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Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, social activist, and consultant who works for justice, compassion, and honor in every sphere, from the interpersonal to the transnational.



The Game of Ones

May23

by: on May 23rd, 2016 | No Comments »

Earlier this month, the Guggenheim Museum announced it had received a “a major grant from the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation to support Guggenheim Social Practice, a new initiative committed to exploring the ways in which artists can initiate projects that engage community participants, together with the museum, to foster new forms of public engagement. As part of the initiative, the museum will commission two separate artist projects, one by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and one by Jon Rubin and Lenka Clayton, which will be developed and presented in New York City in 2016 and 2017, respectively.”

The museum curators who conceived and run this initiative join a growing cohort of gatekeepers at institutions and foundations creating programs shaped by the aesthetic and ethic I’ve started to call the Game of Ones. To play it, you create a competition (whether public and visible or private and quiet, the form remains a contest) which richly rewards – with funds and fanfare – a small number of winners from within a large field of practice.

The Guggenheim has chosen three artists who taken as a group deflect some of the criticisms of the category “social practice,” which has accumulated resources in direct proportion to its trendiness. (For a little background, check out “Artification,” a piece I wrote about it a few years ago; the title comes from Rick Lowe’s quip that “social practice is the gentrification of community arts.”)

To counter the accurate charge that most artists who identify with the label are white and disconnected from both ground-level social realities and the movements for social justice that drive community-based collaborative arts projects, the Guggenheim has chosen an African American artist deeply rooted in community-based work (Joseph) and two white artists from Rust Belt Pittsburgh whose work touches on issues such as international conflict (Rubin) and feminism (Clayton).

My concern is not with the artists chosen, nor with their willingness to undertake the selected projects. Congratulations to them! If I were anointed with a “major grant” from the Rothschild Foundation, I’d take the money – wouldn’t you? I’ve got a few books queued up to write and a bank account that reflects a lifelong addiction to social and cultural activism, so if anyone is considering nominating me for the next fellowship or prize, feel free!

The bone I want to pick is with the institutional aims and values that have produced the Game of Ones, a framework that ratifies the social order we sum up nowadays with a phrase: “the one percent.”

The core criticism of social practice as a branded artworld movement is that its adherents’ work finds its authenticating audience in the big-money artworld, most often in the museum, through the approbation of curators, critics, and collectors. In contrast, community artists committed to social and environmental justice and cultural democracy are accountable to the communities that inspire, co-create, and make use of their work. Neither of these categories (nor others in use such as “art for social change”) is so tightly bounded as to preclude exceptions. But try to refute the generalization that most social practice art borrows methods from community-based work (almost always without acknowledgement of that lineage) without engaging the social justice values that drive it.

In the Game of Ones world, social practice is shaped by the values and methods of capitalism, where competition and individual profit matter most, and the social price they exact is merely collateral damage:

  • The art is understood to express the genius of a named individual or group, and the path to art stardom opens, just as it has done with prior artworld trends;
  • The artwork is shaped by that artist or group, so that engagement almost always means interaction with the artist’s choices, rather than co-creation and co-ownership;
  • The artwork is fulfilled when it is vetted by curators, documentation is exhibited (and most fully so when the venue is a museum or biennial), and reviewed by establishment critics, placing it the mainstream of art as commodity.

So tell me, when work that entails any type of social engagement is pulsed through this process of commodification, what is the outcome? Is it “shifting our ideas of the internal structure of a museum, and expanding our thinking about the traditional exchange between the institution and the public it serves” as the Guggenheim’s Deputy Director said? Maybe so, since shifting ideas and expanding thinking can happen without actually changing an institution’s financing, social status in the hierarchy of capitalism, and relationship to injustice. For example, it’s been less than a month since activists staged a vibrant public protest of labor conditions at the Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi branch – neither the first nor surely the last of such protests of a one percent institution.

Personally, I like to visit museums. I like it much better where they are publicly funded, democratically governed, decline to glorify donors wanting to launder their ill-gotten gains, offer free admission to locals, and feature work reflecting the multiple cultures surrounding their walls, rather than aligning quite so perfectly with the exploitive power relations and self-regarding aesthetics of the one percent.

I wish the Games of Ones were merely a museum phenomenon. But there are now so many individual-focused prizes, fellowships, and competitive processes that even I get asked to nominate and recommend! Each time it annexes more space in the philanthropic landscape, the Game of Ones reinforces the belief that supporting the community infrastructure that nurtures art for social justice matters little compared with identifying and anointing individual winners.

Across the landscape, the net effect of the Game is to exalt individuals at the expense of communities, neglecting the long history of collective creation, cultural resistance and restoration, self-knowledge and communal knowledge to which so many community artists have dedicated their lives. I hear from dedicated, talented, ethical, and urgently needed practitioners across the U.S. that it is harder and harder to find support for this work. Many of the projects and organizations that have sustained local work over a long period of time are starving. What consolation will it be if even a hundred social practice winners are given the means to execute their own visions and the publicity to help them win again? Who will water the roots when more and more of the money is spent plucking a few prize fruits?

Santana and Batuka live in Chile, 1992: “No One to Depend On.”

On Burning Out, Burning In

May16

by: on May 16th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

There’s been a big discussion about “burnout” among activists lately.The people I’ve been hearing from use that word to mean many different things: physical maladies of overwork; depression, a sense of futility – or at least a pervading doubt that one’s efforts matter. Exhaustion, emotional and intellectual.

Some of the discussants are immersed in high-pressure races to a finish line that may be elusive (think presidential campaign organizers). Others have been at their work for a very long time and fear they have little impact to show for it. Some start to fatigue at the relentlessness of it: always a crisis, always a deadline, always an urgent need to do something. They are young and old. They see their individual and collective challenges as amplified by the obstacles society places in their way: working long hours for a cause one holds dear can stress anyone; if you are also coping with the social injuries inflicted on account of race, gender, class, immigration status, sexual orientation – the stress amps up.

I wouldn’t say that burnout is my problem at the moment: I’m not forcing myself to keep on, rather pursuing aims I have chosen and choose still. I’m not exhausted, just a bit tired. But just under the surface of my days runs a red thread of desperation that sometimes loops up to catch my spirit.

What tugs on me? Most frequently, a constellation of feelings about aging. God willing, my health and strength will hold, my brain will stay sharp, and I will have many more years to explore the questions and experiment with the answers that draw me close. But more than at any prior time, I am aware that life is finite, that in choosing to devote myself to this, I may foreclose that, simply because there isn’t enough time to do both. I am not in burnout, but I can see that if I don’t find a way to hold this differently, I could eventually land there.

I think about it a lot. What are the moving pieces? Sometimes my brain holds its own little magical-thinking festival, where it rains money. If I won the lottery, I’d spend some if my winnings supporting other people to do the tasks that don’t engage my passion or pleasure. I would have time to write and do the parts of my activism that seem especially well-suited to my skills and desires. It’s not just me. If the movement – by which I mean the aggregate of all the people and organizations working in this country for social and environmental justice – were adequately funded, there would be more people to share the work and everyone would have at least the opportunity for balance. Instead, most of us constitute a force driven by imbalance: fueled by self-sacrifice, addicted to doing at all costs, living with the perpetual sense of having fallen short of what’s needed, what’s possible. If money equals time, my imagination tells me we’d be positively wallowing in all of those things I am craving: reflection without a deadline, listening without an agenda, belonging without a struggle. Rest.

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Let Them Talk: The Piano Prince

May2

by: on May 2nd, 2016 | No Comments »

If I asked you to name a prodigiously talented, extravagantly flamboyant, African American, sexually fluid musician with a body like an exclamation point and a taste for the rococo whose premature death left the world a little grayer, of course you’d say “Prince,”and you’d be right. Or half-right.

Every since Prince’s April 21st death was reported – ever since a tidal wave of mourning began to gather force, leaving testimonies and tributes and tall tales in its wake – I’ve been thinking surfing the Zeitgeist, thinking about James Booker.

If you don’t know Booker’s music or his story, start with the 2013 film Bayou Maharajah (it streams from all the usual sources), which traces the pianist-singer’s life from its 1939 start, his coming up in the home of Baptist-minister parents in Bay St. Louis, Louisiana, to its sad, sorry end in an emergency room waiting-area in New Orleans’ Charity Hospital, where he was born. His story is full of twisted luck and uncanny moments: the film’s sequence where a dozen friends relate contradictory stories of how Booker lost his eye. The sequence where Harry Connick, Jr., demonstrates Booker’s baroquely syncopated piano technique, which Connick as a child studied firsthand (Connick, Sr. was a New Orleans District Attorney who traded Booker a get-out-of-jail-free card for his son’s piano lessons). The sequence where a young guitarist struggling to keep up with Booker onstage describes how the musician maintained his almost unfollowable pace – more notes than any ten fingers could possible play – all the while trying on a succession of glitter-studded eyepatches, hoping to find the one that most appeal to a man in the audience he hoped to attract.

After his 1954 debut as “Little Booker,” he played with just about everybody from Fats Domino to Freddy King, Aretha Franklin, even Ringo Starr and the Doobie Brothers before issuing an amazing string of live and studio albums, many solo. Booker taught Dr. John to play the organ. He studied classical piano as a child. He played a version of “The Minute Waltz” (dubbing it “The Black Minute Waltz”), a ton of standards (I love his “Angel Eyes,” for instance) adaptations of pop songs (Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue”), classic blues like “St. James Infirmary,” and original songs like the mysteriously allusive “Papa Was a Rascal,” opened and closed by these lines:

There was a sweet white woman down in Savanna GA
She made love to my daddy in front of the KKK.

You know we all got to watch out for the CIA.

Booker’s addiction to opiates started in childhood, in the aftermath of a terrible and traumatic auto accident. In 1970, he spent time in Angola for drug possession. The rest of his life he rode a surreal roller-coaster: successful gigs in the U.S. and Europe; throwing it away by ditching recording sessions to get high as soon as he got paid; worshipped by astounded fellow musicians; treated like dirt by every racist, homophobic institution that crossed his path. Knowing how good he was made it all worse. By Booker’s last years, he was seeing the CIA around every corner, tapping into not only his deeds but his thoughts. You can call it paranoia, and it would be hard to argue with that, except to say that the thicket of everyday hostility a black, gay, one-eyed, drug-addicted musician would be expected to hack his way through in mid-twentieth century America could make it very hard to see the world as a welcoming place.

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Agenda 21 for Culture

Apr8

by: on April 8th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

Ed Carroll, a friend in Europe, sent me a query:”How come there was not one mayor in the USA that was prompted to submit an application to the Agenda 21 for culture? … The absence on the Map is quite extraordinary.”

My reply? “What a good question!”

“The map” is a graphic on the international award page for cities and regional and local governments that have adopted cultural policies “linking the values of culture (heritage, diversity, creativity and transmission of knowledge) with democratic governance, citizen participation and sustainable development.”

This time around, 83 cities and local governments submitted proposals.As you will see when you click on the map, not a single one came from the United States.

You could say this is unsurprising, since no U.S.-based local government association takes part in the sponsoring organization, the committee on culture of the world association of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), “the global platform of cities, organizations and networks to learn, to cooperate and to launch policies and programmes on the role of culture in sustainable development.” Its mission is “to promote culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development through the international dissemination and the local implementation of Agenda 21 for culture.”

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The Boys Who Said NO!

Apr8

by: on April 8th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

At the Indiegogo site for The Boys Who Said NO!, a film-in-progress directed by my old friend Judith Ehrlich, you can read producer Chris Jones’ 1967 letter from his draft board in San Jose, warning him of the penalty for refusing to register with the Selective Service System. A week before, Jones had sent this note to the draft board:

My non-cooperation by many will be considered traitorous. But I assure you all that it is the only course of action which I can conscientiously take. My beliefs are founded in a deep love for America, for the democracy it can be, for the lasting peace and prosperity for all people, and for the joys of little children which force me to say: Stop the war. End the draft. I refuse to register.

With a glad heart, Christopher Jones

I anticipate the film will live up to the inspiring clip they have posted for prospective donors,and hope that many others will join the folks who’ve already contributed nearly half the target amount in exchange for perks provided by the filmmakers and key characters such as Joan Baez, Daniel Ellsberg, and David Harris. The footage I’ve seen features a wonderful conversations between Harris, founder of the The Resistance and deeply committed to nonviolence, and SDS/Weather Underground veteran Mark Rudd, who now wishes he had chosen a similar path. I saw plenty of familiar faces interviewed and kept scanning the crowd scenes for more.

You see, I worked for years for a draft counseling service in San Francisco. It started out as an activity of the associated students at San Francisco State University, then got pushed off campus during the 1968 strike, settling a block or so from Mission High in San Francisco. The people who did this work of counseling young men facing the draft had different motives: one man’s conscience had been awakened while on active duty, and he wanted to help others avoid paying the same price; others were lifelong pacifists; some opposed the war on political grounds and wanted to make it impossible to fill induction quotas. I’d started out helping my husband apply for conscientious objector status and discovered it was something I could do for others. And to a great extent, we were successful: protests were massive; it indeed became impossible to fill draft quotas in the Bay Area; widespread refusal and disruption cost the system a lot; and by 1973, the baroque structure of deferments mostly gave way to a lottery as the war wound down.

No matter how we draft counselors came to the work, we all recognized a responsibility to disrupt the class and race biases that ran the system; and we all saw something sacred in these encounters with men who had been forced to interrogate their consciences, knowing that the choices they made could affect not only their own futures but the future of this country.

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On Race, Religion, and Human Complexity

Mar10

by: on March 10th, 2016 | 4 Comments »

In a debate in Flint, MI, on Sunday, Bernie Sanders, asked to describe his “racial blind spots,” said this:

“When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto – you don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.”

The Clinton campaign quickly mobilized to condemn him for a raft of implications, saying that not all Black people live in ghettos, that not all people who live in ghettos are Black – many are immigrants who belong to other racial categories, for instance. Some people objected that not all white people lack understanding of racism’s impact, others that there are plenty of whites who know poverty firsthand.

This is a rehearsal of politics-as-usual, of course, in which each faux pas is ammunition, and huge edifices of argument are loaded onto the usage of a word or phrase, (in Bob Dylan’s immortal words) “just like a mattress balanced on a bottle of wine.” It will happen again before November, many times. I doubt many of my progressive friends would take exception to Sanders’ underlying point – however poorly expressed – that many white people have not experienced overt discrimination and harassment on account of their race and may therefore lack adequate empathy and understanding.

I have no objection to holding candidates to a high standard of speech, so long as the standard isn’t double. But as for me, especially when it comes to elections, Dorothy Day of Catholic Worker fame is my guide: “I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.” (I have earlier written about why I choose Sanders’ actions over Clinton’s words.)

Someone who shares the Clinton campaign’s condemnation posted Sanders’ original statement and subsequent attempt at clarification to a progressive e-list I take part in.One response focused on calling an “old white male” to task for communicating badly on race. Another noted the word “ghetto” originally referred to areas restricted to Jews. (To be precise, the term in Venetian dialect was ghèto and came into usage in 1516 to formalize the boundaries on Jews’ residence and rights.) And that Sanders’ own family history reflected this experience: his father had emigrated from Poland, while many relatives who stayed behind perished in the Holocaust. Sanders attributes his own politicization to awareness of these events.

The “old white male” commenter retorted that “Jewish refugees from Europe were probably white. Just sayin’.”

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The Antidote to Absurdity: Winona LaDuke and Mililani Trask

Mar7

by: on March 7th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

You have to tell the story of how it happened, how you didn’t ask permission and it was okay. Because we have become a people who almost have to ask permission to do anything. And that is folly, because the people you are asking permission from have no right to grant you permission.

Winona LaDuke

How do you feel?This past Saturday at services, the rabbi asked congregants to call out reasons why it was good to have Shabbat, an island in time that grants respite from the world of doing. “As a refuge from the madness,” I found myself saying, “as a reminder that something else exists.”

This country is enduring a long bout of existential whiplash. When my attention turns rightward, a wave of nausea mounts as I consider the crass vitriol that emanates from that man-sized carbuncle of ego, Donald Trump. People seem to be asking his permission to expose their most fearful and belligerent beliefs; and he radiates a serene confidence in his right to grant it.

I see all sorts of analyses trying to explain Trump’s popularity, but they don’t settle my stomach. Reading about the rise of authoritarianism – of a longing for top-down order, of the will to submit to a leader who promises safety from whatever threatens privilege – I appreciate a neat theory. But there’s a big gap between plausible theory and actual proof or even predictability. The desire to make sense overwhelms me, and so far, I’ve failed to bat away the looming questions careening through my mind.

Gazing leftward, I am inspired by the Sanders campaign and delighted by the progress it is making.But a very expensive horse race keeps getting in the way: tons of inside baseball chatter about electability, as if predictions were more than guesses in an election that has stumped even polling wizard Nate Silver. I keep meeting people who seem to be asking permission to support a candidate whose values and aims they endorse; without permission, they may hold their noses and vote for the candidate chosen by those who’ve arrogated the label “realist” – and the right to pronounce what’s “practical” – to themselves.

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Tell Your Story Now!

Jan26

by: on January 26th, 2016 | Comments Off

It’s simple! Open a blank email, write a story from your experience that illuminates the state of our union, add your name and location, and email it to psotu2016@ctznapp.com.Read on to learn why.

The People’s State of the Union has another week to go, and we already have some amazing stories to share. All of the quotes below are excerpts from stories that have already been uploaded to the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture’s #PSOTU2016 Story Portal.

For this nine-day National Action, people around the country are forming Story Circles in their homes, schools, workplaces, places of worship, and community groups. They are telling their own stories their own ways, either in response to the #PSOTU2016 questions or questions they choose themselves:

  • Share a story you think the next President absolutely needs to hear.
  • Share a story about something you have experienced that gave you an insight into the state of our union.
  • Share a story about a time you felt a sense of belonging – or the opposite – to this nation.

Even if there’s no Story Circle planned for your own community, you can share any story that helps shine a light on the state of our union. Just type your story into a blank email, add an image if you like, and send it to psotu2016@ctznapp.com. It will automatically become part of the feed that goes to the #PSOTU2016 Story Portal.

If you add your name, location, and email, anyone who is moved by your story or wants to connect with you will be able to find you.

This woman asked me to explain to her how it was possible that Islam justifies killing so many people in the name of religion. She said all she knew of Muslims was what she saw in the media, and she wanted to know more. And I realized I had a huge opportunity to give this woman some insight, to help shift her thinking and to show at least one person some of the beauty in a religion whose capacity for beauty is so rarely discussed in this country, during this short time we had together.

And I thought: what can I do in my life to make these opportunities come up more often? It’s so rare to be able get to a safe space in the conversation where people feel they won’t be judged, where they’ll be able to engage in a way that they might otherwise be afraid to, and ask questions that allow for the possibility of growth and understanding instead of unexamined fear. (Mia Bertelli, Santa Fe, NM)

It’s not too late to host your own Story Circle either. You can sign up here to download a free Toolkit and find other resources to host a Story Circle before #PSOTU2016 ends on January 31.A Story Circle event can be a few friends around a kitchen table or a hundred people dividing into circles of folding chairs in a high-school gym. It’s an amazing experience of democratic dialogue where everyone’s story counts and every story deserves attention and respect.

It wasn’t until 1995 that I got involved in Labor organizing in Chinatown. There was a case with a restaurant paying their workers 75 cents an hour. This was 1995. I was 16 years old and thought I’d see a bunch of hippies in Birkenstocks protesting. I had no idea I was going to see people who looked just like me – Chinese immigrants, working class families. I felt, for the first time, a sense of belonging. My family got involved. The workers won that case, winning back $1.1 million for nearly 60 workers in 1997. (Betty Yu, Brooklyn, NY)

Most of us are full of opinions (myself included). When you ask about the state of our union, we quickly tell you it’s solid or in need of repair, who’s helping and who’s not. Of course, our assessments don’t always agree. Sometimes the disagreement is so profound that discussion turns into argument and friends into foes. But when we share actual stories instead of opinions – specific moments we’ve seen or experienced – several things change.

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Reagan and Trump: Tragedy and Farce

Jan24

by: on January 24th, 2016 | 5 Comments »

“History repeats itself,” wrote Karl Marx in 1852, “first as tragedy, second as farce.”He was referring to Napoleon I and his nephew Louis Napoleon. One hundred and sixty-four years later, my subject is Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.

People talk about “the Sixties” as a heyday of activism in the U.S., and they’re not wrong. I feel so grateful to have come up in a time when social imagination was encouraged, when social experimentation was rampant, when the desire to expand human liberty and human rights pervaded so many communities.

But the Sixties lasted more than a decade.Well into the Seventies, social action for justice and equity was going strong. It took a long time for the movement against the Vietnam War to succeed in stopping the war – or at least in exhausting the American people’s belief in the wisdom of our war leaders – but finally, the draft effectively ended in 1973 in response to massive protest and civil disobedience, and when Saigon fell in 1975, the war effectively ended too. There was a sizable People’s Bicentennial to counter the triumphalist official celebrations in 1976. Through the late Seventies, quite a bit of public money was still being invested in community development, including public service jobs that supported artists working in community to the tune of $200 million a year. It was by no means heaven on earth, but the enormous civil and human rights protests of the Sixties and early Seventies had made an indelible impression, creating the fervent hope and tentative expectation that justice would grow.

Back then, I lived in a world of the like-minded: San Francisco in the Seventies had not yet succumbed to the extreme gentrification brought on by high-tech corporate occupiers, and there were legions of organizers working from the micro – block-by-block politics – to the macropolitics of incipient globalization (a term that only began to take hold in the Seventies).

Here are two of the things that were widely believed in my circles at the time:

Social progress, in the form of the expansion of human rights and increasing equity, would continue. The force of history was unstoppable.

It didn’t make much difference who was elected President; we didn’t feel represented by either major party, and neither acted at all accountable to our values.

To say this was naive is drastic understatement.Within a startlingly short time following his election, Reagan had enacted a program that had been carefully planned in collaboration with the far-Right Heritage Foundation, abolishing public service employment and most community development funding, and going on to break unions, cut budgets for every type of social good, and reward his friends and supporters with tax-breaks and sweetheart deals.

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World So Undivided: John Trudell

Dec30

by: on December 30th, 2015 | Comments Off

I sat down to write about John Trudell’s music, thinking to write the second in a series I’m calling “A Life in Art.”Back in November, I described the blogs in this series as “turning on a work of art – painting, sculpture, music, poetry, film, maybe even cooking – that has sustained me in a moment that yearned for consolation or fulfillment or the reassurance of beauty, the presence of the sublime.”

I sat down to think about Trudell dying three weeks ago, too young at 69,and then the news came through that the police officers who killed 12 year-old Tamir Rice would not be indicted. Rice’s mother heard the news along with everyone else, via an official statement from the prosecutor’s office. Across the U.S., people are calling on the Department of Justice to prosecute Tamir Rice’s killers.

I sat down to listen to the song called “Tina Smiled,”an achingly beautiful loving lament in Trudell’s characteristic spoken-word style, backed by the yearning guitar of the late Jesse Ed Davis and the drumming and chanting of Quiltman and others who later made up the core of Trudell’s band Bad Dog. Like so much of Trudell’s work, the song layers the exquisite and the shattered, the artist’s memory of love and pleasure side-by-side with his awareness of a deep brokenness at the heart of this society.

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