Thursday, April 25, 2024

“Zuri Burns” – A Sift Among the Ashes

Cover of a multi-DVD set about the Zurich occupation movement

I was afraid of Zurich. I passed through the airport years ago on a two-leg flight. The border agents contemplated deporting me for Schengen over-stay, even though I was on my way to the USA. I paid $50 for lunch. Saw the private jets parked in a line on their own runway. Spied some of the beautiful people strolling by. “This is another world,” I thought, and it’s not mine.
But I really wanted to learn about the intense squatting and occupation movement of the 1980s that gave rise to the Rote Fabrik cultural center, and the people who fought so hard against the police in the private banking capitol of Europe.
So we went. Yes, it’s expensive, but you can catch a meal in a box at the Coop supermarket and eat it on a bench by the river. And if you figure out the tram system you can swing around the city like a monkey through the trees. In short, it’s doable. Plus I bought a cool used raincoat for 15 francs.
The story of the Zurich squatting movement offers an important urban model of motivated popular development. And it’s still happening.
The movements which began with a bang in Zurich in 1980 have had two important outcomes – the Rote Fabrik cultural center, and the Kraftwerk 1 cooperative housing development. Squatting is ongoing, with new occupations popping up regularly. The artists, the punks, and the working classes all have a good chance in Zurich at what they call “social luxury”.

I only met a few people, and I wasn’t an energetic ethnographer. But the visit did clear up one strong misconception I have held.

Forget New York

Ten years ago, in Occupation Culture, I proposed the "New York model" of a squatting movement in which artists played a central role. This was against (or with) the assumption that politicals alone do effective squatting.
After my visit to Zurich I can see that the model of occupations driven by culturally-engaged people is a general one, not at all special to NYC. You can indeed create the conditions in the city in which you wish to live. You simply need a little more of what Matt Metzger once called “sand”. (And be ready to sacrifice your NYC “real world” career.)
The squat-based cultural scene in NYC is static. There have been no new actions of public building occupation since the wild ‘90s, and some of those that existed are legalized. The management of the few tiny cultural institutions that came out of it, and the valorization of their legacies are sustained by the work of a handful of aged activists.
The Zurich scene, like that in Madrid where I live, is multi-generational. New occupations are driven by young people who are working within a well-defined tradition with an intelligent set of playbooks and creative tactics.

Not So Cold, but Everything Closed

I picked a bad time to visit. The weather was nice, though. Like everywhere now, spring came early. The forsythia were blazing yellow along the banks of the Limmat, and we didn’t need our heavy jackets. But it turned out the Shedhalle, the contemporary art section of the Rote Fabrik cultural center, was closed for reconstruction. The two major left infoshops, the Fermento and the Kasama were also closed.
I just missed crossing paths with expat squatter artist and musician Peter Missing (#petermissing), who offered to take me to the “post office squat”.
So I parked for a few days in the Sozialarchiv, a small palace of study to see what I could make of the movement I had assumed was definitively in the past.

Image from a period journal from the K-set archive

The movement, as it turns out, is very well historicized. A tremendous five-CDROM set of videos explains the Zurich movement from the ‘60s through the ‘80s over eight hours of video and narration. This is built off the archives of efficient and energetic street media collectives back in the day. Hausbesetzer-Epos: allein machen sie dich ein (2010) is an effective and affecting overview.
One of the librarians kindly gifted me an extra copy she had of the basic history of the movement, Wo-Wo-Wonige (2006). And I picked up a copy of a recent history of the Rote Fabrik Bewegung tut gut – Rote Fabrik (2021) at the cooperative bookstore in the Volkshaus. So I have plenty to chew on with my limited German.
It will take me a time to absorb it.

The Red Factory

I did wander the Rote Fabrik during a rainy weekday when it was all but deserted. The Shedhalle art exhbition and event space – (to call it a “museum” is wrong; it’s more like a cultural generator) – was under renovation. It was full of scaffolding and workers. The cafe was locked up. A few men were working setting lights in the theater, a well-appointed space painted black which adjoined a small bar room.

I wandered the corridors. The stairwell is decorated with posters of past events. All the studios were closed. In a classroom space with windows overlooking the yard I saw the backpacks of the young people who looked out curiously at me as I passed the printing studio. They were receiving a lecture there.
The Fabrik is on the edge of the lake. There’s a dock; in fact there’s a ship-building workshop and a boating club. Surely a pleasant place in the summertime.

A Bit’o bolo-bolo

As for the huge cooperative housing project recently constructed, I did not visit, nor even learn about it until later. Comrades from NYC are well acquainted with the Swiss urbanist Hans Widmer who strived to imagine a “anti-capitalist social utopia”. His “bolo” concepts are reflected in the Kraftwerk 1 development.

I didn’t get to see Kraftwerk 1. Widmer’s publisher (and also mine) was to visit just after me, and he and his partner stayed there. (Blogger turning green.) Miguel Martinez, my onetime comrade in our late squatting research group SqEK, also visited last year as part of the INURA conference. They gave him the 10-cent tour, and he produced a reflection on his visit, a text called “Social Luxury”.
In Kraftwerk 1, individuals have small rooms, sleeping spaces, and access to large common areas like kitchen, living rooms, library, and laundry. This is the format of the Ganas commune in NYC where I lived for some months. Ganas had TV rooms in its different houses, as well as music rehearsal and media production rooms. And a swimming pool.
The housing cooperative includes a food depot linked to a garden coop, a rural link Widmer considered vital for his urban bolos.
Miguel maintains that Kraftwerk 1 living “provides happiness” through increased social life. This is a project, and requires work; living in common is demanding. I recall the strong centripetal force of the Ganas commune. No one really wanted you to leave, to spend your day outside the compound.
He writes of “communal social security” during moments of crisis, and the general support in all the mundane tasks of living, especially childcare. This is a true thing which I have observed. Commune babies are famously self-reliant people, full of confidence and unafraid of the most precarious of life strategies – being an artist.
Despite the great advantages of this mode of living, it is not for everyone. It can be hard work. Ganas spent a lot of time on conflict resolution, and the magazine Communities devotes a lot of space to the question.
Overall, conceptions and realities of “social luxury” both are over-shadowed by a world in which we are endlessly treated to visions of private luxury. The sense of perpetual dissatisfaction that motivates so many aspects of life under capitalism can make even a utopia seem like a drab and confining place.
Not to me.
Writing about this now, and thinking back on my brief time in Ganas makes me sad and envious. Sad that so few of us can have these expanded possibilities in our lives, and envious that, despite the present luxurious fulfilment of my materials needs, I am among the excluded.
Well, I’ve dipped my toe into the Zurich experience here, and there’s a lot more to come. Those Swiss are clever, and have indeed figured a lot of things out that many in Europe and USA could learn from.


Midnight Notes, “Fire and Ice: Space Wars in Zurich”
The original brilliant description of the movement, including their innovative tactics

Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv

Doris Senn, Mischa Brutschin, Hausbesetzer-Epos : allein machen sie dich ein (2010)

T. Stahel, Wo-Wo-Wonige! Stadt- und wohnpolitische Bewegungen in Zürich nach 1968 (2006)
Internet Archive Scholar › access › https: › eprint

Interessengruppe Rote Fabrik (Hg.), Bewegung tut gut – Rote Fabrik (2021)

Martínez, Miguel A. (2023) On social luxury. Some reflections resulting from the INURA meeting, Zurich, 2023.

p.m. (Hans Widmer), bolo’bolo (2011, 1984, Autonomedia)

INURA – 2023 – Zurich -- International Network for Urban Research and Action


An ETH Zürich design studio project from spring, 2023, explicates Hans Widmer's ideas and Kraftwerk 1 --

Communities magazine, formerly published by Foundation for Intentional Community, which maintains a global directory of collective living projects at

Onetime squatter artist Ingo Giezendanner, aka Grrrr, holds one of his meticulously drawn books. They'll be at the Allied Productions booth at this year's NY Art Book Fair, as Ingo has visited and worked at Petit Versailles