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Acts That Amplify: Ann Hamilton on Art, the Creative Value of Unproductive Time, and the Power of Not Knowing

“It is the task of the artist to lead the leaders by staying at the threshold.”

The daily act of living is the act of chiseling destiny through choice — from the bedrock of all possible lives we could have had, we sculpt with our choices the one life we do have. Those choices can be difficult or easy, conscious or not, made for us or made by us, but whatever their nature, they require a leap into the unknown. “The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist,” Dani Shapiro wrote of the central task of the creative life, “is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.” Because every life is an act of self-creation, such is the job of each one of us, whether or not we self-identify as artists.

We choose whether to be blunted or honed when we choose whether to hide behind false certitudes — for any understanding that claims to be final is inherently fraudulent in its finality — or to thrust ourselves into the open air of not-knowing, naked and vulnerable, and wear our goosebumps like a constellation of tiny medals awarded us for living with courageous curiosity.

Artist Ann Hamilton, a rare philosopher of forms, celebrates that choice and the vitalizing power of not-knowing as the mightiest fuel for creative work in an extraordinary essay titled “Making Not Knowing,” adapted from her 2005 commencement address at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Ann Hamilton
Ann Hamilton

Hamilton writes:

One doesn’t arrive — in words or in art — by necessarily knowing where one is going. In every work of art something appears that does not previously exist, and so, by default, you work from what you know to what you don’t know. You may set out for New York but you may find yourself as I did in Ohio. You may set out to make a sculpture and find that time is your material. You may pick up a paint brush and find that your making is not on canvas or wood but in relations between people. You may set out to walk across the room but getting to what is on the other side might take ten years. You have to be open to all possibilities and to all routes — circuitous or otherwise.

But not knowing, waiting and finding — though they may happen accidentally, aren’t accidents. They involve work and research. Not knowing isn’t ignorance. (Fear springs from ignorance.) Not knowing is a permissive and rigorous willingness to trust, leaving knowing in suspension, trusting in possibility without result, regarding as possible all manner of response. The responsibility of the artist … is the practice of recognizing.

Ann Hamilton, Untitled (body object series, 1984–1993
Ann Hamilton, Untitled (body object series, 1984–1993

Much of that recognition, Hamilton argues, happens in moments that bear no outward sign of productivity and yet invigorate the interiority of the imagination. In a fine addition to history’s greatest testaments to the creative purpose of boredom, Hamilton echoes German philosopher Josef Pieper’s countercultural case for why leisure is the basis of culture and writes:

Our culture has beheld with suspicion unproductive time, things not utilitarian, and daydreaming in general, but we live in a time when it is especially challenging to articulate the importance of experiences that don’t produce anything obvious, aren’t easily quantifiable, resist measurement, aren’t easily named, are categorically in-between.

Simultaneously with the invisible work of the mind and spirit, animating the creative life is the tangible work of the hands, which have their own way of knowing. Hamilton writes:

A life of making isn’t a series of shows, or projects, or productions, or things: it is an everyday practice. It is a practice of questions more than answers, of waiting to find what you need more often than knowing what you need to do. Waiting, like listening and meandering, is best when it is an active and not a passive state.

Ann Hamilton and Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension, 2007
Ann Hamilton and Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension, 2007

In a passage that calls to mind Willa Cather’s insight into the crucial difference between productivity and creativity, Hamilton considers the lacuna between making and doing — between what it means to make art and what art “does”:

I asked my ten-year-old son, Emmett, what he thought art was for and he said, “Nothing.” He said, “It isn’t good for anything.” And as he saw my eyes roll back in my head, thinking, this is what you get from a kid whose parents are both artists, he quickly added: “Art just is.” He said “Art just is” with an assumption that, like breakfast on the table, it will always be there — a given of a culture. In my head, I could hear a voice saying in response to his confidence: “Yes, but…” Can I really believe … that all the collective acts of making carry a weight that can counter the acts of unmaking that accrue daily? For acts of making to be acts of resistance and tools of remembering, this given-ness has to be made and maintained, and to have room made for it.

[…]

Every act of making matters. How we make matters. I like to remember, and remark with regularity, that the word “making” occupies seventeen pages in the Oxford English Dictionary, so there are multiple possibilities for a lifetime of making: make a cup, a conversation, a building, an institution, make memory, make peace, make a poem, a song, a drawing, a play; make a metaphor that changes, enlarges, or inverts the way we understand or see something. Make something to change your mind — acts that amplify.

Ann Hamilton and Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension, 2007
Ann Hamilton and Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension, 2007

With an eye to Emerson’s abiding and vitally disquieting wisdom — “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” — Hamilton cites the poet Ann Lauterbach and considers the essential awakening into which art unsettles us:

It is the task of the artist to make material form, to give it presence, to make it social; it is the task of the artist to lead the leaders by staying at the threshold; to be an unsettler in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our first public tricksters: “Let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle anything as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no past.”

Complement with Georgia O’Keeffe’s kindred-spirited advice on what it means to be an artist, Marina Abramović’s manifesto for the artist’s life, and Mary Oliver on the artist’s task and the central commitment of the creative life.

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Astrophysicist and Author Janna Levin Reads “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin: Some of the Finest and Most Soul-Salving Advice on How to Stay Sane as an Artist

Tonic for living with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world.

Astrophysicist and Author Janna Levin Reads “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin: Some of the Finest and Most Soul-Salving Advice on How to Stay Sane as an Artist

To be an artist is to live suspended above the abyss between recognition and artistic value, never quite knowing whether your art will land on either bank, or straddle both, or be swallowed by the fathomless pit of obscurity. We never know how our work stirs another mind or touches another heart, how it tenons into the mortise of the world. We never know who will discover it in a year or a generation or a century and be salved by it, saved by it. “The worthiest poets have remained uncrowned till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, not fully knowing — or perhaps not knowing at all — that she was revolutionizing the art of her time.

This is the perennial problem of the artist, for the crown bestowed or denied by the fickle tastes of a contemporary public has little bearing on how the work itself will stand the test of time as a vessel for truth and beauty, whether it will move generations or petrify into oblivion. Walt Whitman nearly perished in obscurity when his visionary Leaves of Grass was first met with scorn and indifference. Emily Dickinson, virtually unpublished in her lifetime, never lived to see her work transform a century of thought and feeling. Germaine de Staël captured this elemental pitfall of creative work in her astute observation that “true glory cannot be obtained by a relative celebrity.”

In our own culture, obsessed with celebrity and panicked for instant approval, what begins as creative work too often ends up as flotsam on the stream of ego-gratification — the countless counterfeit crowns that come in the form of retweets and likes and best-seller lists, unmoored from any real measure of artistic value and longevity. How, then, is an artist to live with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world, and go on making art?

That is what W.S. Merwin (September 30, 1927–March 15, 2019) explores in a stunning poem celebrating his mentor, the poet John Berryman, published in Merwin’s 2005 book Migration: New & Selected Poems (public library). At its heart is the single greatest, most difficult, most beautiful truth about creative work, enfolding a soul-salving piece of advice on how to stay sane as an artist.

John Berryman (Photograph: The Paris Review)

Berryman had co-founded Princeton’s creative writing program and was teaching there when Merwin enrolled as a freshman in 1944. The thirty-year-old professor immediately recognized an uncommon genius in the seventeen-year-old aspiring poet, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award — “the real thing,” Berryman’s then-wife would later recall his sentiment. Merwin himself would remember his mentor as “absolutely ruthless” — a quality he cherished. That constructive, edifying ruthlessness, for which Merwin was forever indebted, comes alive with unsentimental tenderness in this poem commemorating his formative teacher, read here by astrophysicist, literary artist, and poetry steward Janna Levin:

BERRYMAN
by W.S. Merwin

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

Nearly three decades after he mentored Merwin, Berryman would encapsulate his advice to young writers:

I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

Complement with artist Ann Hamilton’s lovely notion of “making not knowing” and this collection of timeless advice from some of humanity’s greatest writers, then revisit Levin’s gorgeous readings of Ursula K. Le Guin’s hymn to time, Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first woman astronomer, and W.H. Auden’s elegy for unrequited love.

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The Habits of Light: A Celebration of Pioneering Astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, Whose Calculations Proved That the Universe Is Expanding

“The universe is made of distance and of dust.”

The Habits of Light: A Celebration of Pioneering Astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, Whose Calculations Proved That the Universe Is Expanding

“Nothing is fixed. All is in flux,” physicist Alan Lightman wrote in his soaring meditation on how to live with our longing for absolutes in a relative universe, reminding us that all the physical evidence gleaned through millennia of scientific inquiry indicates the inherent inconstancy of the cosmos.

This awareness, so unnerving against the backdrop of our irrepressible yearning for constancy and permanence, was first unlatched when the ancients began suspecting that the Earth, rather than being the static center of the heavens it was long thought to be, is in motion, right beneath our feet. But it took millennia for the most disorienting evidence of inconstancy to dawn — the discovery that the universe itself is in flux, constantly expanding, growing thinner and thinner as stars grow farther and farther apart. In 1929, the astronomer Edwin Hubble built on the work of other scientists and formalized this in what is now known as Hubble’s Law — the first observational evidence for the ongoing expansion of the universe, which in turn furnished foundational evidence for the Big Bang model: If the universe is constantly expanding, to trace it backward along the arrow of time is to imagine it smaller and smaller, all the way down to the seeming nothingness that banged into the somethingness within which everything exists.

At the mathematical center of Hubble’s Law were the calculations of Henrietta Swan Leavitt (July 4, 1868–December 12, 1921) — one of the unheralded women astronomers, known as “the Harvard Computers,” who shaped our understanding of the universe long before they could vote. Leavitt’s particular work at the Harvard College Observatory was deemed so valuable that she was paid 20% more than the standard salary of the other computers: 25 cents per hour.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

At the inaugural edition of The Universe in Verse, artist Ann Hamilton brought Leavitt’s legacy to life in her lovely reading of the “The Habits of Light” from Aperture (public library) — a collection of poems by Anna Leahy, celebrating science and many of its unsung heroines. In her wonderful prefatory meditation, Hamilton builds on her animating ethos of not-knowing as a creative act to consider the common impulse driving poetry and science, and the vital role of embracing the unknown as we regard the universe within and without — please enjoy:

THE HABITS OF LIGHT
by Anna Leahy

After Henrietta Leavitt, astronomer

The difference between luminosity and brightness
is the difference between being

and being perceived, between the energy emitted
and the apparent magnitude. O, to be

significant! To have some scope and scale!
Size and heat. Why not make that obvious,

ostensible, stretch it out for all the world to see?
Distance makes a world of difference.

The universe is made of distance and of dust.
More dust than star out there,

more crimson than cobalt from here, looking,
our eyes telling the truth slant

through the almost-nothing
of the universe’s finely grained mattering.

The Universe in Verse — a celebration of science through poetry — returns in April of 2018. For more highlights from the 2017 edition, hear Amanda Palmer’s reading of Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, Janna Levin’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy, Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Rosanne Cash’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie, Diane Ackerman’s poem about our search for extraterrestrial life, playwright Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, Iron & Wine’s reading of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ode to Euclid, and my reading of Wisława Szymborska’s ode to the number pi, then watch the complete show for a two-hour poetic serenade to science.

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The Universe in Verse

A charitable celebration of science through poetry.

October 26, 2016

“Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Walt Whitman wrote a century before we split the atom and fragmented humanity into maddening divisiveness. Two hundred years after his birth, he continues to enchant and console with his symphonic verses — an eternal harmonizer of the cosmic and the earthly, equalizer of man and woman and beast. When Leaves of Grass first stunned the world, the great naturalist John Burroughs exulted that Whitman’s improbable self-published masterpiece is “the outgrowth of science and modern ideas, just as truly as Dante is the outgrowth of mediæval ideas and superstitions.” Whitman cherished the universe in its every detail, from the slenderest blade of grass to the vastest galaxy. “To soothe and spiritualize, and, as far as may be, solve the mysteries of death and genius, consider them under the stars at midnight,” he wrote in his daybook as the golden age of American astronomy unfolded around him.

On October 26, I team up with Pioneer Works to present The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a special pop-up edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island in New York, celebrating Whitman’s bicentennial and the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory at Pioneer Works across the East River, which the poet himself traversed daily aboard the ferries he cherished as “great living poems.”

In Our Lady Star of the Sea — a deconsecrated white chapel transformed into a stunning sanctuary for contemplation by artist Shantell Martin — we will celebrate science through Whitman’s poetry with performances by astrophysicist Janna Levin, poets Diane Ackerman and Sarah Kay, Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton, author Nicole Krauss, musicians Morley and Meshell Ndegeocello, designer Neri Oxman, and the artist herself, who will share a special behind-the-scenes glimpse of her creative process in bringing this uncommon chamber of loveliness to life. Punctuating the readings will be live music and some thrilling surprises.

Before and after the ceremony, join us at the nearby Pioneer Works house (Governors Island Nolan Park 8B) to “soothe and spiritualize” with telescopic solar viewing, screenings of past Universe in Verse performances, free daguerreotype portraits, and limited-edition Universe in Verse patches by artist Andrea Lauer.

Donations most welcome — everyone involved in this labor-of-love celebration of art, science, and community is donating their time and talent, and all donations go toward Pioneer Works’ observatory-building endeavor.

WHEN: October 26, 2PM–3:30PM (Doors: 1:45PM)
WHERE: The May Room on Governors Island (map)
Governors Island is accessible via ferry only — there is one service operating from Manhattan and Brooklyn, and another operating from Manhattan.

IMPORTANT: Entrance to this free event is first-come-first-served — the chapel is an intimate space that holds less than one tenth of the regular Universe in Verse, so be prepared to arrive early as we anticipate many more atoms than the physical space can accommodate. If you journey to the island but don’t make it into the chapel before it reaches capacity, it won’t be a wasted adventure — we’ll have ample astronomical and poetic illuminations at the Pioneer Works house. Because the chapel is a technology-free sanctuary without electricity or wifi, we are unable to offer the usual livestream for this performance. A remote glimpse may be available, depending on cellular connectivity on the island that day, at this Periscope link at showtime.

EXTRA CREDIT: Governors Island is having an island-wide Halloween celebration that weekend. Come clad in an astronomy- or Whitman-themed costume to receive a special reward at the Pioneer Works house.

April 23, 2019

The Universe in Verse — the annual celebration of science through poetry I host at Pioneer Works — returns with a very special edition: This year’s show, benefiting Pioneer Works’ endeavor to build New York’s first-ever public observatory, celebrates the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur Eddington’s historic eclipse expedition to Africa, which confirmed relativity and catapulted Einstein into celebrity. “Dear Mother, joyous news today,” Einstein wrote upon receiving word of the results, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe and shaped the course of modern physics. The scientific triumph was also a heartening, humane moment—just after the close of World War I, a pacifist English Quaker, who had refused to be drafted in the war at the risk of being jailed for treason, and a German Jew united humanity under the same sky, under the deepest truths of the universe. An invitation to perspective in the largest sense.

Join us for an evening of poems and stories about eclipses, relativity, spacetime, and Einstein’s legacy, featuring readings by musicians David Byrne, Regina Spektor, Amanda Palmer, Emily Wells, and Josh Groban, astrophysicists Janna Levin and Natalie Batalha, poets Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson, actor Natascha McElhone, theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander, comedian Chuck Nice, choreographer Bill T. Jones, and On Being host Krista Tippett, with some thrilling surprises in wait.

After the show, the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York will be hosting telescopic stargazing in the spring-kissed garden outside.

Pioneer Works
159 Pioneer Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231

Doors: 6PM
Show: 7–9ish PM

TICKETS: SOLD OUT

Highlights from the show can be viewed here. The full recording will be released in spring 2020.

April 28, 2018

In the spring of 2018, after the improbable success of the inaugural show in 2017, I once again joined forces with Pioneer Works and The Academy of American Poets to host The Universe in Verse — an evening of science-inspired poems read by artists, writers, scientists, and musicians, part protest and part celebration, with all proceeds benefiting the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The real wealth of the Nation,” marine biologist and author Rachel Carson wrote in her courageous 1953 protest letter, “lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.” Carson’s legacy inspired the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose hard-won environmental regulations are now being undone in the hands of a heedless administration. Carson was a scientist who thought and wrote like a poet. As she catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making 1962 book Silent Spring, she was emboldened by a line from a 1914 poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.

Rachel Carson (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

Dedicated to Rachel Carson’s legacy, the 2018 show was a sort of prelude to Figuring. More than a thousand people packed in to celebrate the Earth — from the oceans and trees and volcanos to bees and kale and the armadillo — with poems by Maya Angelou, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, Walt Whitman, and more, read by musicians Amanda Palmer, Zoe Keating, and Sean Ono Lennon, astrophysicists Janna Levin and Natalie Batalha, authors A.M. Homes and James Gleick, poet Terrance Hayes, artist Maira Kalman, bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, and actors, writers, and directors America Ferrera and John Cameron Mitchell. Three of the great poets of our time — Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, and Diane Ackerman — will read their own work. Gracing the evening was an original poem by Neil Gaiman, composed for the occasion, and a special musical surprise.

Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:

  1. “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, read by Janna Levin
  2. “Sojourns in the Parallel World” by Denise Levertov, read by America Ferrera
  3. “The World Below the Brine” by Walt Whitman, read by John Cameron Mitchell
  4. “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, read by Natalie Batalha
  5. “The Fish in the Stone” by Rita Dove, read by Zöe Keating
  6. “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, read by James Gleick
  7. “cutting greens” by Lucille Clifton, read by Terrance Hayes
  8. “Singularity (for Stephen Hawking)” by Marie Howe, read by the poet herself
  9. “The Explorers” by Adrienne Rich, read by A.M. Homes
  10. “Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield, read by Jane Hirshfield and animated by Kelli Anderson
  11. “Cosymbionts” by Vicki Graham, read by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  12. “[bee]” by Emily Dickinson, read by Maira Kalman
  13. “The Consolation of Apricots” by Diane Ackerman, read by the poet herself
  14. “The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics” by Roald Hoffmann, read by Sean Ono Lennon
  15. “After Silence (for Rachel Carson)” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer
  16. FINALE: “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, arranged by Amanda Palmer and performed by The Decomposers: Amanda Palmer (vocals), Zöe Keating (cello), Sean Ono Lennon (guitar and vocals), and John Cameron Mitchell (vocals)
April 24, 2017

“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy famously wrote. Half a century later, with art, science, and the humanities under assault from the government, this intersection of science and poetry, truth and beauty, is an uncommon kind of protest and a singularly fertile frontier of resistance.

On April 24, 2017, I joined forces with the Academy of American Poets and astrophysicist Janna Levin to host The Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn — an evening of poetry celebrating great scientists and scientific discoveries, with all proceeds benefiting the Academy of American Poets and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Readings by: Amanda Palmer, Rosanne Cash, Janna Levin, Elizabeth Alexander, Diane Ackerman, Billy Hayes, Sarah Jones, Tracy K. Smith, Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, and Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York.

Poems about: Marie Curie, Isaac Newton, Caroline Herschel, Oliver Sacks, Jane Goodall, Euclid, black holes, the Hubble Space Telescope, the number pi, and more.

Poems by: Adrienne Rich, Wisława Szymborska, Elizabeth Alexander, Tracy K. Smith, Campbell McGrath, Diane Ackerman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Updike.

Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:

  1. “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, read by Janna Levin
  2. “My God, It’s Full of Stars” by Tracy K. Smith, read by the poet herself
  3. “Power” by Adrienne Rich, read by Rosanne Cash
  4. “The Venus Hottentot” by Elizabeth Alexander, read by the poet herself
  5. “Cosmic Gall” by John Updike from, read by Brandon Stanton
  6. “We Are Listening” by Diane Ackerman, read by the poet herself
  7. “On the Fifth Day” by Jane Hirshfield, read by Emily Levine
  8. “For Oliver’s Birthday, 1997” by Steven Jay Gould, read by Billy Hayes
  9. “Euclid Alone Has Looked” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, read by Sam Beam
  10. “Jane Goodall (1961)” by Campbell McGrath, performed by Sarah Jones
  11. “The Habits of Light” by Anna Leahy, read by Ann Hamilton
  12. “Address: The Archaeans, One Cell Creatures” by Pattiann Rogers, read by Jad Abumrad
  13. “Pi” by Wisława Szymborska, read by Maria Popova
  14. “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer
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