Tortugan tower blocks? Pirate signals from the margins

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1. Talented performers belong to the industry long before it displays them

On 16 June 2010 after sixteen years of unlicensed transmission the UK broadcasting regulator OfCom announced that Rinse FM was to be awarded a community radio FM licence. The announcement was enthusiastically reported in the UK press (Rinse FM finally gets the recognition it deserves: Guardian Newspaper UK: 18062010), and received a surprisingly positive response from contributors to the dubstep.co.uk forum.

Rinse’s press release regarding the announcement is low on concrete details but replete with a selection of quotes from gushing music industry ‘supporters’ such as Fergal Sharkey (Director of UK Music) who feels that Rinse has been ‘nurturing the next generation of inner city talent on which our industry and nation is so dependent’, and Guy Moot (President of EMI) who agrees that Rinse ‘feeds into the wider music industry bringing and generating more income’. Rinse echoes these industry comments in its own statement pointing out that they ‘provide a […] grass-roots gateway into broadcast radio and the wider music industry’, while at the same time attempting to reassure its listeners that it will remain in ‘stark contrast to the homogenous radio landscape’. What Rinse either fails to realise or refuses to accept is that it is already part of a homogenised landscape. Rinse’s press release and the accompanying supporting statements demonstrate this, but more interestingly, the texts clearly display the dependence the Culture Industry has on unregulated zones of creativity, and the continued willingness of those involved to capitulate.

Rinse began transmitting as a Jungle pirate in 1994, one of dozens of stations that emerged in London throughout the 1990s. In the late 1990s, as Jungle was overtaken by Garage as the dominant sound of the London pirates, Rinse became instrumental in pushing various mutant-Garage flavours, some of which solidified as Grime, Dubstep and UK Funky. In 2002 Rinse began transmitting online to a global audience, and since 2007 has expressed a desire to transform into a legal entity.

A technological self-organised sphere of action, pirate radio began as a reaction against the monopolies that controlled access to radio bandwidth. Free-radio Berkley in the US have argued that the airwaves can be viewed as colonised commons, an extension of the land-enclosure movement that began in England with the Statute of Merton in the 13th Century, and that the liberation of the ‘broadcasting commons’ is a first step toward liberation from the spectacle. Reading the history of radio as a continuation of enclosure shows that international capital regulates the airwaves as if they were property, but what is also revealed is the Culture Industry’s transgression of these limits to tap unregulated zones as a strategy of reinvigoration. Nicholas Thoburn argues that the essence of capital is that it is constantly involved in a process of setting and breaking of limits; capital sets free its innovators, countercultures etc to open new areas for exploitation. This internal contradiction reveals the liberation of the commons as meaningless if capitalist relations remain unchanged; capital is merely flexing its borders, allowing and incorporating ‘autonomous’ activity. However, the power of those operating at the margins is also revealed. The question becomes whether self-organising activity can be something other than unregulated zones that reproduce capitalist social relations; can self-organisation become something useless to capital?

2. The enclosure of the airwaves

The beginning of the 20th century saw the final stages of the land enclosure movement in England, but with the invention of wireless radio communication a new space and site of struggle began to open. Since the 17th Century the consolidation of common land to single ownership gradually created a landless peasantry and a class of merchant farmers. Enclosure and single ownership of land by capital merchants was largely driven by the argument that shared ownership of the commons was agriculturally inefficient; under single ownership agricultural production could be dramatically increased leading to higher yield and of course higher concentration of economic power. Social discipline was also a factor. The historian EP Thompson points out that the commons where workers lived and built their homes in the 17th Century were seen as a dangerous centre of indiscipline (Thompson: Pg. 219). Denied access to land the peasantry became unable to sustain themselves and were forced into wage labour, vagabondage or thievery. Confinement of previously held common land thus began a history of struggle between landowners and landless. Physical space was split along lines of inclusion and exclusion, control and controlled.

Over time the peasantry was gradually forced into a directed life of consumption lived out through increasingly closed environments. As the enclosure movement eroded the ancient rights of the peasantry to work and live on the commons, a concurrent discourse developed which Hannibald Travis has suggested gradually enshrined the notion of private property in public consciousness. Travis argues that this discourse is defined by three closely related claims: firstly, access to the commons is not a right, and therefore expropriation is not theft; secondly, that the concept of a commons is intrinsically wasteful, such that monopolising the land becomes morally imperative; and thirdly, that the right to exclude leads to utilitarian and economic benefit. This discourse helped prepare for the largely unquestioned extension of property relations, and therefore monopolisation, into non-tangible ‘commons’ eg intellectual property and the airwaves.

By the end of the 19th Century accumulation of land by capital in England was all but complete, with the last of the great enclosure acts passed in 1850. During this peak of enclosure of physical space, wireless communication was also rapidly developing, offering a new tool and further possibilities for the appropriation of space. Just over thirty years after the inception of wireless telegraphy sixteen nation states convened in Washington in 1927 and divided the airwaves between themselves. The electromagnetic spectrum seems to have been considered as an extension of physical space with bandwidth demarcated as property by the newly formed International Telecommunications Union (ITU), mirroring the partitioning of Africa by Imperial powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884-5. At an international level the ITU began to regulate the Western nation-state radio monopolies, but alongside these emerging monopolies there was already those who wanted to transmit their own signals. Even Marconi, who was first to wirelessly transmit across the Atlantic, was banned in 1920 by the British Post Office from making any further transmissions after pressure from the army and navy, worried that they and legislation were getting left behind.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was formed in 1926. The Post master General responsible for this state monopoly’s constitution ensured he and his heirs had far-reaching powers over transmission, the use of wavelengths, the power and location of transmitters, and the criteria for the content of broadcasting. According to Felix Guattari mass-communication offered two possible routes: either hyper-concentrating as monopolies, shaping opinion and directing the unconscious towards the norm, or constructing miniaturised systems that create the possibility for collective appropriation and provide a real means of communication. The first route, he argued, would lead to more centralised control by the state and increased conformism, while the second offered the potential for a new space of freedom and self-management. The BBC first used the word ‘pirated’ to describe unauthorised transmissions of Radio Luxembourg in 1933 when Luxembourg began transmitting on a LW frequency not allotted to them by the ITU, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 1960s that the term pirate radio became well used in the UK, and the construction of the miniaturised systems of communication that Guattari speaks of began to appear.

3. Control involves the assimilation of powers of existence, at the moment of their emergence

Denied access to land based transmitters and therefore mass communication, advantage was taken of the fact that radio waves transgress land borders and unauthorised transmissions emerged from the margins of nation states. This technique was first used in 1958 by Radio Merkur transmitting from the Danish ship Cheeta II. One year later the Administrative Radio Conference met in Geneva and passed a Resolution prohibiting the establishment and use of broadcasting stations on board ships, aircraft or any other floating or airborne objects outside international territories. Despite this legislation, four other radio-ships appeared in Europe between 1960-62, and in March and May 1964 the UK airwaves heard for the first time the illegal broadcasts of Radio Caroline and Radio Atlanta respectively. Anchored outside territorial waters but transmitting into sovereign countries, the grey zone in between countries allowed them to continue broadcasting, with Radio Caroline allegedly having 8 million listeners at its peak. By the end of 1964 debate among UK lawmakers as to how to deal with the illegal broadcasters was intensifying. Questions and Answers in the House of Lords on the subject of illegal broadcasting in the mid 1960s make it clear that pressure was being exerted by the Phonographic Society and the Song Writers Guild, both unhappy that material copyrighted to their members was being aired without their consent; they were losing control of how their members content was mass-communicated. At the time the BBC was allocated a maximum of 28 hours a week ‘needle time’ across the three networks it controlled, ie time that copyrighted music had been paid for. The pirates circumvented the property relations of both the airwaves and intellectual copyright, setting in motion the free-flow of recorded music and seemingly generating a new space in which to exist.

Towards the end of the 1960s the UK government was getting increasingly anxious, even threatening Radio Caroline’s listeners with prosecution. In 1967 after a man was shot and killed over disputed ownership of a Pirate Radio Fort in the Thames Estuary, the Marine Broadcast Offences Act was hastily rushed through parliament. It effectively signalled the end of sea-bound pirate radio, as the UK government increased its territorial waters, enclosing the pirates’ zone of transmission. This physical enclosure of territory was mirrored by the action of the BBC who one month later launched Radio 1, poaching many of the pirate DJs from Radio Caroline. Looking back through Hansard, the verbatim record of what is spoken in the UK Houses of Parliament, it is clear that although there was strong opposition to the pirates continued operation, there was also those looking to break the state monopoly of the airwaves, a commercial desire to liberalise broadcasting. In the UK the path trod by Caroline, Radio City and others eventually led to the creation of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, a commercial entity, and the breaking of the BBC’s monopoly. It is at this early stage in the struggle over access to radio communications that we begin to see the contradiction between capital and the Culture Industry emerging. In its state of increasing saturation the Culture Industry needs the innovation of the pirates so that the growth of capital can continue, but the State is reluctant to tolerate activity that it cannot control. The State’s response which is seen over and over again throughout the history of radio amounts to a mixture of open repression and legislation that operates as the enclosure acts did, squeezing self-organised radio into tighter and tighter spaces.

Within a couple of years of the Marine Broadcast Offences Act being made law, the pirates came ashore and began operating from increasingly urban settings. In 1971 Radio Jolly Roger became the first unlicensed land pirate, broadcasting from the West Midlands. Later, as part of a group called ‘People against Marxism’, the Jolly Roger teamed up with a number of other local pirates to form the somewhat bizarre Radio Enoch, a far right station that based itself around the ideas of the UK conservative politician Enoch Powell, famous for his obnoxious Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 in which he argued against mass immigration. Radio Enoch eventually stopped transmitting after a conservative government was elected in the UK in 1979. Meanwhile, London was seeing the beginnings of its pirate legacy.

Immigration to the UK inner cities during the 1950s, 60s and 70s had left large numbers of people unserved by the media monopolies. In response, a wave of pirates began transmitting throughout the 1970s and 80s that played a huge role in laying the foundations for the urban genres and sub-genres that exist today. From Lovers Rock onwards, London has been the birthplace of some of the most forward-thinking hybrid urban music styles to emerge in the last thirty years. Pirate radio is perfectly suited to the melting pot that is the city. It is a focal point of energy, feeding on the diversity that Radio Enoch and other reactionary forces actively resisted.

Urban land based pirates proved an immense challenge to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), who had taken over the GPO’s policing of the airwaves. The DTI developed a line first begun in the 1930s and repeated ad nauseum into the present: that the pirates interfere with legal transmissions. The DTI made particular use of the idea that pirate signals leak into the same frequencies used by airport controllers and the emergency services, attempting to reinforce in the publics eye the danger of self-organising signals. It became clear that a new war was being waged by the state to regulate what was released into psychic space; but it was equally clear that the pirates had consciously set themselves up in opposition to this media machine with, for example, the Dread Broadcasting Company, a 1980s reggae pirate based in London, parodying the British Broadcasting Company. The DBC and others such as London Weekend Radio (LWR), Galaxy and later Kiss FM carved out a space for black consciousness to exist. These stations became so numerous and widely listened to that the government felt it necessary to further squeeze the space open for unsanctioned broadcasts with new legislation, introducing the Telecommunications Act to close down the loop holes that had allowed land pirates to operate. 1984 and 85 saw an intensive clampdown and a huge amount of busts carried out by the DTI, leaving many stations unable to continue operating. Towards the end of the 1980s, the few remaining stations were offered an amnesty and the potential of a legal license if they came off air. In reality this bribe only worked out for Kiss FM who in 1990 became a legal entity following the passing of further legislation, the Broadcasting Act, but within only a couple of years had lost any credibility that they had had. Most of the DJs were either sacked or left the station and Kiss ended up a bland commercial entity working within the state sanctioned enclosure.

4. The Tower block, condemned as a vertical slum […] becomes an incubator

After the massive clampdown on pirate activity towards the end of the 1980s, the rundown inner city housing estates of London saw a renewed explosion of pirate stations in the early 1990s. The Telecommunications Act of 1984 had enabled the immediate confiscation of equipment by the DTI following a studio raid, and stations were reluctant to risk loss of equipment they were unable to replace. However, the invention of the micro-link, a device that allowed the separation of studio and transmitting equipment, leveraged a new space for the pirates to operate within. It essentially worked by adding an extra link to the Radio signal path, then relaying that signal to a distant transmitter. A number of mid-points could then be added to extend the distance between transmitter and studio. This made it far harder for the DTI to track and find stations, with the DTI needing to triangulate a signal to pinpoint a station. Some stations took to wiring the doors at the top of the tower block so that the signal would be cut as soon as they were opened. The signal could then be switched to another micro-link on another tower block as long as it was within the line of sight.

Weekend Rush, Kool FM, Rush FM, Pulse, Rinse FM, Eruption, Quest and many other stations emerged throughout the 1990s from estates like the Nightingale in Hackney, East London, hijacking a space on the FM dial and making it their own. Around this time they were championing the UK breakbeat hardcore sound that later mutated into jungle, drum and bass and beyond. Broadcast from the empty flats of neglected urban tower blocks, the pirate stations connected the dances, music and ravers, generating a psychic space, a virtual rave, outside the monopolies of the main stations to exist. Alongside these stations, which played such a crucial part in the development of jungle, and the community that supported the music there was also stations linked directly to the illegal squat-rave scene. Energy FM and Chillin’ FM were for a time the only stations on the airwaves that you could regularly tune into the hardcore sound that was powering some of the most adventurous illegal warehouse spaces at the time; many of the DJs from both stations also provided sounds at squat-raves.

These tower blocks, islands in the sky, constituted a base for the urban radio pirates of the 1990s, but more than this they were one of the main loci of energy driving the rave scene, creating a network of feedback between ravers and radio DJs. The tower blocks that went up in the 1950s and 60s were designed as space-saving social housing, but ended as sites of social-dislocation. It’s ironic then that these blocks that did so much to destroy physical community became wireless nodes during the 1980s and 90s that connected disparate communities of ravers across the capital. Hundreds of years after the beginning of the land-enclosure movement, the English proletariat, immigrants, and descendants of immigrants dislocated from their country of origin had been driven into vertical slums in the sky, but from this cramped space the pirates persisted in attempting to expand the space available to them.

5. A self-organised struggle can take us to the point of rupture, but the attack on the means of production is its supersession

In 1993, as pirate radio in the UK was experiencing one of the most intensive periods in its history, the BBC explosively reorganised Radio 1, sacking a large number of out-of-touch old school DJs and bringing in shows such as 1 in the Jungle, Fabio and Grooverider, and Westwood, all hosted by previously longstanding pirate DJs. The history of radio in the UK repeatedly shows this recuperative mechanism at work, a mechanism that simultaneously draws power away from unlicensed broadcasters while replenishing the Culture Industry and attempting to restore the power of the monopolies. It is against this backdrop that theorists in the mid 1990s began connecting pirate radio and the concurrently emerging rave scene with ideas of autonomous activity.

In his account of pirate radio in Energy Flash Simon Reynolds makes the link between the raves of the 1990s, London’s pirate radio stations and both Hakim Bey’s ideas on Pirate Utopias and The Temporary Autonomous Zone, and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of the ‘desiring machine’. Simon Reynolds suggests, as others had before him, that the illegal rave resembles a physical embodiment of the TAZ, but more than this he argues that ‘the pirate radio station functions as a “virtual” TAZ-surrogate, and as an informational web that provides logistical support for the creation of future geographically real TAZs’ (Reynolds: digital version).

Hakim Bey, pen name of Peter Lamborn Wilson, spent some time investigating enclaves of pirate activity in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Bey’s notoriously unreliable, confused research (see CF in Datacide 10) examining renegade communities in Tortuga, Port Royal, Hispaniola and other pirate settlements led him to coin the term Pirate Utopias. These zones, in his eyes, contained societies that existed entirely outside the confines of the state, and led him to develop the concept of the TAZ, the Temporary Autonomous Zone.

It’s an attractive idea, the tower blocks of East London functioning as self-organising zones of action: Tortugan tower blocks. However, if the pirate radio station functions as a virtual surrogate TAZ, and the TAZ constitutes ‘an uprising which does not engage directly with the state, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination)’, then one would expect the concept of autonomy to be critically assessed. Neither Simon Reynolds nor Hakim Bey approach this concept, and the TAZ emerges as reclaimed commons with the power of those at the margins neutralised.

Understanding action as either occurring within the state or as an autonomous possibility beyond the boundaries of the state is to misunderstand the totalising nature of capital; it is to put forward a false dichotomy. There can be no inside and outside of capital but only continuation and dissolution of class unity for capital. If we are to view pirate radio as self-organised activity, and this activity reproduces the social-relations that exist in the wider social landscape then it immediately fails as an autonomous zone and is analogous to factory occupations that continue to reproduce the same social relationships that existed prior to occupation. The TAZ and other contemporary conceptions of autonomy (eg the ‘autonomous bloc’ seen at recent direct action marches) appear as a cover for a fetishism of self-management, autonomy becomes a goal in-itself, a concept that hides an inability to go beyond.

The ease with which the energy of stations such as Kiss FM and Rinse FM are redrawn back into the Culture Industry demonstrates the limits of applying the concept of autonomy to self-organised media. The opposition between claimed and reclaimed space, and between state monopoly and the commons are false dichotomies. Zones of autonomy can appear to exist briefly, but what appears as autonomous development is in the end part of capital’s process of setting and breaking limits. The TAZ and the concept of autonomy do not offer a useless conceptual apparatus for capital, but only concepts useful for its reinvigoration. To move beyond these dichotomies and use media or post-media as part of a strategy to deny the reproduction of social relations must be the goal of any media theory that sets itself in opposition to capital.

Simon Reynolds refers in his text to Italian free-radio, suggesting that the London Pirates of the 1990s are the ‘degraded descendants of Radio Alice’, degraded, because in Reynold’s view, they are not political in nature, mobilising an apolitical mass. This is of course a mistake, as the fact that this apolitical mass is organising itself in opposition to the controlled environment imposed on it and attempting to open up a space for itself, is an exercise in anti-politics. In any case Alice would certainly not have described itself as political, at least in the conventional sense, but rather, as Michael Godard writes, as ‘a machine for the production of new forms of sensibility and sociability’. Still, it is interesting that Reynold’s draws the comparison between Italian free-radio of the 1970s and London pirate radio of the 1990s. Although operating in different circumstances and for different reasons both share more than Reynolds suggests, and point towards a more interesting transitory concept of self-organising.

In contrast to Bey’s unreliable sources and historical confusion, Autonomia advanced discussions of self-management way beyond other European Left-Communist currents during the 1970s using a mixture of close readings of passages from Marx’s Grundrisse and conditions specific critique. Radio Alice was a project of the group A/Traverso, a number of whose members had previously been involved in Potere Operaio (Workers Power). The daily schedule at Alice saw a conscious attempt to refuse the specialisation of everyday life mixing together disparate elements with a Dadaist approach. Felix Guattari was a close friend of Franco Beradi (Bifo), one of the main instigators behind Radio Alice, and an enthusiatic supporter of the Radio Alice project viewing it as an exercise in micro-politics.

Guattari viewed media monopolies as massive machines used for the production of consensual subjectivity. In contrast he saw in media such as free-radio a technical means to amplify an alternate subjectivity that operates at a molecular level. Guattari’s ideas avoid the problems associated with the temporary autonomous zone by focusing on a process of becoming. There is not a sense of reclaiming a stolen commons, but instead a sense that space is being leveraged by those at the margins through a refusal of the current configuration of social relations. Radio Alice and the London pirates of the 1990s shared subversive common ground in their detournement of the ‘productive, urban, geographical and social frameworks of their “unity” for capital’ (Theorie Communiste: 2007), and the power of those that operate at the margins, the emarginati, is displayed in this negation. Those abandoned to the marginal estates of London’s inner city areas used their position to articulate a mode of existence that, however briefly, confused capital, crumbling internal structures from within. Tower blocks became the detourned incubators of a generation with no hope; productive labour was refocused into creative energy; social frameworks of specialisation began to be despecialised: the everyday running of a pirate radio station forces those involved to engage in many different tasks, the DJ also attaches the rig to the roof and maintains the studio and fields calls and… (see Matthew Fuller: 2005 for an extensive investigation of the media ecology of the pirate radio station). Although not connecting with a politicised mass in the dated sense that Reynolds uses, the London pirates shared with Alice a call to listeners that there is nothing stopping their involvement. Not just in the use of phones to connect with the station, a technique that Alice pioneered, but in suggesting to listeners that they can also be producers, they can have their music played by the stations, they can DJ for the station; the listener is incorporated into the pirate radio framework as a producer. Reynolds applies Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the ‘desiring machine’ or ‘assemblage’ as a way of conceptualising the combination of technical and human parts of the pirate radio anti-system that he argues ‘transgress[es] the principles of exchange-value, commodity-fetishism and personality cult that govern the music industry’ (Reynolds: digital version). In correctly identifying these features as some of the most interesting facets of pirate radio Reynolds points towards the subversive potential of pirate radio.

In its most interesting incarnation pirate radio is not a site of autonomy, but displays the strength of those at the margins to refuse their unity for capital. The language and action of social-discipline that state institutions such as OfCom use is a small taste of the total repression that met those involved with autonomia after the unifying structures that held productive labour together seemed to be dissolving. There can be no point at which self-managed media is useless to capital, as when this point is reached self-management will be no longer necessary.

6. There is no need to fear or hope, only to look for new weapons

Since the mid 1990s the music industry has been in crisis, or at least it wants the general public to believe it is in crisis. Digital music has taken over from CDs and vinyl as the primary method in which most people consume music. The increased bandwidth of those accessing the internet has led to a culture of file sharing which the music industry has used as a tool to, firstly, suggest to consumers that it is in a critical state, and, secondly, as a pretext to tighten legislation and strengthen property rights, criminalising unlicenced listeners in the process. Radio has also changed, although perhaps not as quickly as the music industry would have liked. Net radio has failed to replace terrestrial stations, but has become a useful compliment, particularly for pirate stations who are now able to reach a much wider audience. Although touted as the immediate future, digital radio has been slow to replace the analogue airwaves, largely because of unreliabile digital transmissions and poor sales of receivers. As far as OfCom is concerned, Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) is its latest hope of crushing pirate radiio stations. DAB is said by OfCom to substantially reduce the possibility for illegal broadcasting activity, making it near impossible, but already OfCom themselves report that in Germany unlicensed broadcasters have successfully broadcasted on the DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale) platform (OfCom:Illegal Broadcasting:19042007: Pg5). The hopes of the radio monopolies that DAB will lead to a fully captive audience are a long way off. In the meantime OfCom persists with attemps to discredit the pirates. Alongside the relentless comments from OfCom about interference to Emergency services from pirate radio, OfCom has recently extended this argument to advertisments. With advertisers complaining that their potential audience is tuning in to the latest sounds from the innercity instead of listening to their adverts, OfCom is making it a priority to try and ensure that advertisers get what they pay for: an audience. A further, more recent tactic is to emphasise the use of pirate radio for drug selling and the use of fire arms. OfCom even claimed in a recent BBC Radio documentary (Do Pirates Rule the Airwaves? 21072010 BBC Radio 4) that when a certain record is played, it is a signal that drugs are ready for collection. The language of the state is clearly at pains to reconfigure the action of pirate radio as a threat to social discipline.

Pirate Radio continues to exist through dogged persistence rather than through offering a strategy that the state is unable to cope with. Viewing the history of radio in the UK as part of a history of enclosure of the commons is useful for showing that the accumulation of space as property by international capital and the creation of the social individual is an unfinished ongoing process. As resistance to enclosure of virtual space pirate radio appears as an illustration of a moment of rupture, but so far these moments have solidified as exploratory probes reinvigorating an ailing culture industry. Viewing the commons as stolen property waiting to be reclaimed can only lead to false ideas of possibility, for example, that autonomous zones can be liberated while capitalism is still a reality. However, the example of pirate radio also reveals the power of those existing at the margins, and that their strength lies in disturbing and negating their unity for capital.

This article is based on a talk given in Berlin at the Datacide conference 2008, and in Rome, at Forte Prenestino as part of the Electrode 2009 Festival. The text is intended as a companion piece to ‘Teknival and the emancipatory potential of technology’, published in Datacide 10, which looked at the use of technology in the Free Party/Teknival scene of the 1990s.

Alexis Wolton 2010 No copyright

Selected Bibliography

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