The article examines the representation of spectrality in post-conflict cities such as Belfast and Derry. Focusing specifically on the haunted spaces depicted in works by Willie Doherty, it looks at the formal techniques used by the artist to mark and represent that which is deemed unrepresentable: the traumatic afterlife of conflict. While theorists have long argued that trauma itself defies representation, it is recognised that artworks can mimic its forms and symptoms to allow readers and viewers to bear witness to its disabling nature. While the works depict the haunting (or spectral return) of trauma, they do not do this in order to overcome it; rather, as Derrida has argued, one must ‘learn to live with ghosts’, and one must ‘exorcise not in order to chase away the ghosts’ but to ‘grant them the right’ to a ‘hospitable memory’. Through governmental prescriptive forgetting, historiographical omission and the active erasure of the traces of conflict, certain events and memories have been made ‘invisible’; the artworks under discussion seek to counteract this tendency.
Key Words: Belfast Agreement — Willie Doherty — Northern Ireland — Trauma
Trauma, as defined in Cathy Caruth’s seminal study, ‘describes an overwhelming experience of sudden, or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, and uncontrolled repetitive occurrence of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena’ (1996: 11). It results from ‘failed witnessing’: the initial event has not been processed or properly consigned to memory; hence, as Hochberg outlines, ‘the traumatised survivor is compelled to revisit the scene via images and dreams so as to see what s/he has failed to see at the time of the event’ (2015: 140). Traumatic recall is a spectral experience; it presents itself as ‘a haunting or possessive influence which not only insistently and intrusively returns but is, moreover, experienced for the first time only in its belated repetition’ (Whitehead 2004: 5). In texts marked by haunting, as Avery Gordon notes, ‘repressed or unresolved social violence [makes] itself known’; the spectre, or ghostly form, appears and signals that what has been concealed is, in fact, ‘very much alive and present’ with the capacity to disturb ‘those always incomplete forms of containment and repression’ (2008: xvi). That ‘capacity to disturb’ is vital as it suggests unfinished business and a demand for redress. While both spectrality and trauma may initially seem characterised by an obsession with the past and an inability to leave it behind, that ‘obsession’ has less to do with an unwillingness to move on and more to do with uncovering traces of past injustice. As Derrida in Specters of Marx argues, dealing with the traumas of the past is not about exorcism; rather, one must ‘learn to live with ghosts’ and strive to grant the spectres the right to ‘a hospitable memory […] out of a concern for justice’ (2006: 175). This preoccupation with justice and the future-orientated dimension to spectrality is what concerns the subject of this essay, namely the ways in which the works of the Derry-born visual artist Willie Doherty present a haunted negotiation of space in order to highlight the neglected traumas resulting from the 30-year period of violence known as ‘The Troubles’. However, to fully understand the root of his concerns, one must first examine the works’ political context.
The Good Friday Agreement, signed on 10 April 1998, and effectively endorsed by the passing of two separate referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, on 22 May of that year, heralded a period of optimism with regards to peace and reconciliation in the Northern Irish State. Much of the hopefulness surrounding the negotiated settlement for peace centred on the ways in which it placed the rights of victims at its heart. Paragraph 11 of the section entitled ‘Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity’ declares that ‘[t]he participants believe that it is essential to acknowledge and address the suffering of the victims of violence as a necessary element of reconciliation’ (Northern Ireland Office 1998). These commitments were reiterated in the policy document issued by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in 2009: the Strategy for Victims and Survivors states categorically that one of its key aims is to ‘put in place comprehensive arrangements to ensure that the voice of victims and survivors is represented and acted upon at a governmental and policy level’ (OFMDFM 2009: 4). Although arms were being decommissioned beyond use and the State was becoming demilitarised, relatives of those who had been abducted and murdered demanded answers to a number of longstanding questions. Was there collusion between State forces and paramilitary organisations, were paid informers involved in killings and were they now immune from prosecution? Were the bodies of the so-called ‘Disappeared’ ever to be revealed and would there be any investigation into the cold cases and unsolved crimes? While money and words were in plentiful supply, the lack of an integrated, cohesive approach to the past was highlighted (and criticised) by the first official review of this Strategy. The interim report, published in 2013, concluded that ‘there is little tangible evidence that the Commission has made a positive difference at the time of the review and limited evidence that it has increased coherence among individuals and groups of/for victims and survivors and made best use of resources’ (OFMDFM 2013: 51). Indeed, more damningly, although the Consultative Group on the Past called for ‘an independent Legacy Commission’ to be established ‘to deal with the legacy of the past by combining processes of reconciliation, justice and information recovery’ (consultative Group on the Past 2009: 16), no such Commission has been (or is likely to be) established. Even the much-hyped document signed by the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK and Irish governments on 17 November 2015, A Fresh Start: The Stormont Implementation Plan, notes that ‘[d]espite some significant progress we were not able at this stage to reach a final agreement on the establishment of new bodies to deal with the past’ (Villiers 2015: 8). Two years after its signing, the document’s title has come to seem naïve, if not disingenuous: the political impasse on issues to do with the legacies of the past have not been resolved. As Mark Devenport reports, although a series of new agencies have been discussed, ‘they remain stillborn, as do proposals from the Lord Chief Justice to accelerate the handling of inquests into contentious killings, many involving the police and army’ (2016). The Historical Enquiries Team has been shut down; inquiries into State collusion in killings have stalled; amnesties have been effectively given to murderers.
Each impediment to uncovering the truth of past crimes and injustices not only confirms Leah Wing’s assertion that ‘State-sanctioned mechanisms have yet to provide meaningful ways to deal with truth recovery and to tell stories about the past’ (2010: 31), but gives rise to the suspicion that what is at work here is what Paul Connerton terms ‘prescriptive forgetting’, a form of willed amnesia ‘precipitated by an act of state’ which is ‘believed to be in the interests of all the parties to the previous dispute’ (2011: 34). What underlines and drives such forgetting is the fear that the ‘awakening’ of the dead, rather than ‘making whole’, would lead to violent retributive action (Connerton 2011: 35). Indeed, the opening rhetorical gestures of the Agreement, with its swift movement from never forgetting (‘[w]e must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families’) to its insistence on moving forward (‘we can best honour them through a fresh start’) enshrines a progressivist line of thinking (Northern Ireland Office 1998). As Stefanie Lehner has argued, ‘[t]he rhetorical appeal to consign the conflict and its legacy to the distant past discloses a political strategy enforcing a distinct break with the past and the present, in order to open a space for the future’ (2014: 273). If, as Judith Herman contends, ‘remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of social order and for the healing of individual victims’ (1997: 1), then the opening gesture of the Agreement, with its future-orientated discursive framework and ‘progressivist logic’ (McGrattan 2012: 172, 175), denies such prerequisites by attempting to write the victims out of history.
One of the symptoms of post-Agreement amnesia is the proliferation of urban regeneration schemes in Belfast: the urban fabric has been transformed, erasing markers of conflict and sectarianism. Illustrative of prescriptive forgetting, such a manoeuvre is typical in post-conflict scenarios; as Des O’Rawe and Mark Phelan argue, ‘the post-war reconstruction of urban spaces often strives to efface the history and memory of recent conflict’ (2016: 2). With high-profile projects such as the Laganside waterfront development, the renovation of the former Harland and Wolff shipyard (now forming part of the Titanic Quarter), and the rapid construction of new hotels, shopping centres and apartment blocks, Northern Ireland’s capital city was fast becoming a city of and for capital: it has been ‘re-branded as the place for foreign direct investment, regeneration, improved infrastructure and tourism’ (O’Dowd and Komarova 2013: 529). Similar initiatives have taken place in Derry and other locations. As part of the cities’ gentrification, markers of the Troubles (such as security installations and army barracks) have been decommissioned. However, in her study of the physical remains of conflict in Northern Ireland, Laura McAtackney notes that, while ‘[t]he creation of material voids, known as “regeneration zones”, in place of defunct Army bases, police stations, and check-points’ may well arise from and serve to confirm ‘the politically negotiated cessation of violent conflict’, it does not in and by itself ‘indicate any movement towards peace, reconciliation or reconnections within the broader population’; indeed, she concludes that since the ‘mass disposal of sites so intrinsically linked to the conflict’ have been carried out ‘without significant or public engagement’, it ‘follows a discernible trajectory of post-Troubles political culture that steers towards an official forgetting of the past rather than attempting to uncover and engage with painful truths and accepting responsibilities’ (2014: 3).
Reacting against such active forgetting, Willie Doherty created Closure (Doherty 2007: 142-7), a single-screen video installation, to reflect upon the idea of place as a repository of memory. For him, it is crucial to avoid sleepwalking towards a form of State-sponsored amnesia: ‘For me one of the most difficult things about the post-Ceasefire context is the question of how we deal with the aftermath or the trauma. How, as artists, do we begin to visualize it? Is there a kind of a role for artists to play in all this?’ (Doherty in Barber 2009: 197). Watching Closure, the viewer sees a woman dressed in black walking around the fortified perimeter of a narrow, enclosed space. Lasting just over eleven minutes, but played on a loop, the film follows her progress around the space, with the camera always keeping her in the foreground while, at times, cutting to a close-up of her face. The accompanying voiceover provides us with her thoughts: ‘My mission is unending. My anger is undiminished. The street is ablaze. The street is twisted. The surface is melting. My ardour is fervent. My passion is unbowed. The roof is decomposing. The ceiling is dripping. The floor is submerged’. While the woman outwardly appears calm, her thoughts are dislocated and disjunctive, all prompted by her negotiation of space: she inhabits the temporality of trauma, or what Derrida calls the ‘disadjusted now’ (2006: 1), and her trauma is manifest in the fragmented nature of her delivery. Her thoughts move between moments of stoic resolve and reflections on an environment which seems to be collapsing around her, the latter acting almost as a form of pathetic fallacy. The location for her has become what Pierre Nora terms a ‘lieu de mémoire’, a site ‘where consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with a sense that memory has been torn’ (1989: 7). The repetitive, unending negotiation of space belies the work’s title. Haunting is presented here, to borrow Christina Lee’s words, as ‘a complex relation between our own materiality, the environment and the perceived absent presences that engage us physically, cognitively, emotionally and affectively’ (2017: 4) That Doherty gives Closure a circular, looped structure, one that is replayed endlessly in the exhibition space, is crucial as it conveys the subject’s experience of trauma: what we witness is trauma in the sense of ‘a disease of time [which] permits the past to relive itself in the present, in the form of intrusive images and thoughts’ (Young 1997: 7). The idea of achieving closure is belied by the unsettling (and unsettled) nature of her thoughts, the circular journey that she goes on and the looped structure of the artwork. The viewer’s sense of an unwanted (and endless) sequence of return is reinforced by the film’s location:
That is actually the space in front of an old RUC station in Derry. I managed to negotiate access to the corrugated enclosure she finds herself in, with those crude security measures that grew up around the existing fortifications, although it’s not necessary for the viewer to know where it actually is. (Doherty in Barber 2009: 192)
While the viewer does not need to know that the film takes place at the site of the former police station at Rosemount, Derry, such knowledge does lend the piece an added poignancy and suggests a direct relevance to the post-Agreement Northern Irish context. The fortified structure, with its 100-foot high surveillance mast, was part of the State’s architecture of containment and surveillance during the Troubles; it was a visible manifestation of power and control. As Foucault states, ‘le regard qui voit est un regard qui domine’ (1963: 38). The dynamics and regulating power of the State’s scopic regime meant that ‘life under constant observation became normal’ (Blair 2014: 95), thereby inducing unease, paranoia and self-scrutiny in the populace. Although the station is now closed, Doherty’s artwork suggests that psychological closure has not been achieved.
Indeed, the artwork itself constitutes a form of (traumatic) return for the artist, as he had previously photographed the site in 1992 for his photo-text entitled ‘Remote Control’. The black-and-white photograph of the outside of the station is overlaid with the words ‘Remote Control’, a phrase which connotes the alienating operation of power at a distance. Such a work strives to reveal ‘how the panoptical strategies of regulation and disempowerment subtly inscribe the fabric of the city’. Commenting on his photo-texts, Doherty states:
What is important is what is not shown. The things one cannot see are those that impinge on your life … that you are being watched, and that surveillance happens continuously. You cannot photograph these things. They are not public. They are not seen. How can one photograph a psychological state that you experience daily[?] Surveillance is a condition — it happens all the time. It is like weather in winter, constantly grey. There is no break. (Doherty in Gibbons 2010: 48)
What Closure suggests is that there is still ‘no break’, even in the structure’s absence, as the psychological scars of years of conflict and surveillance are still present.
Place, for Doherty, works as a repository of memory or, perhaps more accurately, as a form of psychic crypt in which, as Gabriele Schwab argues, ‘people bury unspeakable events or unbearable, if not disavowed, losses or injuries incurred during violent histories’ (2010: 1). Urban regeneration, underpinned by a governmental ‘prescriptive forgetting’, may facilitate processes of avoidance, denial and repression, but Doherty’s work lays emphasis on the pernicious effects of trauma and the inability to forget the past. One such text is Ghost Story (Doherty 2009), comprising of a fifteen-minute colour video installation and an accompanying soundtrack, both of which are continuously played on a loop. Structurally, the piece is unending and lacks closure. The voiceover by the Northern Irish actor Stephen Rea presents a narrative intended to ‘evoke memories of the dead and a sense of loss and foreboding’. More specifically, the speaker’s first memory returns to the events of 30 January 1972 in Derry and to what he witnessed on Bloody Sunday:
I found myself walking along a deserted path. Through the trees on one side I could faintly make out a river in the distance. On the other side I could faintly hear the rumble of far away traffic. The scene was unfamiliar to me. I looked over my shoulder and saw that the trees behind me were filled with shadow-like figures. Looks of terror and bewilderment filled their eyes, and they silently screamed, as if already aware of their fate. The scene reminded me of the faces in a running crowd that I had once seen on a bright but cold January afternoon. (Doherty 2009: n.p.)
The opening statements of Ghost Story are characterised by passive constructions, indicative of the subject’s lack of both volition and agency. His inability to engage with his memories results in incomprehension. The lexis used places us in the realm of representational discourse: ‘scene’, twice mentioned, marks the experience as unreal and this is symptomatic of his dissociative behaviour. He remains a witness rather than an active participant in the experience being related. Lacking corporeality, the disembodied ‘shadow-like presences’ which crowd the speaker’s memory all suggest the spectral return of the repressed. The silent scream is an emblem of the subject’s own current predicament since the initial event ‘is such that beyond it there remains only a speech in pieces, splinters and fragments of speech’ (Nichanian 2003: 112). With trauma, there is an inherent tension between the desire to recount and master one’s experience and the need to repress the memory. As Gabriele Schwab notes, ‘[w]riting from within the core of trauma is a constant struggle between the colonizing power of words and the revolt of what is being rejected, silenced. […] Trauma as a mode of being halts the flow of time, fractures the self, and punctures memory and language’ (2010: 41, 42). As spectators, we follow the subject as he retraces his footsteps along the paths and streets that, as he relates, he had thought he had forgotten. Yet all that remains are shadows, footprints, tracks and traces of the crowd. The film’s subject finds himself compelled to revisit the site again and again: ‘I returned many times to the same site until another fence was erected and a new building was put in place of the empty, silent reminder. I wondered about what happened to the pain and terror that had taken place there’ (Doherty 2009: n.p.). Although traces of violence have been removed, he senses the ghosts around him. The narrow streets and alleyways become ‘places where this invisible matter could no longer be contained’ (Doherty 2009: n.p.). At one point the narrator finds that his ‘train of thought’ is interrupted by what he calls ‘a further incursion of unreality:
My eyes deceived me as I thought I saw a human figure. No matter how quickly or slowly I walked the figure did not seem to get any closer. When I took my eye off the figure he disappeared. When I stared at the point where the path vanished the figure emerged once again from the trees or from the path itself. I could not tell. (Doherty 2009: n.p.)
This irruption of the uncanny once again marks the return of the repressed but the fact that he ‘cannot tell’ also suggests that the trauma marks the limits of both perception and narration. Like Closure, Doherty gives Ghost Story a circular, looped structure, one that is endlessly replayed in the exhibition space, in order to convey the subject’s experience of trauma. Because trauma is a ‘breach in the mind’s experience of time’ (Caruth 1996: 4), the standard experience of time as a linear, chronological progression from past to present to future is disrupted. Traumatic events are timeless: for the victim, trauma appears to have ‘no beginning, no ending, no before, no during, and no after’ (Laub 1992: 69). Lacking closure, Ghost Story allows the viewer to get an understanding of what trauma may be like; as viewers we adopt the subject’s point of view and are forced to bear witness to his pain. ‘Pain,’ as Veena Das argues, ‘is not that inexpressible something that destroys communication, or marks one’s exit from one’s existence in language. Instead, it makes a claim […] which may be given or denied. In either case, it is not a referential statement that is simply pointing to an inner object’ (Veena Das in Bennett 2005: 49). If the viewer is receptive to the claim that Ghost Story makes on us, then we become more inclined to question the institutional imperatives to forget, move on or progress.
In a later film, Ancient Ground (Doherty 2011), Doherty tackles a rather different aspect of willed forgetting. The eight-minute single-screen installation is voiced by ‘an older woman’ which is, he says, ‘a fairly direct reference to the plight of the families of those who have disappeared and their engagement with this landscape on an emotional level’ (Doherty 2015). Here, he is referring to the ‘Disappeared’ and the traumatic grief suffered by those left without any knowledge of their fate. During the so-called Troubles, seventeen individuals had been abducted, murdered and secretly buried by the IRA, and it was only after the Northern Ireland Location of Victims Remains Bill had been passed, effectively granting an amnesty to anyone supplying information as to the whereabouts of the victims, that the IRA issued a statement saying that ‘it had identified the location of the bodies’ and agreed to supply the information as to their whereabouts (Newman 1999). That information was neither as accurate nor as fulsome as had been hoped, and many families were left searching for the remains of their loved ones. In Doherty’s work, the camera conducts a slow, forensic search of the landscape (a bog in Co. Donegal), with the voice-over providing a melancholy, almost wistful commentary: ‘Hooded. Bound. Weighed down. Discarded. Unmarked. The callousness. The concealment. The fingerprints. The dental records. The femur. The jaw. The ribs. The fibula Preserved. The hair. Compacted. Out of sight. Invisible’ (Doherty 2011: 46-75). While the voice meditates on unseen human remains, what the viewer is shown are lingering shots of bog moss and other vegetation, pools of water, holes dug into the surface of the landscape, detritus and other signs of human impress. The landscape on screen is marked by ruptures and open wounds which require our act of witness yet which simultaneously deny access to that which lies hidden; they call to mind to mind the lack of a body over which to mourn and connote not just the haunting fact of loss and the consequent pain of traumatic grief, but also the un-representable nature of loss and trauma. The duration and framing of the shots suggest the stillness of photography, and the tension being played out between presence/absence brings to mind the questions asked by Eduardo Cadava concerning photographs centred on loss:
How can we respond to what is not presently visible, to what can never be seen within the image? To what extent does what is not seen traverse the image as the experience of the interruption of its surface? If the structure of the image is defined as what remains inaccessible to visualization, this withholding and withdrawing structure prevents us from experiencing the image in its entirety, or, to be more precise, encourages us to recognize that the image, bearing as it always does several memories at once, is never closed. (2001: 41)
Each of the images in Doherty’s film strains (and perhaps ultimately ceases) to function as either a successful textual incorporation or a repository of memory; rather, as Cadava contends, ‘[e]ffacing what it inscribes, the image bears witness to the impossibility of testimony. It remains as a testament to loss’ (2001: 49). Yet the camera’s eye roves on and continues its search: while the circular structure of the film may allude to the temporality of trauma, it equally attests to the filmmaker’s unwillingness to cede the duty to remember.
In 2014, Doherty returned this to preoccupation with loss and absence in a ten-minute single-screen installation entitled The Amnesiac (Doherty 2014: 28-31). In the film we see a silent, unnamed individual (played by Stephen Rea) driving along a country road: we observe him through the windscreen, with the reflection of trees scrolling upwards; his face is impassive, eyes staring straight. The film’s muted palette and the protagonist’s dark clothing accentuate his pallor. Suddenly, he stops the car and we see him from the inside, his face reflected in (but not looking at) the rearview mirror. And he waits, still staring into space. The press release for the exhibition states that ‘[h]is journey is interrupted by what might be a momentary lapse in concentration from the tedium of driving, a daydream or a rupture in the fabric of the everyday; a return to somewhere half remembered or half forgotten’ (Alexander and Bonin Gallery 2014). That ‘lapse’ impels him to leave the car and wander into the woodland area next to the road, moving ever deeper until he reaches a clearing; once there, he looks down to the ground, almost as if he were searching for something. Next, he stands still and his gaze surveys the vegetation on the woodland’s floor and then, in a slow, deliberate fashion, he drops to the ground and stretches out, almost as if he were resting. However, we see him knocking on the ground several times with his fist, listening in vain each time for a response. Since no response is forthcoming, he gets up and stares at the same spot. It is at that point that a rupture occurs: we see another man, shot from above. Reviewing the piece, Declan Long states: ‘It is a shocking shot of a dead body: a stripped, bound, lifeless form. Face-down in the dirt. What we see may be a hallucination, or a retrieved traumatic memory — a vision, maybe, of a repressed, hidden past that has returned to haunt our preoccupied protagonist’ (2014: 16). The rupture marks the return of the past: it is a form of haunting indicative of trauma. The power of the traumatic experience lies not simply in the fact that it is ‘repeated after its forgetting’; rather, as Caruth argues, ‘it is only in and through its inherent forgetting that it is first experienced at all’ (1996: 17). Since trauma is ‘that which resists integration into memory’, it is ‘an aberration of memory that leaves a body without a context’ (Luckhurst 2008: 148). Hence, when the protagonist in Doherty’s film experiences the return of the past as a flashback, there is no context for him to understand it: it is, to all intents and purposes, happening again ‘for the first time’. Since traumatic experience ‘cannot be organised on a linguistic level’, the ‘failure to arrange the memory in words and symbols leaves it to be organized on a somatosensory or iconic level: as somatic sensations, behavioural re-enactments, nightmares and flashbacks’ (Luckhurst 2008: 148). Doherty’s film captures the frightening immediacy of this traumatic recall and, since it is without any narrative contextualisation or voice-over, the viewer is put in the protagonist’s position, a strategic manoeuvre which facilitates our empathetic engagement with him. However, there is no resolution in The Amnesiac: the protagonist returns to his car and drives on; since the film is on a loop, the viewer is left to watch it happen all over again. Clearly the rupture indicates that time is ‘out of joint’, but he does not (or is not able to) seek closure. What Doherty points to here is the necessity to engage with the past: willed or involuntary amnesia leads only to repetition and further haunting.
But what happens if the film’s protagonist is a perpetrator of violence? (The film does not provide any context or background with which we could assess his status. There is no voiceover.) The attempt to arrive at a fair and clear definition of ‘victimhood’ has been a fraught process in Northern Ireland and has resulted in the creation of what some commentators refer to as ‘a hierarchy of victimhood’. Such a hierarchy, while understandable, is problematic: as Ilanit SimanTov-Nachlieli and Nurit Shnabe note, ‘[w]hen people think of conflicts, they tend to intuitively perceive the roles of “victims” and “perpetrators” as dichotomous and mutually exclusive’; however, conflicts ‘are characterized by “dual” social roles, in the sense that adversaries serve as both victims and perpetrators’ (2013: 1). Trauma does not only occur to the recipients of violence; a perpetrator is also likely to be haunted by his/her actions due to an initial failure to ‘see’ or experience’ his past actions. And this is recognised by Doherty. To achieve reconciliation and justice, one must acknowledge and deal with the traumas of all concerned.
The four works by Willie Doherty examined here argue that events cannot be ‘overwritten’, in the sense that they cannot be denied through ‘prescriptive forgetting’. Place may be redeveloped, and urban regeneration may alter the physical environment beyond all recognition, yet if one does not attend to what happened in the locations then victims of violence (and their relatives) may be subject to further (psychological) violence. To bring an end to trauma and ‘haunting’, one does not have to cast out or deny the presence of ghosts; as Derrida argues, an ethical approach to the past impels us ‘[t]o exorcise not in order to chase away the ghosts, but this time to grant them the right […] to […] a hospitable memory’ (Derrida 2006: 175). To simply omit certain sections of the population from the conversation about peace — be they victims or perpetrators — is to allow for the ceaseless return of the past. Doherty’s works suggest that one must attend to the past before endorsing the governmental rhetoric which advocates ‘moving on’ from the Troubles.
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