Design Notes · · 22 min read

The Psychedelic Spark: GMUNK

GMUNK on the psychedelic origins of his aesthetic and the importance of discomfort.

The Psychedelic Spark: GMUNK

In this episode, Liam speaks with Bradley Munkowitz, also known as designer/director GMUNK, unpacking Munkowitz’s scintillating psychedelic aesthetic — inspired by actual psychedelic experiences — and why it’s important as a designer to continually challenge and be challenged, maintaining a healthy discomfort with one’s own work.

Liam Spradlin: All right, we’re recording. Welcome to Design Notes.

Bradley Munkowitz (GMUNK): Thank you. So you didn’t get all that ASMR talk we just had? That wasn’t recording?

Liam: No, but we can get back around to it.

GMUNK: (laughs) Revisit it later?

Liam: Yeah, yeah.

GMUNK: Okay, we’ll revisit it later on.

Liam: So, to start out with, I wanna know what brought you to your current work. And also how your journey there has influenced the type of things that you’re making.

GMUNK: I was always a creative. As a kid, I was playing Dungeons and Dragons, and like… illustrating stories of my characters. And I went to school at Humboldt State in northern California. State college, didn’t have a ton of money. And just like… it was a playground for psychedelic exploration. Cannabis and psychedelics were a huge part of my college creative explosion. I came from Minneapolis, and then my whole family moved to San Francisco when I was 18. And so, you know, I kind of found myself in Humboldt County. And, uh, just took over the film and graphic design departments and just, you know, flash was a huge one back then. Back in the late ‘90’s. It was like, flash and 16 millimeter film, and Photoshop work, and illustration. Like, traditional illustration was my fine art track. And combining all those into a language… and that was kind of the breakout.

And then once I got into the industry, my ethos was just being curious and learning. Started off as kind of a web animator filmmaker, but then that took me into experiential, and commercial, and design work, and UI, UX. Installation, sculpture, robotics, projection… you know, anything with light and material. You know, and then as I got older, it was always going more into narrative and themes. And, and telling stories. You know, telling stories of identity and, I’m, I’m really into the metaphysical and… which is, you kind of go back to the psychedelic foundation in a lot of ways. ’Cause psychedelics cause you to question your subconscious. You question reality in a way. Because you lose track of where your body is. You lose track of what you are.

And you go where it’s just you and your mind on a rocket ship somewhere else. For a while. And in that time, you have to learn not to panic. (laughs) You know, and to just accept that this is all in your subconscious, and this is your reality. This is what’s inside you. At least that’s what I believe. I believe it’s not fake. I believe it’s actually your subconscious showing you a different reality that you should accept because it’s within you.

And that has guided my creative path. Aesthetically, conceptually… so I struggle with finding the balance of like, how do I make a living doing commercials? Do I really wanna just be making advertisements all my life? For brands, like that’s a really tough gig. You know, so it’s like, what is that balance?

To answer your question, I think that it’s all about just staying curious, and learning, and collaborating. Working with people that take you outside of your comfort zone so you experiment in new mediums. And that causes a lot of inspiration. ’Cause anytime you start over, or start new on anything, it’s always the most inspiring phase of that discovery, ’cause it’s new.

Liam: Right.

GMUNK: And I think sometimes the only way you can get anywhere is through collaboration. Because how else are you gonna learn? You can’t just go to school for everything, you know? If I didn’t have my collaborators, I’d be nowhere. And I know that. And I will openly admit that. That’s just the way it is.

Liam: Yeah. There’s so much in there that I want to unpack. But I want to start with this connection that you drew between your experiences with psychedelics and the aesthetic that you’ve developed, because it strikes me that the aesthetic of your work is one that is extremely strong, and also extremely dynamic. But you use a lot of practical effects in your work. So I wanna know how you approach translating these ideas of other realities, or manipulating the reality that we have using the tools of our everyday reality.

GMUNK: And that’s a good question. I’m a big fan of the Mars Ones, and the Alex Grays, the psychedelic artists who I love. I mean, Mario Mars One is a good friend, and my favorite. You know, my favorite style. Because it’s warpy, and it has lensing in it. Where there’s a distortion in his images that I feel is very psychedelic and very camera related, which I’m obsessed with cameras and lenses.

But for me, I don’t see that stuff. I don’t see the traditional psychedelic world when I go in. Mine is almost a little bit more science fiction, and it’s about light and material and texture, and refraction and distortion. And sometimes it’s character based, and I don’t believe these characters to be aliens, or some other interstellar communication. I believe it’s my whimsical mind assaulting my brain. There’s like, things that emerge out, and they’re like these ever-evolving transforming kind of tube creatures. Kind of like weird, tentacle-y, you know, lots of eyes, lots of tongues, lots of multiplication and geometric shapes, but they’re definitely beings. And they always are tearing my head apart, and like opening it up, and showing me new portals inside.

And it’s actually a very cartoony style. And I’m more interested in where that cartoony style exists, which is in this brilliantly detailed refractive geometric world. And so my work explores that. ’Cause I’m not really a character animator, and someday I will collaborate on the character side, and just take a two week retreat to Sedona, and just hug a rock and do psychedelics for two weeks, and then be like, okay this is exactly what we’re gonna make, you know? But right now, I’m really inspired by lensing, and lens distortion, and fish eyes. And then putting through that system of distortion and lens distortion, materials. Materiality and, and illumination. And how all three of those elements work together.

And sometimes I’ll make graphic design out of this. And I’ll make it in 3D so I get the lens distortion in there. And sometimes I’ll do it practically, where we’ll get a bunch of mirrors, and a bunch of lights, and a bunch of lasers. And get cameras, and lenses, and fish eyes, and just do it in camera. And sometimes I’ll do it in CG with, uh, the FX company. Like, the mill, or frame store. And we’ll say, ‘hey.’ You know, ‘we’re gonna go in this light world.’ You know, sometimes data related, sometimes light related. Sometimes it’s data as light. You know, I made an Audi commercial that was really psychedelic. And somehow it got approved by Audi Global in Germany. They were all about it actually, which was great. It’s not usually like that. And, and, and, and then that branches out into textural work. My photography is all about texture. And I don’t go to an expanse and just take a wide angle landscape shot of it. I don’t do that. I get in it, and I find compositions… for either from the air or the ground that are about depth and texture. Where I wanna feel like I’m submerged in this world, and it’s a little bit claustrophobic.

And then I shoot with medium format digital cameras, and then I just nerd out on the texture, and the sharpness, and, and just the detail of everything. Which in itself becomes psychedelic. Because if you have so much detail and such high fidelity in it, you just lose yourself in it. And then you find yourself kind of tripping. Which is the goal. And then there’s, you know, the infrared photography, which is taking that even a step further, where you’re seeing a light spectrum that you can’t even see with your naked eye. So you need a special camera that sees the invisible. You know, sees the unseen. And that in itself is also very psychedelic, ’cause like, it’s that uncovering that you go back to in, in the deep dives into your subconscious. You’re seeing something that can’t be seen. With a special camera, and I love that shit.

And then the color palettes, and the compositions, and the tonal range is all very limited, and goes back to almost graphic design in a way.

Liam: When you say that Audi was really into the commercial, but it’s not always like that. I imagine that maybe it’s challenging to bring this aesthetic into everyday reality in a way that is approachable and consumable by other people.

GMUNK: One of the things I’ve decided in the end… and this isn’t in all commercial work, but it’s a lot of it. Is, I’m just gonna pitch stuff that I love, and that I really wanna make, and that resonates with that inner being that wants to push this aesthetic. And that’s just kind of my style. And if people, you know… That’s what fine artists do. Fine artists say, ‘this is my style. If you want my style, you can buy it.’

And as a commercial artist, I kind of want to do the same thing. Where it’s… and I’m not only a commercial artist, but in the commercial realm, you know, I wanna say like, okay, this is the GMUNK treatment. You know, and it’s gonna be psychedelic, and it’s gonna be kind of with that approach. And most of the times I fail. Most of the time, they don’t buy it. And then I say okay, well do I wanna do something kind of bright and neutral that isn’t really a part of my repertoire? And it’s like, well, you know, maybe ten percent? Fifteen, I’ll be like, ‘yeah. I need some money. I want to buy a new camera.’ You know?

Liam: (laughs)

GMUNK: We’ll do it. And I think with client work, it’s all about the client. You can’t be too selfish, but in a way, they’re hiring you for a reason. You know, so you kind of have to be selfish in a way. ’Cause they’re hiring you for that reason. They want that treatment.

Liam: You also describe yourself as, besides being a commercial artist, a designer and a director. And I’m interested, given all of the different things you’ve done, and all the collaborations that you’ve done through your work, what each of those roles means to you.

GMUNK: Yeah, I consider myself a designer first, because it’s in my blood. Not like, genetically. My dad was an actuary, uh, so it’s a mathematician. But he had a very structured mind. And my mom was a, a wild creative writer teacher. So mixing those two together gave me this creative yet structured mind. And when I was in college, I took an oceanography course. ’Cause I love the physics of the ocean. I love the waves, I love the movement. And I thought that it would be very creative.

So I took an oceanography course. It was hard for me, ’cause you go out in the freezing cold in your boots and the mud, and you’re collecting crab sediment. And then you bring it back, and you study this sediment in the mud. Looking for crab refuse or whatever, right? And my charts and my diagrams of that research were so structured, and so organized, and so designed, you know… I’d hand draw everything. And my teacher was like, dude, you just need to take a graphic design class. This is not normal. No scientist should do this.

Liam: (laughs)

GMUNK: Like, this is not for you. You need to take a graphic design class. You know, and then I took graphic design in college, and it was literally like, one of the worst programs ever. It was like all old school, everything practical and just like, hands on. Like, cutting type out. And it’s just like, so not where it was going. You know, it was principles, but it was kind of old school. But out of college, my first job was at a, a company in London. And I was the only American in a studio of 25. And my two roommates were Danish and Swedish. Basically, it was dot com money. You know, I graduated in 2000. So basically, they were putting together some of the best web artists in the world to go work at one company. And somehow I got picked because I was doing really experimental work that was just so different. Because it was personal. It was almost anti-establishment psychedelic… but absurdist at the same time. It’s like, who would actually put this kind of stuff out?

So that’s why I think I got selected to be a part of this super team, but the other people in it were some of the world’s best Scandinavian, German, Dutch, and English designers. So I went to the studio, and that’s where I learned. Like, real shit. Like real graphic design. From these guys for two years. Just every day. Beat down. You know, beat down. And from there, you know, went on to do UI work, and tons of grid work, you know, so when you’re doing work in Flash, you know, I have a one-pixel border on my five-pixel high fonts. You know, it’s just like so detailed. And that work and that style has stayed with me forever.

Where now, if you look at my computer, there’s literally nothing on the desktop. I have fifty thousand notes documents that are all designed perfectly, you know, typography, underlines, grids. You know, spent two and a half years doing really hardcore UI work for feature films. Oblivion and Tron Legacy, and a bunch of others. We just designed the new Top Gun Maverick UI in there, and… so, make a long story short. I mean, that design sensibility of grids, typography, organization, beauty, that goes to my closets, that goes to my organization, the way I… Everything is a design. So it’s not that I do a ton of design work anymore, but I’m a designer. And I’ll always be a designer forever. Because it’s the way I live.

And a director is mostly how I make my work now. I’m 43 years old. I’m not as inspired anymore to just like, go into Illustrator and smash out a fifty layer gridded out UI, or like, go into Photoshop and do a fifty layer composite of something. You know, so I direct. I direct designers, I direct animators, I direct, you know, cinematographers, editors, and so that’s how I do my work now. That’s my profession. I’m a professional director. And creative director, design director, live action director, experiential interactive director. I talk a lot, and I inspire people, and I run teams. And, you know, when you’re a director, it’s a vibe.

It’s a collaborative energy where you’ve gotta get people to buy in to your idea, and the way you want to execute it. And you have to just inspire people to rally around you to make something. And all of us want to make something. It makes us happy. You know, so many people, as long as you have something inspiring for them to do, they’ll get on board. And make something. And you have to let people have a say, and a voice… you can’t dominate a collaboration. You have to just assist it, and cultivate it, and nurture it.

I’m a chill dude. I don’t have any sort of ego, I’m a lover. I’m a collaborator, and a stoner. And stoners are kind of chill. You know, we’re chill. And there’s not a ton of anxiety in stoners. Or psychedelic warriors. There’s not… there’s not a lot of anxiety, and so I bring a very calming, but collaborative, energetic… so, I think that answers your question.

Liam: Yeah.

GMUNK: ’Cause I am a director, and then the Galactic Crusader, the psychedelic warrior, that kind of informs my approach.

Liam: Do you think that your relationship to the work is different being a director versus opening up Illustrator and just doing it yourself?

GMUNK: Yes. It does, because it’s not as personal. Because you didn’t make it with your hands, but I realize that. And so, as I’ve been getting older, I’ve looked at it. You know, like I said, I come from a design background, so I’m look… I always like, assess and look. And study. And so I’m really big on having a website that spans all of my work from the beginning. And I look at the grid. And I say, okay, what do I need to do now? What do I do to update the grid? I live by the grid. I’m obsessed with the grid. And so my personal work is hands on. My photography is hands on, I’m grading all the photos, I’m going into Photoshop and retouching all that shit. And then I make a lot of psychedelic art. So that’s all done in Maya, you know, these are huge prints that are over four feet wide by four feet tall. They’re big. I do them in Maya so I can do the lensing and the camera. So I’m still making stuff. You know, and if a brand wants me to make one of those illustrations? All about it. You know, that’s great. But, you know, some hands on animation for something? I, I’ll source that shit. I’ll get… I have a whole crew of collaborators that I work with, and stuff.

And so I, I think that sometimes… a, as a director, you are, you know, writing the story or collaborating with the screenplay writer or, you know, other treatment writers. It is always the animus, that spark within you that kind of propagates the whole thing. It is yours in a way, but then you just build your team around you to make it with. So I have both. You know, the directorial work, I can’t do by myself. And to be honest, I’m just posting a new project on my website right now, and I’m looking at it, and I don’t like it. And it was a huge opportunity. And it was a good budget, and a great shoot with a great team.

About 85 percent of the work that I do, I’m not crazy about. And I only see the flaws, and I think about, you know… I really, really study it, and I make notes about what I could do better, what I would change in my approach. Because sometimes when you do work and you have to work fast, you just pick a direction and you go. All hands on deck, and you just go. And it’s fast, and happens in three weeks, a month. And usually that direction is picked within a couple days. And it’s just like, okay we’ve chosen, and we’re going down this path. All hands on deck, here we go. And sometimes in hindsight, you’re like, ‘I should have picked a different direction, I should have changed the edit. You know, I should have done this, I should have done that. And that happens a lot.

And my trajectory, my story, my creative story, isn’t ending now. It’s ending in 25 years. And hopefully in 25 years, my work is at a way higher level than it is now, and my work now is at a much higher level than it was ten years ago. But I’m always gonna be improving. I don’t think I’m going to plateau, and then go back down. It’s just an upward climb, and as long as I’m really hard on myself and really rough on the work, and never satisfied, I’ll get better.

And my friends are rough with me, too. Like, just relentless. Relentless in the feedback, and kind of, uh, questioning. And nobody’s defensive, we’re all just kind of able to take it. And it’s so important. ’Cause like, the second you start loving your work, and you’re just like, oh, I’ve done it. Like, what else can I do? This is it.

Liam: (laughs)

GMUNK: You, you’re finished. And then you plateau, and then you go back down. And it’s like, you can’t do that. And the more you do this, the longer you do it, the more humble you become. So many people who are young and start out and do something great… they’re like, ‘I’m the shit. I’m the hottest shit.’

Liam: (laughs)

GMUNK: And that’s trouble. And you’ll always find that like, the best people are always the most humble. Because they know where they’re going. Like, they know where the end game is, and they’re nowhere near where they wanna go.

Liam: Yeah. And, like we were discussing before the interview, there’s… there’s a certain level of discomfort in creative work that becomes productive and pushes you forward like that.

GMUNK: I think you need to be uncomfortable. Constantly. And that’s why, for me personally, I’m always throwing myself in new industries. Where I don’t know anything. You know, I know a little bit. And I collaborate with people, and I go in there and I don’t know shit. I just learn. And I’m totally uncomfortable. Like, intensely uncomfortable. But I don’t show it. You know, I go in there as confident as could be. You know, just faking it. Just completely faking it. And it’s wild that you could do that. But that’s the only way to get yourself an opportunity. Like, everything is about the opportunity. As long as you’re not over promising, that’s the key. You can’t overpromise, but you can kind of fake that you’re comfortable. So you stand as a leader, even if you’re uncomfortable. Kind of just fake that. And that’s okay. But you can’t promise the world and then default on the promises. That’s the strategy part. And, and that’s where the producers come in. That’s where the producers come in and say okay, you know, this is what we’re going to promise. This is how much it’s gonna cost.

I’m terrible at that shit. But I think once you’re comfortable, and you slow down, and you go through the motions of repetition, it’s bad. It’s over. Everything becomes repetitive, and you’re kind of doing the same things every day. Talking to the same people, doing the same shit, hiding behind meetings. Where your day is just meetings and phone calls, and you don’t do any work whatsoever. Until five or six o’clock, and that just becomes the reality. You need to change that shit. You know, you need to change that shit and get other people to handle your calls, and say look, I’m a creative, man. I’m not just like… ’cause if you just talk, and talk, and talk on calls, but you don’t actually put pen to paper and be creative, you’ll lose it. You’ll lose the spark.

So for me, like my lifestyle as a freelancer. Because you’re always uncomfortable. There’s no repetition whatsoever. Every day is different, you’re in different places doing different things, different locales, and there’s just constant stimulation from everywhere, but that makes you uncomfortable. And then, you know, as a freelancer, you’re able to collaborate with whomever you want as well. Whenever you want. There’s nobody managing your time but yourself, which is kind of how it needs to be. At least for me. I’ll freak out if someone else is managing my time. You know, like, time is literally one of your most valuable assets. And how you structure your time. And you can’t just like, flip a switch and, ‘I’m creative now!’ You know, it’s-

Liam: (laughs)

GMUNK: … by the time to be creative. I have two hours. Ready, set, go. You know, ideas happen in the most unexpected places. A lot of my ideas come in the shower. A lot of my ideas come on the treadmill, when I’m just drawing under a tree. Listening to music and walking outside. Rarely does an idea come from the computer. I’ll look at reference, and take something from it, but like, what it means, and what it’s trying to say, and like how it fits into the bigger picture… that all happens outside of the computer, man. That doesn’t, that doesn’t happen at my standing desk with my headphones on, you know? It has to happen in a dinner conversation. You know, drawing on a napkin. And on a hike. For some reason, water and me… like, the shower is always the spark, you know? Swimming. I love baths. Dunking in the bath and just like, thinking. Looking out the window, you know.

Liam: Shifting back to some of the specifics of your work, it seems like a lot of your work crosses these axes of different types of experiences. You have audio visual pieces that I think are mainly consumed on a screen, and speakers, and things like that. And you also have experiential pieces that involve, like, physical spaces. I’m interested in what each of those things uniquely affords to the viewer, or the visitor in terms of experience.

GMUNK: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think one of the most rewarding parts of doing creative work is watching people experience it. Because you’re always surprised. There’s always an unexpected reaction or engagement. And experiential work for me is kind of my favorite type of work right now, because of that. You do work for the television. You make a commercial on TV. Someone’s just going to sit on their fucking couch and not want to watch it. There’s no engagement. People want to skip the commercials. You know, fast forward on their DVR, you know? People watch something on YouTube on their computer with their headphones, they’re half there. They’re like, kinda not focused on it, there’s someone in their ear, their tea just arrived at the table, you know. It’s just like, there’s always shit going on. They’re in a studio, someone’s tapping their shoulder. There’s a dog sleeping at their feet, you know. There’s just never one hundred percent engagement.

What I love about, for instance, VR, is you put that headset on, you’re gone. There is nothing else that matters. There’s no phone, there’s nobody talking to you. You are in that world. That’s full immersion. I love that shit, right? And I wish that, you know, I really hope that VR finds its groove. Because it’s fucking cool. It’s just like, you take off the headset after you’ve done something, and you’re like, where did I just go? It’s very much like a psychedelic experience in a way. It’s like I’m smoking DMT or something. Just lose yourself. So experiential artwork like that, when there’s scale, and immersion, and storytelling within an environment where you don’t care about distractions. You’re just in it. Like immersive sculpture, that’s what we’re doing with the robot stuff, for instance. Like, with [inaudible 00:25:06] that’s like immersive sculpture. Where you go into a room, and there’s 15-foot tall robots swinging lights, and shadow, and material, and sound, and reflections. And the only thing you really wanna do is watch it and take pictures of it. The only two things you’re thinking about. It’s like, holy fuck this thing’s huge and loud. Is it gonna kill me? What are they doing? What is the meaning behind this? What are they communicating? How am I a part of it? Are they gonna kill me?


Liam: (laughs)

GMUNK: … that’s all you’re thinking about.

Liam: Just to be clear, are they going to kill me?

GMUNK: They’re not.

Liam: Yeah.

GMUNK: You know, they’re totally not interested in killing anybody. They’re interested in making beauty and sculpture, but owning a space, right? And Box, which was a projection mapping piece, it’s only purpose was to create illusions where you see that, and you’re like, ‘what the fuck is happening?’ Like, how is this happening? I don’t understand how this is happening. This is an illusion of depth. Where there is no depth. That’s why we’re calling it Box, ’cause it’s a flat screen, and all of a sudden it’s a box with all sorts of shit going on in, inside the box. And so it’s an illusion. And when you see an illusion, you are engaged. You’re immersed. And you’re immersed in that illusion. Trying to figure out how it happens. Like, you see a magic trick, same thing. It’s like, how the fuck did you do that? You have my attention.

And I saw a speech recently that was really interesting about engagement and attention. Where if something’s wrong… this dude gave a speech. His name’s Alex Cornell. And he basically gave a speech where he recorded a 45 minute video of him talking to himself. So it’s all cued up. And he’s conversing with himself about the concept of an idea. Like, the, you know, the inception of an idea. And he intentionally in this recording throws the time off a little bit, so you realize that there was a mistake. So you engage more, but he did it intentionally. Which is so fucking tight. Like, it’s so cool. And, and it worked. I was like, oh, Alex, you know, on that one part you were a little-

Liam: (laughs)

GMUNK: … you know, it took a little long to respond to yourself. And he’s like, ‘oh yeah, I did that intentionally.’ I was just like, man.

Liam: (laughs)

GMUNK: You know? Like, and but that’s the kind of thing, right? You, you find out what people pay attention to and you use it to your advantage to get people more engaged. So that’s what I love about experiential work. Is it takes you off the screen. And it, there could be screens. But it’s in a dynamic environment.

And so, I’ve been thinking long and hard, man, about how do I make a living as a creative? Like, what’s the best way to do this? Is it about making, a Maytag commercial for refrigerators with a funny guy and a dog on the floor? Is that my path? Working with ad agencies who are going to change everything and I’m gonna get pissed off? Or is it about creating experiences where people can go in and I know that there’s an engagement there? That there’s an appreciation and, and, an immersion, and a curiosity to the work that they can actually move through it.

You know, and, and the answer actually is both. You know, I do want to make the commercials because I love live action. I love filmmaking. I love telling stories. I love shooting, I love cameras, lensing. And that’s why I work in so many different disciplines, because I love a lot of different things. I love making psychedelic prints, because I feel like it’s personal. You know, I feel like it’s things that I see, or that I feel that I need to get out. And then I print ’em giant, you know. Large format printing. Hang ’em on a wall and let people look at ’em. And, and then they kind of have a piece of my mind. And it feels personal. And it feels like I have a personal connection with them. That’s experiential. Or the photography is personal because it’s a story. It’s a memory. Every photo that you take is a memory, because you remember exactly where you were, how you felt. Was the backpack heavy? Was it cold? Was I thirsty? What was the feeling like when I saw this vista in [inaudible 00:28:45] in Iceland, and like, how did that feel when I was shooting it? And what was I thinking about?

You know, it’s just… it’s such an experience for yourself. So, I don’t know. I, I don’t have the answer for like, what is the secret for being a successful creative? Other than just, you’ve gotta stay on it. You’ve gotta be kind of relentless in your pursuit. And what you’re pursuing is a lot of different things. It’s a lot of learning, it’s a lot of personal expression, it’s a lot of engaging with your audience. It’s a lot of satisfaction with improvement, with growth, and you have to pursue all of that all the time. You know, and if you stop pursuing that, and if you get comfortable, you’re gonna lose it. You’re gonna lose that fire. And then you’re not gonna succeed.

Liam: Yeah. I think that’s a really good note to close on.

GMUNK: Oh, wow, we’re done!

Liam: (laughs) Yeah.

GMUNK: Okay. Oh, that was good.

Liam: Thank you again for joining me.

GMUNK: Yeah. No problem.

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