Like the athletes at the Paralympics, disabled artist Sue Austin is working to redefine the popular notion of disability.
This week, she has been amazing spectators with a specially equipped wheelchair that lets her fly underwater.
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Lisa Mullins: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is “The World”, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Several sports at the Paralympics Games in London involve a wheelchair. Today alone, athletes in wheelchairs competed in basketball, fencing, rugby, and tennis at the Games. Performance artist Sue Austin uses a wheelchair and what she does with it is breathtaking. You can see for yourself. We’ve posted a video at theworld.org. Austin uses a specially equipped wheelchair and breathing gear and she glides underwater in a graceful solo ballet. She’s performing this show as part of the cultural Olympiad celebrations in London. Sue Austin says that the inspiration for her performance came to her on her first scuba dive in Egypt several years ago.
Sue Austin: When I started diving I became really aware that the associations attached to scuba gear are ones of excitement and adventure and freedom and that they extended your range of activity in the world just like my power chair did. But the associations attached to my power chair, when I asked people for the first words that came to mind, were ones of fear, limitation, pity, restriction, illness, and so on, and through my arts practice I came to realize I had internalized those ideas and it had changed my identity and I couldn’t quite work out what had happened until I made this connection and I started making artwork that was about using the wheelchair as an object to literally paint or play or have fun with. And so when I realized scuba gear extended your range of activity in the same way, I thought, “Mm, I wonder what will happen if I put scuba gear and an NHS wheelchair together,” and NHS is the National Health Service in Britain, so it’s the sort of very basic chair that people get if they’re not able to afford one themselves.
Mullins: So the wheelchair itself is all kitted out for underwater mobility, but it doesn’t really look it. Can you describe what’s different about the underwater wheelchair?
Austin: We attached these drive propulsion vehicles under the chair, but to stabilize the chair we needed to create fins, we call them “Hydroplanes” that attach to the foot plates which we’ve simply swapped over. So instead of hinging it beside, they hinge behind the heel.
Mullins: So they’re kind of clear fins? And you are slightly able to move your feet and that makes a difference underwater?
Austin: Yes, absolutely, I have some mobility. The buttons from the drive propulsion vehicles come up the side of the chair and I press them with the side of my legs so my hands are free to be expressive, to create the feeling of that gentle exploration and interaction with the underwater world.
Mullins: And your hair does look amazing.
Austin: Thank you.
Mullins: It’s long dark hair and it looks like kind of like some kind of anemone when you’re propelling yourself and it’s kind of floating up above. How fast can you go in the wheelchair?
Austin: We’re not quite sure of the speed, but other divers get exhausted trying to keep up with me. It’s the most amazing sense of freedom there is. I have to say there is nothing else that I have done in life that quite compares to it. I think the only thing that would compare would be if you were an acrobatic pilot because I can loop the loop and pull curves and swerves and barrel rolls in the water when the chair is perfectly balanced. There’s nothing else I would rather be doing. It’s quite incredible.
Mullins: I don’t know, would it ever be considered an equalizer having a chair that propels itself, these drive propulsion vehicles underwater?
Austin: Yes, it’s really strange, a friend, guy, who saw the footage over my shoulder when I was at University of Plymouth and his quote was that now when he sees someone in wheelchair he won’t wonder what they can’t do, he won’t even think what they can do, now he’ll be thinking what they can do that he can’t do. And he talked about the project, making wheelchairs, an underwater wheelchair, an aspirational object. So if it has, it certainly achieved what I hoped to achieve through the artwork which is this process of transforming preconceptions through creating unexpected images that then act to excite and inspire people. Because it’s about transforming preconceptions, all of you become part of the artwork. As soon as you have the idea in your mind you become part of creating the spectacle too.
Mullins: Sue Austin, a multimedia and performance artist based in North Devon, England. Her performance in an underwater wheelchair was part of the Unlimited Festival presented in London this week alongside the Paralympics. Good luck. Continue to have fun and make great art, Sue.
Austin: Thank you.
Mullins: Again, take a couple of minutes and treat yourself to a fascinating video of Sue Austin’s underwater ballet in a wheelchair. It’s at theworld.org.
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