Zi-fer-blat. Not familiar with the word or concept? Stuart O’Hara speaks to Ivan Mitin, the Muscovite moustache behind the pay-per-minute community kitchen ahead of opening of its latest establishment in Liverpool’s very own Albert Dock.
The word ‘quiz’ has origins so lovely it’s a shame they’re a myth. In 1791, Irish impresario James Daly bet he could introduce a new word into the lexicon in just 24 hours. That night, he went around daubing ‘quiz’ in white paint on Dublin’s walls. By evening the following day, people were asking little of each other but the meaning of the word. The most popular definition was ‘some kind of mysterious test’.
Except he didn’t, and they weren’t. A lovely, false etymology goes into print again. But what about ZIFERBLAT? That word’s been heard in Liverpool recently and sounds invented. But German speakers’ ears prick up as they half-remember an old-fashioned term… clock face? Quaint, huh? OK, so it’s a real word, but how does that relate to a poetry collective dispensing Pushkin on Moscow’s streets? What do 1940s French cinema and unorthodox business models have in common? And how much would you say your time cost?
Muscovite entrepreneur Ivan Mitin is the man behind the confusion – and he makes it sound simple. The origins of Ziferblat – a creative-cum-social space – start six years ago with a guerrilla approach to Russian verse. “I wanted to remind people there was such a thing as poetry,” Mitin tells me, for what must be the umpteenth time he’s recounted these beginnings to the uninitiated. “I started [the event] Pocket Poetry half as a joke, handing out cards with Pushkin on them. I’m not a poet: in fact, I didn’t understand poetry, which was why I did it. People really liked it, so I invited them to cafés. Every new meeting, more joined. It got harder to find venues; I was renting theatres, and I had the idea of creating my own place for such projects.”
After much traipsing around Moscow, the nomadic Pocket Poetry collective settled in Ivan’s new common space. “I met people with money who didn’t know how to spend it, and we rented a small space in central Moscow: the Treehouse. [Users] didn’t pay for their time; it was based on voluntary donations. Everybody was a ‘microtenant’, renting it with us. Within a year  it became so over-occupied I decided to start over – the same kind of thing, but elsewhere in Moscow. We found a place we liked, but the rent was really high, so I thought about formalising what was already happening. I thought, ‘Maybe I can charge the microtenants by the hour?’ but that’s boring. What if you stay an hour and five minutes? So I divided the hour as small as possible – minutes – and people only pay for their time to think in the space.”
Once the pay-per-minute model was established, Ivan’s enterprise needed a name. “I held a few parties for people to come up with stupid words. At some point one person said ‘Ziferblat’, one word in the middle of thousands, but it sounded nice in Russian. Something old but not so old, with feeling. I googled it, and all I found was an old French movie called Le Café de Cadrans – Zifferblatt in German! – about a couple who run a café in post-war Paris. They invite their friends, give free drinks away. It sounded like the Treehouse. It was a sign. People don’t take names seriously. If you do something good, they’ll like it; if you don’t, they won’t like it whatever it’s called. Even a stupid name can feel good in the end.”
If we were to be cynical, Ziferblat could be accused of monetising people’s time. But that’s the world we live in. People are treated as assets at work and on the road, and advertising has been quantifying our attention forever. The economic model (charging six pence a minute) is two fingers up to capitalist orthodoxy on market forces and competition: any Ziferblat is largely independent of its fellow branches, and succeeds or fails on the basis of what microtenants use it for, and their ideas. But do the sums add up? Can self-catering office space be sustained on pennies per minute? “We worked out the Treehouse cost 50 roubles [£1.50] per hour. I based it on the population density in the Treehouse, half the size of Ziferblat, about 50-100 people per day. If that many spent two hours each in Ziferblat, I’d be rich! Some new expenses arose, but the numbers were much bigger, 200-300 per day at first, and my wife and the investors worked there so we didn’t have to hire many people. [Currently, Ziferblat employees are reimbursed in free hours.] By the second month we’d made back the money we’d spent setting it up!”
There are now 15 Ziferblats in four countries across Europe, with Liverpool’s Albert Dock space joining the largest Ziferblat to date (Manchester’s 3000-square foot Edge Street premises) on its opening in 2015. Rome wasn’t built in a day, of course, but its empire did fall when it got unwieldy. How much of Ivan’s time does Ziferblat occupy? “All my time, 20 times over! But I can try something else now, new for Ziferblat but not within it. We’re building a village, 100 km outside Moscow. There’ll be houses, a lake, meeting places: I aim to make a large-scale Ziferblat. People can stay for a few nights, but there will be stuff outside, so people can help farmers with their work, learn to milk a cow, all those things.”
Such an ambitious commune is not just geographically distant from Liverpool. Visa difficulties have stopped Ivan visiting our Ziferblat since it opened in August, but he did spend a day here in early 2014, recuperating after opening the Shoreditch branch. “I didn’t know if Ziferblat would work in this country. I spent a month in London secretly working and decided to have a break. My wife and I spent one day in Liverpool and one in Manchester. I liked the atmosphere, visited the docks where Ziferblat is now, and went to Strawberry Fields where I stole – err, took – a souvenir. It was some broken lampshade.”
That’s the first time Ivan’s admitted to any apprehension. But after a few years Ziferblatting around Europe, there must be some success stories? “There are lots, it’s hard to pick one. But we have a piano in every Ziferblat and anyone can play it.” (Liverpool’s instrument is still in transit.) “This guy, Kirill Richter, came to practise and compose. He was immediately noticed by other players and they started to perform. Also, we had an old piano, getting older. It was obvious we needed a replacement, so he said as a joke ‘Let’s gather money for a new piano’. His concerts in Ziferblat are always super busy, and after two days we had over a thousand pounds, because people wanted to hear him play on a good piano.”
Ivan mentions that it’s easier for him to set up a business in Russia. As such, he has a UK partner: a few days after the interview with Ivan, Ben Davies, who runs Ziferblat in the UK, is keen to emphasise that it isn’t a café, despite the extensive self-catering facilities. Instead, he focuses on its potential as a creative hub. “[Ideally] we’d open one anywhere there are… I’ll call them urban centres with different quarters. It’s not necessarily about size. Liverpool [is small] but there’s more going on per square foot than many bigger cities.”
We talk about how Liverpool, bound on one side by a river too wide to contain both shores in the same conurbation, unlike London or Paris, is compact but fertile. The Albert Dock Ziferblat is not in a quayside unit – its entrance leads you away from passing tourists, offering a relatively private workspace. Washing-up dishes before a view of diamantine waters, Hamilton Square Station, and Cammell Laird, it’s hard not to be optimistic about the novels, sonatas, romances, and projects that could start on these couches and armchairs, if only the right people – no, the right ideas – come in.