Saturday, August 08, 2015

Flying Underwater

It's probably safe to say that most people who wind up in a wheelchair for whatever reason see it as a limitation. Then there's British artist Sue Austin. About 19 years ago, after an extended illness made it too difficult to get around, she finally got a chair. However, she saw it as exactly the opposite: "It was a tremendous new freedom. I'd seen my life slip away and become restricted. It was like having an enormous new toy. I could whiz around and feel the wind in my face again. Just being out on the street was exhilarating."

However, she also came to realize that people's perception of her also shifted, and that affected her view of herself. "When I asked people their associations with the wheelchair, they used words like ‘limitation,' ‘fear,' ‘pity' and ‘restriction.' And that changed who I was on a core level. As a result, I knew I needed to make my own stories about this experience, new narratives to reclaim my identity."

She began to both paint her wheelchairs, as well as use them to paint. By affixing bottles to a powerchair that dribbled liquid on the wheels as she moved, she marked her passage on the ground in a very literal sense. The tracings she created, both on paper and on grass and pavement, are filled with giant graceful arcs and loops. Some likened her works in public spaces to no better than graffiti. Her response was that it's not mindless scribble; it's a concept executed with thought and design, the very nature of art.

About the same time, as part of her physical therapy, she began to work in the water with scuba equipment. Floating a neutral bouncy environment, she was thrilled with the range of motion she could achieve versus on land. Yet she realized that the words people associated this this particular set of hardware were vastly different from that associated with her wheelchair, words like "adventure" and "excitement." What, she wondered, would happen if she could put the two together? And so the idea for an underwater wheelchair started to take shape.

Through her arts initiative called Freewheeeling, she put together a team to help her make it happen. They designed and fabricated the equipment needed, as well as lined up sponsors and a structure for the project. It all began to come to fruition in 2012,  when she was awarded a commission through the Unlimited project, part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, which helped disabled artists develop and produce their works. She named her project "Creating the Spectacle," and conceived a series of live and filmed performances that showcased her vision.

The live events included several performances in a pool with both an underwater audience (which was trained to dive just prior to the performance) and others watching on screens above the surface. Sue wheeled herself to the edge, and was literally tossed into the water, there to move gracefully in all directions. She also took her wheelchair to a less hospitable environment, the mouth of the Fleet Lagoon in the south of England. She was led to the water's edge by dancing children, crossed underwater, and was greeted by flags and music when she and her team emerged on the other side.

To bring her vision of unfettered movement to a larger audience, she journeyed to Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt with a film crew to shoot extended footage. Compiled into a 360 degree installation whereby the viewer is immersed in the environment, it was also edited into a film called "Finding Freedom." In it, Sue, dressed in a light sleeveless summer dress with her hair flowing behind her, floats and spins and sails through the coral and fish seemingly effortlessly, with at least as much ease as a person in scuba gear, and arguably, with as much grace as a ballerina.

Indeed, pushing the boundaries even further, Sue is training now to take her wheelchair to the sky via a microlight plane. And she has begun a relationship with NASA, as both are focused on mobility issues in different environments. The more you see of Sue's work, you can't but help agree with one observer: "After watching her I realized that from now on when I saw someone in a wheelchair, I shouldn't think about what they were able or unable to do, but rather what they could do that I couldn't."


You can see a piece of "Finding Freedom hereMarc Wollin 's column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.