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> > > Interview: Sue Austin talks about the impact 'Unlimited' has had on her life since her showcase of Creating the Spectacle

5 February 2013

photo of artist sue austin in her wheelchair in front of a huge projection of herself underwater amongst coral

Sue Austin in front of the projection of 'Creating the Spectacle' shown in the Royal Festival Hall as part of the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre in September 2012

Nina Muehlemann talks to Sue Austin about her expectations of being a part of Unlimited. What has she achieved with her Creating the Spectacle commission? What are the artists' future plans?

What did it mean to you to be part of Unlimited?

It was so much work, leading up to applying for this, probably the most work I’ve ever done for anything, so when we got the phone call to say the application had been accepted, it was the most amazing feeling of elation.  But as we started getting information about the commission, I found out about the exhibition at the Southbank Centre.

I hadn’t realised that that would be part of it before. It felt an incredible honour to be one of the people representing a diverse art practice, but I felt almost terrified, thinking "does my work have the quality to be on that kind of scale?" It is the biggest cultural institution in the country!

Impact, an Art Council scheme in the South West put me in a position to be able to apply for Unlimited, and it felt like the realisation of what Impact intended to do when they were funding me, but on a scale I could not have anticipated.

What were your expectations?

The information and programme I got from Unlimited seemed very well structured, so that was very reassuring, it felt very good right from the start. I had opportunity to familiarise myself with many of the people who worked on the Unlimited, so the project seemed much more achievable, and right from the beginning everyone was incredibly supportive. It felt like a new wave, a new perspective on art that was created from a perspective of diversity.

How did you feel about the media coverage?

However people react to the work, the key is to get the concept out there. It’s about having an underwater wheelchair in people’s consciousness, so that very single piece of coverage becomes part of the artwork. There were articles everywhere, internationally, and it was really interesting to observe people’s perspectives and use of language. It did not feel personal for me, and generally I found the reaction really interesting and positive. The way people wrote about me and the wheelchair revealed a lot about their understanding of disability.

At the end of 2012 I was invited to the TEDxWomen conference in Washington, DC. Also, Unlimited was mentioned on the BBC’s Culture Show on 5 December 2012, and they chose to show the footage of ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ from the 30-minute Push Me film. The response has been just incredible!

The other thing, which is most bizarre, is that the underwater wheelchair is now mentioned on the wheelchair page on Wikipedia! Overall, it’s given me a great deal of insight into how the media works and how that can be incorporated consciously into an arts practice.

How did you feel about the audience’s responses?

During talks I gave or during my performance events we did research with the audience, both in Dorset and in Egypt. We handed out questionnaires, asking the audience to write down the first three words that come to mind when they hear the words ‘NHS wheelchair’.

After the presentation, we repeated it, and consistently the transformation in preconceptions was amazing.  From heart-sinking words they moved to heart-lifting words, ‘inspiring’ is one of the most consistent ones. It proves that an arts practice can transform preconceptions.

How do you feel about being called ‘inspiring’ in that feedback? Not everyone is happy about being called ‘inspirational’…

Yes, Laurence Clark says in his stand-up that he is concerned about being called ‘inspirational’ for just doing every-day activities.  I think in the context of my work, because it is a completely new concept, because it takes an object that has generally negative connotations and attaches a completely new narrative to it, there is a learning curve.

I wanted to do something that is so surprising that people have no frame of reference for it, and it enables people to see possibilities beyond the norm. In that context, I don’t have a problem with the word ‘inspirational’, because it’s not patronising.

Could you tell me about the impact Unlimited had on your life?

It’s just the most amazing experience, and it has had a profound impact. Particularly, the level of coverage I had, and the projection at the Southbank. It’s been so well received, it just gives me a sense of confidence in the work and a feeling that I must be doing something right.

Because even if work feels right for yourself, you never know whether it will have that power to communicate.  It’s the most amazing validation and opportunity, because now, if I apply for something, I can say I showed my work at the Southbank Centre and was in the Push Me film.  That is absolutely invaluable. Also, getting that kind of exposure creates another interesting dialogue.

It has also inspired me to work on a much bigger scale. Watching people sitting down in front of the projection at the Southbank Centre’s Clore Ballroom, and children running around in front of it, was amazing – people treated it exactly like I had envisioned it, like an aquarium, and then a wheelchair would appear.

The other thing is that it helped me reflect, because my work was so multi-dimensional, it really helped me to understand more about how one’s practice interacts with an audience.  Unless you have an audience on that scale, you cannot really come to understand that. Unlimited has also facilitated some amazing professional contacts.

What are your future plans?

I was so honoured to be part of the Unlimited cohort of artists and it sounds like everyone has a really exciting future ahead of them. For me, this means continuing to collaborate with the amazing Freewheeling team that was formed for ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ to take the swimming pool and aquarium performances on an international tour.

I am working on my MA degree at Plymouth University, and for that I am going to build on my performance in Dorset. Next year I have an exhibition at Salisbury Arts Centre, and I will be speaking at the TEDMED conference in Washington DC. There are literally enquiries coming in from all over the world. Unlimited has shown me that it is good to dream!

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