Government Tries to Shut Down Geneva’s Counterculture

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Subculture and counterculture are the backbone of the art world, challenging the established order and values, preventing the arts from falling into complacency and decadence. Much like a single party political system, a cultural scene devoid of counterculture is doomed to be stagnant, elitist, and ultimately counterproductive both to its own progress and to the fulfillment of its members. Yet, as valuable as this natural opposition to mainstream culture may be, local governments seem ever more intent on shutting it down for no better reason than conservative stubbornness and self aggrandizement.

A prime example of such egotistical government is the ongoing struggle that faces l’Usine (one of Geneva’s most notorious alternative haunts) and the Geneva city council. The abridged story goes as follows: about 20 years ago, a group of people took the initiative to make constructive use of an abandoned building that used to be part of a factory which has since fallen into disuse. They did it up at their own expense and developed it into an independent, non-profit cultural center with the sole aim of promoting the arts in all their forms. This, however, did not sit well with the city council, whose world view did not have place for such an organisation and they proceeded to pressure l’Usine to shut down over the years. This was neither the first nor the last clash that Geneva city council had with its local underground scene; over the past 10 years they have successfully shut down several comparable cultural venues, among which are Artamis and Rhino, but where others failed l’Usine triumphed in the face of adversity and has managed to stay open and active. Today, l’Usine serves an average of 5,000 persons per week (more than any other venue in the city) and provides a wide variety of social and cultural activities for the alternative community.

However, the venue’s future has now been put in question once more by Geneva’s city council; they have approved a new law that imposes numerous restrictions on the owners and operators of establishments dedicated to serving food, beverages, and hospitality. Among the many conditions it imposes on such establishments, it requires every bar within to have a separate alcohol vending license on grounds of public safety. They also require the owner, as well as every employee to be officially qualified to exercise their function (that is to say: be in possession of a certificate either granted or approved by the government). Furthermore those running the establishment must have the express authorization to do so from the owners of the premises to do so if they are not the owners.

These are all problematic for l’Usine as 18 separate associations operate in the building, there are 5 separate bars within the establishment, most of the staff (whilst professional) don’t necessarily have certificates approved by the city council, and as the building was abandoned when it was converted into a cultural center there is no one to give permission to make use of it besides the city state. In the face of these threatening circumstances, l’Usine is calling on the city council to recognize it as a cultural entity which is not covered by the new law and as such to be exempted from its restrictions. Indeed, whilst they do serve alcoholic beverages and food, these are by no means defining aspects of the establishment whose primary purpose is to promote local culture and freedom of artistic expression.

To make themselves heard, the venue has staged protests , called in press a press conference (something they never would have considered doing before), set up a petition , and gathered support from artists of all forms the world round. They demand that their freedom of association and artistic expression be upheld, claiming that the demands of the new law go against the founding principles of the association, and that an administrative division between the associations operating within the establishment would divide activities and events that would otherwise be trans-disciplinary. On these grounds, l’Usine could indeed stand a chance to be ruled an exception to the restrictions of the law if the city council chooses to acknowledge them as such.

So why does Geneva city council refuse to do so? The reasons are, for the most part, obscure and kept from the public eye; indeed, many members of the city council have voiced strong opposition to the notion of closing the center, pointing out how it will severely cripple and discourage Geneva’s cultural scene. The fact remains that Geneva’s cultural life has been on the fast road to becoming almost exclusively commercial, with the vast majority of cultural activities in the city being too expensive for the youth to afford. There is effectively no middle ground between what l’Usine provides and the rest the city’s cultural scene, and whilst they are not alone they would be setting a harmful precedent if they did get shut down. Indeed, this law affects not only l’Usine but any non-profit cultural organisation that happens to provide food and alcoholic beverages as well.

Government seeks to disrupt what it cannot control. In the case of the city council vs. l’Usine, this means that Geneva’s priceless hub of counterculture is under attack for precisely its defining characteristic. If successful, its closing could set a chilling precedent for disrupting diverse and alternative culture.

Alon Starkman
Alon Starkman
Sgt. Alon Fosman Starkman is a former Sergeant of the Swiss Army Support to Command Division. His past intelligence work focused mainly on the political situation in the Middle East region (Lybia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria), with specific emphasis on the Israeli perspective.