Political Art Essays

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A standard way of relating politics to art assumes that art represents political issues in one way or another. But there is a much more interesting perspective: the politics of the field of art as a place of work. Simply look at what it does—not what it shows.

Amongst all other forms of art, fine art has been most closely linked to post-Fordist speculation, with bling, boom, and bust. Contemporary art is no unworldly discipline nestled away in some remote ivory tower. On the contrary, it is squarely placed in the neoliberal thick of things. We cannot dissociate the hype around contemporary art from the shock policies used to defibrillate slowing economies. Such hype embodies the affective dimension of global economies tied to ponzi schemes, credit addiction, and bygone bull markets. Contemporary art is a brand name without a brand, ready to be slapped onto almost anything, a quick face-lift touting the new creative imperative for places in need of an extreme makeover, the suspense of gambling combined with the stern pleasures of upper-class boarding school education, a licensed playground for a world confused and collapsed by dizzying deregulation. If contemporary art is the answer, the question is: How can capitalism be made more beautiful?

But contemporary art is not only about beauty. It is also about function. What is the function of art within disaster capitalism? Contemporary art feeds on the crumbs of a massive and widespread redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, conducted by means of an ongoing class struggle from above. It lends primordial accumulation a whiff of postconceptual razzmatazz. Additionally, its reach has grown much more decentralized—important hubs of art are no longer only located in the Western metropolis. Today, deconstructivist contemporary art museums pop up in any self-respecting autocracy. A country with human rights violations? Bring on the Gehry gallery!

The Global Guggenheim is a cultural refinery for a set of post-democratic oligarchies, as are the countless international biennials tasked with upgrading and reeducating the surplus population. Art thus facilitates the development of a new multipolar distribution of geopolitical power whose predatory economies are often fueled by internal oppression, class war from above, and radical shock and awe policies.

Contemporary art thus not only reflects, but actively intervenes in the transition towards a new post-Cold War world order. It is a major player in unevenly advancing semiocapitalism wherever T-Mobile plants its flag. It is involved in mining for raw materials for dual-core processors. It pollutes, gentrifies, and ravishes. It seduces and consumes, then suddenly walks off, breaking your heart. From the deserts of Mongolia to the high plains of Peru, contemporary art is everywhere. And when it is finally dragged into Gagosian dripping from head to toe with blood and dirt, it triggers off rounds and rounds of rapturous applause.


Frank Gehry wedding ring.

Why and for whom is contemporary art so attractive? One guess: the production of art presents a mirror image of post-democratic forms of hypercapitalism that look set to become the dominant political post-Cold War paradigm. It seems unpredictable, unaccountable, brilliant, mercurial, moody, guided by inspiration and genius. Just as any oligarch aspiring to dictatorship might want to see himself. The traditional conception of the artist’s role corresponds all too well with the self-image of wannabe autocrats, who see government potentially—and dangerously—as an art form. Post-democratic government is very much related to this erratic type of male-genius-artist behavior. It is opaque, corrupt, and completely unaccountable. Both models operate within male bonding structures that are as democratic as your local mafia chapter. Rule of law? Why don’t we just leave it to taste? Checks and balances? Cheques and balances! Good governance? Bad curating! You see why the contemporary oligarch loves contemporary art: it’s just what works for him.

Thus, traditional art production may be a role model for the nouveaux riches created by privatization, expropriation, and speculation. But the actual production of art is simultaneously a workshop for many of the nouveaux poor, trying their luck as jpeg virtuosos and conceptual impostors, as gallerinas and overdrive content providers. Because art also means work, more precisely strike work. It is produced as spectacle, on post-Fordist all-you-can-work conveyor belts. Strike or shock work is affective labor at insane speeds, enthusiastic, hyperactive, and deeply compromised.

Originally, strike workers were excess laborers in the early Soviet Union. The term is derived from the expression “udarny trud” for “superproductive, enthusiastic labor” (udar for “shock, strike, blow”). Now, transferred to present-day cultural factories, strike work relates to the sensual dimension of shock. Rather than painting, welding, and molding, artistic strike work consists of ripping, chatting, and posing. This accelerated form of artistic production creates punch and glitz, sensation and impact. Its historical origin as format for Stalinist model brigades brings an additional edge to the paradigm of hyperproductivity. Strike workers churn out feelings, perception, and distinction in all possible sizes and variations. Intensity or evacuation, sublime or crap, readymade or readymade reality—strike work supplies consumers with all they never knew they wanted.

Strike work feeds on exhaustion and tempo, on deadlines and curatorial bullshit, on small talk and fine print. It also thrives on accelerated exploitation. I’d guess that—apart from domestic and care work—art is the industry with the most unpaid labor around. It sustains itself on the time and energy of unpaid interns and self-exploiting actors on pretty much every level and in almost every function. Free labor and rampant exploitation are the invisible dark matter that keeps the cultural sector going.

Free-floating strike workers plus new (and old) elites and oligarchies equal the framework of the contemporary politics of art. While the latter manage the transition to post-democracy, the former image it. But what does this situation actually indicate? Nothing but the ways in which contemporary art is implicated in transforming global power patterns.

Contemporary art’s workforce consists largely of people who, despite working constantly, do not correspond to any traditional image of labor. They stubbornly resist settling into any entity recognizable enough to be identified as a class. While the easy way out would be to classify this constituency as multitude or crowd, it might be less romantic to ask whether they are not global lumpenfreelancers, deterritorialized and ideologically free-floating: a reserve army of imagination communicating via Google Translate.

Instead of shaping up as a new class, this fragile constituency may well consist—as Hannah Arendt once spitefully formulated—of the “refuse of all classes.” These dispossessed adventurers described by Arendt, the urban pimps and hoodlums ready to be hired as colonial mercenaries and exploiters, are faintly (and quite distortedly) mirrored in the brigades of creative strike workers propelled into the global sphere of circulation known today as the art world. If we acknowledge that current strike workers might inhabit similarly shifting grounds—the opaque disaster zones of shock capitalism—a decidedly un-heroic, conflicted, and ambivalent picture of artistic labor emerges.

We have to face up to the fact that there is no automatically available road to resistance and organization for artistic labor. That opportunism and competition are not a deviation of this form of labor but its inherent structure. That this workforce is not ever going to march in unison, except perhaps while dancing to a viral Lady Gaga imitation video. The international is over. Now let’s get on with the global.

Here is the bad news: political art routinely shies away from discussing all these matters. Addressing the intrinsic conditions of the art field, as well as the blatant corruption within it—think of bribes to get this or that large-scale biennial into one peripheral region or another—is a taboo even on the agenda of most artists who consider themselves political. Even though political art manages to represent so-called local situations from all over the globe, and routinely packages injustice and destitution, the conditions of its own production and display remain pretty much unexplored. One could even say that the politics of art are the blind spot of much contemporary political art.

Image found in a technology news website accompanying the following opening sentence "The multinational Joint Photographic Experts Group, responsible for the JPEG standard (...) has announced the next iteration of its format will be based on the format Microsoft HD Photo." see →.

Of course, institutional critique has traditionally been interested in similar issues. But today we need a quite extensive expansion of it. Because in contrast to the age of an institutional criticism, which focused on art institutions, or even the sphere of representation at large, art production (consumption, distribution, marketing, etc.) takes on a different and extended role within post-democratic globalization. One example, which is a quite absurd but also common phenomenon, is that radical art is nowadays very often sponsored by the most predatory banks or arms traders and completely embedded in rhetorics of city marketing, branding, and social engineering. For very obvious reasons, this condition is rarely explored within political art, which is in many cases content to offer exotic self-ethnicization, pithy gestures, and militant nostalgia.

I am certainly not arguing for a position of innocence. It is at best illusory, at worst just another selling point. Most of all it is very boring. But I do think that political artists could become more relevant if they were to confront these issues instead of safely parade as Stalinist realists, CNN situationists, or Jamie-Oliver-meets-probation-officer social engineers. It’s time to kick the hammer-and-sickle souvenir art into the dustbin. If politics is thought of as the Other, happening somewhere else, always belonging to disenfranchised communities in whose name no one can speak, we end up missing what makes art intrinsically political nowadays: its function as a place for labor, conflict, and…fun—a site of condensation of the contradictions of capital and of extremely entertaining and sometimes devastating misunderstandings between the global and the local.


Fashion production for Harper's Bazar, September 2009, titled Peggy Guggenheim's Venice.

The art field is a space of wild contradiction and phenomenal exploitation. It is a place of power mongering, speculation, financial engineering, and massive and crooked manipulation. But it is also a site of commonality, movement, energy, and desire. In its best iterations it is a terrific cosmopolitan arena populated by mobile shock workers, itinerant salesmen of self, tech whiz kids, budget tricksters, supersonic translators, PhD interns, and other digital vagrants and day laborers. It’s hard-wired, thin-skinned, plastic-fantastic. A potential commonplace where competition is ruthless and solidarity remains the only foreign expression. Peopled with charming scumbags, bully-kings, almost-beauty-queens. It’s HDMI, CMYK, LGBT. Pretentious, flirtatious, mesmerizing.

This mess is kept afloat by the sheer dynamism of loads and loads of hardworking women. A hive of affective labor under close scrutiny and controlled by capital, woven tightly into its multiple contradictions. All of this makes it relevant to contemporary reality. Art affects this reality precisely because it is entangled into all of its aspects. It’s messy, embedded, troubled, irresistible. We could try to understand its space as a political one instead of trying to represent a politics that is always happening elsewhere. Art is not outside politics, but politics resides within its production, its distribution, and its reception. If we take this on, we might surpass the plane of a politics of representation and embark on a politics that is there, in front of our eyes, ready to embrace.

×

This text is dedicated to the people who bear with me through digital hysteria, frequent flyer syndrome, and installation disasters. Thanks especially to Tirdad, Christoph, David, and Freya. Also Brian for the edit, as always.

Hito Steyerl is a filmmaker and writer.
She teaches New Media Art at University of Arts Berlin and has recently
participated in Documenta 12, Shanghai Biennial, and Rotterdam Film Festival.

© 2010 e-flux and the author

Tolerance toward that which is radically evil now appears as good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence or more affluence. The toleration of the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda…the impotent and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception in merchandizing, waste, and planned obsolescence are not distortions and aberrations, they are the essence of a system which fosters tolerance as a means for perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives.

—Herbert Marcuse, Repressive Tolerance, 1965

Reviewing current art, both locally and globally, it appears that much of it has or purports to have a political content. One reason for this focus is that technological advances encourage snatching digitized fragments from reality that document the persistent global nightmare of human inhumanity. This process thus duplicates in art the same nightmare we see every day on TV or the Internet. Very little of this work, whose apology is that it is “consciousness raising,” amounts to more than superficial agitprop, often executed in the same slick style as the publicity and propaganda it presumably criticizes.

Portrait of Barbara Rose. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

There is the argument that all art is political because, however abstract, it inevitably expresses the values of a given culture or social class. Before the 19th century, artists understood they were being paid to create propaganda for the church, the state, or powerful figures that wished their images embellished and their status confirmed. All that changed when artists began making works that were not commissioned, leaving them free to be critical of the ruling class, its bloody wars and oppressive social practices. The price for this freedom, however, was marginalization, poverty, and in the more extreme cases, exile or incarceration. This is not a price contemporary Western “political” art has to pay, however, because it can be seamlessly absorbed into the existing institutions, including museums, commercial galleries, and auction houses where the work often ends up being bought by the same speculative interests it supposedly criticizes.

This painless integration into the cultural status quo is, moreover, the implicit objective of leading M.F.A. programs, which rather than developing “old fashioned” manual skills, teach budding artists how to thrive within this system. Thus the Whitney Biennial is but a step up from the Whitney Studio Program. This progression dovetails neatly with the obscurantist line of theoretical free association that dominates the academy, where 85 percent of art history doctoral degrees are in contemporary art. In currently fashionable critical studies programs where Google has replaced Schlosser, the ephemeral is given permanent status. In the digital world of proliferating dissertations, quoting each other’s footnotes on “institutional critique” and “relational aesthetics” is a sure path to success.

The bad faith of those who participate in this happy accommodation is cloaked in the rhetoric of criticality, as if what is being taught and produced is in any way opposed to the dominant values of the culture that welcomes toothless conceptual distractions as proof of deep philosophical questioning. Artists in search of winning formulae find ways of bottling this rarified Duchampian air de Paris. These “discourses” and “practices” encourage a public that aspires to hipness to collect conceptual expressions whose iconography is empty rhetoric.

Today there is no shame on the part of artists pandering to and celebrating the base and uneducated taste of their public. At the Metropolitan Museum an exhibition of Warhol’s followers ends in a gallery exalting art as business. Naturally it features Jeff Koons, king of kitsch, who does not bother to deny his adulation of the basest stupidity, vulgar bad taste, and crass materialism. Koons accomplishes Warhol’s definition of success, summarized by Andy, as “he wants his cake and eat it, too.” Warhol ingeniously turned the factory assembly line his immigrant proletarian father slaved on into a factory for making art that appealed to narcissism and the cult of celebrity into which American culture has degenerated. A genuine revolutionary, Warhol aimed to destroy bourgeois culture, an objective he appears to have realized given what he spawned.

There is no question Warhol was a genius, fusing subversive content with the modernist aesthetics he parodied while proving he was entirely aware of them. He did not overtly protest but instead reflected the culture which idolized his glittering faux icons with a disturbing and still unresolved ambivalence that explains why he has been famous for more than 15 minutes. Warhol painted and courted death and destruction, risking not only the lives of the many suicides and deaths he provoked, but also his own as well. Proudly he showed off the nearly fatal wound he received from Valerie Solanas’s gunning him down. Ultimately he died as a result of uncaring hospital practices as careless and sloppy as his own off-register images.

Warhol paid a price for his provocations. What makes today’s political art different is that there is no price for subversion. Jeff Koons turns Warhol’s complex, ambivalent irony into unadulterated cynicism. He can live like his patrons because his monumental “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (a monkey) is nothing but a silly, obvious joke about Meissen court ceramics enlarged to heroic proportions. The son of a decorator and himself a former Wall Street commodities trader, Koons, as opposed to the myriad other kitsch purveyors like Richard Prince, is at least clever. His shiny bunnies and balloon dogs recall children’s party favors. (It’s an infantile frivolous society—get it?) Their mirrored surfaces appeal to the narcissism of the reflected viewer in a more direct way than Warhol’s once removed portraits. More to the point they confirm the status of those who collect them as a recognizable brand, known to be as expensive as a Rembrandt.

In the name of sophistication or tolerance or just boredom, kitsch and sensation are now not only tolerated but richly rewarded. Museums and collectors embrace images of the most political stupification and cultural decline. Today’s audience not only loves TV’s Dancing with the Stars, it is anesthetized by the endless stream of daily news images of the horror of massacres, the pain of extreme torture, and the barbaric treatment of humans by other humans. This process of increasing desensitization encourages ever more extreme illustrations of how moronic and desensitized this public has become.

Flashback to a time when artists closed their own shows in solidarity with antiwar and pro-labor protests with works so politically offensive that museums would not show them. We have come a long way since Hans Haacke’s “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971,” caused the cancellation of Haacke’s scheduled retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. The piece included 142 photographs and data sheets and six charts detailing the holdings of New York real-estate tycoons who were coincidentally Guggenheim trustees. This was too much for Thomas Messer, director of the museum, to tolerate. He wrote Haacke that museum policies “exclude active engagement towards social and political ends.’” Sherman Lee, director of the Cleveland Museum, had an equally succinct reply to conceptual artist Don Celender’s demand that he rid the museum of its priceless Asian artifacts: “Since all art is in the mind of the beholder, I am told,” Lee responded, “this obviously is the means I propose to use in expediting your proposal. I have mentally performed the proposal for Cleveland and despite the exhaustion attendant upon unaccustomed rigorous use of my imagination I can report that the mission has been accomplished.”

That was then, this is now. Today, real estate czar Aby Rosen, who specializes in evicting tenants (like me and Robert Wilson for example) in order to inflate rents on rent stabilized buildings or turn them into condos, now collects architecture—the new status symbol for the uber uber rich—like Mies van der Rohe’s Park Avenue Seagram Building as well as Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill’s iconic Lever House across the street. This gives him the right to impose on the passing public horrific pieces of mindless art on their set back plazas. Imposing coarse, uneducated private taste as official public art, the clever landlord certifies the market value of his collecting passion as well as demonstrates that nothing, no matter how juvenile or offensive, is intolerable where there is no inhibiting authority, a condition first described by George Trow in his still valid essay “Within the Context of No Context.”

There was a time when artists risked physical abuse and exile in an attempt to change the course of history. After Courbet joined the Commune in pulling down the Vendome column, he was forced to flee to Switzlerland. The newsreel footage of police beating a crippled Mark di Suvero at an antiwar protest in Chicago remains a sickening reminder of that dark era. In protest di Suvero erected a 100-foot high Peace Tower in Los Angeles on which other artists hung their works in solidarity. Ultimately di Suvero went into exile vowing not to return to the United States until the Vietnam war was over. To keep his word, he did not attend the funeral of his beloved father, instead creating the monumental steel sculpture “Mon Pere, Mon Pere” in his honor which could not be seen in the U.S. until the war ended.

During the race riots and overseas massacres of the late ’60s and early ’70s many American artists protested the barbarism of their culture. Some, like Ad Reinhardt, Don Judd, and Jack Youngerman lead marches or were jailed but separated their abstract art from their political activities. Others, whose actions are documented by Lucy Lippard in Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, the subject of the current Brooklyn Museum exhibition, devised strategies that for a time subverted the ability of the art world and its institutions to commodify art as a commercially traded object.

However, today subversion as a tactic no longer works as museums compete to do exhibitions of earthworks, installations, conceptual art, et. al. that seemed so radical at the time. Art can no longer be politically or culturally subversive because we live in a society of such absolute tolerance that the Mormon Church made no objection to the obscene and scatological satire of its practices in a tawdry Broadway musical. On the other hand, there is some contemporary art that uses metaphor rather than illustration that still manages to jolt. Mainly this work comes from societies in which there are or were real consequences for opposing the regime. One thinks of the installations of Ai Weiwei, who has suffered torture and arrest in China when he was detained, and of the armies of headless figures and bowed torsos of the Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz, which remind one of the oppressive tyrannies of totalitarian regimes.

Similarly, the poetry, economy, and beauty of the films of Shirin Neshat do not inoculate us against the medieval misogyny of the society that inspires them. Another example of art that surprises not by scandal but by stealth are the Tiffany style velvet draped vitrines of the Mexican artist Margolles, which house ornate gold jewelry shining with green glass resembling precious stones. One becomes ill on realizing they are set with fragments of the glass fractured in the drive-by shootings of the Mexican drug cartels. The jewelry resembles the heavy gold rings, chains, and bracelets with which the drug lords decorate themselves. The implicit analogy between the vulgarity of the nouveau-riche plutocrats with the murderous drug dealers adds yet another dimension of genuine political protest.

One cannot say that these simply illustrate what they protest. Rather they are subtle metaphors which have an aesthetic dimension lacking in the quickly assembled, superficial graphic illustrations purporting to be political protest. We have come a long way from Max Beckman’s great paintings of Christian metaphors for human suffering to the fabricated images of West Coast followers of Ed Kienholz like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley. They raise the question of whether it is enough to cast a dummy with the face of George Bush as a pig to move one on any deep level. Featured in museums and art fairs, these works are not forbidden as entartete kunst but immediately and painlessly absorbed into the art trade because they are harmless. They incite nothing other than comfortable familiarity with the notion that our times are piggy, ugly, and grotesque.

Puerile and obvious as their works may be, however, one cannot criticize these obviously sincere artists of bad faith. But there are artists like Santiago Sierra, who in the name of political protest become what they purportedly criticize. Sierra is hailed as a hero of the avant-garde—as if there were such a thing when the avant-garde has become the academy—for paying third world people to be demeaned and subjected to humiliation and degradation. Among the most heralded of his recent works is the mass serial sodomization of kneeling black victims by white overlords. Whether the action is real or simulated is immaterial since its shock value is easily neutralized by its assimilation into the context of an art exhibition.

This is not to say that contemporary art can have no valid political meaning. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Sierra’s manipulated pornography is Alighiero e Boetti’s collaboration with the Afghan weavers who produced the beautiful and complex tapestries and carpets exhibited in his recent MoMA retrospective. The Arabic phrases embroidered into their borders are in fact highly subversive to Western values but integrated as they are into the aesthetic texture of the works they are not simply slogans but expressions of a cultural identity opposed to them. As much as Santiago Sierra denies and obliterates the aesthetic dimension, Alighiero Boetti exalts it, incorporating a political theme within poetic imagery that reconnects the Western conception of a decorative style with its Islamic roots.

Boetti can appreciate craft and skill because he himself is a master craftsman and a highly skilled artist, as his fine and sensitive drawings, the surprise of the exhibition, demonstrate. It is significant that Boetti’s weavings suggest a practical purpose linking them to the arts of collective societies. They belong neither to the mural nor to the easel conventions of Western cultures. Their rejection of these forms may be interpreted as a subtle and covert political statement that does not annul the aesthetic in favor of facile commentary. Their content, which is more than superficial or illustrational iconography, is genuinely radical and transcendentally humanistic. Boetti’s respects opposing cultural traditions, as well as the time consuming human labor of art made not by industrial machines or reproductive technology but by human hands. This is not a fashionable statement in the short term in a media dominated culture of instant, superficial, sensationalistic communication. But it is far more likely to have long-term value and significance.

The Arabic words incorporated into the visual fabric slows down our perception as we attempt to decipher them. (It is to MoMA’s credit that the anti-Western inflammatory Arabic texts are translated in the wall labels.) There is a huge difference both in terms of the perception of and the meaning of these words from the instant familiar phrases of conceptual artworks, which give the public the satisfaction of “getting” the message as fast as they digest the advertising propaganda they satire.

The same is true of the difficult to read texts embedded in the works of Robert Morris, Glen Ligon, and Peter Sacks. In Lamentations, the last series of his Blind Time drawings, many of which have barely visible texts integrated into the smudged markings, Morris records the possible feelings of the victims of the Abu Ghraib tortures.

Likewise Glen Ligon’s Whitney retrospective incorporated texts that slow down visual perception. The content of Ligon’s sophisticated and elegant text-based paintings and photographs is the story of his life as a gay African-American. Their discrete black, white, and gray palette geometrically organized in minimal grids does not degenerate into facile propaganda.

Slavery and oppression is also the subtext of South African painter Peter Sacks, whose activity in the anti-apartheid movement brought him into close contact with the terrible treatment and subjugation of South Africa’s black majority. His new paintings now at Paul Rodgers/9W gallery in Chelsea resemble archeological excavations layered with buried texts of documents recording the slave trade over the years. Seen from a distance, the works appear to be monochromes with raised relief surfaces. Fragments of collage ask to be deciphered. Drawing us in closer, we example the texts. Gradually we understand they are documents recording the sale of human beings whose monetary value is determined by their capacity to do inhuman, back breaking labor.

More ambiguous are the scripts integrated into Anselm Kiefer’s monumental paintings, whose crumbling surfaces of straw, ash, and clay seem to be a metaphor for the decline of the West and its buildings, institutions, and libraries. Kiefer paints themes from German culture and history and including its blackest chapter, the Holocaust. Indeed the materials that he uses recall the colors and operations of the extermination camps. A series of paintings incorporates texts of the Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan who committed suicide after surviving the Holocaust. Because of his exaltation of German culture and history, Kiefer’s own attitudes toward them remain ambiguous perhaps because he is not a facile illustrator.

Despite their political involvement, these artists do not annihilate through facile sloganeering the aesthetic dimension that Marcuse ultimately held up as the only antidote to the absorption and neutralization of political protest in a culture of total tolerance lacking all moral values. Marcuse’s last texts conclude that the survival of art lies in its transcendence which incorporates lasting aesthetic values that are universal. Disillusioned with art as politics, Marcuse separated himself from his now much quoted Viennese colleagues. He suggested that the authentic artist may escape being penned in by the velvet ropes of the illusion of liberty through poetry and the aesthetic dimension. Art which aspires to this difficult, complex, and elusive level of achievement may thus elude the increasingly effective techniques of accommodation and neutralization employed to repress any genuinely dangerous dissent by the society of total tolerance.

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