A familiar presence in Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Hamburg, in July Stubnitz with be making its first ever trip to London to become one of the venues at Bloc 2012. RA's Holly Dicker met with the ship's captain Urs Blaser, otherwise known as Blo, to unpack the complex and ambitious project.
Stubnitz was built in 1964 at the Volkswerft Stralsund, one of the four shipbuilding yards belonging to the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). The 80m-long vessel was devised to process and store the catch of the GDR's flotilla of smaller vessels fishing the Baltic. They were fitted with four fridges, able to hold 1,400 tons of frozen fish, and 30 cabins supporting a crew of up to 60 people living and working on board. Stubnitz and her 49 sisters were integral to the GDR's fishing industry, but when its government disbanded at the end of the Cold War, the fleet fell into the hands of its former operators to sell.
A living arts space
It was at this stage that Urs Blaser, AKA Blo, entered into the picture. Blo had been peddling "a mobile tactical media unit" based out of a converted Mercedes Hanomag around Europe for the previous decade. It was, in his mind, a platform for cultural exchange and "physical networking" facilitated through a travelling series of audiovisual events. When he found out about the ship, however, he knew that it might be a perfect way to do the same on a larger scale. After two years of fundraising, deals and appeals with the fleet's operator, he acquired the Stubnitz—the "oldest and the ugliest" of its siblings.
It would be another two years, however, before she set off on her maiden voyage. The project involved transforming its cargo holds into two concert halls, each equipped to stage live and electronic music shows, as well as exhibitions, performances and multimedia events. A lounge area and bar was also constructed out of the ship's stern, with the deck above acting as a further outdoor space. "In those first two years, the troubles grew every month further and bigger," recalls Blo, a sound artist and engineer with (then) no maritime knowledge whatsoever. "It was learning by doing, in the worst possible way."
As well as hosting events, Stubnitz has been documenting its activities since the beginning from its on board A/V lab—a ramshackle assortment of gear and aging computer monitors. Aside from regular radio broadcasts, they edit and archive all events that take place on the ship—a number of recordings that now numbers in the thousands.
In reflection of the ship's dual function, its crew is roughly divided into shipping and events staff—and even then the lines are fairly blurred. For example, due to the very nature of the enterprise, those entering into the cultural side can engage in maritime roles and vice versa. The result is a living and working dynamic that is truly unique—a blend of traditionally hierarchical shipping structures and arts-based socialism, manifesting in a motley team of young Goths sporting Mohawks to weathered, boiler-suited seamen.
Since its maiden voyage back in 1994 to St Petersburg, Stubnitz has touched down in 15 different ports and ten countries across Northern Europe. Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Hamburg are just three of the cities where the ship has spent regular and extended spells programming events. As a roving neutral venue, Stubnitz has remained outside of any scene or genre, open to any and all.
There have been many highlights in the ship's colourful career. Autechre and Monolake performed in 2005 at Newcastle's Version festival. They once hosted 30 concerts in ten days at Copenhagen Jazz Festival. Ricardo Villalobos played back-to-back with Richie Hawtin in Amsterdam. Those are some of Blo's personal favourites—and fine examples of the project's musical flexibility. But despite its multiple achievements and endurance over the last 20 years, its fate remains uncertain. Will Stubnitz be around another 20 years more? Even Blo couldn't wager a guess: "It never was a kind of project with a perspective, we just tried to live with it from one month to the other. 20 years later it is still afloat but it is still the same: a project with no perspective."