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A Revolution of Things

In the 1990s, artist Vladimir Arkhipov started to collect home-made objects in homes, markets, and junk shops. Today, his archive is both a document of poverty and a vision of liberated labour.

A homemade TV aerial photographed for Vladimir Arkhipov's 'Home-Made Russia'. (FUEL)

In the 1970s, the Hungarian Maoist—and later, liberal—Miklos Haraszti did what Maoists in those days tended to do. He got a job in a factory, in order to, as they’d say, ‘serve the people’, and maybe expiate a bit of middle-class guilt as well. What he found, as he related when he wrote it all down, in a book that became a minor international hit, A Worker in a Worker’s State, were conditions which would have been familiar to industrial workers anywhere at the time. Piece rates, speed-ups, management disconnected from the workers, and a difficult struggle on the part of those workers to organise and resist—but with the cruelly ironic twist that this was in a state that claimed to be a socialist state, a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Haraszti’s only glimpse of communism, as he saw it, was in something else happening in the factory.

Genuine communism resided in what Haraszti (in the English translation) called ‘homers’. These were products made on the sly by workers for their own enjoyment, or as gifts. In the context of sweated, uncreative labour, ‘for us’, he writes, ‘the potential of milling machines, lathes and borers stimulates and at the same time limits our imaginations. The raw material is chiefly metal. The objects that can be made are key-holders, bases for flower-pots, ashtrays, pencil boxes, rulers and set squares, little boxes to bring salt to the factory for the morning break, bath mats, counters to teach children simple arithmetic, pendants made from broken milling-teeth, wheels for roulette-type games, dice, magnetised soap-holders, TV aerials, locks and bolts, coat-holders, knives, daggers, knuckle-dusters and so on.’

Drum machine photographed for Vladimir Arkhipov’s ‘Home-Made Russia’. (Fuel)

First, Haraszti points out, this is an example of real, spontaneous creative labour, because the decision of what to create or construct is always made by the worker himself. ‘In place of the order “you make that” comes a question, “what can I make?”’ He continues: ‘the worker who makes a “homer” uses his head and keeps his eyes open… it is the only form possible of free and creative work. The tiny gaps which the factory allows us become natural islands where, like free men, we can mine hidden riches, gather fruits, and pick up treasures at our feet.’ The ‘homer’ also has its own distinctive aesthetic. ‘They are created out of junk, from useless scraps of iron, from leftovers, and this ensures that their beauty comes first and foremost from the labour itself’.

The artist Vladimir Arkhipov’s book Home-Made Russia, first published in 2006 and just reissued by Fuel, is a big book of ‘homers’, hundreds upon hundreds of them, all lovingly illustrated and described by their makers. Arkhipov started to document and collect these ‘Other Things’, as he calls them, in markets and junk shops and people’s houses in Russia and in several cases in Ukraine (making the book’s English title unfortunate) during the 1990s. Their date of making ranges from the ’50s onwards, but the idea of documenting them is really a product of the ’90s: in that decade thousands, maybe millions of people sold their possessions in informal street markets in cities across Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space, throwing open the objects of their everyday, private lives. Along with all the official, mainstream paraphernalia of Soviet life, much of it beginning its gradual journey to eBay, you could find dozens of these… things.

Crutch shovel photographed for Vladimir Arkhipov’s ‘Home-Made Russia’. (Fuel)

The amount of different stuff made—mostly in Soviet factories when the boss wasn’t looking, though there’s a fair few ‘Other Things’ made in the countryside here as well—is dizzying. Sure, there’s a fair bit of ordinary improvisation, where broken teapots have been reconstructed with offcuts from the metalworks, TV aerials made out of soldered ends of forks, power cables, baskets, or bicycle wheels, a radio whose casing was made out of a soap dish, a flowerpot made out of a melted vinyl record, pens made out of pipettes, and so on. There’s also scores of toys—wooden machine guns, trains made out of old cans and straws, a corduroy dog, and a caterpillar made out of Kinder Surprise eggs and vegetable bags. But there’s also a drum machine, a ‘House for a Queen Bee’ made out of a hair-curler, a ‘Christmas Tree Lights Commutator’, with ‘a relay on every garland’, a film subtitling device, and an amazing angular post-punk electric guitar made in a dacha outside Moscow. ‘I made it for playing like a crazy bastard’, its maker tells Arkhipov. ‘The sound it makes is wild—you can never tell what it’ll do next’.

Given how many of these objects come from the chaotic 1980s, when the Soviet system first wobbled (many of its ‘makers’ lament Gorbachev, particularly for his restrictions on the sale of alcohol) and then collapsed, leading to arguably the biggest fall in living standards in recorded history, it’s easy to see these objects as just documents of poverty. Often they are just people making do in the face of shortages and privation, and even the more creative objects are often a response to the boredom of factory work and Soviet life. Yet there’s also incredible ingenuity here, and a lot of the time the makers of these Other Things are obviously very proud of them. Several thing-makers explain to Arkhipov that they could easily have bought a ‘real’, mass-produced version of the object they were trying to emulate, but preferred to make their own, because it was more fun to do so.

‘Briefcase’ petrol can photographed for Vladimir Arkhipov’s ‘Home-Made Russia’. (Fuel)

Obviously, this isn’t just a Soviet story, and things like this have been made everywhere; Arkhipov compiled a second book of Other Things which ranges into Italy, Ireland, Britain, and Spain. The point is perhaps that these constructions went further in the Soviet system than anywhere else, due to a combination of shortages and a notorious ‘poor labour discipline’ (‘we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us’, as the Soviet quip goes) which generations of Eastern European neoliberals have lamented. Arkhipov has pointedly commented, given that the book’s new edition has come out during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that ‘I have always considered my project to be humanistic and anti-Putin. It exists contrary to the imperialist cultural policy of Russia.’ This is surely true to some extent—nothing could be further than these strange, cranky, ingenious, functionalist objects from the vainglorious, touchy pomposity of design under both Stalinism and Putinism. However, there’s a darker thought that one could have reading this book, that these objects reflect all the energy put into private life under both systems, as people disconnected themselves from politics—something which has had appalling consequences, as most Russians appear to accept, at least for now, the Russian army razing entire cities to the ground in their ‘brother nation’ to the south-west.

For Haraszti, the point of these objects was that they were little glimpses of a liberated life and free labour. He argued that a democratic socialism might resemble a kind of ‘Great Homer’, where every object might be a little like this, and created in a similar way; a notion similar to the idea of the ‘object as comrade’ that once exercised socialist designers in the first years after the 1917 revolution. Each of these objects is personal, and has a personality, a story. In an age of in-built obsolescence there’s something very radical in that.