Redesign of a local photographic sculpture in Mautern, Austria
Mautern is a small town (3494 inhabitants) near Austria´s capital Vienna. Urban life and the art scene are majorly influenced by nearby Vienna and Krems. However, in Mautern itself there has been substantial effort to get out of the shadow of these two cities by producing and offering art and arts education in Mautern itself. One of these efforts was to build a four-sided sculpture made of cubes to present the town in photographs in the middle of a roundabout at Mautern’s entrance. The sculpture was designed by local artist Gregor Kremser and put in place in 2003. The images on the installation were primarily historic images or generally speaking generic images intended to show Mautern.
I was first approached in 2012 by Kremser as plans were developed by the local government and city council to redesign the installation and primarily its photographic content. I had the idea to update the installation with contemporary photographic images showing the town and its citizens.
However, implementing this concept proved to be difficult as local decision makers wanted to use the sculpture for displaying pictures of their respective local groups (sports, music groups, folksy symbols of the region, etc.). Most inhabitants became more and more unhappy with this kind of use of the display. Finally, in 2013, I was commissioned to curate a new exhibit which whould finally implement the original idea, showing modern photography in Mautern, accessible for everyone.
Designing the project I realized quickly that I wasn’t happy as an outsider to come in, take photographs, put them up and leave afterwards, making the project a passive and “non-local” affair. I knew the area, but was far from being “local” as the original artist Kremser is.
A participatory approach, a more direct way to include Mautern and its people in the project was needed. The way to achieve this was to facilitate a VHS (adult education centre) workshop series inviting everyone interested in photography.
The group consisted of non-professional photographers from various backgrounds and ages (between 17 and 70 years) and different interests in photography (e.g. portraits, black and white, family pictures, architecture, macro-photography) which led interesting discussions and ideas among the group.
The most important elements of the workshops were:
– all participants were advised in technical photographic skills matching their respective skills and knowledge.
– participatory approach: an essential element of the project was that I invited everyone in the local community to work out the concept and take the photos themselves. I was merely there as their advisor.
– research on the qualities of a small town like Mautern and portray the edgy and contradictory aspects of a seemingly “wholesome” community.
– walks through the town, each with a special focus (history, movement, built environment, nature, agriculture) which was central for finding the images for the sculpture
Over a series of four 6 hour days, the participants were invited to share their histories of the town and come up with the routes of the walks themselves. This led to interesting situations were the group’s members not only wanted to show me a special corner or their favourite place in the town but started to show each other places that the others were not aware of.
Finally, the group came up with four themes, one for each side of the cube, which were: the Danube, the Romans, landmarks, wine. These themes were developed in a discussion in which it became clear that it was important for the group to have certain things on display – such as the landmarks of Mautern or the wine as the typical product of the region – but that they also had certain ideas in terms of colour, style and aesthetic of the images. They should be representative and of a certain “value”.
The Roman Wall, Photo: C. Bamberger
After a pre-selection of the images throughout the workshops, I put together a series of about 30 potential layouts according to the themes:
It was originally intended that the group would choose four of those layouts but in the end, the layouts were cut and the images mixed together from the various layout – a positive outcome not originally intended.
The workshops were held in spring 2013, the new images were put up in 2014.
The participants not only improved their photographic skills, but also developed more consciousness for the space they live in. The sculpture will have a long-term effect on the community, emphasising its status as a place for modern art and thereby fostering the community´s self confidence in the shadow of Vienna and Krems. Also the inhabitants´ability for critical thinking and analysis were enhanced. Also, this project has shown how important it is to implement participatory approaches in projects like this as it ensures that the former participants feel connected to and responsible for the sculpture long after the project has finished. Another effect that the project had was on a more political level. The sculpture has had its critics from the very first design in 2003. Some people wanted to either use the sculpture for advertisement or commercial display or remove it from its prominent spot altogether. Because the sculpture was redesigned by Mautern’s citizens in our project, these voices of criticism almost had to disappear because now it was a sculpture of public and civic participation.
Johannes Rigal is a Visiting Research Fellow at CUCR