Provitreff provides space and opportunities for expression for a diverse range of cultures. Organisation is the responsibility of event organisers. The non-profit-making art, handicrafts, literary, music, theatre, dance, body therapy, exercise, etc. events encourage dialogue and interaction with various creative artists and groups.
The Provitreff Association
Provitreff has association (Verein) status. The aim of the Association is to make the premises at Sihlquai 240 available to organisers of cultural and non-commercial events as well as to groups and individuals as a space for movement and exercise. Access is deliberately low-threshold to ensure the venue provides a space for people and groups in the city of Zurich for whom gentrification and rising prices have impeded access to comparable venues.
The Association is constituted by the general meeting of members. Members can be individuals or groups who are interested in the Provitreff project or who regularly attend the venue.
The Association generates income to safeguard operation by paid staff by renting out the venue.
In addition, the Association raises funds through a profit levy on event organisers. This money goes into a solidarity fund that is divided between political projects in Switzerland and abroad in accordance with certain principles.
This is one of the first files Zurich City Police compiled on Provitreff, dating from the 1980s. It is amused, almost sympathetic, in tone. However, the language became much more official in the many files that were to follow. By the time the secret files scandal came to light in 1989, the City Police had compiled a thick dossier on the venue. Its content is astonishing, often comical, but mainly instructive.
On the date of the report above – 18 May 1984 – officers were spying on an internal opening festival. At that time, the police were secretly collecting huge amounts of information on anyone who was even remotely suspected of being critical of the state. They created a file for each individual or organisation they observed, in which they recorded information on an index card. Their primary targets were foreign nationals, primarily Soviet citizens, but they also deliberately targeted left-wing activists. In 1989, as the secret files scandal unfolded, there were found to be no fewer than 800,000 files at federal level. This was without the cantonal and city files. Between 1964 and 1989 alone, Zurich City Police created 55,000 files about which the public knew nothing.
On 18 May 1984, the police were spying on circus and theatre groups celebrating the fact that they had just taken over Provitreff. The building they had taken over at Sihlquai 240 already had a long history. It was built in 1871 as a foundry, smithy and mechanical workshop. Just over 30 years later, in 1904, it housed a disinfection centre, which used chemicals to clean the clothing and furniture of people with smallpox or typhus.
After that, the listed factory building stood empty for a long time. Then, in 1980, a turbulent year in which the opera house riots sparked off a nationwide youth movement, the Drahtschmidli youth centre, now known as Dynamo, adopted Sihlquai 240 as a temporary meeting place.
It was here that youth workers gave young people a space detached from the stress of everyday life and restrictive control, offering opportunities for development and a sympathetic ear while the Drahtschmidli premises were being renovated. That made the building – alongside the AJZ independent youth centre and Rote Fabrik [red factory] – one of the flashpoints of political events associated with freedom, youth culture and rebellion against the suffocating conventionality that dominated Swiss towns and cities throughout the period the movement was active. (The provisional nature of the centre was subsequently reflected in its name, the “Treff” [meeting place], later the “Provitreff”).
However, since Sihlquai 240 was an offshoot of Drahtschmidli, and therefore a state-run centre, unlike the autonomous AJZ and Rote Fabrik, the police did not yet feel any strong urge to secretly document happenings down by the Limmat. That changed abruptly in 1984, when the city handed Sihlquai 240 over to Circus-Theatre Federlos, Spuntengruppe Levante and Kulturgruppe Houdini.
Now that it was run privately and was separate from mainstream Zurich culture, every movement, sound and meeting at Provitreff was a source of suspicion. From the police’s perspective, this was entirely justified since the “youth agitators” (as they were called on the index cards) who frequented the place had connections to the political driving forces behind the far-left movement. Nevertheless, what the police spies reported was so trivial as to be almost laughable:
Maybe the menu contained hidden clues about the next demonstration? Regardless of whatever the snoops must have thought, it is certain that Provitreff was a hotbed of political activity. People held discussions on Latin America, trade with the Global South, the prison and asylum system, the International Monetary Fund, housing shortages and urban development. And it was a meeting place where people got together to cook, watch films, stage concerts, hold parties and organise bars.
As a result, the publicly visible side of the 1980s youth movement lived on in Provitreff and elsewhere: left-wing, anti-globalisation politics, arts and a space for young people to be themselves and socialise on the one hand, facing a rigid, stiff and strict state and police repression on the other. Zurich was still a lifeless city. All night life had to end at 11 p.m. and only four clubs were permitted to stay open until 4 a.m. – and only then if they did not serve alcohol. Restrictions on Zurich’s hospitality sector would not be relaxed until the 1990s.
The fact that Sihlquai 240 was in the heart of the city, surrounded by trees and had a riverside outdoor area, a kitchen and an extensive interior all helped make it a popular cultural space within Zurich.
But it takes more than a good location and leafy garden to make a place a success. Character comes from ideas and attitudes. Article 3 of the Articles of Association of 1993 (Provitreff’s users had decided to give it charitable association status) stated that: “The aim of the Provitreff Association is to provide space and opportunities for expression for a diverse range of cultures. The non-profit-making events should encourage dialogue and interaction with various creative artists and groups. They should help break down prejudices and oppose racism and sexism.” A slightly reformulated version of these sentences is still in the Articles of Association today.
The building underwent major renovation in 1998/99, during which the kitchen and bar area were refurbished and the technical systems and an office were installed in the attic. Cloakrooms and showers were fitted in the movement space. Not long afterwards, the team almost saw all the good work destroyed when the once-in-a-century high water at Whitsun 1999 saw water levels in the Limmat surge to the point where the river nearly flooded the bar area.
It was around this time that Provitreff began to pay team members, who up to then had worked on a voluntary basis. Even though it is now on a professional footing, Provitreff remains a place for non-commercial arts and culture. Admission is often incomparably cheap, as is the beer. Any profits generated by the events that the venue hosts are donated to social or political projects. Anyone can take part, regardless of whether they have experience, can draw an audience or have links with the arts scene. The only condition is that people have to come to Provitreff in person and present an idea that is non-commercial, charitable or deserves support. Importance is also attached to providing a space for groups who face discrimination.
Since the 1990s, the 15–20-person Provitreff team have provided space for a capoeira group; a pencak silat (Indonesian martial art) club; boxing for women, lesbians and intersex, non-binary, trans and genderless people; a range of dance and theatre events; karate and – of course – innumerable party nights. “Autumn Crocus Party”, ”Jesus was a Zombie”, ”Sperrzone” (dress code: cyber, fetish, black), ”Ethiopian Christmas Special”, ”Ghettoblaster Party”, ”Underground Hell Party”, ”Tibetan Losar Party” (Tibetan new year), ”Offpride” (alternative Pride event), ”Kritnet Soliparty” (critical migration and border regime research lab), ”The Best of Funk”, ”Bad Taste Party”, ”Dancehall Explosion”, “Balkans Party”, ”Heldenbar”, ”Gambia 50th Anniversary Party”, ”Flowers, Boots & Bones” (Gothic, punk, rock, new wave), ”Backslash Festival”, ”Boschbar”, ”Feel the Vibe – party for the deaf”, ”Rave for Trans Healthcare”, “Molotov" (rock night), ”2011 Trunkar Disco” (Bollywood and bhangra beats), ”Thirty and Still Dirty” and ”Habesha Night” are just a few of the events that have taken place – and still take place – at Provitreff. These are interspersed with punk, ska, reggae and hip-hop concerts and much more besides.
Provitreff still spreads cosmopolitan spirit, warmth and urbanity here in Zurich. It is easy to forget today that until not so long ago the cultural life we take for granted was anything but straightforward. So let us take one last look at the stuffy place that Zurich used to be, complete with incorrect spelling, barely concealed contempt and curious officialese: