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An Arrangement of Meaning: Louise Lawler’s Photographs of Collectors’ Homes

“The work works in the process of reception.” Louise Lawler stated in a rare interview with Douglas Crimp titled Prominence Given, Authority Taken. “I don’t want the work to be accompanied by anything that doesn’t accompany it in the real world.”¹ As an artist who focuses on methods and means of presentation of artwork, this quote which refers to her own photographs can also be used to think about the art that is the subject of her work. Louise Lawler’s work interrogates the structures of value and meaning that shape our understanding of the artwork. Her photographs and installations often subvert or expose the structure of the gallery space, the authority of names and prestige, and the combined role of the artist and viewers as arbiters of meaning: an approach typically known as institutional critique.

This paper focuses on Lawler’s photographs of artworks in collectors’ homes that foreground the way that value is given to a work of art through a personal connection to the work. Her claim that “the work works in the process of reception” can be read not only as a claim about her work but about her ideas about art in general; while her method may interrogate the role of institutions, power structures, and methods of representation, she is principally concerned with the way that a viewer forms a personal relationship with an artwork. By looking at these works of Lawler’s through lenses of Derrida’s deconstruction, Barthes’ semiotics, and Mieke Bal’s feminism, this paper will show how Lawler’s photographs or artworks in collectors’ homes focus on the subjective relationship formed between a viewer and an artwork. By focusing on aspects like ownership, authorship, and physical arrangement Lawler foregrounds the human aspect of art, and how meaning-making is an active and subjective process predicated on how much access and control a viewer has over the conditions for reception of the work.

Deconstruction, loosely described, is a process of simultaneously respecting and criticizing one’s own tradition by reading things against the grain, looking at the margins and critiquing overarching structures that define things they are supposed to be neutral towards.² Art theory and criticism in the United States in the 1970s and 80s became increasingly focused on deconstructing notions of representation. Douglas Crimp’s 1977 Pictures essay marked the beginning of this turn, with art historians like Rosalind Krauss and Thomas Lawson picking ideas of semiotic and deconstruction philosophy from Barthes and Derrida. French theory in the 1960s become dominated by structuralism and semiotics, influenced by Sassure’s semiotic theory based in linguistics that was developed in the early 20th century.³

Through her work, Lawler was engaging with many of the same theories and concepts that the critics were- in a sense she was doing theory as it was still being written. The Truth in Painting by Jacques Derrida is one of the most influential works of deconstructive philosophy relating to art. It was first published in 1978 and translated into English in 1987, meaning that Lawler had very likely not read Derrida before creating the works discussed here, yet both Derrida and Lawler were working through the same theories that were floating around the art world in the 70’s and 80’s.⁴ While Derrida was deconstructing philosophy through writing more philosophy, Lawler was work was true praxis, deconstructing the meaning of artwork by creating artwork. Her focus on the structure surrounding art is similar to Derrida’s notion of the parergon as described in The Truth in Painting. The parergon roughly means frame, and includes objects that are exterior to the artwork but still enclose it and influence the way it is seen:

The parergon: neither work [ergon] nor outside the work [hors d’oeuvre], either inside nor outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate and it gives rise to the work. It is no longer merely around the word. That which it puts in place-the instance of the frame, the title, the signature, the legend, etc.--does not stop disturbing the internal order of discourse on painting, its works, its commerce, its evaluations, its surplus-values, its speculation, its law, and its hierarchies.⁵

According to Derrida, because the parergon defines and gives rise to the artwork, questions about the nature and value of art must include a discussion of the way it is framed.⁶ This notion, that the true nature of art can only be explored through the way it is framed or contextualized, is central to Lawler’s practice. In other words, her method of institutional critique is not about the institution but about the art and how it acquires its meaning partially through the institution. Further, she shows that the way a viewer forms their own relationship with the art is conditioned by these framing devices. By exposing this meaning-making process for what it is, her photographs allow viewers to think about how they relate to art and how they also have a role to play in the process. While Derrida lists many facets of the parergon, there are a few in particular that Lawler focuses on in her photographs of collectors’ homes: the physical arrangement, title, ownership, and authorship.

The parergon (frame) and the ergon (artwork) have a reciprocal relationship where each is dependent on the other for its meaning. The artwork does not exist without the frame to limit and contextualize it, and the frame does not have a purpose without artwork to enclose. Lawler’s intervention exposes this system to viewers in order to allow them to understand their own role, either as owners, authors, or viewers, creating meaning in a unique way.

Lawler’s work often takes the form of “arrangements,” whether she is rearranging works by other artists in her work, or photographing arrangements of work in private residences. Her book, titled An Arrangement of Pictures, foregrounds how the act of arrangement is central to her practice and valued for its seemingly neutral implications. In explaining the title of the book, she says: “By tilting the book An Arrangement of Pictures, I mean to acknowledge that there is a difference between what is shown on these pages and how these pictures exist in various formats and sizes in my work. In the book, they straddle a line between representing my work and the information contained in the pictures themselves. As carriers of information, they function as journalism.”⁷

For Lawler, the word “arrangement” is thus a way to retain a semiotic distance between the thing portrayed and the thing itself. Semiotics, a method originating from Sassure’s literary theory in the 1920s, breaks down communication into three parts: the sign, the signifier, and the signified. Stuart Hall’s analysis of television messages helpfully traces the way that communication can be broken down into discrete parts comprising a sign system. First, the message is produced by drawing cues, codes, and images from the wider socio-cultural system, which is only one-half of the total meaning of the message. The system is completed once the message reaches and is meaningfully decoded by the audience, which is also done according to how the audience understands the message within the wider landscape of signs.⁸ In this way, the processes of encoding and decoding are two halves of a whole and both draw on the same context to make meaning.

The medium of photography is of particular interest to semioticians because of the way that the signified (the real world) and the signifier (the photograph) identically resemble each other. The photographic sign “reproduces the conditions of reception in the receiver.”⁹ Still, Hall explains how there can be a disconnect between the way that a sign is encoded and decoded where the viewer may or may not understand the sign in the way it was meant to be understood. By taking photographs in a documentary style but calling attention to certain structures that encode the messages in specific ways, Lawler plays with the polysemy of artworks in order to expose the notion that the viewer is free to decode the message in their own way, perhaps contrary to the dominant code suggested by galleries, museums, or the art market. She does this in a variety of ways, often using the titles of her works or providing captions that call attention to how the dominant meaning intended by power structures is not necessarily the only meaning available.

The word “arrangement” that she frequently uses in titles is a signal to readers that the images shown are qualitatively different, due to their arrangement, from the original works themselves. The semiotic distance between the object itself and the photograph is deconstructed by Roland Barthes in his essay The Photographic Message. For Barthes, photographs convey two messages: the denoted message, which is the physical representation, and the connoted message, which is “the manner in which the society to a certain extent communicates what it thinks of it.”¹⁰ The connoted message of a photograph is shaped by processes that occur both in the production and reception of the message: it is both encoded and decoded according to an existing system of signs and meanings.¹¹ Lawler was conscious of this semiotic distance between the subject of a photograph and the photograph itself, having created a piece with Sherrie Levine titled “A Picture is No Substitute for Anything.”¹² Roughly speaking, a parallel can be drawn between Barthes’ denoted message and Derrida’s ergon, and the connoted message and the parergon, the latter pair being the more obvious visual sign of meaning, and the latter pair covering the more hidden and nuanced determinants of meaning.

Lawler’s emphasis on “arrangements” is a specific commentary on how the physical placement of images is one aspect of the connoted message of the images. She frequently juxtaposes and compares the act of arranging to the act of authorship. In her first solo show at Metro Pictures, titled An Arrangement of Pictures, she hung salon-style works by her peers like Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo, listing the work for sale at the price of the total value of the artworks plus a 10% commission to Lawler.¹³ Presenting this work under her name, and indeed a whole show of works by other people under the auspices of a one-woman show positions the role of the author or artist alongside that of the curator. Lawler’s claim to authorship in this show is predicated on her role as curator or arranger. By doing so, she calls attention to the structure of power and economy implicit within the gallery structure and the way that artwork and images of artwork function as signs within society that are easily manipulated, arranged, and used for the benefit of curators, collectors, and dealers. The author is traditionally understood to be one of the key authorities for deciding meaning; by giving credit to curators and owners as authors, Lawler is pointing out how they have a similar level of power over contextualizing and thus determining the meaning of the work.

Lawler complicates the relationship between arrangement, ownership, and authorship even further with her photographs of art in collectors’ homes. She initially started this project by going to the homes of people who had bought work from Metro Pictures, tracing the institutional lineage of the work from the gallery space where she conducted her own arrangements, to the private space where collectors created their arrangements.¹⁴ In one of her most famous works, Pollock and Tureen, Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Connecticut (fig. 1) she specifically gives credit to the collectors in the title. This, understood alongside her previous works where her act of authorship was the act of arrangement, gives certain authorship to Mr. and Mrs. Tremaine. By identifying collectors as creators, Lawler is calling attention to the way that private ownership plays a role in forging the meaning of artwork. The thin line between authorship and ownership reflects the reality where collectors proudly show off their collections as evidence of their taste and wealth, and they identify themselves with the work in their collection. As mentioned above, the word arrangement functions also as a reminder that the arrangement of the art is different from the art itself. While the arrangement lends the work a different connoted meaning, this is distinct from the denoted meaning of the specific piece. By pointing this out she reveals how meaning is malleable, tethered, and contextual.

Figure 1: Louise Lawler, Pollock and Tureen, Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Connecticut 1984, Cibachrome, 28 x 39 in, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A similar act is done in Living Room Corner Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, New York City (fig. 2) where Robert Delaunay’s Premier Disque, (1912) and Roy Lichtenstein’s Ceramic head with blue shadow, (1965) are both seen snuggled into a corner behind a television. Again, Lawler photographs work “arranged” by the Tremaines, and gives them credit as if they were authors. In this case, one can see how Lawler notes the location of the residence, which also becomes a signifier of wealth and value as having homes in New York and Connecticut become status symbols of their own. In both of these photographs, Lawler plays with how space acts as parergon, both in the seen environment of the home and in the unseen information of Connecticut or New York that she puts in the title.

Figure 2: Louise Lawler, Living Room Corner Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, New York City, 1984, Cibachrome, 30 x 40 in.

Untitled (Dreams) from 1993 (fig. 3) even further foregrounds the connection between authorship, ownership, and authority. Untitled (Dreams) is a paperweight with a picture of two works of art, Edward Ruscha’s Dreams #1 and Roy Lichtenstein's Ball of Twine inside of art dealer Leo Castelli’s home. Accompanying the paperweight is wall text that traces the provenance of the two works of art, with the statement “This will mean more to some of you than others” in bold underneath. The provenance of an artwork is often one of the most important factors in determining its authenticity, and thus its value, yet it is rarely shown to the public and only of interest to art historians, dealers, or collectors, which Lawler notes by pointing out that it means more to some than others. By addressing the audience directly, she places her viewers into categories according to how they value art: one group, to whom the provenance is meaningful, understands that the paperweight is of a picture of a famous dealer’s house in which there are famous works of art. The other group, who is not familiar with the connotated meaning of the provenance, merely sees a paperweight of some images. In this work Lawler is directly connecting ownership to viewership; by dividing her viewers into two groups she makes them question what types of information they use to understand art.

Figure 3 (Above): Louise Lawler, Untitled (Dreams), 1993, Crystal paperweight, cibachrome and felt with text on wall (left). 2 x 3 ½ in.

Like Pollock and Tureen and Living Room Corner, Untitled (Dreams) is obviously a picture of an intimate, domestic space due to Lawler’s decision to leave the bed, nightstand, and lamp in the frame of the picture. In Untitled (Dreams), the presence of a bed and a lamp throwing cozy light over the artworks casts the scene as clearly distinct from a gallery or museum space, and turns the viewer into voyeur intruding in someone’s home. The presence of works of art alongside normal household items domesticates the objects and calls attention to their functional role as decoration.¹⁵ By showing the changing role of these works as a product of context (domestic rather than a gallery) and framing (sections rather than the whole work), Lawler shows how a change of perspective facilitated through her camera lens changes the meaning of the artwork.

Figure 4 (Below): Louise Lawler, Untitled (Salon Hodler), 1992, Crystal, cibachrome on felt,

2 x 3 ½ in.

The use of a paperweight also foregrounds notions of viewing and perspective. Mieke Bal notes the clever word play in another paperweight work, Untitled (Salon Holder) (fig 4) as she ponders the polysemy of the word reception: Lawler’s insistence on foregrounding viewer reception, and the salon as a place to physically receive visitors.¹⁶ The harshly curved glass distorts the image almost as if one is peering through a peephole into a clearly domestic space, turning the viewer into a voyeur and making us feel like we are seeing something we should not be, in turn making us question how the right to viewership is decided. In addition to this notion of access, the paperweight also implicates the right to ownership, as Lawler shrinks the image down to turn it into a small, easily holdable and possessable object. While the photograph of Unmade Bed shows the privileged inaccessible space such as the private bedroom of a wealthy collector, the paperweight transforms this scene into something that an ordinary person could easily possess. While the artwork itself is not accessible, a paperweight is.

Figure 5 (Below): Louise Lawler, Unmade bed, 1993/2000, Cibachrome 24 x 20 in.

Photographing the same room, Lawler presents Castelli’s bedroom not in paperweight form and with a different title, Unmade Bed (fig. 5). While the viewer may be more interested in the famous artwork hanging above the bed, Lawler intentionally highlights the banality and domesticity of the scene by using the title to direct the viewer’s attention to the bed. Similarly, in Chandelier (fig. 6), by ignoring the work of art hanging conspicuously in the back she highlights the domesticity of the scene as if it is only comprised of normal objects and nothing interesting is happening. In this way she perpetuates the sense of familiarity with artwork that happens when a collector lives with it every day; just like one doesn’t think about the specific brand or price of their bed or chandelier every day, so too do the paintings on their wall eventually become “my painting.” By allowing other people to see art in the same environment that a collector normally experiences, she shows how meaning is shaped by personal relationships influenced by context and ownership. The ability to experience a work of art in your own home is a privilege, and one that powerfully changes the meaning the work has due to the way it relates to other objects around it.

Figure 6 (Above): Louise Lawler, Chandelier , 2001/2007, Silver dye bleach print 19 1⁄4 x 15 1⁄2 in.

Emphasis on the title is shown powerfully in her works of the same image or scene with different titles, like in Still Life (Candle) (fig. 7) and Still Life (Napkins) (fig. 8). Here the titles point out how different objects are revealed through a slight change of perspective, again bringing attention back to a viewer and also simulating the sort of relationship the owner might have with the work as they get to spend time with the work and experience it through different perspectives every day. Like in Chandelier, the titles naming the plain, domestic objects in the scene highlight the thingness of the artwork as it becomes another object in the landscape of someone’s everyday life. The art object is transformed through a relationship of familiarity and ownership, and as Walter Benjamin might put it, the familiarity leads the work losing its aura.

Figure 7 (Above): Louise Lawler, Still Life (Candle), 2003, Silver dye bleach print 13 x 10 3⁄4 in.

Figure 8 (Below): Louise Lawler, Still Life (Napkins), 2003, Silver dye bleach print 19 3⁄4 x 14 1⁄4 in.

The objectification of art is heightened in her photographs that are turned into paperweights, like Untitled (Dreams). The paperweights give the viewer a sense that tables have turned, that usually private collectors are able to present their artwork as something exclusively theirs that no one else may possess, while now their entire home is transformed into a tiny object that can be possessed by someone else. The physicality of the paperweight drives home the point that ownership is more than just owning something in an abstract way, but that ownership means being able to physically possess and manipulate something.

By offering “normal” people glimpses into the homes of the rich she asks bigger questions about the right to viewership. Being able to recognize famous artworks in unrecognizable private homes leads to a sense of unease and makes us ask questions like “who are these people?” and “why do they get to look at this artwork every day and I do not?” As Diedrich Diedrichsen notes, there is a profound difference between a type of seeing in a museum or gallery surrounded by white walls and other people and the casual, domestic form of seeing that occurs between breakfast, sex, and fighting with a spouse.¹⁷ Again, Lawler’s project comes back to the notion of viewership by raising the question of whether it is a privilege or a right.

While Lawler’s project has canonically been understood within the framework of institutional critique, an argument can be made to also understand it as a feminist intervention into the patriarchal structures of the gallery, museum, and art market that determine the value of art. Krista Joy Niles points out that with the exception of sometimes including her peers Sherry Levine, Jenny Holzer or Cindy Sherman, Lawler photographs exclusively artwork by men.¹⁸ Further, her method of calling attention to traditional power structures is also implicitly feminist.

The feminist approach to considerations of value prioritizes the subjective, relational, and personal as opposed to traditional male-dominated power structures and judgments that value the logical, rational, and hierarchical.¹⁹ Key to the feminist approach is an emphasis on perspective, and prioritizing subjective perspectives that have been traditionally undermined. Mieke Bal’s feminist application of semiotics closely mirrors how Lawler’s photographs work in both a semiotic and feminist way. The anti-individualism of semiotics is sometimes an issue for feminist scholars, but Bal’s feminism is predicated on the ability of semiotics to expose the possibility of multiple viewpoints and interpretations. Semiotics’ rejection of a single dogmatic determinant of meaning clears the way for a feminist alternative.²⁰ With her arranging, recontextualizing, and re-photographing, much of Lawler’s work can be seen as a method of reframing to allow for new perspectives to emerge. Furthermore, by problematizing the way framing devices seem to impose singular meanings on art, she allows for viewers to make their own subjective judgments.

The setting of Monogram (fig. 9) from 1984 is also from the Tremaines’ New York City apartment, although that information, in this case, is not provided by Lawler. Instead, the title draws attention to the lavishly embroidered duvet with the owner’s initials (E.H.T., Emily Hall Tremaine). Like in other photographs where she directly names the collectors, here the name of the owner is still present in the title, but this time through in a more subtle way. While attention is drawn to the monogram, the monochrome Jasper Johns Flag painting almost sinks into the background as its color coordination with the duvet renders it a mere decoration. The monogram vertically aligned directly below the painting stamps the whole photograph with a seal that says mine; Lawler’s omission of any reference to the painting or to Johns further distances the painting from its original author and allows for the Tremaines to once again step in as surrogate authors through their act of arrangement. Interestingly, the monogram in question spells out the initials of Emily Tremaine, Burton Tremaine’s wife. In all of her photographs of the Tremaines’ apartment, Emily Tremaine is never mentioned by her own name but rather by suggestion: either she is Mrs. Burton Tremaine, like in Pollock and Tureen, or simply hinted at through her monogram.

Figure 9 (Above): Louise Lawler, Untitled (Monogram), 1984 Cibachrome 28 x 39 1⁄2 in.

Her attachment to the names of artists in her work is varied: sometimes she mentions them, like in Pollock and Tureen, but in most cases with her photographs of collectors’ homes, she ignores the artists’ names or instead substitutes the collectors’ names. This unsteady relationship with (male) authorship suggests that once art leaves the artist’s studio, their name and feelings about the work is less important or significant than the name of the people who own and interact with the work. The slippage of authority between artist and owner recalls a phrase that Lawler once printed on a drinking glass and was also the title of her interview with Crimp: Prominence Given, Authority Taken. By taking prominence from the creator and giving the authority to the viewer, through her work Lawler conducts a feminist, deconstructive and semiotic transformation of the way that meaning is constructed.

As noted above, Lawler was engaging, through her work, with many of the same ideas that Derrida, Hall, Barthes, and Bal were working through in words. As semiotic and deconstructive theory point out, the form in which an idea is expressed is far from neutral and in fact, plays a large role in the encoding of meaning. As Julian Stallabrass points out, while Lawler’s work tends to be playful and self-reflexive, the literature produced about her work is often heavy, laden with theory and complexity that does not quite match the tone and tenor in which Lawler engaged with the same ideas.²¹ Accordingly, more recent scholarship on Lawler has featured writers who also engage in a more personal, reflective style that still engages with the same ideas of authorship, ownership, originality, and reception while incorporating their own voices, experiences, and relationships with Lawler’s art. The work of these scholars has shown that personal reflections can enrich a text about something as personal and subject as the meaning of art, so some are in order here: I chose this topic to write about because I am personally interested in the issues that Lawler works with, not because they are the most pressing, interesting, or important pieces of her work.

Anyone who has lived with a piece of art, including myself, can testify that it is a relationship that grows and evolves. Having constant access to art in one’s home means that the act of looking is extended to include different angles of light as the days and months pass, different moods and personal phases that influence how a connection with the work is formed and sustained. As Lawler points out, the ability to arrange and change the environment of the work is also powerful: setting the work in conversation with other objects and spaces, and allowing certain people to have access to it at certain times. Once the work is in a private home, the owner has more control over it than the artist: while artists may be responsible for initially encoding, owners are able to both encode through context and decode the work every day.

There is a very real way that one forms a personal relationship with a work of art the more they spend time with it. The clean white cube gate-kept by a paywall does not necessarily provide the most welcoming environment to engage with the artwork. Lawler’s photographs of work in collectors’ homes, while critical, are also empathetic. She highlights the beauty and care that collectors put into arranging their work, and as noted above, the domesticity of their homes simultaneously devalues the work into just “painting,” but also adds a heightened value by making it “my painting.” Recalling the definition of deconstruction, “simultaneously respecting and criticizing one’s own tradition,” through her work she perfectly performs this double-edged analysis. While there are serious issues and concerns about the privilege of having exclusive access to a piece of art, at the same time it allows one person to form a true, intimate, personal relationship with it that is simply not possible in a public space. This two-step is a facet of the irony implicit in Lawler’s project as she, an artist producing art, makes comments on the process of art produced by other artists.

By showing photographs of works of art as they live their lives in the world, Lawler shows that meaning is not concretely established at the moment of creation by the artist. Rather, meaning is a process constantly constructed between the work and the people who encounter it after it leaves the artist’s studio. By focusing on the setting of the private home, she demonstrates how the human elements of ownership, authorship, and arrangement are not neutral and create meaning that is ultimately subjective and ever-changing.


1. Douglas Crimp, “Prominence Given, Authority Taken,” in Louise Lawler, ed. Helen Molesworth and Taylor Walsh, OCTOBER Files 14 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013) 35.

2. Donald Preziosi, The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). 3. Michael Hatt and Charlotte Klonk, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), 200-204. 4. Peter Brunette and David Willis, eds, Deconstruction and the Visual Arts: Art, Media, Architecture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 2.

5. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 9. 6 Derrida, Truth in Painting, 45.

6. Derrida, Truth in Painting, 45.

7. Crimp, “Prominence Given, Authority Taken,” 35. 8. Stuart Hall, Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse (1973), 3.

9. Stuart Hall, Encoding and Decoding, quoting Umberto Eco, “Articulations of Cinematic Code,” Cinematics 1.

10. Roland Barthes, Image Music Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 17. 11. Barthes, Image Music Text, 19. 12. Crimp, Prominence Given, Authority Taken, 44.

13. Andrea Fraser, “In and Out of Place,” in Helen Anne Molesworth and Taylor Walsh, eds. Louise Lawler, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2013), 6.

14. Crimp, Prominence Given, Authority Taken, 38.

15. David Joselit, “Investigating the Ordinary,” Art in America 76, no. 5 (1988): 148-55.

16. Mieke Bal, “Deceptions: “yes, but”, “re-”, “huh?”, “post-”, “oh yes!” in Louise Lawler: Receptions, ed. Roxana Marcoci (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2017), 42.

17. Diedrich Diedrichsen, “More Jokes about Autonomy and the Private Sphere” in Louise Lawler: Receptions, 72.

18. Krista Joy Niles, “An Arranged Deconstruction: The Feminist Art Practice of Louise Lawler,” Phd. Diss. (University of Arizona, 2015), 22. 19. Alison Stone, An Introduction to Feminist Philosophy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), 20.

20. Hatt and Klonk, Art History, 217.

21. Julian Stallabrass, “Lawler’s Victory” in Louise Lawler: Receptions, 92.

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