Since the first Unlimited Festival, the life and work of artist Sue Austin has undergone huge transformations. Nina Muehlemann talked with the artist to discuss the success of ‘Creating the Spectacle!’
When I speak to Sue, she is full of energy and positivity. Clearly, the last two years were full of hard work, excitement and wonderful surprises for her and her team. How does she feel, thinking back, about the Unlimited commission?
“Unlimited was an amazing experience; to be exhibiting with an array of such wonderful, diverse work. It’s been a transformational opportunity on many levels! It’s a privilege to be an artist anyway, but it’s a particular privilege to be an artist within disability arts.”
Sue and her underwater wheelchair have become somewhat of an internet sensation. In 2012 she did a TEDx talk, and more recently a speaking engagement at NASA; and has a possible future speaking event with the European Parliament. How does she feel about all the attention her work has received?
“From the beginning, I had a feeling that if it was possible, the underwater wheelchair would be quite an unexpected image. But it’s staggering, especially the long-term duration and the way people want to link up and engage with the artwork. It was very unexpected to get the email from NASA, for example. That was the most amazing experience, to witness people working at that kind of level; and seeing similarities through the thought-processes that enable space exploration.”
Part of the reason for Sue’s success might be the multiple ways audiences can engage with her artwork, through live performance, 360 degrees installations, the internet video and her various talks:
“That’s about creating multiple routes of engagement, and moving away from being didactic, and instead trying to create a thinking space,” Sue explains. “I think it’s very important for the artwork to exist in many ways, on many levels; so people have an opportunity to re-engage, so the work keeps living.”
Sue Austin’s practice is immersed in academic theory. She has just submitted an MA project report at the University of Plymouth, which details how ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ has evolved during the last few years. She says:
“The form and title of ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ came through an engagement with theory, amongst many critical layers that shaped the artwork. Although I’m a performance and installation artist, it’s largely a conceptual-led practice. The contextualisations of other artists’ practices has been very important to my own development.
“Bill Shannon’s work had an amazing impact on me. I suddenly saw how being an artist could be a meaningful activity within the world. Previously I worked within the mental health sector, and in my family there is an ethos of service; that one’s occupation is meaningful and helps to create positive space in the world. So seeing Bill Shannon’s work and the way he linked it to theory was very informative, as was Stelarc’s work on ‘the body’.”
Our conversation comes back to the title: ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ It holds contradictions – for example – in critical theory, the ‘spectacle’ has a strong link to capitalism: the spectacle is something designed for us to encourage consumerism. Within a disability context, the term holds different connotations, as it brings the idea of spectacular, freakish bodies to mind. For Sue, both angles reveal something about her work:
“I was really struck how the media often promote a spectacular representation of disability; that they fail to engage directly with real-life experience. I felt I was becoming invisible behind their preconceptions. And so from the beginning of the Unlimited commission I consciously thought about how I could use advertising techniques to make the work look glamorous and desirable; and so turn those preconceptions on their head.
I love the way the work hangs between a question of ‘what’s the spectacle?’ and ‘am I creating a spectacle of myself?’ Does it link in with the spectacular disabled body, as addressed in Mat Fraser’s recent work, ‘The Box of Curiosities’, for example.
The work contains several reference points, and within that there is an ambiguity, which hopefully will allow something unexpected to happen within peoples; view of it. The best artwork contains ambiguity and paradox. That’s also why I feel it’s such a gift working within disability, because people come to it from such a range of experience.”
So, what is the next stage in Sue’s work? There are rumours that she is part of Unlimited 2014, too. Sue explains:
“The new work I’m creating is something I’m doing with The Space, who have approached me through Jo Verrent. It’s about creating a flying wheelchair. We still don’t know whether it will actually be possible. We’re hoping the work will be ready to be exhibited at Unlimited.
The flying wheelchair had been in my mind for a long time, actually. It’s about thinking how the narrative can be extended and how that surprise can be created on another level. There is another level of risk and a whole new range of issues to overcome!”
For further information about Sue Austin’s work please visit www.wearefreewheeling.org.uk/