jahn et Dunne, 1987: 60).

Another physicist, Eric Baum, inquiring about the nature of thought and the mind related to artificial intelligence, declares that analogies and metaphors organized as thoughts are subroutines that the mind evokes in order to understand the world (Baum, 2004: 5). It is extremely interesting to think art as the field where such subroutines are experienced and trained. It is also a radical approach for an area of knowledge often regarded as worthless. An area whose function is hard to discover in Western society; an area that seems to have been for centuries the only refuge for apparently dysfunctional individuals who do not fit in the conventional patterns of accepted social behaviour. With the disqualification of such forms of knowledge, the aforementioned Bacon´s pyramid became truncated and incomplete. Mind cognitive voyages, abstract and unfathomable, were treated as anomalies and relegated to the worlds of art, drugs and madness (Fraga, 2004: 111-122). For centuries the exploration of the topics connected to these marginal worlds have been conspicuously regarded with contempt.

Established science balances between empirical experiment and predictive or speculative theories (Jahn et Dunne, 1987: 3). Computer science is mainly about syntax (Baum, 2004: 4) while art is primarily about semantics. Conversely, interactive computer art joins semantics and syntax in complementary ways. It has the intrinsic characteristic that feeds up the users´ imagination, allowing them to enter and to dive into arrays of metaphors in the form of allegories. Therefore it can explore and test semantic domains, building symbolic apparatus. It also may explore poetic versions of the mind or of the physical realms as sensorial experiences, stressing theirs anomalies, paradoxes and idiosyncrasies, leapfrogging the cognitive constraints of the human senses.

The previously mentioned responsive journeys were created looking for ways of retrieving similar possibilities for the computer environment. The journeys, as allegorical voyages on scientific phenomena, dreams and myths, aim to make them accessible to cognition. They allow the interactors to wander into their realities, “touching” them, “living” them and “experiencing” them, despite their apparent immateriality and ineffable appearance.

The journeys create ethereal domains directed at involving the participants, transporting them into alternative realms. These works allow the mind to embody its abstract flight with profound bodily sensations, experiencing cognitive adventures: adventures expressing knowledge through poetic palpable sensations; adventures revealing the magic of things in their singular aspects, provoking a dizzy array of feelings; adventures unveiling analogies by means of unsuspecting comparisons; and adventures liberating inestimable fantasies and chimeras of the imagination. These congregations of signs create ephemeral and transient realities presented as responsive and expressive actions. Realities which, for a short period, transforms the cognitive world of the participants into another space-time, inciting them to impart any kind of emotion such as happiness, agony, worry, excitement, delight, change, horror, shock; in other words, to feel something.

The set of art journeys discussed here has intended to operate this idea, disregarding conceptual and preconceived boundaries that apparently segregate art and science. Aurora 2001/2003: Fire in the Sky is a dance performance, imagined using concepts from Space sciences as metaphors organizing a journey from the Sun towards the Earth through the Auroras Borealis and Australis. The journey is based on vortices of plasma ejected by the Sun, or on fluid interpretations of scientific concepts such as the “magnetosphere”, the “proton storm” and the “solar wind”. It carries the interactors into flowing versions of these phenomena, conceived as clouds of coloured lines or dots vibrating on screens, immersing the performers into interactive lyrical renditions of the physical phenomena.

These journeys take the interactors into poetic metaphors of scientific concepts or, further, into the domain of mythical beings, inhabitants of imaginary realms. The scientific phenomena can be imagined, understood or even observed by means of special equipment, however, they cannot ever be captured by the naked eye or experienced by the senses except as mind experiments. The mythical beings belong to the kingdom of the ineffable and the journeys have poetically explored their existences.

Hekuras - Karuanas & Kurupiras 11 is a work in progress. It creates interactive journeys as visual figurations. It changes the cognitive universe of the interactor into dream realms exploring cognitive realities inaccessible to their senses. The journeys assemble many realms, carrying the interactor from the Amazon towards the Sun through different, non-linear routes, emphasizing the interconnectedness and interdependence of terrestrial life with the Sun. Contemporary forest studies show possibilities for the wise use of its resources and services. The journeys make use of Earth science concepts such as “serapilheira” and “metabolism of the forest”. They also explore mythical beings´ domains that are an integral part of the jungle inhabitants’ imaginary realms. To envision, to understand or even to observe scientific phenomena by means of special equipment is a fine experience. However, some of this specific knowledge of science cannot ever be captured by ordinary senses and convey aspects invisible to the naked eye. Conversely, the mythical beings belong to ineffable kingdoms artists may unveil in their work. It is also important to stress that, when the dynamic and energetic fluxes are in harmony with the forest’s metabolic tendencies, they bring about benefits for the ecological health of planet Earth (Leite, 2001).

In working with such concepts Hekuras - Karuanas & Kurupiras intends to carry the interactors from the Amazon towards the Sun through different, non-linear and complex routes, emphasizing the interconnectedness and interdependence of terrestrial life with the star that makes life possible. The journey begins by invoking mythical beings, the Hekuras, to conduct the interactors through realms such as:

  • The pink dolphins realm;
  • The fractal forest realm mirrored in the black waters of the Caxiuanã 12 River;
  • The water realm where Karuanas (the water energies) dwell;
  • The “serapilheira” realm – the terrestrial micro-cosmos, the live soil made up of fungi, rotting leaves, microorganisms and worms;
  • The giant rays realm;
  • The entangled roots realm – an ecological domain of entwined rivers: the igarapés and igapós;
  • The mist realm – a breathing hazy tropical atmosphere made up of over 95% of water vapour;
  • The rainbow realm where the interactor dives 13 going from Earth towards the Sun. Inside this realm, trans-codifications of the solar phenomena occurs, becoming rhythmical shapes recalling the explosions produced by solar storms, which will be captured by Earth’s magnetosphere in order to be photo-synthesised by the forest as energy, thus completing the life cycle. The rainbow, an everyday occurrence in Amazon, is the visual expression created by nature, displaying the result of the encounter between the solar energy and the water vapour.

M_branas is an art installation based on the idea of extremely thin two-dimensional surfaces with twisted shapes called “branas” (Hawkings, 2001). M_branas produces a metaphor for these vibrating m dimensional mathematical membranes. They create visual approaches for the multidimensionality of the cosmic super-strings´ realm. The installation m_branas explores unending pulsating fluxes in space-time. Its folding and unfolding membranes are metaphors for the material realm physicists have described as patterns originated from projections of hyper dimensions (Hawkins, 2001: 180-192). The particles in this conceptual domain are unidimensional super strings (Gribbin, 1999: 168-169) vibrating as a huge ocean of energy (Bohn, 1992: 251). There are gravity waves, responsible for the excitations´ undulating patterns in this ocean, forging and rippling the multidimensional space-time where they inhabit. From this seething foam, the surfaces, denominated branas (Hawkins, 2001: 180-192) are projected into a multi-dimensional universe.

Responsive rubber membrane is another art installation. It applies the same principles stated above, this time for the creation of a responsive artificial organism. It features a physical surface that uses a smart nano material - nitinol, a memory shape metallic alloy - integrated with a natural rubber membrane manufactured by small communities from the Amazon region. The production and sale of the rubber carpet may help them to survive while preserving their environment. The artificial organism’s surface responds to computer stimuli: the nitinol wires react to electricity, changing their configuration according to variations in current, and thus changing the shape of the membrane in which they are embedded. Responsive Rubber Membrane is part of a bigger project – Responsive Surfaces – that looks for functional metaphors to describe new materials and objects created through nanotechnologies. It is also a physical interactive artificial organism that materializes the immaterial membranes and its waving silent motion created in previous art works.


The works mentioned above have extensive repertoires of unusual shapes, membranes and movements. Visual, scenic, spatial, sound, numeric and mathematical languages anchor them, creating universes of signs, opening them to the unforeseen, the unplanned and the unexpected. They are poetic realities accessible to interaction and improvisation.

Are there any replies to the question “what is the thing that makes any work, a work of art?” Maybe the answer is that individuals, in general, when searching for contact with the art field seek something they do not have. They may look for archetypal identification with the works. Perhaps they try to find ways for attaining new sensations. Possibly, they search for escapes from the alienating, daily routine. Maybe they seek out to feel emotions when facing abstract concepts such as the sublime, the tragic, the terrible, the divine, the beautiful and the comic, among many others. Maybe, at an unconscious level, they seek to train the ability of their neurons to modify the energetic state of their nervous systems by experimenting emotions and sensations (Llinás, 2002: 215). Perhaps interactive computer art works may become attractors - vortexes of qualia (Op cit.: 201-222) - assembling signs and organizing percepts, while allowing for the internal representation of the world to map over the external reality. Maybe the transformation of scientific phenomena into sensorial experiences without treating them as ilustrations may provoke such reverberations.

This enquiry instigates discussions, corroborating the need for an extended debate, identifying possibilities for poetic explorations of scientific concepts re-elaborated as metaphors and allegories. This debate aims to explore the potential for the creation of inter-disciplinary approaches integrating apparently antagonistic fields. The overlay of analytical methods, utilized by scientists, with analogical modes, used by artists, bring forth practical ways for artistic creation. It permits new structures to surface generating useful strategies. These attitudes engender skills and permit the construction of art works, which weave and expand non-linear and dynamic processes for their creation, establishing treads towards increasingly more complexes structures.

The physicist Géza Szamoszi says abstract paintings of the 20th Century are “responsible for the enlargement of contemporary Western man’s visual repertoire. For him, extraordinary shapes, previously inaccessible, have become part of the visual repertoire of contemporary society, as consequence of the production of artists linked to the diverse abstract art movements”. Szamoszi concludes by saying that it is almost impossible to imagine a society “which thinks about the world in terms of relativity and quantum mechanics” and looks at it “within a visual framework of the 19th Century” (Apud Fraga, 1995: 86).

In an analogous way, it is possible to conclude that the human capacities for exploring the senses and the limits of the mind have the potential to continue growing. It is fundamental that the individuals’ capacity to fathom space and time may continue to evolve. Restless, the human mind may recognize and elaborate new ways of thinking, pushing the boundaries for the development of enquiries into unknown territories, provoking changes on the cognitive process of the participants by amplifying their imagination and their capacity to conceive puzzling realities. The delightful adventures that insightful knowledge could offer demand intense cooperation and collaboration of anyone whishing to participate in them. Interactive computer art may provide the environment for this exploration, carrying the participants off to unusual states of consciousness, expanding human intellectual frontiers beyond acknowledged views of the Universe.


1 This possibility has been under exploration since the beginning of the year 2000, with the creation of interactive cyber-scenarios for the dance spectacle “Aurora 2001: Fire in the Sky”. This spectacle was conceived by the American choreographer Maida Withers and performed by the dance group “The Maida Withers Dance Construction Company” in 2001 and 2003. It had its debut in Trompso, Norway and in Washington DC, both in February 2001, and went on tour to Saint Petersburg and Achangelsk, in Russia, in August 2003. NASA and the European and Japanese Space Agencies made available the use of images of the Sun and of the Borealis and Australis Auroras, taken by the satellites TRACES, YOKO AND SOHO, orbiting the Earth and the Sun. See http://www.danceaurora.org.

2 The main scientific concepts for Hekuras - Karuanas & Kurupiras are based on the Amazon rain forest research into its soil and metabolic processes. From them come the term “serapilheira” – the terrestrial micro-cosmos – originates, the live soil made up of fungi, rotting leaves, microorganisms and worms. It is the soil of the Amazon rain forest, that which is recycled from its own refuses. The “metabolism of the forest” is part of two major research projects underway in the Brazilian National Space Institute (INPE): one seeks to reveal the relationship between biosphere and atmosphere; the other is attempting to monitor and to simulate the effects of drought on that bioma. These and previous studies have found out that the Amazonian hydro-cycle has an enormous influence on the health of the rest of the planet. See LEITE, Marcelo (2001). A Floresta Amazônica. São Paulo: Publifolha.

3 Art Installation presented in the Exhibition Greather or Equal to 4D, from June until August 2004, at Banco do Brasil Cultural Center, Brasília. It has been also shown at the Java 3D CAVE environment at the University of Calgary, Canada, since August 2003.

4 Art Installation presented in the Exhibition Artificial Emotion 2, from July until September 2004, at Itau Cultural Center, São Paulo. It was also discussed in Issue 14 of Horizon Zero, the online magazine of the Banff New Media Centre, Canada: http://www.horizonzero.ca/ March/April 2004.

5 This journey has been in many events around the world such as: SEAFAIR´99 in Macedonia; European Media Art Festival 99 in Germany; CYPRES: Centre Interculturel de Pratiques Recherches et Echanges Transdisciplinaire, 1999, in Marseille and Avignon, France;, Mercosul Biennale 2000 in Brazil; Prix Möbius International, 2001, in Beijing, China. A simple version of the journey may be seen at the electronic address: http://www.unb.br/vis/lvpa/Xamantic_Journey/

6 Performance presented in Espaço Nova Dança and in the Graphica 2001 International Congress, both in São Paulo, and Estação Ciência Theatre – São Paulo University (USP) in June, October 2001 and 2004 respectively. Performers: Andrea Fraga, Marines Calori and Simone Liro.

7 Performance presented at Morumbi University and Absolute Vodka Sarau, both in São Paulo, in 2002 and 2003 respectively. Performers: QuaseMudo Group.

8 Performance presented at Estação Ciência Theater in São Paulo, in 2003. Performers: Andrea Fraga and Marines Calori, directed by Cauê.

9 The mouse – a wireless, pointing device – uses radio waves to communicate with the computer. It has a sensor which finds the performer within the scenic space when the button is pressed, transforming the coordinates of this position into the coordinates of the observer’ point of view within the virtual world. The complexity of the process complicates the control the performer exerts over the position of this point of view.

10The cyber-scenarios are composed of 3D synthetic objects created using VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language), JavaScript and Java 3D.

11 Hekuras, Kurupiras and Karuanas are mythical beings, holders of knowledge, which they communicate in various forms to the shamans (pajés) who invoke them in their songs.

12 Caxiuanã means huge-snake in the native languages. The river is located at the Southern region of the Marajó archipelago at the National Caxiuanã Forest. In this region is located the Ferreira Pena Scientific Station, part of the Goeldi Museum where the project The Large Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA), quoted above, is being conducted. The majority of the photos used in the cyber-scenarios are from that region.

13 Wormhole is a terminology from physics used to express a thin space-time tube interconnecting two distant regions of the universe, or two parallel universes, or two baby universes. They could make time travel possible (Hawkins,2001: 208).


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© Tania Fraga & Leonardo/Olats, April 2006


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