Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times
Anke Nowottne in Stirka, a launderette and cafe in central St. Petersburg that the German photographer opened as an art project.
Cafe Stirka 40, a combination bar and launderette, which is pretty unusual for this city, is actually an art project.
It is a small, cozy place to have a coffee or a beer and/or wash your laundry in one of its three washing machines, but its Berlin-based owner Anke Nowottne presented it as her graduation project it earned her a degree at the Zurich School of Art and Design last year.
«It\\s a conceptual work,» said Nowottne, who studied photography in St. Petersburg, Germany and Switzerland, about Stirka.
«I didn\\t want to do any pictures but to put together an everyday picture of life and defend it in front of my professors in Switzerland.
«It was a gesture not to do an exhibition in Zurich but to open Stirka in St. Petersburg. My partner Alexei Lukyanov went to Zurich as a manager of Stirka to support me and presented the project in Russian with me translating it was more like a performance. And people there didn\\t fully understand, whether we made it up or just thought it up, whether it exists in reality or not.»
Nowottne, who works as a designer and photographer, took part in an exhibition, «Homo Photos. Self-Portraits of Photographers,» at the Museum of City Sculpture in March and April. From September she will be teaching at the University of Applied Sciences in Dortmund, Germany. She also designed Stirka\\s logo and postcards.
Stifled for funds, Nowottne brought the furniture in her van from Switzerland, and built the metal-leg tables herself with help from neighboring plumbers.
The three «semi-professional» washing machines and two dryers were delivered by sea.
«I persuaded one company and they brought it here by boat for free,» said Nowottne, admitting she still had to pay substantial costs at the Russian border.
The idea occurred to Nowottne when she studied at St. Petersburg\\s Mukhina Academy of Art and Design in the early 2000s.
«There are such places in Germany, they are called Waschsalon, and there are many, many machines there. You drop a coin, wash your things and then go home; it\\s very convenient, especially for students,» she said.
«I missed such a place then, because I didnt have very many things and it was impossible to bring things to the [Russian] laundry and then wait for a week. At the same time I wasn\\t used to washing with my own hands.»
Indeed, most of Stirka\\s clientele are foreign students, although all kinds of young people, from Russian students to rock musicians and DJs drop by for a drink, to meet friends and to attend an occasional music or art event.
Arty pop band Pep-See played an unplugged «secret» gig there in winter, while, earlier this month, Alexei Nikonov of punk band Posledniye Tanki v Parizhe recited his poems and performed a few songs backed by Sergei Yefimov, better known as Doctor, a singer with the local alt-rock band Vragi and Stirka\\s bartender and occasional DJ.
According to the message that Nikonov left in Stirka\\s guestbook, reciting poems at the place, «while laundry is being washed,» reminded him of the late «dirty realist» American author Charles Bukowski.
Stirka\\s regulars even include a babushka who lives in a building across the street and comes to do her washing frequently.
Robert Plant\\s drummer Clive Deamer who stayed at upscale hotel Astoria when the ex-Led Zeppelin singer came to perform his one-off Russian concert in April dropped by Stirka to wash some of his belongings for unknown reasons.
«I dont know how he heard about us. He left a message in the guestbook asking us to bring his stuff to his suite at the Astoria because he was in a hurry. But when he was told that we dont have such a service, he came back himself the next day,» said Nowottne, adding that Deamer gave a few tickets to Plants show to Stirka\\s staff.
Bartender Yefimov is also responsible for Stirkas music events, but prefers not to distribute news about the upcoming events too broadly because of the place\\s small size.
«Id advertise them after they have taken place rather than in advance,» he said by phone this week, but added that some information is posted on Stirka\\s web site and a few friendly sites,» he said.
Yefimov said his choice of acts is based on the spirit of the place, rather than personal taste.
«When I think about somebody, I think whether this person is good for this place and whether he or she is able to create an event,» he said.
With Moloko club\\s posters on the wall and a clientele that looks like the public of the popular underground rock club that aims primarily at students, Stirka has been described as a «younger sister of Moloko,» according to Yefimov.
DJs perform at Stirka one or twice a week, said Nowottne.
«We then bring dryers from the back room and DJs put their turntables on them,» she said. «But dryers are not as heavy as washing machines.»
Opened in October 2004, Stirka is conveniently located in the city center, right in the middle of the underground-bar route from Tsinik to Datscha, but the location also has its limitations. Since the place is subrented, the running costs are high, and the electricity supply is not powerful enough for more washing machines.
Nowottne said she had to go through serious bureaucratic difficulties, especially because local officials had difficulty categorizing the place.
«It was crazy, I don\\t remember how many months we were working with it and how many times we were close to quitting and getting out of it altogether,» she said.
«Actually we had to deal with two departments, a laundry department and a cafe department. In the event our official status is as a laundry with a food-selling department.\\»
She said the difficulty in obtaining a liquor license, which is needed to sell drinks stronger than beer, is also the result of Stirka\\s unusual status.
Nowottne said the staff does not try too hard to create and maintain Stirka\\s nice and quiet atmosphere and have no serious security to conduct «face control,» as many other places do.
«We haven\\t had problems as yet, and I am glad because I am not a big fan of such measures,» she said.
«Probably they are necessary at some places, but we cope without them. It has been normal, sane people that have come from the very start.
«Maybe its because we dont sell strong drinks, so it might change, I don\\t know. So far no problems.»
Stirka\\s fastest professional washing machine (the silver one) does its job in 35 minutes while it takes about 55 minutes for the other two.
The use of one machine costs 100 rubles, which also includes a cup of coffee or tea. Bochkaryov beer on tap costs 50 rubles for a 0.5 liter glass. Chess sets and cards are available for you while you wait.
Stirka is open daily from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m. during weekdays, and from 10 a.m. until 1 a.m. or later on weekends.