Unfinished Dissertation,

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or an “obviously private, elementary photographic experience”
Found object in a trash receptacle: tattered and smudged finished dissertation
Appropriationist: Boris Mikhailov, amateur photographer


Everyday techniques
Several hundred snapshots of Kharkov, USSR were taken during the dreary winter months of 1984. Mikhailov cheaply developed the snapshots at night in his toilet. He then randomly selected and glued some of the photographs onto the back of someone’s finished dissertation. Over a period of several years Mikhailov scribbled in autobiographical comments, philosophical fragments and notes on photography in the empty spaces around two snapshots per dissertation page. The produced object was subtitled “discussions with oneself.”

The principle of credibility
The citation reference for the published work of art: Mikhailov, Boris. Unfinished Dissertation. Zurich: Scalo Publishers, 1999.

“This could be the caption of many photographs.”
It is forbidden to take photographs from higher than the second floor, the areas of railways, stations, military objects, at enterprises, near enterprises, at any organization, without special permission
It is forbidden to take photos that bring into disrepute Soviet power and the Soviet way of life.
It is forbidden to depict any naked body. Only museums can display such pictures, in (non-pornographic) Old Master paintings.

Archive Fever
Kartochki, a Russian diminutive of ‘cards,’ suggests that we might review the pages of Unfinished Dissertation as a set of cataloged index cards.
Today’s standard rendition of Soviet history purports that during the period between Brezhnev’s death and the implementation of perestroika, production and consumption stagnated, a situation that the state apparatus could not convincingly repudiate even with prolific documentation in the weekly illustrated newspapers of the joyous totality of Soviet experience. Consequently, Soviet byt, everyday life, can be characterized as the “expulsion of the event (in its everyday understanding).” With innumerable ironic gestures Mikhailov cataloged the astounding diversity of the important everyday lives of anonymous people and the city. Archive: picnicking; two people walking to the communal housing block; man arobicizing in front of the television; boys crouched behind a jumble of twigs throwing stones ; people sitting on the tram; old woman carrying home a loaf of bread; woman lying half naked on the sofa; photographer sprawled half naked on the bed; leafless birch trees swaying in the wind; mud covered streets, shoes tied to a fence … There is no political power without control of the archive, if not memory.

“Critical realism”
A review of these index cards of fragmented snap-shots and commentary suggests that Mikhailov called into question the political efficacy of photography. “As a photographer endowed with unofficial authority, I, in some way, track down, spy, sneak. The most important thing is to define after whom.” This caption accompanies a page with two serial photographs of a man, bundled up in a heavy coat and hat, head bent downwards as if inspecting the frozen ground, walking aimlessly in a cleared field. The caption suggests that Mikhailov secretly followed his photographic subjects and captured them unawares. This can perhaps read as a parody of individuals engaging in voyeurism, documentation and unofficial spying on others. Whether or not he actually engaged in such behavior, by including such remarks on the dissertation page, Mikhailov equates his catalog of innocuous everyday life with the real threat of intelligence agents in pursuit of photographic documentary evidence. Mikhailov’s “Small digressions, Street hooliganism” include taking snapshots at waist level so that “All the others look at me when I photograph legs.” Two serial photographs show a woman in a plaid skirt and high heels standing with no apparent relationship to several men in coats and trousers. In this documented instance, the text suggest that Mikhailov readily exposes the camera but takes snapshots at such as odd level as if to mimic the clandestine pursuit of one who hides the camera in the jacket in order to take pictures. Or, the odd cropping of the bodies in the snap-shots suggests the practice of manipulating photography to erase the presence of officially unacknowledged individuals. Thus the truth-value supposedly inherent in photography is exposed when the medium is used to rewrite history. On another page of the dissertation, photography as a social practice is made obsolete with the words “In the beginning I still took pictures, but I no longer developed the film. Then I photographed with an empty camera, and now, I just look. (former amateur photographer).”

“Deconstructivity of constructive forms established and existing for c. 100 years”
If Unfinished Dissertation can be read as an archive, this might suggest that a total formulation of knowledge of Soviet byt was achieved. Yet, this archive was pieced together randomly, a jumbled collection of snap-shots and fragmentary notes, and therefore can only be read as an incomplete set of juxtapositions through which one assigns associative meanings. Any pursuit of byt in its totality is here merely exposes as photographic instances where the people and the city of Kharkov are in the process of being and not-being determined, where situations spring forth actions, events, and results without warning. Everyday life and photography here share the common characteristic of ambiguity. Such are the varying aspects of everyday life: fluctuations beneath usable masks and appearances of stability, the need to make judgments and decisions. Engagement with byt and photography seem to require and determine a critical and self-critical consciousness. By photographing Soviet byt as not-yet-determined, as non-events, Mikhailov takes a critical position toward historification produced by the Soviet state. The critique of everyday life involves a critique of political life, in that everyday life already contains and constitutes such a critique.

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