Making Art, Making Media, Making Change

Elke Zobl
For her project “making art, making media, making change” Elke Zobl received the FWF’s science communication award. The artist and researcher works in the interdisciplinary fields of arts, culture and media production. She does radio and zine workshops with girls for female empowerment. Source: Pia Streicher

“First of all, it’s about shaking off your awe of drawing”, Elke Zobl describes the proceedings of her comics workshops. “We start with warm-up exercises, then we try to develop characters that scrutinize stereotypical gender roles like, for example, this ballerina with long, blond hair, a moustache and a drill in her hand. The accompanying bubble says: ‘tough and tender with a ‘stache’.”

Bridging the gap between science and art

Her projects are carried out in public spaces as well at the University of Salzburg. “This combination is very important to us”, Zobl emphasizes. Since 2010 she has been heading the “Contemporary Arts and Cultural Production” program, a cooperation between the University of Salzburg and the Mozarteum University

I feel very lucky to be able to accomodate art, science and social change, that is, basically all my interests in my work.

Elke Zobl

implemented in 2007. “My job is to accomodate science, teaching and communication. To achieve that, our students are involved in research projects that are simultaneously scientific symposia as well as exhibitions or the like. It`s all intertwined“, the scientist explains. After graduating from high school, Zobl applied for a place in stage design at the Mozarteum University. “I have been interested in art from an early age. Both my parents, who were enthusiastic elementary school teachers, offered me a lot of artists’ materials. And since leisure facilities were rare in our small village in the Pinzgau, I used to work a lot”, the scientist remembers. At the Mozarteum, however, she swapped stage design for sculpture and could not be happier now: “I feel very lucky to be able to accomodate art, science and social change, that is, basically all my interests in my current work.“

Receiving an award for science communication

For her project “Making Art, Making Media, Making Change” Zobl received one of the FWF’s first science communication awards. The program, which was first introduced by the FWF in 2013, supports six communication projects by different scientists with a total sum of 263,000 Euros. Its aim is to promote “outstanding scientific communication measures”. The native of Salzburg was one of the six winners. Her workshops are primarily directed at young women between the age of 12 and 26, who are thus given the chance to try their hand as culture and media producers themselves.

Turning consumers into producers

Strictly speaking, Zobl’s science communication program consists of two projects sponsored by the Science Fund FWF: the single project “Feminist Media Production in Europe” and the Hertha Firnberg project “Young Women as Creators of New Cultural Spaces”. Overlapping with her interest and involvement in civic participation and feminism, her work is part of a bigger movement towards social, political, ecological and economic justice. Her interviews and analyses as well as further informations and links can be viewed online at www.grassrootsfeminism.net. Basically, Zobl`s research revolves around one central question: How can adolescents, particularly young women, actively improve their own living situations? Her conclusion: By turning from mere media consumers into active producers of mixed media, thereby tackling their own issues as well as actively participating in cultural and political life.

The project team with comics from the workshops, from left: Ricarda Drueke, Elke Zobl, Stefanie Grünangerl
The project team with comics from the workshops, from left: Ricarda Drueke, Elke Zobl, Stefanie Grünangerl Source: Pia Streicher

“Grrrl zines”

Both of her research projects, albeit with a different emphasis, deal with “one of the most interesting transformations of youth culture dating from the 1990s ”, as Zobl puts it: A growing number of young people, either independently or in groups, among them especially girls and young women, have started producing media in various formats and on different topics. They have been actively forming networks and creating new working spaces for themselves. In the alternative media world their print magazines are called “grrrl zines”: “Zines” is the abbreviation of “magazines”, the triple “r” indicates their resistance to and their criticism of mainstream culture.

The zines, which Zobl has spread on a table in front of her, display a huge variety: Some were made by one person, others by a group of people. But apart from their production processes, they also differ significantly in their topics, professionality and geografic diversity. This enormous range is typical of alternative

There are not only feminist zines but also soccer zines and right-wing zines, they all reflect our society.

Elke Zobl

media: “There are not only feminist zines but also soccer zines and right-wing zines, they all reflect our society”, Zobl explains. Another important aspect of alternative media is participation: Instead of catering to the tastes of their readers, they rather focus on an autonomous production process that is open to everyone. Zobl does research on feminist and queer feminist zines (“queer” stands for deviations from the norm) which deal with issues such as self-defence or the scrutinizing of the so called ideal body image. Yet, however broad the variety may be, feminist, queer feminist and anti-racist zines clearly have one thing in common: Questioning the status quo, they all wish for social change and try to offer new perspectives.

Duke University and its challenges

At the age of 21 Zobl had her first brush with alternative media at Duke University`s feminist movement. She had just finished her undergraduate education in German philology and art when she applied for an exchange program in the USA and was accepted to a graduate program at Duke University in North Carolina. “That was a major challenge: The English language plus the enormous work load, we constantly had to write papers and do presentations”, she recounts. However, she was intrigued by the university`s creative atmosphere, the lively discussions, the teaching staff, the analizing of the latest theories, art styles and techniques. “In fact, my involvement in contemporary art and feminist theories started there ”, she remembers.

From german language to international alternative media

Zobl met one of her mentors and longtime companions, Ute Meta Bauer, the first female professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, at a congress. She was thrilled by her lecture and planned to go to Vienna after her final exams at Duke University. Ute Meta Bauer, who was head of the Department of Contemporary Art at the Academy of Fine Arts then, introduced feminist magazines and comics to her students to offer them an alternative to the male-dominated gallery business. As a consequence, Zobl wrote her master`s thesis on female german language artists working in alternative media production. In her dissertation, however, she shifted her focus from german language to international alternative media, since “only zines from England and the USA got all the attention then”. While she was working on her disseration, Zobl was part of a huge, international network, did interviews with female editors and established an online archive in which all her informations on grrrl zines have been stored. Additionally, she put together a remarkable collection of more than 2000 items of primary and secondary literature on the grrrl zines phenomenon. To give public access to the latter as well, she donated it to “gendup”, the center for gender studies and the promotion of women at the University of Salzburg.

Working on her Ph.D. in San Diego

Zobl started working on her dissertation at the University of California in San Diego with the financial support of an Erwin Schrödinger research grant from the FWF. She had already applied for it in North Carolina and therefore could continue her studies without interruption: “That was one of the best things that could have happened to me”, she remembers. In the course of her work in San Diego, Zobl came to realize that feminist and queer feminist alternative media mainly revolved around topics such as abuse, violence and self-defense strategies. But there was also a growing number of “mama zines” dealing with alternative ways of parenting like single parenting or parenting in various constellations. Another crucial aspect were queer and transgender issues.

Back to Salzburg

After having returned to Austria, Zobl first took up her FWF sponsored Hertha Firnberg position at the University of Fine Arts in Vienna but has meanwhile moved it to the Department of Communication at the University of Salzburg. Simultaneously, she was in charge of a FWF single project, and since 2010 she has been running the “Contemporary Arts and Cultural Production” program with its focus on science and art. In this position Zobl works closely with her co-head, professor Elisabeth Klaus, and also cooperates with various departments of the Mozarteum University as, for instance, communication, dance science, musicology and pedagogics as well as with a couple of arts organizations and cultural institutions.

Do it yourself and do it together

With the help of workshops such as “Culture & Media Picknicks” and “Zines on tour” Zobl`s science communcation project tries to enable adolescents, in particular girls and young women, to become creative, autonomous media producers themselves. Since last autumn workshops have been held at schools, youth

There is a relaxed atmosphere of crafting, experimenting and trusting oneself to do something.

Elke Zobl

and girls’ centers. Their procedure is as follows: After a brief introductory discussion of a couple of the 2000 zines from Zobl’s archive, the production phase begins. Generally, Zobl and her colleagues Ricarda Drüeke and Stefanie Grünangerl conduct the workshops but there are also guest hosts as, for example, “KA Schmitz, a comics artist who specializes in ‘craftivism’, that`s a combination of the words craft and activism; she does wonderful projects”, Zobl points out proudly. Since the workshops` further concerns are “do it yourself” and “do it together”, she devised a toolbox for teachers and people working at youth and girls` centers. It contains both artists` materials as well as some excerpts of zines and comics for discussion and also basic instructions on how to conduct a workshop.


The young women involved in “grrrl zines” are very committed and reflective in general. “Therefore, as we cannot agree on a set definition of feminism, we speak of feminisms”, Zobl explains. “In studying queer feminist alternative media, we could discern three basic modes of feminist discourse: The “do-it-yourself” feminism, furthermore intersectional perspectives that focus on a number of overlapping aspects of discrimination such as, for example, woman, migrant, lesbian, and, last but not least, “pop feminism”, which proves to be particularly popular in German language media“, she elaborates. In coed schools feminism is often regarded as a little outdated though. “But when we start talking, it soon becomes clear that there are still important issues to be solved as, for instance, equal pay for equal work for women”, Zobl recounts. Apart from taking a typewriter with her, which serves as an attraction for some, she always prepares some material for discussion. But usually the move from theory to practice is a swift one: “This is very different from analyzing scientific texts, there is a relaxed atmosphere of crafting, experimenting, trusting oneself to do something”, Zobl sums up the brimming activity of her workshops.

For her project “making art, making media, making change” (www.makingart.at) Elke Zobl received one of the FWF’s first science communication awards. She earned degrees in art (sculpture), German philology and gender studies as well as in art and cultural studies from the Universities of Salzburg, North Carolina and Vienna. In 2004 she gained her Ph.D. at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. After a postdoctoral period at the University of California in San Diego, Zobl has taken up a Hertha Firnberg position in science communication at the University of Salzburg. In 2011 she has been promoted to assistant professor with a focus on contemporary arts and cultural production. Zobl is also the mother of two children.

More Information

Hertha Firnberg Programme
Science Communication Programme (WissKomm)


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