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Comunicar Journal 57: Artivism: Art and Social Engagement in a Digital World (Vol. 26 - 2018)

Video artivism: The poetics of symbolic conflict


Concha Mateos

Ana Sedeño


The relationship between signs and human action is one of the most widely studied theories in art and communications. Humans are constantly producing new discourse and new discursive devices and the issue of the relationship between signs / action not only remains open, but is branching off and forming hybrids with other matters. This work explores one of its branches. We performed theoretical research on the foundations of video artivism, with the aim of achieving a conceptual definition. Firstly, the purpose of the study is defined and the historical background and basic sources of influence described in order to trace a map of its fields of application in teaching practices and empirical research. The results therefore come from a bibliographic review of academic as well as artistic and activist sources, which were based on sections of the differentiating features they respectively recognize and self-recognize as artivist. Six identified features are described: the intervention function, the hybrid code, against domination, disruption, disavowal and subversion, which are aimed at establishing processes, procedures, subjects and the specific forms in which artivism has an impact on society. The article also refers to selected cases as a conceptual sample of the theoretical assumptions made and to describe their capacity of transformation.


Art, critical thinking, political theory, new media, audiovisual activism, audiovisual art, protest movements, audiovisual creation

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1. Approach to the issue

Amongst the universe of discourse of all kinds that flows through society and affects how people behave, we find the specific field of video graphic creations, which is in full bloom. In one month, more audiovisual content is uploaded to the Internet than the entire production of the largest US television network in a 30-year span. A third of the time a user spends online is taken up by video watching. Every 60 seconds, 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. Mary Lister for “World Stream” provided this illustrative data in January 2017.

This high-density video sphere generates two social phenomena loops around the production of images: 1) Saturation pathology (invisibilization); Styleme epidemic (poetic fusion). These two loops provide the basis for a theoretical assumption (Ruiz-Olabuenaga, 2012: 14) that contributes to clarifying the concept of artivism and therefore its understanding.

1.1. Invisibilization loop

The Invisibilization loop is paradoxical: the intense production of images prevents them from being seen. More and more images are produced to present events or ideas and production itself becomes an obstacle to the product being viewed. In the words of Román Gubern, “the iconosphere is so dense and abundant, it makes the image invisible” (Martí-Font, 2014). This density causes iconic pollution according to Fontcuberta (2011), “which firstly resulted from the development of new visual recording devices and, secondly, from the enormous proliferation of cameras ? either as separate devices or housed in mobile telephones, webcams and surveillance equipment. This submerges us into a world that is saturated by images: we live in images and images live through us and give us life”. This is why the effect of relations with others through images has become a common practice and a part of life.

1.2. Poetic fusion loop

The Poetic Fusion loop is epidemiological: Different ways of making audiovisual products become contagious. Medical biology recognizes and assumes the relationship between human overcrowding (overpopulation) and the propagation of epidemics (Toole, 2000). In the audiovisual field, overpopulation is also beginning to accelerate contagious epidemics, with the resulting emergence of global representation codes that, in the words of Dudley Andrew, for example, reach the point of eliminating the possibility of independent cinema: “The very idea of independent cinema has been altered by what is now a fully global network that makes every film quite dependent” (Galt & Schoonover, 2010: 9).

In the audiovisual field, we already have studies that explore different forms of contagious rhetoric. Amongst other features, video activism accompanies specific video productions created marginally, outside corporate structures (Mateos & Rajas, 2014: 15) and it has been observed that it is now beginning to move even further. Mateos (2013) explains how certain characteristic stylemes of street protest video activism begin to appear in audiovisual productions used by the business press to report such events. A paradigmatic example is the video pieces used by the renowned newspaper “El País” to cover the 2012 daily events of the general strike in Spain in “real time”. Of the 26 news capsules published by the newspaper, 10 were activist poetics in “raw production”. (Raw material, without post-production, which, in professional circles, is known as “camera raw”. This has been made popular by eyewitness video activism, spontaneous and unplanned production with unstable focus, deficient image, and sound quality, negative photographic space, the absence of continuity and spatial coherence and a lack of narrative structuring). This transfer of “raw” style from activism to business journalism confirms the theoretical approaches to the reality that, in different fields (scientific philosophy, narrative, aesthetics), it is defined as social product, the result of a convention on the discourse (Nietzsche & Vaihinger, 1972; Kuhn, 1975; González-Requena, 2003): Something is considered as true according to the way it is generated and presented ?in this case, in an unpolished way?.

Accordingly, video activism at the beginning of the 21st Century, with its influence on the standards of audiovisual journalism, illustrates the idea expressed by Oscar Wilde at the end of the 19th century, which many believe to be his favorite text, “The decay of lying”: Truth is a question of style. Mateos showed that business information truth in 2012 was changing the style by incorporating features of video activism consisting of anonymous street recordings; features intended to strengthen its appearance of authenticity.

2. Objectives and purpose of the study

Let’s now return to the video sphere, bearing in mind these imitation trends that are intensified in overpopulated environments. In addition to the data on the flow of videos presented above, we must include the video sphere’s multipolar condition. Open distribution platforms such as YouTube unify content from a range of sources of diverse kinds and functions that are served to the general public in an equivalent format appearance. This is how we approach the issue subject to this theoretical study: the issue is an epistemological one; it has become difficult to distinguish between what is and what is not activist discourse. The same thing occurs between discourse-noise and discourse-sense, or between an authentic image and a trick video graphic production.

With respect to truth, the quoted references to Kuhn, Nietzsche and González-Requena, as well as the specific studies on image (García-Martínez, 2006; Comolli, 2009; Chéroux, 2013), have taught us that from science to art, the truth has always shrouded by different titles subject to contextual conventions, depending on culture, time and place ?according to Wilde? a question of style.

As far as art is concerned, the militant culture, supported by a tradition of critical epistemology, particularly the School of Frankfurt and inspired by Marx, teaches us that there are no barriers: art can come from anyone and not just an “enlightened few” and is not something beyond the reach of society as a whole (Linares, 1976: 12-13).

Concerning activism: how can we determine and identify the activist nature of a video graphic creation in the midst of this super populated video sphere, full of rhetoric pollution? We believe this to be an important issue because, as we have known since the foundation of structural linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure, signification is possible thanks to the difference.

2.1. Purpose

The purpose of this theoretical exploration is to determine the “activist” nature of video graphic art practices. The idea is to define the basis of poetic activism. “Poetic” referring to the use of forms of expression to make sense (not a lyrical genre, but rather what is understood by contemporary theoretical poetics starting with the founders such as Dolezel and, later, the semiotics of culture: discursive construction); “artivist” referring to the contemporary activist and artistic proposals that, according to Bourriaud (2008), do not create works or messages, but rather forms of relating to an environment.

2.2. Subject of study

Artivism has certain roots in the artistic forefronts of the 20th century (Delgado, 2013: 70) and the countercultural movements of the 60s and 70s, deploying their own fundamental principles as of the 80s, with movements such as the VIH claims in the 90s (Goris, 2017: 14) and the anti-globalization movement, in particular. However, above all, in 2005, video artivist practices experienced an unprecedented boom with the implementation of global video online distribution platforms. We are therefore dealing with an underdeveloped theoretical tradition in which theorists, critics, curators, and creators are not yet using the same categories; thus, the interest of this study as a contribution to the conceptual definition of video artivism that can be applied to the construction of empirical samples and teaching programs.

We worked in the field of cultural practices designated by a neologism. This is why it is still easy to see the term accompanied by a definition in everyday communications.

Mercy Corps, in Portland (USA), is preparing a summer school campus (2018) for primary students that it calls: “Art+Activism=Artivism” with the following proposal: “Learn how to use your creativity to inspire people to take action and get excited about issues that are impacting our world”.

Artivism, as it is used in the purpose of this study, is therefore at the very roots of the issue raised above, the sign-action relationship: referring to artistic practices (processes of creating sense) that seek a reaction (response in human conduct). However, this theoretical approach results in a much too broad spectrum of cultural practices. We could, therefore, say that the concept used by the Mercy Corps does not differ much from the common definition of advertising: a message created to persuade someone to do something (O´Guinn & al., 2015: 9).

The wording to promote the Mercy Corps activity helps to minimize ambiguity, by adding: “Art for activism, a.k.a. Artivism, raises awareness about social issues through the arts, including visual arts, dance, music, creative writing, and theater”. Using this reference, we would now be able to establish a more accurate initial approach to artivism: Artistic production designed to inspire people to take action (particularly) on social issues. However, many of the limits will still be blurred: what issues, what people, to what end, using what means?

The reason for this is that the subject of our study is still being developed in its own field and structuring itself amidst a general transformation of the arts (Laddaga, 2006: 7), which means that academic studies are pointing towards artivism without an established definition of the concept. This study carries out a bibliographical review of academic sources as well as those originating in the creative and artivist field itself (manuals, catalogs, project reports).

2.3. Theoretical approach

This theoretical study focuses on a catalog of documentary sources asked to define the meaning of artivist. It reviews the academic perception and activist self-perception from a social semiotic perspective, in other words, taking an x-ray of the mechanism of sense. We explore the discourse by applying Leone’s actantial structure (2012) taken from structural semantics of his “Semiotics of protest”: for what purpose, against what and with what means? We add two more observations to the procedure: with what code and which form of interaction?

3. Results

All the defining references we found on artivism are directly or indirectly based on the specific social function of art that artivists place at stake. We, therefore, considered the first description of video artivism is that social function, which appears below together with another five descriptions identified in our theoretical exploration of the sources consulted.

3.1. Function of intervention

These artistic practices are intended to achieve a function outside the field of art: aesthetics with the political capacity to change something unrelated to art. Artivism refers to “proposals conceived as a form of social participation and political expression” (Ortega, 2015: 102). “It could be defined as a political-artistic movement capable of re-establishing the social function of art (Gombrich, 2003) that commenced in the 70s, when the abandoning of mimesis gave rise to the birth of the art of concepts and ideas” (Stangos, 2006) (Ortega, 2015: 103). Along the same lines, Goris (2017: 15) considered artivist a synonym of a politically committed artist. In other words, we are dealing with a function that places artistic practices in a crisis: it redefines these practices as mediating agents and places them in conflict with the autonomy of art. Artivism is therefore located in the sphere Bourriaud described as a symptomatic form of contemporary art, relational art: “art that that looks towards the theoretical horizon of human interactions and their social context, more than the statement of a symbolic, autonomous and private space” (Bourriaud, 2008: 13).

3.2. Hybrid code

All the conceptions reviewed highlighted the component of fusion or crossbreeding in artivism, either because of the convergence of fields (political-artistic), the mixing of forms of discourse or the combination of techniques. This diversity is able to take place without affecting the identity of artivist, thanks to the fact that artivist practices are identified as those operating under the unifying umbrella of the political purpose of art, mentioned above, as a social interspace inspired by Marx, according to Bourriaud (2008: 15-16). It is the engine, not the design of the artifact that makes it activist. John Jordan, therefore, highlights attitude as a key idea in artivism (Jordan, 2017: 1). This is why “Clown Army”, “Yes Men”, “Flo 6X8” and “Brandalism Collective” are also artivists.

The idea is the encounter of agents that generate a relational framework with political effects, such as the one described by García-Andújar (2009: 101), “artists, groups, works, projects and ways of thinking that attempt to interpret artistic practices and the production of knowledge under the framework of a social and political relationship in the context in which they take place [in order to] become the platform of a cultural practice that returns a political capacity to aesthetics and is able to convert artistic practices into social transformation instruments”.

3.3. Against domination

In the Mercy Corps announcement of its school summer camp, we find an indetermination of the social issues in which artivism could contribute to developing awareness. When the students attend tutorials at the university to design their final projects, they often fly the flag of the topic they have chosen as a final definition, boasting that it resolves the topic of their research. They are told that a topic only identifies an area and that the approach to the research is what really defines it: what is being asked, for what purpose and what type of research technique can achieve this purpose?

All topics can be addressed –both academically and artistically– from a conservative or transforming perspective. Therefore, it is not logical to think that a particular topic could be a key factor in defining artivism. However, attempts in the specialized literature to list the subject matters of artivism are not uncommon. Ortega (2015: 103), “a nomadic art that reflects upon social relationships and the different ways that art effects consumption”. Ortega, therefore, establishes a “categorization of the most representative artistic-political strategies that reflect on the abuses of consumerism, real estate speculation, individualism, political strategy, the vulnerability of certain sectors of society, the environment, cutbacks in health and education” (Ortega, 2015: 103). In overall terms, what we find as common in the different areas of intervention of artivism mentioned by different authors is the fight against forms of domination.

3.4. Disruption

The working tool of artivism is action. Using both terms, the descriptions of artivist action converge on the common idea of disruption, the placing of a prior symbolic order in a situation of crisis. The final purpose is to create a cognitive or emotional basis for another chain of social action. This is why the compiled manual of Boyd and Mitchell (2012: 1) opens with the idea of Martin Luther King Jr. that human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.

In order to activate this symbolic effect in the social reality fabric, artivism requires an analytical operation before intervening. Aznar and Iñigo (2007: 68) claim that “the results are long-term and the artist a catalyzing agent that researches and implements a series of related modes and mechanisms in the entire community that are aimed at strengthening its powers”.

The analysis is an essential step prior to making something visible. In this respect, artivist artistic practices are aligned with the practices of social research with a critical perspective, since both believe that knowledge of the world must be acquired with a view to its transformation: “understanding the social through a process of re-evaluation, awakening and questioning of interests, ideologies and meanings” (Gordo & Serrano, 2008: 18). In this way, artists share with critical intellectuals the task of examining the structures of power, the very same economy of analysis for what Foucault calls “drawing up to a topographical and geological sketch of the battle” (1980: 109). This sketch is the artistic work.

As far as tactics are concerned, we have manuals and catalogues of cases destined to become classic references in the search for inspiration: “Emerging infrastructures” (“Infraestructuras emergentes”) (2009), “Re:imagining change” (2010), “Beautiful trouble” (2012), “Activism, artivism and beyond” (2017), “Do it yourself” (2007) and “Beautiful rising” (2017) are just some.

When referring to tactics, Jordan (2017) points out the importance of a permanent renewal of the activism repertoire, due to the fact that the effectiveness of action erodes with repetition, as the social system develops antibodies and artivist action becomes foreseeable and ceases to generate confusion and bewilderment amongst the agents of authority it questions, in other words, loses its impact. “That is why movements need to constantly innovate their tactics faster than the authorities are able to respond to them; including, of course, tactics to protect protesters from police violence” (Jordan, 2017).

In order to do so, the main basic tactic is disruption, an assault on what is established. However, the catalog of action ranges from physically blocking space to piling shoes in the street and the classic audiovisual documentation of recrimination of criminal acts; tactics including pacific disobedience or games, the dynamics of mimetization and parody. For example, in contexts in which protest is prohibited, action can be disguised. Such was the case of the `meetings of gnomes´ claiming rights for gnomes in Poland in the 80s. Also in Paris in 2015, with the projection of a gigantic image of hundreds of bodies on the facade of the French National Assembly during the Climate Summit Meeting, when demonstrations were prohibited, due to the terrorist attacks in the city some weeks before. According to Boyd, to protest, you don’t have to dress as a protester (Boyd & Mitchell, 2012: 126).

Certain tactics have been the result of new mobile communications devices (e-mails, SMS, Twitter, Whatsapp). Such is the case of “flash mobs” ?non-scheduled, spontaneous, disperse and contagious demonstrations?, called for a short space of time in a public space that is able to demonstrate dissent so quickly that they cannot be repressed and generate images that are subsequently distributed to strengthen the impact. In 2009, the “Newmindspace” group called a pillow fight in the heart of the Wall Street financial district that was seconded by thousands of people.

Spanish visual artist Yolanda Domínguez created an action in 2014 in which she called upon women to meet at Commercial Registries and register their bodies to highlight the “expropriation” being suffered by women from what others decide or restrict –through anti-abortion laws, for example– what they can do with their bodies. Anonymous women turned up at the same time at the registries of Madrid, Seville, Bilbao, Pamplona, and Pontevedra, and in doing so, those hundreds of people became artivists that Wednesday, 5th February.

Certain techniques are more efficient than others to determine objectives. One of the advantages of these manuals and catalogs that should be highlighted, especially in the case of “Beautiful Trouble”, is the rationalization of the link between tactics, objectives, and principles.

3.5. De-authorization

The point at which all the authors studied converge is that anyone can become a creator. This is why “The Trapese Collective” invites artists and activists to jointly publish work they call “Do-it-yourself” to encourage people to act and recover the control of their lives and “make governments and corporations irrelevant” (The Trapese Collective, 2007: 1).

This empowerment of the people through art, according to Goris, particularly occurs under repressive regimes: “Repressive regimes can spark creativity and make people who would not usually consider themselves as artists seek ways to communicate that evade censorship. The production of Arpillera tapestries in Pinochet’s Chile testifies to this fact” (Goris, 2017:15).

Once artivism had installed itself in a critical perspective, it was foreseeable that it would problematize the issue of authorship, given that, according to Linares (1976), the extension of authorship to the common people has been one of the defining features of the militant culture, developed along the lines of Marxist interpretation that art and life do not move –and we should not make them move– in different directions. Video activism, in particular, has developed a range of forms that question the romanticist form of authorship, with a special sensitivity, that is capable of materializing artistic inspiration into works of art that are signed and grant the owner the right to commercially exploit them. Mateos and Sedeño (2015) distinguished up to 10 different formulas in which video activism questions this system: the 15th May statement, the common formula, crowd producer, disperse choir (“coro disperso”), the collective formula, multiple authorship, the aggregation of authorship, anonymity, the cyborg author and the inexistence of authorship.

The globalization of creative capacity is an issue that reappears throughout literature, from Marx to the last manual published in 2017. Ortega (2015: 103) links it to “the Josep Beuys definition of art, which established the idea that we are all artists and that art must, therefore, be converted and reinvented in order to cease being what it has been until now”.

However, beyond this foreseeable democratization of how creative genius is considered, the crisis of the industrial concept of authorship proposed by artivism lies in the interstitial gen referred to by Bourriaud (2008): artivism, as relational art, creates community and this creation itself constitutes the work of art. Therefore, authorship is dissolved. Ortega expresses it as follows: “the possible conclusions of our study indicate that artivists, considered here as artists and spectators, share a broad conception of politics that enables the interrelation of the different micro narratives of authority that are also established in artistic discourse” (Ortega, 2015: 103).

3.6. Subversion

In an instrumental way, artivist activities can provide social mobilization with a number of energizing effects. According to Goris (2017: 16), to generate symbols, attract attention and resources and mobilize commitment. Artivism truly reaches its target when it shakes the foundations of a certain symbolic order, which means that it takes place in terms of a battle against something: “to create public space, durations with rhythms that oppose the rhythm of everyday life, encourage human exchange other than the imposed areas of communication” (Bourriaud, 2008: 16).

This condition of resistance-opposition is shared by the entire militant art tradition. In 1968, the IV International New Film Festival in Pesaro (Italy) was witness to the premiere of an Argentinian film committed to the social struggle that had become a legend in the history of cinema, “The time of the furnaces” (“La hora de los hornos”) by Fernando Pino Solanas and Octavio Getino. Argentina was at the time suffering from the Onganía dictatorship, which had placed a great deal of power in the hands of the military regime and prohibited political parties. The film was shot and secretly distributed, with the aim of encouraging and sustaining the battle for freedom. The first few minutes of the tape are comprised of a percussion soundtrack, animated images, and graphics containing texts and short legends. At around the sixth-minute mark, these words appear: “No social order commits suicide”.

This idea synthesizes the basis of artivist action: to intervene and force orders to “commit suicide”. It is a guerilla concept. We can see it in in the words of an old Guatemalan guerilla fighter for the ORPA (Organización del Pueblo en Armas, Guatemala 1982-1996) who appeared under the name of “colleague Álvaro” in a CEDEMA document: “We know that social change is always violent. Nobody gives away what he or she has and considers property pacifically. No injustice disappears alone; it implies a fight”.

It seems logical to find this assumption of violence when we are searching amongst classic guerilla sources. We, therefore, searched for academic references not linked to direct fighting. With these coordinates, we remit to the work of one of the most internationally representative Spanish academics in the field of communications in social sciences, Manuel Castells, a sociologist that makes several claims in relation to communications and social change (Castells, 2007: 238-239): Firstly, that if the majority of people think in a way that is contradictory to the rules, the rules will change because people’s opinion is a factor of change; secondly, that change will not necessarily be what the promoters want; and thirdly, that it will involve suffering, a lot of suffering, according to Castells. This author thus situates the area of impact of art on social change as that of public opinion. The battle is fought in this field, in the social production of sense. This is why Aznar and Iñigo (2007: 70) claim that: “Activist art not only takes place in the public sphere but particularly intends to produce a public sphere, which is where it activates the construction of consensus”.

In the logic of another internationally acknowledged and consolidated sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, what we are here calling impact is structured through what he calls heretic subversion (Bourdieu, 2008: 123-124). In Bourdieu’s opinion, political action exists because political agents have a particular knowledge of the world and act accordingly. Subsequently taking action in the world can be achieved by intervening in the way people understand that world; that intervention becomes one of political value since it reveals the representations that sustain the social order we want to change. This and whatever social order is able to remain and perpetuate itself as long as it is able to keep the arbitrary nature of these representations hidden. In other words, a social order remains because it imposes classification systems that appear as natural and thus ensure “the native adhesion” to the “doxa”. The order remains because it conceals the arbitrary relationship between objective and mental structures. Political action commences with the denouncing of this tacit contract, in other words, with “heretic subversion” that does away with the “doxas”.

Verson (2007: 173) presents cultural activism as a way of questioning the dominating perspective of the world. García-Andújar (2009: 100) speaks of conflict, rupture, “change that enables revolution capable of breaking down the prevailing hierarchical concept and focusing on developing a horizontal society”. Stating (2009: 101) that: “As artists, we are convinced that we either become part in this new system of permanent loss, in which Western arrogance is resulting in a paralyzing ignorance, or we move on to a (permanent?) state of resistance, assault, and demolition”. In the words of Ortega (2015: 103), artivism intervenes to “alter the codes and signs that exist in the sub-conscience of society and develop certain strategies that consolidate new and possible political tactics”.

In February 2015, a video activist recorded Celia Villalobos, the President of the Congress in Madrid, playing “Candy Crush” for an extended period of time, without listening to the President of the Government and also the President of her party who, at that time was speaking on the stand, just two meters away. This brings down a “doxa”: that of hardworking politicians that justifiably earn ten times the national minimum wage.

The Lowe Cape Town agency created a video for the campaign against the use of animal fur for clothing and complements for the “International Anti Fur Coalition”, in which we see three sophisticated and elegant young people talking in a bright restaurant, at a table with a spotless tablecloth, when one of the girl’s mobile phone rings. In order to find it in her bag, she has to empty its contents on the table: bloody entrails, a heart, liver, tripe and, without thinking twice, picks up her phone with bloody hands, puts it to her ear and talks as if nothing had happened. This also brings down a “doxa”: The glamorous bag containing blood and torture.

4. Conclusion

Video artivism, apart from creating audiovisual works, operates in the symbolic field of cultural practice as a crisis factor. It provides visibility for social representations capable of creating climates in which people are motivated to take part in shared transformation practices. These practices, by definition, imply changes that subvert social and political order: rules, hierarchies, and categorizations, in relation to the idea of “the distribution of the sensible”, developed by philosopher Jacques Rancière. This intervention by art into the social and political spheres undermines the legitimacy of certain benefits and privileges, with the possible detriment of the relevant social groups.

The artivist impact firstly operates by transforming people who take part in artistic practices; and then on how they relate to their environment, given that the artistic subject is social life itself. Therefore, the subject of the work of art expands.

In short, this study provides a set of boundaries that could be used to systemize the choice of samples for empirical studies, catalogues and training manuals: 1) The additional intervention function of art; 2) The use of a hybrid code; 3) Action against structures of domination; 4) Disruptive logic; 5) De-construction of authorship; 6) Subversion against social political orders. Although these descriptions give us a definition, they do not exhaust the nature description of the video artivist phenomenon; the results of this theoretical study are therefore available for completion and refining by other research.

For the time being, this characterizing framework allows us to distinguish artivist objects from other practices merely disguised as artivism that borrow certain visual rhetoric. Nevertheless, it leaves the door open to the possibility of analyzing the figure of art critics that sell their criticism to clients for a change of image. Jordan refers to this figure as “artwashers”. Other authors such as Martha Rosler, as an art critic, have been highlighting the difficulty of the survival of artivism outside the borders the market of official protection. The poetics of “artwashers” therefore warrant a specific study.


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