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‘Testing the Water!’, ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ and ‘Making Waves’

Sue Austin explains…

I want to explain some of the titles in posts generated as part of this exposure of my work. I will also take this opportunity to further explain a concept mentioned in the video blog ‘Making Waves – the dialogues generated’ – that of participants becoming part of the artwork themselves through their engagement with the process. 

‘Testing the Water!’ is a research and development project made possible by Arts Council South West’s Impact Fund. This has facilitated the production of an underwater wheelchair that is able to fly free through mid-water with its human occupant, leaving a trace of its joy and freedom as it goes.

This is building up to ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ an ambitious and innovative performance of that underwater wheelchair in Fleet Lagoon at Portland, Dorset. This has been programmed as part of B-side Multimedia Arts Festival alongside the Olympic and Paralympic Sailing events during the Cultural Olympiad in 2012.

A primary way this work is intended to operate is through opening up a thinking space that might contribute to reshaping social preconceptions about the wheelchair and creating empowered and empowering images of diversity.

“Making Waves” will be a section of the project website which will support the development of this work and capture how it is ‘passed on’ through becoming incorporated into other peoples’ mental processes. This will support my proposal that the most coherent way to understand that aspect of the artwork (and therefore where it can be said to ‘reside’) is ‘to claim’ that anyone who experiences or engages with its concepts then becomes part of the artwork themselves.

One way it exists (or is ‘carried’) is in that ‘opening up’, reshaping or reframing that occurs in the minds of others as a result of this interaction. This means that, for me, they themselves then become part of the artwork too, as they generate the dialogue (captured and disseminated online) that evolves into a secondary expression of the primary intentions for the work.  At the same time this reshapes my preconceptions of what the artwork can become: a dynamic, symbiotic evolution where the ‘audience’ becomes integral to the creative process. 

Texts that have influenced the development of these concepts and the idea of the audience becoming an ‘active producer of meaning’ include:

Barthes, Roland (1973) S/Z, Editions du Seuil, Paris
Ranciere, Jacques. (2009) The Emancipated Spectator, Verso, London and New York
Bourriaud, Nicolas. (2002) Relational Aesthetics,
Dewey, John. (1958) Art as Experience. Capricorn Books, N. York.
Kester, Grant (2004) Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. University of California Press

Making Waves – the dialogues generated

Video showing the dialogues generated by 'Creating the Spectacle!' Natalie Parsley, Josie Gould, Dal Sandhu, and Stephanie Green talk about ideas that they had as a result of looking at footage of the underwater wheelchair and talking about the ideas with Sue Austin

Sue Austin: You were saying something about creating – that it’s creating myths or creating new ways into people understanding an arts practice.

Natalie Parsley: Yes. I think it’s that kind of – it’s a story to it. And that’s what I liked about it. And it’s a fun thing to talk about with people because it’s like there’s so-and-so doing a painting, so-and-so’s making a film. And Sue’s got her underwater wheelchair. And it’s kind of got legs for sort of being this real tale of, you know, adventure. It’s really quirky. It’s different.

Sue Austin: We were talking about the online presence for the art work to capture those conversations. And you made a really valuable suggestion and gave it a great title. So could I ask you to recap?

Josie Gould: (Laughter) Yes, yes. Well the idea was that if an individual puts their video on your website and so a part of the work, then actually, when they look at your work, they are impacted personally. And if you’re impacted in one area of your life, then you’re impacted in all of your life.

So if I for instance see that, “Wow, Sue has done something impossible. Supposedly. And now it’s possible. And she’s feeling great.” And I get a sense of that for myself. So I’m feeling like anything is possible. Then I might take a different route home tonight. Because I want to try something new and different. And experience something outside my safe little world.

And so, you know, that would be an experience for me. Doing something differently. And so I could put some feedback on the website to explain that; what difference the work has made to me physically. And actually, in reality, in my life.

And that could be called something like Making Waves or Making Ripples. Where everything has an on-going effect. You know, we impact everybody in everything we do. And so when I see you and your work, that makes a different to me.

Sue Austin: That’s brilliant. So actually you’re giving – you’re suggesting a tool by which I can, in addition to these video clips about how people respond directly to the images, you’re suggesting I also create a space for people to actually report back on the changes it’s created in their work. And I love the title Making Ripples.

Josie Gould: And that would make a difference for you. Because then you would get the – you would receive the benefit of what you’d actually created as well. Because that energy that people were receiving from you can then be fed back again to you.

Sue Austin: You had an idea when you saw footage about the wheels which I thought was interesting.

Dal Sandhu: Yes I thought when you’re sort of gliding through the water, if the wheels are turning, it’s sort of mysterious. It’s sort of – they’re turning but why would they be turning in water? And I think you could get some interesting reflection off of the wheels turning. And it just adds to the whole grace of the movement.

Sue Austin: And if somebody – some people haven’t been able to see the hydroplanes, when they’ve been acrylic and invisible. So some people might think somehow the wheels are actually powering the chair.

Dal Sandhu: Yes. That’s a point. Yes.

Sue Austin: So it might be quite – when you said that, I thought, “Actually that could really add to the kind of humour and the sort of misdirection and the intrigue of the piece.”

Dal Sandhu: Exactly. It does add to the whole strangeness of it.

Sue Austin: So we were talking about the design for the website?

Stephanie Green: (Laughter) I can just imagine you can sort of see a page with lots of little heads on it. And everyone’s kind of talking. And you can almost hover on them or click on them and find out what that person says.

Sue Austin: That’s exactly what I was imagining. So I was imagining there being various layers. So there’s one layer where you have all people talking about the underwater wheelchair. But nobody on the website actually sees what they’re talking about. So you just get all these people going, “Oh, wow. People thought it was bonkers. But I couldn’t believe it when I saw it.”

And then there’d be another layer of another page for people talking about their ideas for the design of the wheelchair. And then another layer when people have ideas for the performance. So you built up all these layers.

Stephanie Green: And the final thing’s hidden in there somewhere that they’ve got to get through all the –

Sue Austin: Yes. Or it’s the actual performance that’s sort of building up this conversation around the work. Coming up to 2012. Because everyone who engages becomes part of the art work. So then if they’re on the website, then that’s the artwork. This kind of multi-faceted artwork that evolves from the discussions. And capture the discussions created and the ideas created. And it’s a little talking picture of how that person’s ideas has been shaped or affected by the artwork.

Stephanie Green: One little idea, and then suddenly it grows into this –

Sue Austin: Vast, yes.

Stephanie Green: Vast enormous –

Sue Austin: Conversation.

Stephanie Green: Yes.

Sue Austin: You were just talking about having conversations about the work. With people in Taunton at the Resistance event.

Natalie Parsley: Yes, yes. I was just saying it’s exciting because you don’t normally associate the kind of work that you’re doing with people that are – go to the kind of galleries with the more normal kind of work and things.

And I found it, yes, really exciting. I like talking to people about it because of that Heath Robinson kind of contraption. It’s like a spectacle, as I mentioned. It’s like you want to see what’s going to happen. And the Pegasus thruster thing. It’s quirky.

Interviwewer: Hello again, Dal.

Dal Sandhu: Hello.

Sue Austin: We were just talking about the idea of documenting the project. And how I might use your footage.

Dal Sandhu: Yes.

Sue Austin: And the idea of a complicated, complex website. So that people can trace who suggested which idea and which becomes part of the project.

Dal Sandhu: Yes. I think you could do that. But I was thinking the other advantage is, you could collect a lot more impressions. You know, you could get a lot more feedback. If you’ve got people spread around. And they’ve all got a webcam built into their laptops. They can provide the sort of – this sort of thing.

Sue Austin: Yes.

Dal Sandhu: Just over the internet.

Sue Austin: Ah.

Dal Sandhu: Rather than you having to physically be with them.

Sue Austin: So if we – if I almost had an online video box.

Dal Sandhu: Yes.

Sue Austin: Or the other thing is, I could use Skype. Because I was recently involved in a conversation that was published on the internet for IGODAP, the International Guild of Disabled Artists and Performers. And Philip Patston was based New Zealand. And he published our discussion online.

So obviously you can capture Skype somehow. So I need to – that would be a good way.

Dal Sandhu: Yes, you can. Yes you can. Because you have people in America, don’t you, providing some of your kit. I don’t know.

Sue Austin: The dive propulsion vehicle. Yes.

Dal Sandhu: They’d probably be quite interested to sort of have some sort of input as well. You never know.

Sue Austin: Yes. Some kind of presence. That would be really great. Okay.

Dal Sandhu: And this sort of thing, as it gathers momentum, you might find there’s more people who you can – yes, you can get their impressions. But maybe you want to communicate other things as well.

On Bill Shannon and the 'disabled gaze'

Sue Austin discusses the multiple influences that have shaped her thinking whilst developing a theoretical framework for 'Testing the Water!'

image of Sue Austin in a wheelchair photographed under water in swimming pool

Submerged, I Stand Proud - underwater wheelchair image © Sue Austin

One very important influence (for both my life and my work) has been the work of Bill Shannon: aka 'The Crutch Master'. This is because he has developed a rich, complex, online presence that enables me to explore and engage; finding different routes into 'meaning' on each of my visits. 

The opening up of dynamic conversations with the content enables me to develop conceptual frameworks and terminology; providing me with new intellectual tools to explore the performative representation of disability. His ideas have supported and transformed my own work in terms of thinking of the value of creating performance and performative narratives, that bring into consciousness the experiences that shape one’s life.

In positioning himself as an artist-thinker, one issue that has given me particular cause for reflection has been the way he considers issues of audience and how to share his experience ‘without being in the context of their gaze’. This has shaped and informed my own use of embodiment within my practice and also led me to question the 'gaze' that I bring to this work as well as the nature of the 'gazes' that I invite from others through what I am currently thinking of as a  socially engaged, performative practice.

Can I conceptualise this as a 'disabled gaze' with a quality of its own; a new juxtaposition to the gendered gazes that have been extensively discussed within other cultural theoretical frameworks? Previously I have stated:

“While theory about the existence of the male and female gaze has been comprehensively discussed, through this film I would like to extend the parameters of thinking around this subject to formulate the existence of the ‘disabled’ gaze.”

“Through this work I am starting to explore the reality that the experience of disability profoundly affects the way one experiences, views and is viewed by the world. While filming from a wheelchair it has become apparent that this ‘vehicle’ completely shapes the footage, the way people interact with the camera and the construction of the resulting piece.” 

For me this facilitates a positive, empowering, quizzical 'gaze' that is able to generate unique understandings from the everyday and 'obvious' through viewing the world from a 'different' perspective.  My understanding is that this perspective is informed and enriched by an awareness of the plurality of embodied experience interacting with the 'power' generated by the need to hold and integrate complex understandings of 'otherness' in society. These are just first thoughts. 

More will follow into the future. I will be exploring the understandings I have derived from the limited literature I have been able to find on this matter. I would welcome any contributions as part of a dynamic dialogue I am hoping develop as part of the theoretical framework for 'Testing the Water!'.

Some background to Testing the Water

A concept of the repositioning Disability Arts as the 'Hidden Secret' was developed as a response to acting as the documentory/researcher for Testing the Edges at Salisbury Arts Centre. The work attested to a sense of what a powerful experience ‘difference’ creates in terms of strength, understanding and ability to have an enriched understanding of the human condition. In addition, through the particular qualities that started emerging with in the documentation for Testing the Edges, (add context)
Testing the Water is a Art Council funded Research and Development process that  follows on from this work, which will culminate in an application to Unlimited to create an underwater performance piece by the artist that has been progammed by B-side Multi Media Arts Festival to take place in Fleet Lagoon in 2012 along side the Olympic/Paralympic sailing events in Weymouth and Portland.

The focus of the Unlimited bid will be to create a spectacular performance of a self propelled underwater NHS wheelchair that leaves ‘traces’ of its freedom as it sweeps through water with its human occupant. The aim of that work is to use dramatic and unexpected juxtapositions to attach new and powerful narratives to the object-hood of the wheelchair.

As I examine the narratives and preconceptions that act to dis-empower and ‘disable’ and I find dramatic and powerful ways to re-position disability and Disability Arts as the ‘Hidden Secret’. It is argued that this ‘secret’, if explored, valued and then shared, can act to heal the divisions created in the social psyche by cultural dichotomies that define the ‘disabled’ as ‘other’.  

It has been successfully debated that the reintegrating and healing of the ontological alienation[1] within the artist, through creative endeavours, leads to a reincorporation of that liminal[2] state (of what was previously seen as transgressive) as a valued, life enhancing and powerful part of the community that previously rejected it (Lee Davis Creal, 2006)[3].

  1. Apple Dictionary Ontology: A branch of Metaphysics dealing with the nature of being. Alienation: noun, the state or experience of being isolated from a group or an activity to which one should belong or in which one should be involved : unemployment may generate a sense of political alienation. The Concept of ontological alienation is based on Sartre’s third level of bodily ontology: ‘alienation from the body’ which is created by vividly and continuously seeing the body not as one experiences it but through the eyes of other people, ie negative cultural stereotypes about disablilty.
  2. Liminal: (Apple Dictionary) ˈadjective, 1 of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process. 2 occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. Or (Collins English Dictionary): Relating to the point (or threshold) at which a sensation become too faint to be experienced. I use this – ‘on the edge of /edgy’
  3. Lee Davis Creal (2006) The “Disability of Thinking” the “Disabled” Body (Course paper, York University, Toronto, Canada),