Documented Dialogues
| Documented Dialogues >
20170330_210738.jpg

No. 6: Brett Swinney, Jordan Martins, Tselanie Townsend

| Documented Dialogues No. 6 > is a conversation, via e-mail, between the artist/administrators Brett Swinney, Jordan Martins, & Tselanie Townsend - collaborators on the P.O.W.E.R. Project at Comfort Station in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago - with Documented Dialogue's Matt MehlanThe conversation takes place in the commons of Gmail and discusses the urgency of political engagement, the relations between agency and authority, and the confines and restraints of institutional professionalisms.

Documented Dialogues
No. 6:
Brett Swinney, Jordan Martins, Tselanie Townsend

 

| Documented Dialogues No. 6 > is a conversation, via e-mail, between the artist/administrators Brett Swinney, Jordan Martins, & Tselanie Townsend - collaborators on the P.O.W.E.R. Project at Comfort Station in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago - with Documented Dialogue's Matt MehlanThe conversation takes place in the commons of Gmail and discusses the urgency of political engagement, the relations between agency and authority, and the confines and restraints of institutional professionalisms.

How might the open negotiation of collaborative terms allow for future access and alternative platforms?

The P.O.W.E.R. project was a month-long collaboration where in lieu of "traditional arts programming, the Comfort Station [was] transformed into an ‘empowerment hub’ with a series of lectures, discussions, happenings, self-care exercises, and much more led by artists and members from the community." More info about the P.O.W.E.R. project can be found here.

You can jump to a plain text transcript of this conversation by clicking here.

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Above is the conversation as it happened in Gmail, screenshot for the authentic experience. Below you will find a transcript of the conversation in copy & paste-able, searchable, html text.

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Matt Mehlan <matt@chicagoartistsresource.org>
Aug 7
to Tselanie, jordan, Brett, David

 

OK let's just get it going on this email thread? That work? I can make the digi version... like:

What is this project and why are you doing it?????

Whoever wants to jump in jump on in..?

 

Matt Mehlan <matt@chicagoartistsresource.org>
Aug 7
to Tselanie, jordan, Brett, David

 

Meh - that's the kind of question we're tryna avoid - lemme rephrase so yr not just repeating a press release...

Why now? What are the things you want to see happen inside of this project and in the city, etc?

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jordan Martins
Aug 7
to me, Tselanie, Brett, David

 

This kind of came about initially from a general interest on the Comfort Station side to do a whole month dedicated to politically-engaged work, as well as really handing over the space to some outside group to dictate what that should look like. After the election, it obviously became more focused and one of the first people I reached out to talk about what could be organized was Brett since we'd worked together on smaller scale collaborations at Comfort Station in the past. He told me about the very recently formed ALCN and expressed interest in them being the main collaborator on the project. 

We all definitely felt a sense of urgency in terms of needing to launch this month sooner than later--even sooner than the ideas and goals had been fully articulated. We also felt an urgency in terms of the quantity of activity and the variety of people that we pulled into it. We didn't want it to be just a well-organized set of intelligible programming events that were deployed at a manageable pace. We were explicitly talking about what it would look like to do a stupid amount of activity-- as many as 100 "blocks" of programming in 30 days--and what kinds of collaborative structures it takes to even imagine that. Part of this has to do with that feeling of urgency after the election and the need to organize people. But it also had to do with the specific characteristics of Comfort Station as a public space, on city property, that aims to be a porous space in terms of who is invited into the space and who is given the metaphorical keys/microphone. Our feeling was that it was a site that could afford a looser, more organic occupation by various publics, people, organizations, etc, and not just a stage on which to present pre-determined programming to an audience.

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Matt Mehlan <matt@chicagoartistsresource.org>
Aug 7
to jordan, Tselanie, Brett, David

 

Are there techniques yr using to allow for occupation and porousness? How are these ideas coming into play? Or how are you seeing them play out (so far)?

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Brett Swinney
Aug 7
to me, jordan, Tselanie, David

 

As Jordan mentioned, there was a sense of urgency after the November election. As people took to social media with various responses and coping strategies, I felt like I wanted to contribute to something that was not just a cynical response that would get lost in the wave of negativity taking over the web and the world at large. I was concerned about not only losing myself to that wave but also just losing all sensations of hope, which I felt was a larger defeat than the one that happened during the election. Hence why when Jordan reached out, it seemed like a matter a fate and responsibility to develop something to conjure hope rather than reinforce despair. 

After the first couple meetings between Jordan and Mary from the Comfort station and Felicia Holman and myself (from the alcn), it became apparent that planning process was just as important as the final product. So we decided to open it up to the wider creative community and hold public meetings, as well use a facebook group, in an effort to make the whole process transparent and accountable to the community. The first public meeting was held at Elastic Arts and was attended by 25-30 people. We made sure to have a loose agenda to make use of everyone's time but also allow space for their voice too. There was also a concerted effort to make sure the core organizers could facilitate the conversation but not control the conversation. Which to be honest was scary because it could turn into an echo chamber for the loudest voices, and from time to time that was the case. But the other times were beautiful examples of communally generative administration. I remember after leaving that first meeting feeling very enthusiastic about the future and probably for the first time since we started the process, felt like we could pull it off. That sensation grew with each following meeting.

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jordan Martins
Aug 7
to Brett, me, Tselanie, David

 

We ended up structuring this in kind of a "cascading" programming mechanism, loosely influenced in part by something I read about how the Sanders campaign organized volunteer events (obviously on a miniscule scale). The basic logic is to hand over a lot of responsibility AND curatorial agency to people at each level of the project. So Comfort Station really wanted the ALCN to be able to own a lot of the vision of what the programming would look like, and they in turn invited four programming leaders to be responsible for each of the four weeks-- the idea being that the programming leaders would recruit their own cohort to put together a plan and execute their week, also pulling from an open submission form. Given the timeframe and scale of the project, a lot of this ended up being loose and fast, but I do think this kind of structure allowed a broad proliferation of programming that Comfort Station alone could never have pulled off, and necessarily meant that the curatorial agency allows flowed to the person or group that was occupying the space. 

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Brett Swinney
Aug 7
to jordan, me, Tselanie, David
 

Agreed, the cascade programming mechanism allowed for agency to exist on multiple levels of execution from having it at the core (Jordan, Mary, Felicia, and myself) to the team leaders (Nina Yeboah, Tattiana Howard, Matt Robinson, and Tselanie Townsend), to the people that they decided to include within the cohort from planners to facilitators; everyone had the opportunity to contribute to the overall vision. This apparatus really allowed for an open dialogue that pushed the aspirations of the project forward. It also added an experimental component to the whole process. While there was an infrastructure that could support the technical aspects of the programming; AV needs, promotion/marketing, and general logistics. Having the conceptual parameters open to interpretation by the leaders and their teams created a wide range of programming that was able to attract a broader audience to the overall project. This was evident in the assortment of programs which included Spanish story time for children, an artists statement workshop, urban hikes, intersectional zine library, prevention education from  Rape Victim Advocates, and much much more. Throughout the month, I would swing by to check in and instantly became immersed in a topic or activity that I would normally not have the ability to engage. Which why I think having a  'cascade programming mechanism' was essential in tackling the scale and scope of the programming. And I feel like the experiment was quite successful in the sense it was able to withstand the extent of the task of programming for a month while allowing for a wide variety of people, with various skills and experiences, to come together in a mutually beneficial collaboration. 

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Matt Mehlan <matt@chicagoartistsresource.org>
Aug 8
to Brett, jordan, Tselanie, David

 

How does this kind of programming procedure relate to ALCN - can U speak to what ALCN is and how it started? - and how you see this experimentation and extended/extending (in terms of inclusion in organizing) personnel, fitting into ALCN's vision of being "recognized as tastemakers on the cutting edge of cultural production" with/within "Chicago's marginalized art world(s)"?

I guess what I'm getting at is - the "cascade programming mechanism" here, or other processes that bring many voices into a project via programs & programming, can be hard to describe to a world expecting singular visions and/or trad structural/organizational/marketing-speak... SO how has the programming thus far explained itself (to you, to others) or how would you describe it as achieving ALCN's stated goals (which I scoped from yr FB page)?

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Brett Swinney
Aug 8
to me, jordan, Tselanie, David

 

So the ALCN was in response to my experiences getting a master in arts administration at SAIC. During that period of time, I was always able to connect with my peers on a personal level yet when it came to working within the institution there appeared barriers that shaped my experiences working in the arts. Barriers like coded language, microaggressions, and other manners of control that lead to me feeling isolated and invisible when it came to working within the art world. While I don't think it was deliberate or personal, rather a product of systemic ignorance, it became clear to me that I needed to make a deliberate effort to address it. So I reached out to a few other people, who I shared my concerns with, and we decided to meet up over drinks and share our experiences with the hope to find solidarity and share insights on how to survive working in the arts. Admittedly it was a powerfully cathartic experience and after a few more informal gatherings it became apparent that the group should become a network with the intention of building capacity and creating opportunities for production.

There were a lot of discussions on what would serve as the foundation for the ALCN, which values needed to be present at every juncture. Aside from providing a  safe place for art leaders of color to share their ideas, insights, and inspirations; I felt it was essential that the promotion of 'agency' had to be integrated within the core nature of the ALCN. When considering the barriers that myself, and other like me, faced within the arts and how that resulted in an overall sense of isolation then they only way to counteract that effect was to promote the value of 'agency'. That everyone should have a voice with the ALCN, both during conversations over drinks to planning sessions for future projects.

So when you apply that how the POWER project was produced, we decided to build that into the process. After Jordan, Mary, Felicia and myself worked out what the structure was, then I recruited team leaders to plan each week. We gave them the basic idea of the theme, what resources they had available, and what we hoped to accomplish. The people who were selected as the team leaders came from various backgrounds and skill levels and approached the project differently. It was a very exciting experience to have an idea, and then give it over to someone to interpret and know that whatever they came up with would expand the conversation by nature of their own personal agency. As a producer/organizer I know how I would approach the development of programs, so to see how other producers approach that process, based on similar concepts, was quite thrilling. And ultimately was aligned with the values of the ALCN of promoting agency, building capacity, and creating opportunities for production for creatives of color.

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Matt Mehlan <matt@chicagoartistsresource.org>
Aug 9
to Brett, jordan, Tselanie, David

 

Man! Institutional VIBES are real. Can U talk a little about what those barriers are/were AND/OR how they manifested? I've been thinking personally about "professionalism" and it's relationship to power and corporate management thinking and potential for things like lack of transparency and, as you mention, the coding of language - how these things are often used as power moves - and if you aren't familiar, like you didn't grow up or we're not a part of a certain kind of social or educational or "professional" culture... it can be alienating at best, and surely potentially discriminatory & exploitative at worst... I'm curious how you and the other key players in the ALCN have experienced what you are speaking to. Can you talk more specifically?

In the end maybe we're talking about an "art world" that has a very particular economic premise at its core, all the way on up from galleries to the major institutions - how does a space like Comfort Station, the POWER Project, a network like ALCN - confront that, in hoping to effect change in Chicago's art scene - or do they?

Is this a different culture of producing or organizing (art), that you are searching for? Does this culture have the same economic system or set of values?

Jordan - does Comfort Station sell the art it curates? Im curious about how we all navigate inclusion and aesthetics and community vs neighborhood etc etc...

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Matt Mehlan <matt@chicagoartistsresource.org>
Aug 10
to Tselanie

 

Tselanie! Can you talk about what you programmed? What kinds of events? What response was like? Who came and who didn't but you wish they had?

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Brett Swinney
Aug 10
to Tselanie, jordan, me, David

 

Totally Tselanie, you should jump in and write about your experiences planning and programming.

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Brett Swinney
Aug 10
to me, jordan, David, Tselanie

 

Ok, I had my rant pants on when I was writing this, so let me know if there needs to be any clarification, and feel free to edit out any crazy over the top talk. I'll be on email all day to about 7pm

Well, I've been working in the arts in some capacity for the last 20 years and when I was working as an artist, there was always 'By any means necessary' approach to getting things done. This was generally in response to either a lack of skills or a lack of resources but there was that drive to see things to completion. As I started to work more in producing/organizing that mentality was useful in pulling off the some of my earlier projects. Being able to produce things with no budget and generally, a group of volunteers with limited availability meant that I had to get creative when it came to planning and execution. At some point, I felt it was necessary to develop new skills and broaden my network which lead to me apply to graduate school at SAAIC for art administration. As I mentioned before it was a truly transformative experience and upon completion, I was able to jump into some exciting projects and work with some amazing people.

However, while I was there I became fascinated with the concept of 'professionalism' in arts. On the surface, it seemed to be an important service that was offered to artists to help sustain their creative practice, which is important when it comes to planning and proposing, budgeting, promotion, etc . . . Though in other regards it appeared to be used as a litmus in determining what was art and what was a craft, hobby, outsider, etc . . So under the guise of professionalism, if you don't talk / write in a specific way or associate with other professional aspects then more often than not your options are limited. And if professionalism in the arts is deemed by participating in academia in the arts then that creates another barrier to finding sustainability in the arts. Given the high price and commitment to attending school, it's difficult for some people to rationalize to take that step. While I knew I could not afford to go to grad school, I decided to take on the financial burden because I was in a place that could take on the risk. However, there are many people not in that place, which results with them being left on the margins. Sure there are opportunities out there for artists / admins without degrees but the way the system is set up, those are few and far between. And to add another layer is considering the admissions policies of academic institutions when it comes to diversity, then that creates an environment where if you can't afford the price and you can't afford the time commitment, and because of whatever factor you're not the 'type' of person they are looking for, then honestly you're SOL. So going back to the idea of professionalism in the arts serving as a gatekeeper to what is fine art? It becomes apparent that you need thumb print than just a key.

Which brings me back to the ALCN and the Power Project, the ALCN is all about access and agency. It's about bringing art leaders of color getting together in an effort to provide support but also to broaden the aspects of 'professionalism in the arts' to be more inclusive to people from different backgrounds. Granted people that are apart of the ALCN have degrees,  have attended residencies, and work for art organizations but unfortunately, that isn't enough. But with collaborations like the POWER project, the ALCN is able to provide that structure of support to people that are part of the network and provide them the platform to develop their practice and widen their impact. From the beginning of the planning process, Jordan and I talked about how for the month of June we wanted to transform the Comfort Station into an 'empowerment hub' where people can drop in and gain skills, share insights, and expand their community. And by it being any empowerment hub, we intended to democratize the process of production which allowed for the inclusion of people from the 'professional arts' background and people who developed their practice outside of the institution in order to present something for the people and by the people. And since the beginning that was the case for everyone involved including the core team, team leaders, program facilitators, and the greater community. And don't get me wrong, there were things that were challenging about the experience, but we learned our lessons and we are better because of that. Nonetheless, The POWER project is an acronym for Preparation, Organization, Wonderment, Empowerment, and Resistance, and whether you consider yourself a leader or not those concepts are essential for surviving this day and age. If you're audacious enough to consider yourself an artist then I believe those concepts are important to building and sustaining a creative community. And thanks to the opportunity provided by the Comfort Station, and all of the hard work of the team leaders and program facilitators, we are continuing to broaden our community and consolidating our power. 

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Tselanie Townsend
Aug 10
to Brett, jordan, me, David

 

Will do!  Can't write until this evening tho because work is always bonkers. 

Sent from my thingamajig

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Matt Mehlan <matt@chicagoartistsresource.org>
Aug 11
to Tselanie, Brett, jordan, David

 

OK - I'ma let this wait - I had to get the e-blast out this AM and it was too difficult to rush an edit for the site. 

If Tselanie and Jordan are able to chime in a bit this weekend / next week, that'd be wonderful. I'll get something going and send your way in the meantime.

Thanks everyone!

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Tselanie Townsend
Aug 13
to me, Brett, jordan, David

 

Matt asked:

Tselanie! Can you talk about what you programmed? What kinds of events? What response was like? Who came and who didn't but you wish they had?

Thanks Matt,

I'll try to keep this brief.  I would like to preface my answer by letting you know that I have no experience with programming or curating.  My background is as a musician who works for an architecture firm and moonlights for a couple of non-profits doing graphic design and organizing logistics. 

I put together a programming team composed of 

  • Sarah Dodson who is the founder of MAKE Literary Magazine and the Lit and Luz Festival

  • Fred Sasaki, an artist and curator who works at the Poetry Foundation 

  • Alyssa Martinez, an artist and musician who works with At Pluto.  

We decided to focus our week of programming on the Logan Square community, the Hispanic community, people with young children and child caregivers.  We decided to create "rock blocks" of programming with programming geared towards children and parents in the am and everything else in the pm.

A few examples of the programming we put together: 

  • Poet Daniel Borzutzky and translator Rachel Galvin read children books in Spanish and English

  • RVA (Rape Victims Advocates moderated a discussion with children ages 5-12 about consent

  • Video artist Selina Trepp created an animation entitled Animations to Keep Us Strong and Sane which was projected on the outside wall of the building

  • Author Gerardo Cárdenas conducted a lecture on historical and contemporary Mexican Literature

  • Lou Bank of the non-profit S.A.C.R.E.D. let a tutorial on mezcal

  • Lakshmi Ramgopal composed a sound installation called Maalai with an interactive shrine using images of her and her mother and traditional Hindu imagery

  • Sam Lewis brought his marionettes for a puppet show for kids and adults

  • aaaaaaaaaand so much more....

Attendance during the morning programming wasn't high but the response was great!  I wish I had more time for marketing - it would have been great to get more neighborhood folks and children during the day.  

The evening programming was well attended - there was a lot of interest in the lectures.  

I was fortunate enough for my week of programming to coincide with the Logan Square Arts Festival so we had a lot of foot traffic from the festival for the weekend programming, which was great exposure for the events.

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jordan Martins
Aug 13
to me, Tselanie, Brett, David

 

thanks for keeping this going Matt, here's some more thoughts in response to the above...

re: "does Comfort Station sell the art it curates? Im curious about how we all navigate inclusion and aesthetics and community vs neighborhood etc etc..."

we don't exclude sales as part of our exhibition programming, but it's not a factor in who shows or what they show (all exhibitions are programmed through an open submission process). But I also think complicating the "economic premise" at the core of the art world takes more than just questioning what objects get sold, where, and to whom. Part of it for us, again, is our identity as a public space that centers around free events. But I think it needs to go beyond that too. One big thing in the background of this project is Chicago's original sin, segregation, and thinking about how that extends to the art world. Segregation isn't just a product of racist thoughts, it has been mobilized by public policy and economic machinations of banks and corporations. And as Brett speaks to, it permeates the art world as well, as much as we want to conceive of the art world as a space of liberation. Part of why we wanted to partner with the ALCN is because there are very few black people in Logan Square. So if we only respond to our local demographics, we are further galvanizing the patterns of segregation that exist across the city. Inviting/asking an organization of black arts leaders to lead a month of programming in our space isn't just about "offering" this as an opportunity to them or "giving them agency", it's asking for a favor to help us de-colonize this piece of property in the middle of a gentrifying neighborhood on the northside of Chicago. Or at the very least it's a gesture toward that possibility. 

One thought I've been wrestling with, and have spoken about with Brett and Felicia, is this question of "when are you offering an opportunity to someone, and when are you just asking for a favor?". So Comfort Station on one hand is "offering" our space and programming calendar to others to take over, but is that really an opportunity or are we really saying, "will you do us the favor of programming a shit load of things in our space in one month for essentially no money"? Even in a somewhat utopian art context where we conceive of our labor as freely given or traded, there are all kinds of assumptions about what someone's time and creativity are worth. Let alone what kinds of privileges are in the background of someone's ability to do something for free. So the question is, what kinds of exchanges are fair? We tried to collectively figure out a strategy for allocating a base amount of actual money to programming leaders and people running particular events, but we also had to rely on other understandings of what values were being mobilized at the different levels of this project. Some of that is just the nuts and bolts of arts organizing that Comfort Station and the ALCN carried out, allocating volunteers, promoting events, documentation, sending out press releases, etc. But I also think giving someone autonomy has a certain value, and Brett and I talked a lot about how to logistically support the programming that each week's leader was putting together but not micro-managing it. I've been thinking a lot about just the basic hospitality of collaboration, and how if you tell someone "do whatever you want" you should avoid saying "oh, but don't do that". 

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Brett Swinney is a curator, organizer, producer, videographer, photographer, web developer, podcast producer and musician. He is the co-founder of the Art Leaders of Color Network and AnySquared Projects and serves as the Production Director for Links Hall, Project Manager for Cream Co. Art Collective and Volunteer Coordinator for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. As the first public programming of the ALCN, Brett co-produced the P.O.W.E.R. Project at Comfort Station and P.E.E.P. at Reunion Chicago. He also co-produced The Instigation Festival in Chicago and New Orleans and the premiere of Mike Reed’s Flesh & Bone at the Art Institute. He was a 2016 Hatch Curatorial Resident at Chicago Artist Coalition. Projects he produced through Anysquared include the "Cinema Minima Film Residency," "Post Post Post Modernism," and a variety of other gallery shows, screenings, and community art events for the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival – named 2012 Best Public Art Event by the Chicago Reader. Brett has received awards from the Propeller Fund, SAIC Enrichment Fund, and Awesome Foundation. Previously, Brett was the Program Manager for Chicago Artists Resource, a Teaching Artist in Film for Scenarios USA, and a commercial photographer. Brett received his M.A. in Arts Administration & Policy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2014 and a B.A. in Photography from Columbia College Chicago in 2004.

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Jordan Martins is a Chicago based visual artist, curator, educator, and musician. He received his MFA in visual arts from the Universidade Federal da Bahia in Salvador, Brazil in 2007 and has been an instructor at North Park University since 2008.  He co-founded the Comfort Music series at Comfort Station in 2011 and has served as Executive Director of Comfort Station since 2015. Martins’s visual work is based in collage processes, including mixed media two dimensional work, photography, video and installation, and he has exhibited nationally and internationally. He is co-director of the Perto da Lá, a biennial multidisplinary art event with international artists in Salvador, Brazil.  From 2014 to 2016 he served on the programming committee for the Chicago Jazz Festival. He was a resident in the Chicago Artists Coalition’s HATCH program in 2013, a mentor for their LAUNCH program in 2016 and 2017, and currently serves on their Educational Advisory Panel. In additional to his involvement with the exhibition programming at Comfort Station, he curates the visual art program at Elastic Arts.

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Tselanie Townsend is an illustrator and musician.  She earned a Bachelor of Arts from Columbia College, Chicago in Film and Video Editing and Studio Art.  When she’s not working at her day job with Studio Gang Architects, Tselanie is the Print and Digital Content Director at the arts nonprofit Homeroom and volunteers for MAKE Literary Magazine's biannual Lit & Luz Festival.  She writes a comic called ALMA and produces music under the same name.  She lives in Logan Square, Chicago.

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