an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 3, February 2006, ISSN 1552-5112




Looking to the Left: Politics in the Art of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer

Jenni Drozdek

Artists alone can’t change the world.  Neither can anyone else, alone.  But we can choose to be part of the world that is changing.  There is no reason why visual art should not be able to reflect the social concerns of our day as naturally as novels, plays, and music. . . [T]he more sophisticated artists become, the more they are able to make art that works on several levels. They can make specific artworks for specific audiences and situations, or they can try to have their cake and eat it too, with one work affecting art audiences one way and general audiences another.  . . Art that is not confined to a single context under the control of market and ruling-class taste is much harder to neutralize.  And it is often quite effective when seen within the very citadels of power it criticizes.

- Lucy Lippard [1]




Looking to the Left: Politics in the Art of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer

In the exhibition catalogue Art and Ideology, feminist art critic Lucy Lippard claimed that all art is ideological and that artists “who remain stubbornly uninformed about the social and emotional effects of their images and their connections to other images outside the art context are more easily manipulated by the prevailing systems of distribution, interpretation, and marketing.”[2]  If Lippard’s statement is correct, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer are exempt from her categorization, given that throughout their careers both artists have manipulated Lippard’s aforementioned systems to spread their messages within the public arena.  While Kruger surveys advertising systems and (re)presents images in order to expose and question power structures, Holzer utilizes an anonymous voice to send messages of authority to the public.  Although they use different media and methods of dissemination, a leftist agenda pervades these artists’ messages. 

            Such messages came into fruition due to multiple sources, both cultural and political.  The Vietnam War, living and working in a decade of a right-wing White House (the 80’s), and the watered-down liberal politics of the Clinton era, all were events that had an impact upon Kruger and Holzer and their artistic output reflects this.  Of course, not all of their works have political implications, and both artists have explored various non-political topics and ideas throughout their careers.  Yet I believe that it is their artworks that feature both explicit and implicit political messages that are among their most powerful, and it is those works that this paper aims to explore.

            Barbara Kruger’s leftist slant in political thinking was obvious before she started producing the famous collage-like works for which she is so well-known.  While working as chief designer for Mademoiselle magazine, she was also freelancing in designing book covers for several publications.  The books she chose to take on as projects say much about her political slant.  Between 1968 and 1972, her book jackets included titles like The Anarchist Prince, The Illusion: An Essay on Politics; Theatre and the Novel; Peasant Uprisings in Seventeenth -Century France, Russia, and China; and Capitalism in Argentine Culture.[3]  Most of her book projects were publications dealing with radical politics, a fact that should not be overlooked.

            Many of Kruger’s works deal with feminist issues: the way that women are depicted in media and art, women’s traditional roles, and women as objects of the gaze.  The feminist movement was an outgrowth from the New Left of the 1960’s, and therefore, at the least, her feminism may qualify her as a partial leftist.  Kruger is adamantly pro-choice as well, something that is reflected in her works and in posters she produces for pro-choice organizations.  However, being pro-choice and a feminist do not necessarily a leftist make.  Thus, in addition to her feminist works, her other overtly political works must be considered as well. 

            In April 1989, a pro-choice march was held in Washington D.C.  Kruger’s famous image of a woman’s face appears on the poster advertising the event (fig. 1):



Barbara Kruger

Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground), 1989


The message on the poster is loud, bold and clear: “Your body is a battleground.”  The image of the woman and the text superimposed upon it summarized what protesters felt about the issue: “Where is the boundary between inside and outside, private and public, and who will control it?”[4]  Her message also implicated the conservative agenda in power at this time.  The bottom portion of the poster discusses the Supreme Court case launched by the Bush Administration that sought to overthrow the Roe v. Wade verdict, and thus answers the question, “Your body is a battleground for whom?”  The poster makes the answer pretty clear: woman’s body is the battleground for a right-wing administration opposed to giving women the right to choose.  A woman’s body is no longer her own, not if conservatives have anything to say about it.  In 1990, using the same slogan, Kruger designed a billboard that was placed directly next to another from a pro-life organization (fig. 2):




Barbara Kruger

Your Body is a Battleground, billboard project for Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH, 1990







The contrast is striking.  A woman’s screaming face appears, an eight week old fetus’s life placed before hers.  In 1992, Kruger pressed the issue of woman vs. fetus again in a poster that asked “How Come Only the Unborn Have the Right to Life?” (fig. 3):


Barbara Kruger

How Come Only the Unborn Have the Right to Life?, 1992, design for The Village Voice


These designs were more than the works of an artist.  They were the works of an activist, who was adamant about her beliefs in a woman’s rights. 

            In these works, power (and who wields this power) is a primary concern.  According to Kate Linker, “To Kruger, power is not localized in specific institutions but is dispersed through a multiplicity of sites, operating in the range of discursive procedures that govern sexuality, morality, the family, education, and so on. . . power cannot be centralized. . .[it is] anonymous.”[5]  Although the power that Kruger challenges and confronts may be invisible, there is no denying that some of it can be pinpointed.  The “Your body is a battleground” poster (fig. 1) is a perfect example: she is clearly implicating the Bush administration, and moreover, the conservative and right-wing agenda.  Another example is her poster design for “The Decade Show: Frameworks of identity in the 1980’s” in 1990, which served the function of “agitprop” according to one author.[6]  The text, once again, points the finger at the right-wing in its statement that “[t]he Decade Show starring Reagan/Bush presents 10 years of almost NO MONEY for Health Care, Housing, Education, the Environment and almost ALL MONEY for Weapons, Covert Operations, Corporate Tax Breaks and Savings and Loan Bail Outs” (fig. 4):



fig. 4

Barbara Kruger

poster design for “The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980’s,” New York, 1990



Power is certainly localized in this work.[7]







Kruger’s works also focus on issues that are less centered on feminism, but direct their attention to global or national politics.  In her work Your Manias Become Science (fig. 5), a mushroom cloud fills the picture space with its lethal smoke:


fig. 5

Barbara Kruger

Untitled (Your Manias Become Science), 1981






The left-wing was quite vocal about its call for nuclear disarmament during the Cold War, when this work was produced.  Kruger’s work echoes this leftist call.  Equating the science of bombs (and of murder) with the manias of a government that distrusted Communism to the extent that all necessary precautions were made (including producing bombs that could decimate a population), she angrily confronts the leaders whose military and strategic decisions are akin to a paranoid schizophrenic’s thinking.

            In 1984, Kruger began to produce works that dealt with money and buying.   In these works she deals critically with the market, and with consumption and commodification, taking an analytical look at capitalism and the greed that it invites.[8]  Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am), Untitled (When I Hear the Word Culture I Take Out My Checkbook) and Untitled (Buy Me, I’ll Change Your Life) all explore the power that commodity fetishism has over the consumer. 

            Kruger’s look at money and how it is spent is also the focus of a 1989 billboard design for Art Against Aids (fig. 6) where her anger is clearly defined: “Fund Health Care Not Warfare”, it demands:


fig. 6

Barbara Kruger

billboard project for Art Against AIDS, San Francisco, 1989



Her derision against a nation that has turned health care into a capitalistic enterprise, while the military receives funding from the government, speaks loudly in both the text and the image, in which a helpless arm is clutched by others’ hands, holding it back from receiving what it is reaching for (health care/money to pay for it).

            Kruger’s use of magazine and book illustrations from a bygone era is purposeful.[9]  According to Stephen Heller, the artist “exemplifies the continuum of activist designers who, since the nineteenth century, have used the tools of mass communications to subvert the myths perpetuated by the powerful.”[10]  Lucy Lippard points out the responsibility feminist artists have in creating “a new image vocabulary that conforms to our interests” since images have been so active in exploiting women.[11] Kruger does exactly this.  She takes images and uses them against themselves by employing texts.[12]  And she does this not only to send out a feminist message, but to send out leftist messages as well.  An image of a mushroom cloud becomes not just a symbol of destruction and power, but of a mania. Though her work has “the look and feel of slick ads,” states Walter Kalaidjian, their politics “cut across the grain of consumerist ideology.  Indeed, her images frequently allude to the general violence, oppression, and humiliation entailed in the cultural logic of unequal exchange fostered under advanced capitalism.” [13]

            Like Barbara Kruger’s, Jenny Holzer’s works often appear outside of the art world and mimic the commercial world (by appearing on billboards, t-shirts, buttons, posters, and electronic signs).  However, unlike Kruger, Holzer’s messages are often in conflict with one another.  This is especially obvious in her Truisms, of which there are hundreds, in which short aphorisms often contradict one another - some appearing leftist, some rightist, and some completely neutral.  However, one begins to see her leftist stance when exploring how and where her work is disseminated and compares this with what the artist has to say about her work.  Of her politics, Holzer has stated, “When I was younger, I wanted to go fight with Che in the jungle, but now I’m just a standard leftie-liberal.” [14]    Her insertion of the word “leftie” is an important one, since she considers herself more than just the standard liberal, a word that no longer means what it used to in an era when liberals are adopting more and more conservative tactics to avoid being labeled the dreaded “leftist” term. [15]   

            Like Kruger, Holzer uses language to communicate her thoughts.  However, whereas Kruger merges text and image, Holzer usually relies upon text alone.  Although she attempted painting while in school and at the beginning of her career, [16] Holzer soon found that she was much more fascinated with communication through language, which could convey a message that painting could not.  She did not think she could make effective narrative paintings and wanted a way to express her views.[17]   Her desire to communicate first found fruition in her Truisms of 1977-79 in which her principal medium is language.[18]

            As mentioned, these truisms often had contradictory messages.[19] However, even in this large list of Truisms, the leftist maxims outweigh the right-wing ones. [20]  And although the majority of Truisms are neutral or apolitical in tone, there are nineteen that reflect a leftist politics and only ten that reflect rightist politics, or almost twice as many leftist. And although the majority of Truisms are neutral or apolitical in tone, there are nineteen that reflect a leftist politics and only ten that reflect rightist politics, or almost twice as many leftist. Although maxims like “Abuse of power comes as no surprise”, “An elite is inevitable”, “Deviants are sacrificed to increase group solidarity”, “Money creates taste”, “Politics is used for personal gain”, and “Decency is a relative thing” could be associated with the Left as well as the radical Right, they are better suited as leftist truisms.  These truisms seem to condemn rather than simply to confirm - they are accusatory rather than simply true.   In these cases, we must consider the real leftist leanings of the artist and the implications those leanings have when using such an accusatory tone.  These truisms reflect where the Right has gotten us, but they are not spoken by a rightist voice, and it is hard to divorce Holzer’s politics from them. 

            Holzer also uses truisms that state emphatically leftist agendas: “Any surplus is immoral”, “Class structure is as artificial as plastic”, “Everyone’s work is equally important” (this one is even communist), “Inheritance must be abolished”, “It’s not good to operate on credit” (critical of capitalism), “People who don’t work with their hands are parasites”, “Raise boys and girls the same way”, “Redistributing wealth is imperative”, “Remember you always have freedom of choice” (always a touchy subject where abortion is concerned), “Using force to stop force is absurd”, “Grass roots agitation is the only hope”,  and “Private property created crime.” 

 In contrast, the right-wing truisms, most of them fascist, possess a tone that is much more malicious than her leftist statements: “Absolute submission can be a form of freedom”, “Freedom is a luxury not a necessity”, “Killing is unavoidable but nothing to be proud of”, “Most people are not fit to rule themselves”, “Occasionally principles are more valuable than people”, “Separatism is the way to a new beginning”, “Sex differences are here to stay”, “The idea of revolution is an adolescent fantasy”, “Trading a life for a life is fair enough”, and “Violence is permissible even desirable occasionally.”  This must be more than coincidence, as they reflect the tyrannical positions the Left often associates with the Right.         

            Although readers may find additional statements that fit into the rightist/leftist categories, or they may delete some of the ones listed above, there is no doubt that Holzer’s list is comprised of more leftist truisms than rightist. [21]  When questioned about a political slant in her Truisms, Holzer denied a more leftist slant.  She claimed, “I think they are a representative sampling of opinion.  I didn’t want to make a didactic or dogmatic piece. . . I wanted to highlight those thoughts and topics that polarize people, but not choose sides.  I was trying to present a fairly accurate survey and not have it break down into left, right, center, or religious versus anarchist, or what have you.” [22] Yet if we go through her list carefully, we find that she does take sides with the Left more often, whatever her intentions may have been.  Hal Foster notes that the reader of the Truisms seems to be “in the midst of open ideological warfare,” [23] and it appears that the Left has won. 

            However, it is not only Holzer’s list of Truisms that reflects a more leftist agenda.  Individual truisms have often been reproduced on t-shirts, posters, hats, billboards, stickers, etc.  One of the most often reproduced is “Abuse of power comes as no surprise.”  In a popularly reproduced image of Lady Pink, a graffiti artist with whom Holzer had collaborated on other projects,[24]  the artist wears a shirt bearing the truism (fig. 7):



from Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, 1977-79

T-shirt worn by Lady Pink, NY, 1983



The message is accusatory and implicating - but whose power is she talking about?  The Truisms were started only three years after U.S. troops left Vietnam.  This truism is very applicable to what happened during the Nixon administration, both in Vietnam and during the Watergate scandal.  Although Holzer was merely stating a truth (“Abuse of power comes as no surprise), she was also shining an accusatory light on the powers that be.  This and similar individual Truisms continued to appear in the 1980’s: “Commenting on the scandal-ridden political milieu of the Reagan era, slogans such as ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE were circulating suddenly at the very crossroads of American consumerist society.” [25]  It was the leftist message of the Truisms that carried the most weight by people who chose to adopt them.

            In fact, the truisms that have elicited controversy have also been leftist.  In 1982, Holzer’s Truisms were exhibited at the Marine Midland Bank in New York.  However, they were taken down when an employee noticed one of them said: “It’s not good to operate on credit.” [26] This anti-capitalist maxim was clearly viewed as defamatory in an institution that thrives on money exchange.  In 1987, signs Holzer created in a Philadelphia shopping center were turned off after upheaval occurred over texts from her Truisms and Survival series.  Most offensive were “It is fun to walk carelessly in a death zone”, “People are nuts if they think they are important” and “What country should you adopt if you hate poor people?”  The signs were only turned back on after disclaimers about them were provided. [27]  Apparently, one must be warned of leftist messages or they must be censored altogether.

            In her more recent texts for Lustmord (fig. 8), Holzer focused on violence against women:[28]


fig. 8

Jenny Holzer

excerpts from Lustmord, 1993-4, ink on (women’s) skin



Prompted by the events in Bosnia and the violence against Muslim women by Serbian soldiers, Holzer allows three voices to speak: the victim of rape, the perpetrator and an

observer.  Her language is violent and graphic so the experience is adequately conveyed.  According to Diane Waldman, “Chillingly, the series underscores the way the world often sits by, watching, while women fall prey to abuse and death.” [29]   The reader is not aware from whose position Holzer speaks in Lustmord since “she speaks simultaneously from all three positions - and from none of them.” [30]  Holzer’s reasoning for her use of “reprehensible statements” by her invisible characters is the hope that “readers will, in reaction, land in the right place.” [31]   This desire of hers can easily be transferred to interpreting her Truisms as well.  And what is the “right place” to land in a series of contradictory statements?  For a leftist artist, “right” must mean Left.

            Holzer’s leftist agenda has also come into play in a leaflet produced by the artist that had a response slip attached stating “Jesus Will Come to New York November 4”(election day).   According to Lucy Lippard, this leaflet “exposes rightwing and religious connections and warns its readers that three million fundamentalists are newly registered to vote.  The language is clear and non-rhetorical and the piece is potentially effective in that it could scare more liberals into voting.”[32]

            What is important to note is that Holzer’s works are not meant to be confined to the galleries and museums alone; Holzer clearly intended to get her message out on the streets using a populist dissemination tactic.  When the Truisms were first completed, they were plastered around the city of New York in the form of posters. [33]  In 1982, she began to use electronic signboards to get her message out, a method which allowed her to reach a wider audience (fig. 9):



fig. 9

Jenny Holzer

from Truisms (1977-79), Spectacolor sign project, “Message to the Public”, Times Square, New York, 1982




Of her use of a public medium Holzer has stated, “I hope that my content is worth placing in public, that it might even counteract some of the worst messages to which we’re subjected.” [34] And since radical thinking makes people either scared or is ignored altogether, her message becomes more effective and more likely to be taken seriously “if the message seems to come from on high.”  This strategy is effective for her since sign technologies have become “mediums of authority.” [35] Her messages are also anonymous - her name is not linked to them, and they simply give the impression of common maxims thus lending them an authoritative voice.[36] 

            What Kruger and Holzer have in common is a heavy reliance on language to get their respective messages across.  In fact, their use of text is crucial, because without it, their works would cease to function politically.  The use of language is then an effective medium to use because it is understandable and to the point.  It is directed as much to the general public as to an art audience.  Along with their use of text, Kruger and Holzer also manipulate advertising and commercial media, a tactic that makes their work quite powerful.  As far back as1936, Meyer Schapiro pointed out that people get pleasure from commercial and filmic imagery “with a directness and wholeheartedness that can hardly be called forth by the artistic painting and sculpture of our time.” [37]  Thus, using what he called “infantile public art” actually serves to make the message more powerful because people are more attracted to those images.  This has certainly proven true for Kruger and Holzer, whose images appear on everything from t-shirt to mugs.

Yet, both artists question and confront power structures, an important aspect of their work that recalls a 1981 lecture where Lucy Lippard told her audience: “You’ve probably heard the old purist saw ‘Wanna send a message? Call Western Union.’ Well, Western Union isn’t exactly doing the job.  Maybe artists should step in.”  Lippard, a left-wing activist, was hoping for leftist artists to do the job, and few have done it as effectively as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger.




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 3, February 2006, ISSN 1552-5112




[1] Lucy Lippard, “Trojan Horses: Activist Power and Power” in Brian Wallis, Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 344-45.

[2] Lippard,  “Give and Take: Ideology in the Art of Suzanne Lacy and Jerry Kearns” in Art and Ideology (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 29.

[3] Kate Linker, Love for Sale: The Words and Pictures of Barbara Kruger (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), 14.

[4] Pamela A. Ivinski, “Women Who Turn the Gaze Around,” Print 47, no. 5 (September - October 1993): 40.

[5] Linker, 27.

[6] David Deitcher, “Barbara Kruger: Resisting Arrest,” Artforum 29, no. 6 (February 1991): 86.

[7] It is this localization of power that appealed to the band Rage Against the Machine, who have used her imagery as backdrops for their concerts.  The band, which is overtly radical and leftist in their lyrics, clearly has found Kruger’s messages compatible to their own.  They incorporated her imagery and messages that ask questions such as “Who is beyond the law?”, “Who follows orders?” and “Who is bought and sold?” with other images, including Che Guevara and an upside-down American flag.

[8] Linker, 73.

[9] The images that Kruger appropriates are often from the 1940’s and 50’s imagery.  Lucy Lippard pointed out how the 50’s in particular were “Very Bad Old Days” for the Left, among other groups, and for targets of McCarthy.  See her 1981 essay, “Hot Potatoes: Art and Politics in 1980” in Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change (New York: E.P. Dutton Inc., 1984), 166.  It is just this imagery Kruger chooses to critique.

[10] Stephen Heller, “Barbara Kruger, Graphic Designer?” in Barbara Kruger, 109. 

[11] Lippard, “Some Propaganda for Propaganda” in Get the Message?, 116.

[12] Kruger’s job as a designer influenced her tremendously in her subsequent artwork.  She learned how to manipulate images to produce the greatest visual impact, thus drawing the viewer in.  Linker, 14.

[13] Walter Kalaidjian, American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism & Postmodern Critique (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 228.  According to Lucy Lippard, Kruger “manipulates the blasting graphics we associate with the mass media to ask her audience direct questions, or indirectly to tell the world what she thinks.”  Lippard notes that Kruger’s use of text superimposed over enlarged images is much more forceful than traditional advertising formats, noting that “the conflict inherent in out public and personal interactions is reflected by Kruger’s form, which in the end also exposes the lethal blandness of so-called popular culture.” “All’s Fair” in Lippard, The Pink Glass Sawn: Selected Feminist Essays on Art (New York: The New Press, 1995), 234.

[14] Quoted in John Howell, “The Message is the Medium,” ARTnews 87, 6 (Summer 1988): 124.

[15] For an excellent source that explains the difference between liberals and leftists and how the Left must pry itself away from the “liberal” label see Michael Tomasky, Left for Dead: The Life, Death, and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America (New York: The Free Press, 1996).

[16] Joan Simon, “Interview” in David Joselit et al., Jenny Holzer (London: Phaidon Press, 1998), 19.

[17] Diane Waldman, Jenny Holzer (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1997), 18.

[18] Holzer said of her Truisms, “I started the work as a parody, like a Great Ideas of the Western World in a nutshell.” Waldman, 18. 

[19] Such as “Children are the hope of the future” versus “Children are the most cruel of all” or “There’s nothing redeeming in toil” versus “Manual labor can be refreshing and wholesome.”

[20] More “truisms” have been added over the years.  In 1995, Holzer started a website,, where people can add their own truisms to the list. Simon in Joselit et al, 38. Therefore, for this paper’s purpose, her series from 1977-79 will be dealt with.


[21] See Joselit et al., 166-125 for complete list of Truisms 1977-79.

[22] Holzer in an interview with Michael Auping in Jenny Holzer (New York: Universe, 1992), 85-87.

[23] Hal Foster, “Subversive Signs,” Art in America 70, 10 (November 1982): 91.

[24] Joselit, et al., 38.

[25] Kalaidjian, 233.  The photograph of Lady Pink was taken in 1983, in fact.

[26] Bruce Ferguson, “Wordsmith: An Interview with Jenny Holzer,” Art in America 74, 12 (December 1986): 114.

[27] Waldman, 19.

[28] The texts of Lustmord were written on women’s skin and photographed close up.  They were also printed on white cards with the blood (which was mixed with ink) of German and Yugoslavian women (who donated their blood for the project).  The white cards were on the cover of a publication that had the photographs inside.  The use of blood caused much controversy to which Holzer responded, “That’s the irony in the whole affair.  Hardly anyone is disgusted by how much blood is spilled in this world.  But just as soon as the blood gets into our living rooms, we panic.  Is the blood germ-free, is it lab-tested, medically inspected, ethical, legal?” quoted in Joselit, “Voices, Bodies and Spaces: The Art of Jenny Holzer” in Joselit, et al., 54.

[29] Waldman, 25.

[30] Renata Salecl, “Cut-and-Dried Bodies, or How to Avoid the Pervert Trap” in Joselit, et al., 80.

[31] Auping, 106.

[32] Lippard, “Issue and Tabu” in Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1980), 6.

[33] Howell, 125.  Explaining why she decided to take her work out into the public, Holzer stated, “I knew the Truisms weren’t poetry, so they shouldn’t go into a little book, and I knew they weren’t a novel, so they didn’t need to go in a big book.  I had to think of a form that was appropriate for them.  After I halfway became convinced that they were legitimate, I realized that they had to go outside.  They were useless as a list on a desk.  I hoped that people would get something from reading them on the street.” Auping, 78.  Obviously she was seeking for people to “get something” from them, which further shows that her Truisms served an ideological purposes -- a leftist one, as shown in this paper.

[34] Auping, 98-100.

[35] Jenny Holzer in Ferguson, 153.  She has also noted the effectiveness of her messages being juxtaposed with actual advertisements: “I am happy when my material is mixed with advertisements or pronouncements of some sort or another.  That lends a certain weight to my things, makes them part of real life.  It also creates some very funny juxtapositions.” in Waldman, 32.

[36] Waldman, 19.  Barbara Kruger also used light boards, though not as extensively as Holzer.  Neither has her name attached to the light boards so they take on an anonymous air.  Their signs can often be confused with one another since they are comprised of brief messages.  

[37] Meyer Schapiro, “The Public Use of Art” in Worldview in Painting - Art and Society: Selected Papers  (New York: George Braziller, 1999), 176.




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