Haroon Mirza

Exhibition Details





















o-o-o-o.co.uk is a project made in conjunction with Haroon Mirza's exhibition /o/o/o/o/ at the Lisson Gallery, London, 17th May - 29th June 2013: lissongallery.com

Tracks by Factory Floor and Jellyman were commissioned by the Vinyl Factory and have been released on vinyl: vfeditions.com

Future tracks will be considered for release on vinyl by the Vinyl Factory.

Website in collaboration with A Practice for Everyday Life and The Workers



. . . 1931, from a perspective of hyperacuity, opiate addiction and instability, a torrid description of a Balinese gamelan ensemble (later published in The Theatre and its Double), Antonin Artaud describing a coexistent rhythmic tension of two polyphonic worlds, a “booming, pounding musical rhythm” counterbalancing a “sustained hesitating fragile music which seems to grind the most precious metals, where springs of water bubble up as in a state of nature, where columns of insects march through the plants, where the sound of light itself appears to have been picked up, where the sounds of deep solitudes seem distilled into crystal swarms.”

Through his first encounter with gamelan (the Dutch pavilion within the human zoo of the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931), Artaud was sensing what Dutch ethnomusicologist and Javanese music specialist Jaap Kunst called the “colotomic structure of a composition”, the interpunctuation by which the music is subdivided into nested cycles. A deep gong is struck, its vibrations spreading like the ripples of an earth tremor; faster cycles of clashing, vibrant sonorities move in and through each other in shorter cycles, each one reminiscent of some natural phenomenon – insects, water, light and crystals, as Artaud perceived them – and then the deep gong returns with the finality of night falling, the promise of dawn. To comprehend this complexity we hear it as a form of auditory architecture, though not architecture as hard surfaces and impenetrable blocks but a complex invisible mapping of place through reflections and presences, mobile densities and lines, pressures and absences, manipulations of time.

. . . 1964, Bernard Rudofsky proposing the concept of vernacular architecture in a NYC MOMA exhibition called Architecture Without Architects. In his words, this was architecture without pedigree, an untutored way of creating shelter that brought together the necessities of shelter with meaningful signs and symbols. Writing in 1975 (in the introduction to Shelter, Sign and Symbol), blues scholar and architect Paul Oliver identified a projection onto human shelter of “symbolic designations which relate the hut and the compound to the states of the observable universe of natural phenomena and his projection, through myth and religion, of his conceptions of the non-observable, non-material world of his belief.” Among Oliver’s examples are the ornately decorated trucks of Pakistan, the long-distance web of communications and supply obliging drivers to use the cab and its entire structure as a mobile shelter, “richly embellished with symbols from various sources”, many of them adapted from the high art of Islam but “reinterpreted in a genuinely original folk expression.”

. . . 1996, Lahore, Pakistan: I stood with my daughter in one corner of the Badshahi Mosque, both of us facing inwards; producer Michael Brook standing facing in to a distant corner and whispering to her. Spooked by the clarity of his voice, transmitted as if by magic in a direct if non-observable line around the walls, she refused to answer.

Through listening we encounter new manifestations of time, new ways to understand space, yet we have no soundhouses such as those found in Sir Francis Bacon’s utopian isle of Bensalem, the New Atlantis, no 21st century vernacular architecture of sound or listening? The anechoic chamber, the recording studio and concert hall, the cave, church, chapel, temple, mosque, library, archive or art gallery - none of these anachronistic environments can be said to fall within the category of vernacular shelter nor even dedicated listening space yet as interior environments in which sound acts as a focusing agent on the body they testify to the significance of listening in human culture. To speak is to break. Interiors consecrate some idealisation of noise or silence, or they are barriers to sound: silencehouses, such as the coiled earth bag and plaster Superadobe domes designed by Julian Faulkner as temporary shelter for refugees and victims of natural disasters. These domes are now used in school playgrounds lying under the flight path of incoming flights at Heathrow airport, capable of reducing decibel level, withstanding tremors and vortices.

Seen from the air, they could be imagined as ant hills. “Burrowing, cocoon-making, nesting, spinning, weaving, fabricating shelter from mud and earth, twigs and straw,” wrote Paul Oliver, “man must have witnessed in animals the reflection of his own need for protection from the elements and other creatures.” According to the curators of the British Museum’s Ice Age Art exhibition, there was a recurrent theme of destruction in the earliest examples of art found in caves. Breakage is a sacrificial act of valuation. An extraordinary object would be fashioned with great application and skill, then smashed as if the dedication to time gave life in order to take it away. Some animal representations were placed in a fire while wet, causing them to explode. The curators speculate that this action was a form of performance art, a spectacle of light and sound (the role of sound is my speculation, since art curators have only recently begun to acknowledge audio culture) for unknown purposes.

Did music, a music also derived from the dramatic and socially cohesive potentialities of interior resonance, acoustic reflections, animal vocalisation and environmental sound, precede language? What would it mean to observe an apparently silent creature, the ant, perpetually in synchronised movement within the functioning of a complex colony, to perceive the self-organising intricacy of pathways that sustain collective survival?

. . . 1985, for the notes to his vinyl release – Frogs 4 (recordings of frogs in Australia and Mexico) physicist and artist Felix Hess writing of the balance between order and randomness found in the calls of large colonies of frogs: “Unlike the sound patterns created by a multitude of tiny objects under the influence of wind or rain, the main rhythmic structures in a frog chorus result from interactions between the individual callers.”

Within all ecologies, many lines and fields proliferate and mix as cycles of interpunctuation, cycles per second (hertz), loops, temporal maps that are sufficiently mystifying to suggest that the structure of events is meaningful in its own right, as if time resonates at some deep level in all phenomena in order to give coherence to the world. In Bug Music, David Rothenberg writes of the North American prime-numbered cycles of cicadas, emerging at 17 and 13-year intervals at specific locations to sing en masse, mate, then die. He quotes entomologist H. A. Allard, who wrote in 1920 after hearing the overwhelming noise of 13-year Brood XIX fall silent in eastern Virginia: “It was almost a painful silence, and I could not but feel that I had lived to witness one of the great events of existence, comparable to the occurrence of a notable eclipse or the visitation of a great comet.”

Magicicada, as the genus of periodical cicadas are known, make three basic sounds, described in mnemonic terms that recall electronic music, the clicks and pops of minimal techno or sonified light and electricity: Phaaaaaarraooooooh!; Tshtke-EHHHHH-ou!; mch mch mCH mCH mCH Ch ch ch ch!. Listen to early examples of American electronic composition such as Night Music (1960) by Richard Maxfield and Alien Bog (1967) by Pauline Oliveros; explicit in both works is the strange convergence of an apparently synthetic process of electronic tone modulation – heterodyning, filtering and tape delay - with the alien, unknowable audiosphere of American natural life. “Night Music is so named,” wrote Richard Maxfield, “because, after having made material for an electronic composition [using material derived from the interaction of an oscilloscope and a tape recorder, mixing the supersonic bias of the tape recorder with a supersonic sawtooth waveform from the oscilloscope] I noticed that the electronically generated sounds I had produced were identical in feeling to those made by birds and insects on summer nights in Riverside and Central Parks in New York City.” Similarly, Pauline Oliveros absorbed the sound from the frog pond outside the studio window at Mills College in Oakland, California. “I loved the accompaniment as I worked on my pieces,” she wrote. “Though I never recorded the frogs I was of course influenced by their music.”

. . . 1961, Insect Sounds by P. T. Haskell, the author correcting and simplifying the Oxford Dictionary definition of stridulation – “make a shrill jarring sound by rubbing together hard parts of body (cicadas, grasshoppers, etc.)” – with his own definition: “any sound produced by an insect”. Ants are known to communicate by stridulation, rubbing the curved ridge of the petiole against the serrated edge of the gaster, or rear section to produce microsounds reminiscent (when highly amplified) of harsh noise electronics. In perpetual movement, the colony of workers inscribes pheromone trails over terrain, taking the shortest line and foraging around impassable obstacles (in some species overlaying the trails of other species so as to exploit the rival communication system without sharing their own), adding density to the chemical lines through the looping back and forth, nest to food, food to nest, nest to food.

. . . 2004, In Microsound, Curtis Roads quoting Edgard Varèse: “Form is a result – the result of a process.” In his book Music 109, Alvin Lucier discusses his pivotal work, I Am Sitting In a Room (1969) in the context of what he describes as a genre of work in which the process of the composition was the content of the work. “Imagine a room so many meters long,” he writes. “Now imagine a sound wave that fits into the room, which reflects off the wall in sync with itself. It will be louder (constructive interference). This is called a standing wave. If the wave doesn’t fit it will bounce back out of sync and dissipate its energy (destructive interference). This is a simplistic model of what happens in I Am Sitting In a Room. All the components of my speech that related to the physical dimensions of the room are reinforced; those that don’t, disappear.”

“In the Seventies many people were envious of my speech impediment,” Lucier writes in Music 109. Understandably, given the barriers to communication thrown up by a stutter, he is sceptical; I Am Sitting In a Room was conceived as a smoothing out of the irregularities of his speech. As he speaks the text that is both the explanation of the process and the musical composition itself, Lucier’s stutter becomes increasingly pronounced. He catches on two key words, “rhythm” – urr-r-r-rhythm – and “smooth” - s-ss-smooth”, as if involuntarily establishing internal rhythms within the macrorhythms that emerge as detail is overridden by resonance.

. . . 1949, Henri Michaux, First Impression, “the needle to watch out for again, the groove to watch while you play, to think it’s a piece when it so happens you don’t like pieces, but repetitions . . . not to decide really to make human music and especially not composer’s music, and especially not Western music. .”

The marking of colotomic structures such as those found in Javanese gamelan and Japanese gagaku is percussive, a striking, an identifiable instrument repeating for each cycle so that the unfoldings of polyphonic temporality are absorbed into the body as an accumulation not dissimilar to the cumulative and dissipative pheromone trail of ants to and from the nest. A similar specificity is found in the now established genre (out of Blaise Cendrars, Pierre Schaefer, John Cage, Grandmaster Flash, Raymond Gervais, Christian Marclay, Otomo Yoshihide and many others) of turntable music: knock, bump, scrape, click, scratch, pop (like Artaud’s “booming, pounding rhythm” and all his other fanciful interpretations of cyclical complexity, learned, let’s not forget, from the peculiarly detached yet ideological vantage of a European observing Asia as if gazing without compassion into evolution’s menagerie).

. . . 1929, Blaise Cendrars, Confessions of Dan Yack, “Mademoiselle . . . be very careful, this cylinder is cracked. I don’t want you to think it’s my voice that’s trembling, or that I have a speech impediment. It’s just that the cylinder is cracked. It slipped out of my hand. I dropped it. It’s split from end to end. Be very careful . . . I am sending you this cracked cylinder because it is the most complete. From every point of view.” Insectiverous, a mechanism, these stridulating loops of the Technics SL1200MK2, the broken dance produced by a stylus inscribing into etched, obstructed, impassable terrain, and ‘music’, if that’s what it is, is somehow a by-product, the result of a process whereby the behaviour of multiple tone arms confronted with varying obstacles is heard as intentionality due to the consistent length of their short cycles of rotation and the brain’s compulsion to recognise pattern, to smooth out irregularities.

. . . 2001, Felix Hess: “What I was interested in is the space aspect of the sounds, not the way the sound is going in time, but mostly how it goes in space, the very three-dimensionality.” Yet what we hear, listening in the dark to a multitude of frog voices, or to a multiplicity of sonic reflections within a room of non-parallel surfaces, is time, vibrations travelling at varying rates and periodicities, their staggered moments of arrival at the listening organ drawing invisible maps in air that are cycles nested, an intangible vernacular architecture.



Sound allows us to build up an image of the space we find ourselves in. If we close our eyes we can begin to hear the space; the hardness of the materials, the scale and height of the volume; the location – whether we are in a city or the country. Sound allows us to feel whether we are in an empty or a populated space. Through our ears alone we can gauge to a surprisingly fine degree all these things. The shape of the ear itself has evolved to allow us to detect where in three dimensional space a sound is coming from, whether it is above or below us as well as which side it is coming from and recent research suggests that hearing was a far more important sense for our early ancestors than it is for us today, constantly listening for signs of danger.

Yet at some time, perhaps around half a millennium ago, we seem to have shifted our focus from our ears to our eyes. The invention of writing, it appears, might have been the catalyst for this extraordinary switch from the dominance of one organ to another. Our traditions had been oral. There were the stories, myths and legends related and relayed from one generation to another. There was poetry and music, epic songs and sagas, entire cultures passed down through oral traditions. But once those traditions began to be codified into text, it all began to fall away. The Finnish architect and critic Juhani Palasmaa has brilliantly documented this move towards the privileging of the eye above the other senses in his book ‘The Eyes of the Skin’. Contemporary architecture, he says, is all about the ‘look’, an appearance that will reproduce well in photos. He posits the more multi-sensory response to architecture rooted in older traditions.

For the Roman Vitruvius, whose treatise survived to become the most important primer for architects during the Renaissance and beyond, architects should be encouraged to study music as it was in its harmonies and intervals that perfection could be found. The cosmos, it was thought, played its own soundtrack, the ‘music of the spheres’, from which heavenly harmony could be divined. Man, as a reflection of God, had his own music, the music of a less heavenly body driven by the rhythm of the heart, an inaudible set of internal sounds which govern everyday life from inside.

Music was a gift from the gods and it gave a clue to the perfection of certain proportions (whether inscribed in the human body or in the walls and plan of a building) derived from chords and scales. Yet by the Renaissance artists were depicting tableaux derived from that same Vitruvian language being surveyed by figures from whom cones of vision or dotted sight-lines emanated. Lines were projected from the eye as if vision was a projection of the human sensibility onto a constructed landscape. This is the opposite of how hearing works. Sound waves are generated and picked up by the ear (as we now, of course, know the eyes work too), the head is a receiving chamber. Steen Eiler Rasmussen, the Danish architect and critic – and one of the finest writers on architecture there has ever been, wrote ‘Most people would probably say that architecture does not produce a sound, it cannot be heard. But neither does it radiate light yet it can be seen. We see the light it reflects and thereby gain an impression of form and material. In the same way we hear the sounds it reflects and they, too, give us an impression of form and material.’

The Swiss architect Peter Zumthor agrees ‘Listen! Interiors are like large instruments, collecting sound, amplifying it, transmitting it elsewhere’. There is a long tradition of buildings being seen as musical instruments. The curving, undulating and richly carved interiors of Baroque churches are often compared to the bodies of the violins and cellos which emerged at around the same time. Huge pipe organs rising to a mountainous peak imitate the forms of the cathedrals they sit. We might also remember that the remarkable structural invention that went into the construction of the great gothic cathedrals was not form making for its own sake as it might be today in the quest to create an icon to differentiate a city but rather a simulation of a vision of heaven, a trailer for the main attraction. Its aural atmosphere too, the reverberant, echoing soundscape of stone and glass was as much part of that idea as was its visual identity and the richness of its carvings. Chester Cathedral’s Shrine to St Werburgh shows us something else about sound, creating a sound box through which worshippers poke their heads. Their prayers, said aloud, or even whispered, are amplified inside the box - which also has the effect of shutting all other sounds out. It is an extraordinary moment, a gothic microphone straight through to the speakers of heaven and a place where the sound of successive prayers seems to be stored in the stone.

‘Silence itself, in a place of worship, has its music.’ Wrote Henri Lefebvre in ‘The Production of Space’. ‘In cloister or cathedral, space is measured by the ear: the sounds, voices and singing reverberate in an interplay analogous to that between the most basic sounds and tones; analogous also to the interplay set up when a reading voice breathes new life into a written text. Architectural volumes ensure a correlation between the rhythms that they entertain (gaits, ritual gestures, processions, parades, etc.) and their musical resonance. It is in this way, and at this level, in the non-visible, that bodies find one another.’

If sound was once integral to the conception of space it was also pivotal in the everyday life of the city. Now, the sound of the city might appear as noise but that noise locates the flâneur who has time to listen. Whether it is the sirens, the hawkers’ cries, the trams or trains or the particular sounds created by the scale of the buildings, each city, and even each urban quarter or block within that city has its own sonic identity through which we see it through our ears. This sonic signature was once far more pronounced. Can we imagine the noise of a horse cart clattering over cobblestones, or even the sounds of steeled heels from a couple of generations ago so different from the soft shoe shuffle of our current streets?

Once the limits of territory were defined by sound, far more than we, with our iPod headphones jammed in our ears and our phones held to our heads can imagine. A cockney, a real Londoner, was defined as one who was born within earshot of the Bow bells. The Town crier, the chants of an Imam, the hawker, the organ grinder and the itinerant musician created a city of sound, an intranet of local sound in which the noise of humanity was defined against the (relative) quiet of rural existence.

But just as these noises were a celebration of the activity inherent in urbanity, they create stress as the mind attempts to untangle the threads of sound and privilege those that might be important from those that are mere background noise.
Noise pollution is capable of generating intense annoyance. Think of the drip-drip of a tap when you’re trying to sleep, the sounds of vigorous intimacy in the next hotel room or the attention-seeking whining of a car alarm. Francis Ford Coppola’s intense film ‘The Conversation’ sees its anti-social protagonist driven almost insane by his attempts to isolate out tantalising snippets of a bugged conversation which seems to indicate a conspiracy. The process, the forensic sound engineering, strips layers back to reveal phrases but it also illustrates quite how much noise there is in the city. Once amplified, the city becomes an intensely alienating place, a conspiracy not of silence but of noise. The descent into obsession and a private hell of noise also mirrors the use of sound as torture. In ‘The Ipcress File’ just as in ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, a noxious soundtrack accompanies psychedelic images to induce a programmed response and these films in turn find their horrible real echoes in the revelation that US forces in Iraq used a loop of Barney the Dinosaur or thrash metal played on a loop at at ear-bleeding volume to torture prisoners. Almost as sinister has been the recent use of sound to deter the presence of children or teenagers from hanging around and congregating in public places. High-pitched whines, Muzak or even classical music have been used to create an unpleasant aural landscape for younger people who can hear sounds in the higher registers which are inaudible to older generations. It is an extreme anti-democratic expression of a city being targeted at older, wealthier citizens rather than younger people who have less money with which to consume and are therefore unwelcome, a taking apart of the right to the city. The noise of alienation is its own perfect metaphor.

Back in Hollywood, Mike Nichols’ ‘The Graduate’ also used sound as a symbol of youthful alienation, notably in the magnificent scene in which Dustin Hoffmann’s character immerses himself in the pool before an audience gathered to witness his birthday present – a wetsuit. The idiocy and inanity of the outside world is momentarily shut out, as conversation disappears. That disappearance of outside noise is the cipher for the alienation of a generation from their parents’ affluent existential emptiness.

David Lynch used sound to even greater effect as the unsettling score of the city. Whether in ‘The Elephant Man’ or the deeply disturbing, nightmarish darkness of ‘Eraserhead’, city scenes are accompanied by a grating industrial soundscape of mysterious clanking and hissing, a steampunk soundtrack which indicates aural disease and moral decay. Architects too have been intrigued by sound and have experimented with it, the most notable modernist example having been Le Corbusier’s collaboration with Iannis Xenakis at the 1958 Brussels Expo Philips Pavilion.

Artists too have mined our sounding surroundings to map the city. There is the general, anti-art anti-aesthetic noise which emerged from Dada and Fluxus but more particularly there was David Byrne (formerly of Talking Heads) who created a remarkable installation when he turned London’s Roundhouse, a former railway turntable building, into a musical instrument, allowing an audience to literally ‘play’ the building through a series of hammers which beat steel beams and so on. I’m also thinking of Francis Alÿs whose dérives around cities create intimate portraits of the streets and their particularities. Wandering around London he used a stick to ‘play’ the iron railings and the rusticated walls of the streets around Regents Park to create a filmed soundscape which is at once delightfully and recognisably childish (who has not once done the same?) but also super-sophisticated in its transformation of the architectural specificities of a city into an instrument.

In a way, sound is the opposite of an art which privileges the eye. It is about filling a space with its presence and surrounding our body, entering into our heads physically as well as metaphorically. Recently our worlds have filled with noise intravenously injected into our ears, from MP3s and phones, Bluetooth and the inescapable background music of the café, the club and the space of consumption. It is possible that there may be a counterbalance to the ascendancy of vision but it is also unlikely. Rather what we are seeing is the build-up of background noise which has the effect rather of distracting than focussing our senses. Art, architecture and the careful use of sound to provoke and surprise may be the best hope we have of returning to our most fundamental sense the importance it once enjoyed and through which we once felt the world around us.



Haroon Mirza's work abounds in resonance. This is art that riffs on the roots of electronic music, linking back and forth between avant-garde composition, '90s raves, elemental percussion and the motor of it all, electricity itself.

Extracting the visual

In Mirza's hands, sound is like pigment or pixel. He extracts a visual aspect from the world of sound, and sends it back, repeating the effect in the opposite direction. He's a connector, an adaptor, moving between two worlds, reflecting aspects of each back at the other. His north London studio is a workshop and playground, where an old Juno synthesiser leans against a wall and where the floor is littered with tape, leads and tiny islands of work in progress. Soldering instruments are hung on the wall next to art books. His handmade records, which have been repurposed for this exhibition with gestural geometric strips of coloured tape, sit next to Bowie records and old house 12"s. It's a spacious collision between laboratory, fabrication lounge, recording studio and artwork in itself.

Mirza’s compositions are nominally simple. Different materials are placed on the vinyl which cause the needle to 'hear' them, just as they would if sound information had been cut into the grooves of a record. There is a red fibreglass circle in the middle, which the needle occasionally bumps into, disrupting the signal and creating new sound. There is no beginning and no end, which as Brian Eno observed about his 1970s ambient records, makes them sound as if they're omnipresent, and that the listener has just tuned in to a soundtrack that's already there, in the ether.

Link: Brian Eno 'Discreet Music'

Each rotation of the record is slightly, subtly different. It resembles minimal, granular techno; popping, and percussive. Mirza hints at raw sound, the electricity that underpins all music. Sounds which rarely get their own space, shine under Mirza's manipulation of both the machines and our focus.

Painting with an edit

Machines, or physical structures, are in the forefront of Mirza's work. Like John Cage messing around with kitchen appliances, Mirza is interested in the mechanistic gizzards, the hows and whys, seeing beauty in the functional parts of a system. Where Cage used the piano to make his point with 4'33”, Mirza used a turntable, a transistor and an energy-saving lightbulb and made a piece called "4" 33 RPM (2011). He intended the piece to operate simply as an advert for an exhibition at the Lisson Gallery, but now it sits on Soundcloud, made musical by its context.

Haroon Mirza "4" 33 RPM (2011) soundcloud.com/icalondon/haroon-mirza-4-33-rpm

For Mirza, the definition between sound and music is clear. His art is the making of the installations. The sound is the output, like the displacement or shift of air around a sculpture, or the molecular hum of paint decaying and slipping airborne from a canvas. He's an artist, therefore he makes art, rather than a musician making music. But by hearing, we see differently, and the sounds he sets up in the gallery are an essential part of the visual experience: an amplifier of the whole.

Perhaps we don't hear his doctored 12"s as music because we're seeing it in a gallery. If we came across it for sale on Boomkat or in a specialist store like Soho's Phonica, enclosed in a record sleeve with grey dissolved artwork featuring something that may or may not be a landscape, it would unquestionably pass as music.

M/M 'Ultrachrome' mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.bandcamp.com

In reality, Mirza uses sound editing like another artist might use paint, to make marks that represent and have a specific impact, or create a particular type or shape of interaction with the audience. "I'm not that interested in ready-made sound. I'm interested when there's some kind of intervention or interference, like the light bulb or LEDs interfering with other LEDs or plastic interfering with a needle on a record. Some kind of uncontrollable interference, something natural or phenomenological."

With his making and adapting Mirza echoes and sits across two quite different strands of innovative music culture. One is the world of the Jamaican soundsystem, the other the radical experiments of the BBC Radiophonic workshop. Both involved tinkering and adaptation and both found sweet spots between electronics, sound and music. Like Mirza, the people involved in these two apparently different areas did a lot of making, allowing their creations to become not just a vessel for sound, but an essential part of the sound: something that fundamentally changed the sound of sound.

Hold tight the rough ride

But what about Mirza's lifeworld musical affiliations? His interests and experiences are generationally and geographically typical. He's a product as much of the art school avant-garde as he is sweaty, outsized nightclubs where DJs Carl Cox and Sasha played house and techno to skinny bare-chested rave boys. He grew up listening to Detroit underground techno made by Jeff Mills and Mad Mike as well as London's homegrown litany of hybrids: hardcore, jungle and garage, and he's a long-time DJ who ran his own nights before and during art college. He still has a neat line in DJ sets where he mixes the sound of disrupted LED lights with transistor hum and if needs be, actual records too.

Jeff Mills 'The Bells' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9RVSNrH9hwU

Dillinja 'The Angels Fell' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ij2GVjuXrxM

This is the thing: Mirza experienced our generational, nocturnal rewiring of electronic music first-hand. When you go to a nightclub you're often there for five or six hours straight, and he understands the power of physical music, the way a finely-tuned soundsystem can vibrate the inside of your cheekbones, and can be felt, palm on sternum, in the most literal and physical way possible. He knows the impact of sound and with his work, he invites you to feel as much as he does to hear and see. It's not cranked up to speaker stack levels, but it's physical music, nonetheless, whether it's the buzz, hum and hiss of disrupted electrical circuits or the experience of being inside his specially-constructed reverb chamber as his reversioning of Alvin Lucier's 'I am sitting in a room' plays out and over.

And here again, 'playing' the dimmer switch of a box of LED lights he's built, he rubs up close to people we think of as musicians. There is certainly shared musical DNA with extreme Finnish duo Pansonic who began releasing records in the 1990s. Describing their sound as 'raw, like horse meat' they made brutalised and rudimentary electronic records which had a distinct sound, mostly because, like Mirza, they made all their own instruments.

Pansonic 'Untitled' (Sahko) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1f50AxqQiI

Strip away Mirza's electronic pattern-building and you'll find the original human beat: drums. His Muslim parents would throw parties for their friends, who would bring tabla, sitar and dohl to make music together. He absorbed the complex percussive patterns of Qawwali and classical Indian music. He's said in the past that his work reflects his relationship with this aspect and the complex relationship Islam has with music – some scholars claiming it haram, others noting Islam's long relationship with devotional music – but religious debate aside, it seems Mirza's art is about the most basic of human impulses: the need to create repetitive, percussive sounds that communicate and attract, although in his case he switched goatskin for disrupted electricity circuits.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan 'Mast Nazron Se Allah Bachaye' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ra99sRnFKsc

When was the last time you listened to a Stockhausen CD?

Listen to what Alvin Lucier says in the original of his 1969 piece 'I am sitting in a room'. He is teasing out what he describes as the 'natural resonant frequencies of the room, articulated by speech' by playing and re-recording his voice as it plays out of the cassette recorder, until all that is left is warm streaming tones, within which there is no discernible human voice at all.

Alvin Lucier I am sitting in a room (Part 1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCgicEWD1Nc

It's beautiful and unexpected, and a piece that Mirza has adapted for his installation ‘Sitting in a Room’. In his version, he takes Lucier's work and edits it, replaying and re-recording the output on digital machines within his reverb chamber (which sat upstairs in his studio until it was dismantled and rebuilt at Lisson for this show). It is all about a kind of reveal, or revelation: Mirza articulates, or extracts, the workings of furniture, machines and circuit-boards so that we can hear what they do. Invisible waves and compressions of air are rendered audible and contextual by the tiny, variable machinations of his installations.

In this endeavour to make overt the hidden, or to find the hidden harmonics of random sound, he joins the panoply of avant-garde composers from Steve Reich to Cornelius Cardew and the latter's beautifully rendered graphic scores which replaced notation with orbs and diagrams. Mirza says his interest in their work was primarily visual. "I was aware of people like Philip Glass and Stockhausen through art history. I didn't get to them through listening to music, and when I found them, I didn't listen to them. I looked at them."

Art galleries: sound spaces?

As we know, Mirza's work often includes some kind of sonic output, an aural thermometer, a sound 'reading' of the work. But recently there's a move away from installations that make sound to installations that are sound. His anechoic chamber (‘The National Apavilion of Then and Now’, 2011) at the 54th Venice Biennale put the viewer in a place where there was no echo, no interaction between the space and sound: a place that deadened rather than enlivened. In his new piece ‘Pavilion for a Optimisation’ 2013, the walls of the reverb chamber add essential colour and texture to his reworking of Alvin Lucier. It's the art equivalent of being in a nightclub where the room itself made beats and basslines, or an opera house where the walls were calibrated to sing.

Galleries themselves are changing, too, embracing previously anomalous musical worlds over and above the acceptable experimentalists (John Zorn or, say, artist, house DJ and transgender activist Terre Thaemlitz). Last year NY beat-maker DJ Spooky took on a year-long residency at the New York Metropolitan Museum Of Art. "The Met is like a huge record collection," he told the New York Times. "You have everything from Napoleon's sword to Thomas Edison's first cylinder recordings… I don't want [my response] to just be music. I want it to be a rigorous engagement with contemporary art."

And in the UK it's become normal for smart musicians and producers to do gallery takeovers. Last year Actress, Lapalux and Koreless played at the special event attached to the Yayoi Kusama exhibition and last month hip hop and UK bass outfit Stooki brought their sound and VJ aspects together with a Stooki V Stooki sound and vision clash as part of Tate's Hyperlink festival. Over the last few years, the space between populist gallery and underground music has been bridged, and who knows where this will lead.

Cold Nites 'How To Dress Well' (Koreless remix) soundcloud.com/koreless

Lapalux 'Moveoutofmyway' (ft ShadowBox) soundcloud.com/lapalux

You can't hack a CDJ

One more thing: there's a tension between the way Mirza adapts hardware or furniture, and the sound of the work. His mid-century sideboards, metal dustbins and boxy TVs sit in visual contrast to the timeless sound of disrupted electricity. This is a contrast most musicians never deal with. In music, style and sound are always linked. If you look mod, your music will sound mod. If you look street, you'll sound it. Very few people play with the difference between how something looks and how it sounds. There are, of course, exceptions: Throbbing Gristle masked the industrial synth assault of songs like Persuasion with artwork showing themselves freshly-washed and windswept amongst the cliff top heather of Beachy Head on their highly influential (and purposefully mistitled) album 20 Jazz Funk Greats. American house producer Osunlade wears a long thin bone through his nose, although in his case it's less purposefully creating tension and more workwear: he's a priest in the Yoruba Ifé faith.

At the end, though, there's a practical reason for Mirza's ongoing use of three-decade-old artefacts. Modern music equipment isn't physically hackable. If you mess around with the insides of a CDJ it simply thinks it’s broken and stops working, rather than adapting to the new parameters you've set.

"Technology has made it harder to do this stuff, although one day I'll hack a CDJ and work out what to do with it."

Interview with Haroon Mirza conducted in London, April 2013



Art used to have a function. Much medieval art was a central part of social activities conducted in churches or domestic homes. Many of the objects that are now encased in vitrines at museums were originally designed for liturgical rites and often created not as autonomous works but as part of a larger ensemble. Often, these ensembles invited an aesthetic response on the part of the viewer in order to communicate something about the divine and ineffable. The functionality of art, or rather the artist’s desire for art to be seen as having a function, would re-emerge with modernism in the twentieth-century albeit without a religious or spiritual purpose. Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova’s manifesto ‘Programme of the First Working Group of Constructivists’ stated: “In order to master the creation of practical structures in a really scientific and disciplined way the Constructivists have established three disciplines: Tectonics, Faktura and Construction.” Their fellow Russian artist El Lissitsky along with Ilya Ehrenberg wrote of the need of “freeing art from its role as ornament and decoration”. The posited relationship between art and functionality would veer wildly through the twentieth century from the position summed up in the widely-adopted phrase “form follows function” to the absolute social disengagement of the ‘High Modernism’ of the post-war New York School, which in its most celebrated moments (such as The Rothko Chapel) would reinstate the notion of an aesthetic response from an ideal viewer that invoked something bordering on the spiritual.

Haroon Mirza’s artworks are littered with functional objects; lamps, radios, amplifiers, speakers, wiring, multiplugs, steel bins, neon shop signs, telephones, personal CD players, synthesisers, television sets and lightbulbs. Like medieval objects, they tend to be used in combination to create larger ensembles. Yet what the function of these larger ensembles might be is not immediately clear. There is an authorial sensibility at play but the intentionality is harder to unpick. “I liked doing things with my hands,” is Mirza’s answer when asked why he became an artist. “It’s no different to making bread or writing a scientific thesis.” He talks about creating works as making “a discovery” but is quick to add that this discovery is “not a paradigm shift but more of a tiddly-wink shift.” It is not so much that functionality haunts Mirza’s work but more that the artist toys with the idea of something that was once functional. Making art was once functional, like making bread – Mirza playfully conjures up a past functionality without valorising it (like the Constructivists for example) or dismissing it in the pursuit of a higher truth (like the Abstract Expressionists). There is enough of a memory of function to turn his work into objects of discovery about the world, tiddly-wink shifts in the way we think about things.

Growing up, Mirza moved away from art despite realising he liked it. Instead he opted for Business Studies in the belief that studying art was not a suitable pursuit for individuals with his cultural background. Business Studies, however, did not last long and Mirza wound up at Winchester School of Art. A genteel town in the middle of Hampshire, Mirza’s recollection of Winchester is of “artists, old people and ducks.” Following his undergraduate degree Mirza went to Goldsmiths College, not to do Fine Art but an MA in Design Critical Practice and Theory. Finally, subsequently to Goldsmiths, Mirza completed an MA Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art & Design. Mirza’s rather tortuous route to art is worth noting as it seemed that he repeatedly attempted to follow something that seemed more useful or practical or would result in objects that would have a clear function. Yet Mirza’s own outlook was already at odds with this – he stated of his time studying design, “I wasn’t really interested in designing actual things… I was interested in prototyping and prototyping again.” Mirza had no interest in the finished object or in objects which could be mass-produced but instead in objects that had a certain uniqueness or singularity. His tutors’ reactions were unsurprising: “They hated it… at the end of the day they asked ‘what is the utility of this?” Mirza was making things that looked functional but had no ultimate use: “The methodology of design was important but I wasn’t interested in design.” Mirza has subsequently defended the functional, stating that the objects that make up his works “usually perform some kind of function. Nine out of ten times it is a completely functional thing” (quoted from an interview with Alex Logsdail) and yet he is talking about the individual elements that make up the works, not the actual works themselves. Instead these works, made up of ensembles of objects which are often mass-produced, have a particular singularity to them.

Mirza combines functional objects to make a seemingly functionless whole – the reverse of what the Constructivists were aiming to do. After studying design, Mirza has said that he worked out that he was “still an artist” which was the main reason to do an MA at Chelsea. Those two years confirmed something that was perhaps more dormant in previous work – an aesthetic. Or in Mirza’s blunt words, he was able to make works that “looked like art.” For Mirza’s ensembles of objects are aesthetic compositions, with carefully considered positioning and elegant balancing. The fact that many of the objects are now considered retro-modernist is significant, not because of nostalgia, but rather because these objects of modern life tend to embody the idea of function determining form. If that function is now no longer useful, where does form come from? How do these objects become something other than that which their original function demanded? If the Constructivists and other modernists wanted to demolish the barrier between art and life, integrating the former with the latter towards a socialist utopia (that never materialised), Mirza is doing precisely the opposite: taking modern objects out of the circuits of life in which they were embedded, and working them back into art: “I want to bring back the aura,” he states.

Walter Benjamin’s rather ambiguous take on aura in ‘Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ associated it with a sense of originality and authenticity: attributes which Benjamin in part argued would be eroded with the technological advancement of modernity. Of course in the digital era, the notion of mechanical reproduction itself seems quaint, and the medium that Benjamin talked of as destroying aura, film, has gained an aura of its own which is explored in the works of artists such as Tacita Dean. Mirza, in a way that is continuous with Dean, locates aura within the devices of mechanical reproduction, the analogue remnants of the twentieth century that are losing their functionality as the digital takes over. Mirza re-instates aura into a series of objects that were thought to be part of a way of life that would destroy the aura of artworks. There is a singularity in these poetic works that is at odds with the elements that make them up. The works seem nearer to the medieval ensembles than might first be thought. Yet they do not point towards the spiritual or invoke the mysteries of the divine. These are particularly secular works.

What then do these works point to? Whilst there is a certain revelling in technology on the cusp of redundancy, Mirza conducts his ingredients into ensembles that have their own internal logic and as they sit there, beeping and humming, they seem to have some sort of purpose that transcends what the original components were meant to do. Unifying much of his work is the simple fact that they meditate on or foreground the production of waves – either sound waves or light waves, and this is heightened by Mirza’s reference to wave forms and wave function in titles such as \|\|\|\| \|\|\ and --{}{}{} {}--{}{}{}{}--{}.

Mirza’s preoccupation with waves (it is worth remembering that as a student at Goldsmiths he produced photographs of seascapes – lots of waves) and waveforms is worth trying to unpack. It is a preoccupation that points to understanding the world beyond ideas of functionality and instead towards the most dysfunctional lines of scientific enquiry: quantum mechanics. This contentious area of study repeatedly returns to waves, waveforms and waveform theory researching the nature of the microscopic building blocks of the world. The shifts of sub-atomic particles might indeed hold the mysteries of the universe. The renowned scientist Richard Feynman’s view of this field is still largely subscribed to: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” What can be said is that quantum mechanics has lead to outlandish claims; animals can be both dead and alive, particles can be in two places simultaneously and the Heisenberg principle suggests that everything is uncertain. If anything goes against the rationality of the modern, this is it, which is probably why it annoys some scientists as much as religion used to. And yet many physicists now believe that if there is ever to be a Theory of Everything, the main hurdle is how to combine general relativity with quantum mechanics.

Mirza’s works do not illustrate quantum mechanics (aside from the preoccupations with waveforms), but perhaps we can understand them as objects made in the spirit of understanding the world in a new and different way, where say, the perception of sound is united with the perception of the visual, where modern notions of function give way to fabulous theories of multiple, simultaneous universes, where tiddly-wink shifts are more profound than paradigm shifts. Like those medieval ensembles that were assembled to try to understand and articulate God, Mirza’s ensembles might point towards a different, more dysfunctional and playful understanding of the universe. Perhaps in the future, thirtieth-century visitors to museums will point at his auratic objects, pause, and marvel at mankind’s endearing early attempts to understand the world.

All quotes by Haroon Mirza, unless otherwise marked, from an interview with author, March 2013



A turntablist's appreciation of the work of Haroon Mirza

First, two phono leads attach the turntables to the central mixer via red and black connectors. In turn, the loudspeakers too are connected umbilically by their spindly insulated copper stereo cables to the maternal amplifier or musical mothership, awaiting sonic lift-off. Both the amp and mixer – the pre-amplification middlemen – audibly pop when switched on, before emitting a satisfying, low-level hum, like the bass tone of some distant generator. Every male headphone, microphone or turntable input also buzzes briefly when inserted unceremoniously into its female socket or jack. Next, the two earth wires are attached to the mixing console with a violent bzzzzt, while emitting a miniscule, nerve-awakening shock to the fingertips.

The Technics SL-1200s light up red when manually clicked to ‘On’, while a single button depression causes each heavy circular platter – the so-called wheels of steel – to splutter almost instantaneously into 33 or 45 RPM. This rotational launch is accompanied by a high-pitched whine, as if a string quartet hidden inside the belly of the record player had just struck up a tiny chord. The stylus is attached to the arm with another abrupt jolt of noisy feedback, angering and rattling the speakers for an instant, before returning the system to its standby status – a barely-there background reading of ever-present electrical potency. Finally a plate of vinyl, either an LP or 7-inch, is satisfyingly slotted on, hole over pin, before the needle is dropped. The pre-emptive crackle and hiss of the disc’s blank intro grooves add to the panoply of subtly perceptible sounds to emerge from this simple process, all of which occurs before a single note or bar of music is even heard.

This simple vinyl-to-vinyl set-up will be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in DJ culture, indeed, as a practicing DJ himself, Haroon Mirza will have been through this ritual – of setting up a pair of decks, a mixer and an amp – dozens of times and is doubtless regarded by his friends and acquaintances as the go-to guy for any such phonographic queries or audiophile engineering. That’s because this modicum of expertise in attaching together various hi-fi separates is, in itself, something of an art. If one wire deviates from its true course or a grounding lead is misplaced, then the circuit will not function, just as the brain’s synapses and dendrites won’t function if not connected properly. The set-up is likely to produce nothing but static or else a deafening lack of aural inactivity and a dreaded silence.

Perhaps influenced by the preparatory routine described above, many of Mirza’s finished works as an artist involve a similar performative ceremony before they are presented in a gallery context – in other words, his sculptures, assemblages and installations need to be turned on, plugged in or miked up. Yet, as part of his artistic practice, Mirza often wilfully sets out to short-circuit the workings of a system, for example by attaching a transistor radio to the record player, as in ‘Automation is Dead’ (2011), which causes a discordant burst of fizzing feedback with each revolution of the turntable. He has also hooked up a portable CD player to a bucket of water to disrupt the sounds being played (‘Canon Remix’, 2006), providing an alternate, remixed soundtrack to the pre-recorded material. Rather than presenting himself as the sentient disc jockey in charge of proceedings, Mirza allows each piece to lurch into life as if of its own accord, like a music-making automaton (see ‘Regaining a Degree of Control’, 2010). Every click of a device coming on or off is important in the scheme of things; every movement combines to create a new composition. Lights, television sets, keyboards, projectors, lasers, dry ice and even other artists’ works have been introduced into these looping, interconnected sculptural installations to add visual and physical incidence to his pulsing, self-contained audio-scapes.

But, back to the humble turntables. Mirza has already created homages to one of the earliest exponents of putting two records together, namely the beatmatching and mixing pioneer, Francis Grasso, whose legendary New York club night Sanctuary lends its name to a 2009 work by Mirza. Grasso’s two-deck wizardry is further alluded to in earlier piece by Mirza, ‘Radio DJ (no.3)’ of 2006, which features recordings of two radio stations noisily layered over one another that suddenly, unexpectedly synchronise. As though by some sudden alignment of the stars, ‘Tour de France’ by German electro outfit Kraftwerk seamlessly blends into the German Baroque composition, ‘Canon’, by Pachabel, creating an otherworldly mash-up, equivalent to the confluence created by a DJ manipulating and bringing together two different tracks.

Other installations, such as ‘Paradise Loft’ (2009), ‘Detroit’ (2012) and ‘Acid Reign’ (2012) all directly or obliquely reference seminal clubs or categories of dance music, but there is also a fertile crossover between Mirza’s work and another innovative style of DJing that developed in New York in the mid-1970s – that of scratching or cutting. Nominally invented by a few Bronx DJs – Grand Wizard Theodore, Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash among them – it involved the repetition of samples or drum sections in the same kind of funk and soul records played by Grasso, only this time the music could be infinitely looped, then warped or interrupted by dragging the record back to create jarring new sounds.

This cut-and-paste technique (arguably achieved earlier in the audio splicing of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin) grew into hip-hop and rap music and then splintered into its own sub-genre of turntablism, which has aimed to present the skilled disc jockey as a musician in his own right (it even has its own transcription method, akin to musical notation www.ttmethod.com.

These DJs are serious instrumentalists, with their own underground hierarchies, battles, competitions, orchestras and history, not to mention numerous unique sounds, practices and routines.

Many of their dextrous wrist flicks and hand skills performed with vinyl are actually onomatopoeic techniques – called chirps, scribbles, flares, orbits, crabs, swipes, stabs, tears, phazers and fades in turntablist parlance – which take audiences on a journey of rhythmic, repetitive phrasing and constant flux, much like many of Mirza’s ebbing, flowing, jarring and jittering installations. You could say that Mirza’s aesthetic mirrors that of the sonic interruptions of turntablism.

His second show at Lisson Gallery, entitled ‘/o/o/o/o/’, includes another example of musical manipulation that is specific to turntablism. Mirza has long been doctoring records or fashioning his own vinyl substitutes, either by attaching stickers or labels to existing platters (as in the use of a humble Post-it note to loop a few tracks of a siren-like recording in ‘Birds of Pray’, 2010), or else by using plastic, Perspex or corrugated card to create his own handmade records (‘Evolution of a Revolution’, 2011). This is standard practice for battle DJs, turntablists and many other DJs, who regularly sticker over or tape up existing tracks to loop or ease location of a particular noise or beat. Many also press their own vinyl plates with scratch-ready sound effects, like a library of excerpts or samples. In Mirza’s new installation, ‘Sitting in a Room’ five such doctored disks spin in tandem to create a musical composition unobtainable without the aid of the other turntables, much as a turntablist might ‘juggle’ beats, a technique of breaking up existing rhythms to create entirely new combinations of bass thwomps, hi-hat kicks and clashing, doubling snares. The combination of multiple elements into a rehearsed performance – usually comprising sections of scratching, juggling patterns and perhaps some intricate word play – is called a routine or a set, terms that also chime with the looped, staged forms of Mirza’s jerry-rigged structures.

Another new work by Mirza is a reverberation chamber in which he made multiple recordings of the famous spoken-word performance, ‘I Am Sitting In A Room’, by minimalist composer, Alvin Lucier. In the 1969 original, Lucier repeats and re-records a short text that begins, “I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed.” This dense layering produces a startling effect, known as phasing, in which the repetition and overdubbing of an existing sound begins to degrade and warp the original, creating eerie, robotic tones. Mirza doubles this reverberation or staggering in his echo chamber, much as turntablists began to produce feedback loops and create new compositions through the use of a foot pedal to sample and replay their own recordings with additional strata of tracks and built-up effects. Hip hop DJs such as Radar, Z-Trip and Mixmaster Mike have long been using loop, delay and wa-wa pedals to enhance the scope of two turntables, but Mirza does not limit his media manipulation to noises or sound effects alone, often employing vocals (as with Lucier), video and other artists’ works as samples or interventions within his own works.

If the practice of art is generally less competitive than that of the world of hip hop, then the general principle of creating new forms from old is nevertheless matched by the desire to outdo one’s predecessors. Mirza’s practices across the fields of art and music both incorporate the creative, accretional impetus to experiment with new sounds, objects and combinations, but also, importantly, the will to dwell in the past and a resultant atmosphere of entropy and obsolescence. Turntablists in particular come in both these moulds, balancing the need to build with the need to destroy. Indeed, the very notion of touching records or disturbing turntables is anathema to their proper functioning; you normally just put an album or song on and leave it to play. Similarly, hip hop DJ names often reflect these contrary impulses: ranging from the positive monikers of Cut Creator, Cut Chemist and DJ Format to the rancorous nicknames of Terminator X, the Xecutioners, the Scratch Perverts and so on.

Mirza’s urge to take stereos, circuits, noises and art works apart stems from a dichotomous drive towards simultaneous originality and homage. Causing interference to the rotational pull of the norm and meddling with the status quo of the readymade are not only prerogatives of the artist/DJ, but signify ways to take a practice back to its essence, to figure out its internal workings. In their pre-performative state, his buzzing, humming machines represent a priori sounds and art objects. Within their subsequent electrical leaps of faith and transmission errors occur the flutters, echoes, frequency modulations and misfires that create the work’s friction and traction.

As it all began with two turntables and one DJ, let’s end it that way. As part of the exhibition, ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990’, which opened at the V&A in 2011, Grandmaster Flash’s original silver Technics-1200 were exhibited in a vitrine, presumably to honour the most influential musical instruments of the last two decades of the twentieth century as well as to symbolize that era’s discovery of sampling, collage and the deconstruction of cultural hierarchies. The catalogue entry on these seminal tools in hip hop’s birth quotes Jean Baudrillard’s 1976 treatise on ‘Symbolic Exchange and Death’: “The end of labour. The end of production. The end of political economy.” Baudrillard concluded that the cycle of cultural simulation was producing ‘simulacra’ or imitations without originals (‘Simulacra and Simulation’, 1981). The continuous quotation, collaging and decontextualisation of preceding examples therefore constitute no new forms of art, but merely a stream of never-ending reappraisals of past production. This ‘Matrix’-style notion that we are all somehow stuck in a looping groove on the same record was contained within these two inert record players planted one next to another, encased in stasis behind a Perspex frame. In Grandmaster Flash’s hands these turntables were once alive with possibilities and musical potential, but in the museum, devoid even of their enabling mixer and crossfader, let alone any electrical power, they became sad indictments of our cultural cul-de-sac. But, plug them in, put the right person behind them and they become primed – allowing us to skip between worlds, to step across the divide between reality and technological fantasy, to briefly stop the march of time, to prepare for the next coming, the opposing channel, the next song, the next beat.



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