Carlos Cruz-Diez and the Color of Broad Appeal

As I explain in a recent feature for Juanele, the Carlos Cruz-Diez retrospective at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (Malba) is one of the most engaging shows I’ve seen, period. It’ll be on view through March and if you come to BA you have no excuse not to check it out!

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

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The challenge facing curator Mari Carmen Ramírez could hardly have been more daunting — present the life’s work of a formally inventive and dramatically undervalued artist in a way that does justice to both his conceptual heft and his public-spirited drive to engage and transform his viewers. As tens of thousands of visitors to Malba’s new single-artist retrospective,  Carlos Cruz-Diez: El color en el espacio y en el tiempo (Color in Space in Time), have discovered, Ramírez was up to the task, delivering a show that is as instructive as it is accessible, and an awful lot of fun.

A household name in his native Venezuela, Cruz-Diez is far from unknown in the broader art world. His works form part of many of the most celebrated permanent collections on the planet. But as Ramírez notes in her essay, “Lo que está en juego es el color” (The Issue at Stake is Color), Cruz-Diez has never before received a solo exhibition in Latin America, the US, or Europe, and he’s been relegated to second-tier status in the critical literature. For an artist who has managed not only to pull color off the two-dimensional canvas but to bring it fully into the public sphere, Cruz-Diez has not received his due.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Perhaps this neglect can be attributed to Cruz-Diez’s insistence on swimming against the grain of contemporary art-critical expectations. Critics tend to call Cruz-Diez a “ kinetic artist,” a label which itself underscores the artist’s awkward relationship with the critical establishment. While it’s true that many of Cruz-Diez’s works rely on the viewer’s movement to make their point, the “kinetic” label suggests an artist who’s primarily interested in motion, when even five minutes with Cruz-Diez’s work makes it clear that interrogating movement is far from his top concern. At heart, Cruz-Diez is really a “color artist” — but for a generation of critics eager to move beyond the aesthetic transcendence-through-color of abstract expressionists like  Mark Rothko and  Morris Louis, an exhaustive exploration of color isn’t conceptually interesting, and a preoccupation with the viewer’s aesthetic experience probably seems passé. So Cruz-Diez is called “kinetic” — and by that standard, he isn’t very interesting at all.

This wider conceptual turn in art criticism has yielded many insights and encouraged plenty of interesting work, but if it can’t make room for an artist as provocative and broadly engaging as Cruz-Diez, it’s gone too far. To center art on conceptual concerns while deriding interest in aesthetic elevation is to deny all but the best-read and most historically aware viewers a way into the artistic experience and a reason to engage it beyond a superficial glance. It’s a choice, in other words, that leaves a lot of potential viewers behind, reinforcing the (largely but not always) unspoken conviction that the best contemporary art does not and should not have mass appeal.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Cruz-Diez, Ramírez’s retrospective reveals, made a very different choice. As the artist himself explains in one of the show’s excellent wall texts, color isn’t just something that spices up our world; it’s elemental to the way we experience it. Color happens — it makes other things happen — and Cruz-Diez wants to use his art as a prompt to make us all think about it. If this tangible, aesthetically-centered, far-from-elite project explains why El color en el espacio y en el tiempo is Cruz-Diez’s first real retrospective, it also explains why more than 56,000 people have seen the show in its first month, why so many of them linger on Malba’s top floor, and — most remarkably of all — why such a high percentage of the chatter one overhears up there is actually about the art.

Of course, Ramírez deserves a hunk of the credit as well. Ramírez heads the Latin American art department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the Cruz-Diez retrospective was on display for the first half of the year. Her accompanying text is a pleasure to read, but her curatorial skills are perhaps even more evident when she is at her most invisible. The top floor of the show features a largely chronological organization, beginning with Cruz-Diez’s early works before moving on to his fisicromías (“physichromies”), the reflective, additive, and subtractive works for which the artist is best known, and which command a large majority of the exhibition’s wall space. Smaller galleries at the far end of the top floor and downstairs highlight the artist’s public works and reproduce two of his immersive chromographic “environments.” And with the exception of an introductory note and a few isolated curatorial observations, the wall text accompanying the exhibition comes directly from the artist himself.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Allowing Cruz-Diez to speak for himself works well because his pieces are so engaging on their own terms. His first fisicromías are simple assemblages of horizontal wooden slats painted red, green, black, and white, some protruding from father than others to form shapes. Visitors following the exhibition watch the materials, shapes, colors, and effects slowly change, as wood is replaced by PVC, mirrors, and silkscreened aluminum. The immersive environments — one with three sub-rooms, each filled with a different color of filtered light, the other with overlapping, moving bands of color projected onto white walls — are testaments to the power of color to shape our perceptions of space and place. And the public art projects presented downstairs, shown only after the viewer has seen color projected, reflected, and transformed up close in dozens of ways, point to the vastness of Cruz-Diez’s ambition: to revalue color as a central dimension not only of the artistic experience, but of human perception, writ large.

Cruz-Diez’s works aren’t themselves ideal candidates for lengthy prose description. They’re better experienced than recounted; the top floor of Malba awaits. Sure, Cruz-Diez’s vision may not be as philosophically intricate as some of his contemporaries’, but what it lacks in esoteric complexity it more than makes up for in breadth and interactivity. Oh, and — did I mention? — in color.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Chancha via Circuito Remixes José Larralde

I’ve just been introduced to Chancha via Circuito, a producer from the conurbano named Pedro Canale who released his super-promising first album, Rio Arriba, about a year ago on ZZK Records. (It’s already been written up pretentiously on Pitchfork, if that’s your thing.) In case, like me, you’ve missed this guy, I’m posting two of my favorite tracks from the album–the first a remix of José Larralde’s Quimey Neuquén, the second a collaboration with duo Fauna that doubles as a primer on some of the cooler currents in contemporary Rioplatense Spanish. Rooted in the Andean sounds of Northern Argentine folk music and the cumbia beats that have emerged from Buenos Aires’ shantytowns into the mainstream, these tracks are rhythmic and understated and leave me just close enough to satisfied that I want to keep listening. Most of the album is fantastic; you can listen to the whole thing on Soundcloud.

The New York Times Doesn’t Much Like Cristina

It’s been clear for a good while now that Alexei Barrionuevo, the New York Times‘ Southern Cone bureau chief, isn’t a fan of newly reelected Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. His reporting on topics from Argentina’s approval of gay marriage to conflicts between the president and the country’s central bank tend to paint Cristina (as she’s universally known here) as a shameless self-promoter whose real achievements are merely incidental to her search for political advantage. Sure, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticize Cristina, but there’s also ample cause to celebrate her achievements — and Times readers consistently get just the first half of a very complicated story.

Even when set within this context of one-sided reporting, though, Barrionuevo’s article about Cristina’s resounding reelection this past Sunday stands out. Facing a divided opposition and bolstered by Latin America’s highest rate of economic growth, Cristina (whose husband, Néstor, died last November after serving his own presidential term from 2003-2007) won reelection with nearly 54% of the vote, more than three times the share earned by her closest competitor. It’s the widest margin of victory since the return of democracy in 1983, and while Cristina’s critics can choose to blame the results on the weakness of the opposition or on kirchnerismo‘s supposed pandering to the poor, few doubt that the election was free and fair, and a 37% margin would suggest that Cristina has done at least a few things right. Any piece of objective reporting, you’d think, ought at the very least to recognize some of these successes. Yet Barrionuevo’s article, Kirchner Achieves an Easy Victory in Argentina Presidential Election, resolutely does not. Instead, it expounds on the weaknesses of Cristina’s last term and attributes much of her victory to sympathy over Néstor’s death before concluding, in the voice of one of several experts cited in the piece, that a “political reckoning” is in the works. Cristina’s opponents themselves looked more generous in defeat.

Barrionuevo begins by recalling — correctly — that two years ago, Cristina’s re-election prospects looked dicey, the outlook dimmed by conflict with the powerful agricultural sector, increasing inflation, and a number of scandals. (Not mentioned is a temporary slowdown in economic growth.) But in the past two years — and especially since Néstor died — Cristina has experienced an exceptional turnaround, winning reelection by an historic margin. Barrionuevo attributes this revival largely to this year’s economic growth of 8%, so strong that it led voters to overlook “troubling signs” like high inflation and a heavy-handed approach to critics. So far, no real complaints.

But then Barrionuevo’s biases begin to reveal themselves in much more obvious ways. He devotes the bulk of the article to criticism of Cristina’s failings without any mention of her accomplishments in education, poverty reduction, or human rights, and he describes her in unnecessarily harsh terms. (When he says that “with her emotional speeches and designer suits, Mrs. Kirchner appealed to the masses,” one senses that Barrionuevo isn’t complimenting Cristina’s oratory or her fashion sense.)

Much more troubling is Barrionuevo’s refusal to quote any sources with even vaguely flattering things to say about Cristina. One analyst he cites notes that “this election seemed to defy the normal rules of politics,” presumably because of the government’s “corruption and cronyism.” While there is indeed plenty of evidence to warrant these two adjectives (which, for the record, describe just about every government in Argentine history), it seems to me that voters’ willingness to overlook corruption amid record economic growth — and at a time when salary increases are largely keeping pace with real inflation, subsidies have increased, poverty has declined dramatically, and social spending has more than tripled — follows rather than challenges “the normal rules.” Another condemns Argentina’s failure to embrace the sort of macroeconomic policies that favor foreign direct investment; while that’s a legitimate complaint — especially among Argentina’s business class and foreign corporations and governments–the decision to deprioritize long-held debts and, in turn, international investment stands at the heart of the economic “model” that Cristina has touted continuously throughout the campaign, and it evidently didn’t trouble most voters overmuch. A third argues that Argentina’s regional influence has decreased while Brazil’s has increased; I won’t argue with that one. A fourth, already mentioned above, argues that “when the money runs out” due to a predicted economic slowdown next year, “there will be a political reckoning.” This is likely true as well, though it’s worth noting that these predictions are based on probable international developments like lower commodity prices and reduced demand from China and Brazil — and blaming Cristina for these things is like blaming Obama for the European debt crisis.

What’s remarkable isn’t that Barrionuevo cites these sources; for the most part, I don’t even disagree with the points they raise. Instead, it amazes me that Barrionuevo doesn’t quote anyone willing to frame Cristina’s reelection in a more favorable light. There’s certainly no shortage of local political observers who recognize that Néstor and Cristina made life better for a lot of Argentines, and that this might have had something to do with this past Sunday’s results. Even Clarín, arch-enemy of kirchnerismo, was willing to credit decreased unemployment and increases in personal consumption as major factors in Cristina’s victory; the people “voted with their wallets,” one of the paper’s commentators announced. (If you’re curious about the government’s relationship to Clarín, check out this earlier post.)

What emerges from Barrionuevo’s slanted reporting is a narrative that goes something like this: In 2003, Néstor and Cristina set out to establish a political dynasty. Their combative political style and corruption nearly did them in back in 2008-09, but economic growth (driven by high commodity prices, not by an economic model that experts claimed would “collapse” before this year) managed to improve the couple’s political prospects. Then Néstor died, Cristina softened her image, and an ineffective opposition somehow failed to capitalize on the government’s many failings, enabling Cristina to ride a wave of sympathy and economic growth to victory last Sunday. Yet the successes of kirchnerismo ring hollow, and now it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.

Plenty of people, here and abroad, would agree with this take on the recent Argentine past; lots of others wouldn’t. Barrionuevo’s article would make for a fine op-ed or a piece of what the Times loves to call “news analysis.” But to present this as straight news reporting — it’s what I expect from Rupert Murdoch, not from the New York Times.

Penn Station: A New York Tragedy

Nada que ver, but just this evening I saw for the first time some striking pictures of New York City’s original Penn Station (above), a grand if imperfect 1910 entrance to the city, which was demolished in 1963 to make way for a charming little basketball arena (seen dressed up for Britney, below). The contrast is depressing enough to warrant a post.

I’d known for a while — as anyone who’s entered New York by train knows — that the cash-strapped Pennsylvania Railroad’s decision to tear down its original station and build Madison Square Garden was a massively bad idea. But looking through these before-and-after images (reproduced in the gallery below, thanks to Wikipedia), it’s hard not to feel deeply sad for the way we’ve so often resolved the conflict between narrow interests and great things.

Puma Comes to Town

(All photos by Andy Donohoe)

I’ve been quite busy these past few days, so I hadn’t had the chance to post a quick piece I wrote for Juanele about the Puma Urban Art Fest, a pretty-high-profile, Puma-sponsored festival held in Argentina’s most prestigious cultural space, the Centro Cultural Recoleta, the weekend before last. There was some decent art and a few good bands played, but the event, I think, was more marketing than substance. Anyway, here’s the post, a week late.

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It would have been hard not to be intimidated by the VIP factor of this past Friday’s Puma Urban Art Fest opening at Centro Cultural Recoleta. Though the conferences, roundtables, and screenings held Saturday and Sunday were all free and open to the public, Friday evening’s launch was pure veep. The press list was dominated by names like C5N and Pagina/12, the television cameras were rolling, and hell, even Charly Garcia dropped by.

Puma Urban Art Festival
Look, it’s me, looking!

I felt totally out of my league — that is, until I saw the art. Or more appropriately, until I found it. Because amid the cameras and the café tables, the bands and the $14 beers, it took some effort to get to the art itself. A few dozen works by local and international artists filled a gallery and a half at the rear of the giant cultural center. Some of these pieces — a photo of an office building all but exploded by Mark Dean Veca; a set of crisp, threatening geometric works by Joaquin Croxatto; and Clara Muslera’s tight Xul Solar-inspired sketches — were very good. But they took all of 10 minutes to see.

This isn’t to say that the festival failed to deliver on the cool front. In one of the galleries half-filled with art, DJs spun bass-heavy tunes as London-based D*Face painted live and skateboarders tried their luck on a custom-built ramp. On a nearby outdoor stage, more than 20 bands from Argentina and around the world kept Fest-goers entertained. Along the center’s main passageway, edgy magazines and spunky toy manufacturers manned display booths. Screenings of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop and some D*Face shorts shared the Centro’s newly restored auditorium with the presenters of a six-part, two-day conference on urban art.

Puma Urban Art Festival

I liked a bunch of this stuff and I have nothing but respect for the artists involved. But the slickness of the whole affair made its content feel like an afterthought, a sideshow to the “ooh-that’s-cool-and-irreverent” style of brand promotion to which urban art has become a golden ticket.

There’s nothing surprising or particularly disappointing about this dynamic — I understand how these things work; I knew what I was getting before I walked through the door. Still, though, when Puma comes to a town with as rich a street art scene as Buenos Aires’, touting their headline-grabbing urban art festival, shouldn’t they bring along more than a gallery and a half of art?

I guess it depends on whether they can get Charly Garcia or not.

A Battle for the Argentine Media

Página/12 — It used to be better.

I spend a lot of time talking with Argentines about politics, but it isn’t very often that I express my own thoughts. People here who care about politics, it happens, really care; in a country as politically polarized as Argentina, that makes for dangerous conversational territory. But I’m going to give it a go here on my blog; I hope any politically passionate Argentines who stumble upon it won’t hate me!

On the whole, I’m neither with nor against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government, a posture which seems to offend Kirchneristas and los anti-K (that’s “anti-kah”) equally. For many reasons–a bunch of which I’ll explain in subsequent posts–I tend to agree pretty strongly with Cristina (as she’s universally known here) on questions of economic redistribution and social inclusion, but I’m convinced that much of what she and her late husband and predecessor in office, Néstor, have done has only contributed to the country’s chronic and crippling institutional instability. And for a political science-ish history person like me, that’s a big problem.

Along with the government’s transparent doctoring of inflation rates, the Kirchners’ approach to dealing with the media may be the prime example of the damage currently being done to Argentina’s already weak institutions. Since 2009 in particular, the government has sought to consolidate its control over print and broadcast media. In October of that year, the Kirchners took advantage of the last few lame-duck weeks of their former Congressional majority to push through a controversial and far-ranging new media law. Although ongoing court challenges mean that it has yet to go into effect, if it survives, the law will dramatically reshape Argentina’s media spectrum. I agree with the government’s argument that the status quo is unworkable; the existing media law was enacted by the last military dictatorship, and it does far too little to combat monopolization. At present, in fact, the conservative News Corp-on-steroids Grupo Clarín controls an estimated 27% of the national market and an amazing 44% of the influential Buenos Aires one–a level of market penetration that surely gives Rupert Murdoch wet dreams.

But while such monopolization does pose a real danger, the 2009 media law pushes much too far in the opposite direction. Assuming it stands, it will divide the media spectrum into thirds, reserving one third for the private market, one third for the government, and one third for nonprofit organizations. Licenses will be allocated by a panel dominated by government appointees. Broadcasters will be required to set aside a certain percentage of time for government-sponsored programs. Group Clarín will need to rapidly sell off many of its properties, and it will be nearly impossible for any other private group to build a national media network. The government, in other words, will be the only entity capable of delivering a coherent multi-media message on the national level.

Proponents of the law (or at least the ones willing to admit that it may not be perfect) say that domination by a populist government is still better than domination by private corporations. This may be true, but recent government actions suggest that this vast aggregation of government power isn’t likely to be employed with a great deal of reserve. The Inter-American Press Association, which has recently ramped up its warnings about eroding press freedoms here, has just completed an investigative visit and will be releasing a final report within a week. Its report will surely document the government’s sponsorship of undisclosed “advocacy journalists,” its use of state advertising contracts to reward and punish, its targeted tax raids and legal actions against unfavorable sources, its attempts to intimidate opposition journalists, and its transparently political effort to secure direct control over the distribution of newsprint.

The upshot is a media environment polarized to the point of real civic harm. There’s no one reliably balanced news source in Argentina today; instead of analysis, outlets offer a limited range of predictable, almost automatic partisan responses. While La Nación, traditionally the newspaper of record, is more moderate than most, it still tilts rather obviously to the right, not just on its editorial page but in its news coverage, too. Clarín, which has the highest circulation figures in the country, is knee-jerk in its oposition to everything the government supports, and it’s terribly written. Página/12, once one of the hardest-hitting investigative papers in Latin America, has become something terrifyingly close to a government mouthpiece. And public television–which the government wants to begin broadcasting on monitors to be installed on city buses–feels like little more than propaganda. Unless you read everything, it’s tough to get a decently complete picture of what’s going on. And forget about a factually solid, critical take on current events; no major media outlet does the kind of legitimate, fair investigative work so important as a check on existing power structures, be they public or private. It’s striking, and very troubling.

(My own personal response to the balanced-media vacuum is to read both La Nación and Página/12 regularly, tempered by an occasional (and ever-painful) glance at Clarín.)

“But this sounds just like the US’s current ultra-partisan media environment,” you might be thinking. Not quite. Imagine that you wake up tomorrow to find that only Fox News, The New York Post, USA Today, and are reporting the news, and you’ll have a closer approximation of the current media climate here.

What does this all mean for Argentina? I’m hardly about to predict the imminent collapse of Argentina’s longest period of sustained democracy since 1930, but I do think that even the best government needs to be checked by something, and a big part of that something ought to be a vigorous, effective, independent media. Anything less is certain to compound rather than correct the polarization and weak institutions that–to my mind, at least–make for an unaccountable executive and do quite a bit to keep Argentina from realizing its full potential.

I’d love to hear your thoughts–post a comment if you have any!

Luis Camnitzer’s Memorial

Framed phone book pages from Camnitzer's Memorial

March 24th was Argentina’s Dia Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y Justicia (National Memorial Day for Truth and Justice), a holiday which takes place every year on the anniversary of the 1976 military coup that brought the “Dirty War” regime to power. The following Saturday, Buenos Aires’ Parque de la Memoria, a monumental park devoted to preserving the memory of the dictatorship’s “disappeared” victims, inaugurated its new exhibition space with Memorial, an installation by the German-born, Uruguayan-raised, New York-based artist Luis Camnitzer. Memorial sticks the names of the approximately 300 Uruguayans murdered by their own dictatorship of the same era back into the Montevideo phone book. I think the understated installation works very well as a complement to the much more traditionally monumental sculptures that dominate the park itself. (I’ve included photos of two of these below.)

Dennis Oppenheim, "Monumento al Escape"

I wrote about Camnitzer’s Memorial for Juanele; in fact, it was my first review for the site. I’ve copied the write-up below; you can also read and comment on the article on Juanele’s website.

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Great art raises more questions than it resolves. But that doesn’t mean it can’t answer one every once in a while. Luis Camnitzer knows this. So when the curator of Buenos Aires’ Parque de la Memoria asks, “Can the pages of a phone book become a place of memory,” Camnitzer doesn’t just reflect on the question. He answers it.

Camnitzer’s Memorial, on display in Parque de la Memoria’s new Sala PAyS, transforms the Montevideo phone book into a commemorative locus by re-inserting into its alphabetized pages the names of Uruguayans forcibly disappeared during the country’s military dictatorship. Human rights groups estimate that approximately 300 Uruguayans were disappeared by the regime in their own country over 13 years of military rule (1973-85). Cooperating closely with Argentina’s own dictatorship, the Uruguayan military also arranged for the kidnapping and execution of an unknown number of political exiles living across the   Rio de la Plata in Argentina.

William Tucker, "Victoria"

It is a difficult subject close to Camnitzer’s heart. Although the German-born Uruguayan citizen has spent most of his career in the United States as a professor at the State University of New York, much of his best work has focused on the legacies of Southern Cone dictatorships and the manner in which the devastation they wrought has been remembered, or obscured. Even his more conceptual work, Camnitzer has said, is political: “In the sense of wanting to change society.”

The concept art that Camnitzer has contributed to the permanent collections of venerated institutions like MOMA and the Met has earned him a reputation as an “artist’s artist,” a thinker who uses the conventions of art history to critique modern artistic practice. Yet for all of Camnitzer’s academic heft, his Memorial is not some esoteric exploration of the themes of loss and disappearance. It is a list of names on display in a space explicitly designed to promote personal reflection and collective commemoration: It’s as prototypical a cenotaph as they come.

A fully functional memorial, Camnitzer’s piece is also a reconfiguration of contemporary commemorative ritual. In late capitalist society, scholars of memory tell us, memory isn’t “alive” the way it used to be. We don’t lead our lives aware of the past in the same way our ancestors were, transmitting our histories orally and structuring every day according to the same religious rituals that guided our parents. Instead, we confine memories of people or events to specific places whose monumental architecture reminds us just how different those places are. (Think, for example, of  the Libertador statue and Malvinas War memorial in  Plaza San Martín.)

What is the opposite of Plaza San Martín? Something ordinary, something that we use every day without even a second thought. Something like a phone book. Leaving aside marble and bronze, Camnitzer roots memory in a totally quotidian object, one with no pretension to anything but utility. The manner in which he presents the pages of his alternate-history phone book — framed and arranged in neat rows, yes, but obviously photocopied, with gray blotches, stray marks, and seemingly accidental creases — only further underscores the ordinariness of Camnitzer’s memorial.

By placing the names of desaparecidos where they “should be” in the Montevideo phone book, Camnitzer reminds the viewer that these individuals were ripped from a very real place in the social fabric, and that as a result, Uruguayan society is different in countless ways — even in its telephone listings. We need not travel to a special site to remember this; we can do it by opening the phone book, too.

This is a highly savvy way for Memorial‘s host space, Parque de la Memoria’s Sala PAyS (Presentes Ahora y Siempre, Present Now and Always), to introduce itself to Buenos Aires. True, Memorial‘s physical presence in Sala PAyS is a bit awkward. Confined to the walls of the giant room, the work doesn’t take full advantage of the hall’s physical potential. Yet as the inaugural exhibit in Sala PAyS, Memorial accomplishes something more important — defining Sala PAyS as a space with a purpose related to but still separate from the rest of the park where it is housed.

Surrounded by monuments and symbolic reflections on the dictatorial past, Camnitzer’s work argues that Sala PAyS can be a bridge between commemoration and daily life, an invitation to think about what it means for those who have disappeared to be present — not simply in occasionally-visited, self-contained memory-sites — but always.