disability arts online

'Creating the Spectacle!'

What is 'Creating the Spectacle!'?

 Dan Burton Photography

Image: Dan Burton Photography

‘Creating the Spectacle!’ is a groundbreaking series of live-art and video works by British artist Sue Austin featuring the world’s first underwater wheelchair, which flies along mid-water in a dramatic demonstration of the joy and freedom it brings.

The artwork has continued to receive global attention since she used the underwater wheelchair in a series of choreographed acrobatic underwater events produced through Freewheeling as part of the London 2012 Festival during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Through ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ Sue aims to use the surprising juxtaposition of an NHS wheelchair in an underwater environment to transform preconceptions, create positive empowering images and inspire people on a Global scale. Her You Tube videos have been viewed by over half a million internet users and her work has been seen by millions, after being featured by international media, who have been inspired by her unique vision and spirit, reporting repeatedly on the ongoing story.

Sue says: “I’m thrilled that lots of people have been inspired by the project, many of them telling me how seeing the wheelchair underwater has made them want to try it too. They’re realising that it’s actually extending the boundaries for all of us. We’ve created something new and exciting and it’s really getting people talking. As a result, they’re realising that viewing the world from a different perspective inspires them to be free to explore new experiences. I now call my underwater wheelchair 'Portal' becuase it has literally pushed me through into a new dimension, into a new way of being."

The multi-faceted expressions of the underlying concept of transformation are designed to open 'portals' into the work, multiple different experiences shaped by the specific way each person first accesses the work. It therefore becomes a thinking space where every opinion is valid. Audience debate about the artwork is part of the project. As more underwater footage is released, the worldwide conversations are continuing to grow. Sue claims that "because no one has evey heard of an underwater wheelchair before (and it is about creating new ways of seeing, being and knowing), now that you have this concept in your mind, you are part of the artwork too."

Patents for the underwater wheelchair have been published and Freewheeling is currently seeking sponsorship in order to develop a production model. With appropriate training this become a unique activity that will enable others to experience the sense of joy and freedom that she feels when flying through the ocean.

Sue and her team are currently working towards an exciting multifaceted future vision for ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ through her not-for-profit organisation Freewheeling. This aims to create new ‘portals’ into the work, including:
- a national and international tour of live art events in large tank aquaria
- a national and international tour of live art events in swimming pools with part of the audience underwater
- a film for planetariums
- a commercially available model of the underwater wheelchair
- a touring exhibition of films and documentation showing project evolution, and
- a project in partnership with Plymouth University to develop an academic frame for the value of art created from diverse perspectives as well as researching innovative ways to open up access to creative education and employment.


'Creating the Spectacle!' Online - Part 2 - Finding the Flame

'Creating the Spectacle!' is a ground breaking series of live art and film events that record an underwater wheelchair as it flies through the water with its human occupant.

In this Online event, Freewheeling will present a series of films as a continuation from the live events in the swimming pool at Osprey Leisure Centre on Portland, Dorset (29th August - 1st September), ICCI 360 Arena, Weymouth, Dorset (29th August) and the Unlimited Festival at the Royal Festival Hall, London (30th August - 9th September). This work is supported by LOCOG and the Arts Council through an Unlimited Commission.

This is the second film in the 'Creating the Spectacle!' Online series. It was a special commission from LOCOG for the Paralympic Flame Festivals. Just push play!


Please support Freewheeling!

Freewheeling is a small not-for-profit organisation trying to achieve enormous goals (to transform preconceptions through the arts on an international scale) on a very restricted budget. Please make a donation in support of our work.


'Creating the Spectacle!' Online - Part 1 - Finding Freedom

'Creating the Spectacle!' is a ground breaking series of live art and film events that record an underwater wheelchair as it flies through the water with its human occupant. 

In this Online event, Freewheeling will present a series of films in the lead up to live events in the swimming pool at Osprey Leisure Centre on Portland, Dorset (29th August - 1st September), ICCI 360 Arena, Weymouth, Dorset (29th August) and the Unlimited Festival at the Royal Festival Hall, London (30th August - 9th September).  This work is supported by LOCOG and the Arts Council through an Unlimited Commission.

In 'Part 1 - Finding Freedom', The underwater wheelchair enables Sue Austin to go on a gentle, dream like exploration of an exotic underwater world. 

Through unexpected juxtapositions, this work aims to excite and inspire by creating images that transform preconceptions.

Meet the team

Four people, one in a wheelchair walking along a jetty at low tide

Image: Norman Lomax

'Creating the Spectacle!' is led by its artistic director, Sue Austin. Sue's artistic career has really started to take off in last couple of years following a first-class honours degree in Fine Art from the University of Plymouth and her then winning the Natalie Sitar Prize for outstanding achievement, as well as the Holton Lee International Disabilty Arts Open in 2008.

She has continued to receive critical aclaim and widespread popularilty for her work within the Disability-Arts movement. Particularly notable is the iconic photograph Portal which has been exhibited extensively in London and across the UK.

Sue leads this team with the artistic vision of opening up a thinking space to consider one's own preconceptions about disability and the experience of life from different perspectives.

The rest of the team are working with her to create some wonderful live and filmed expressions of freedom with the underwater wheelchair.

Andrea Frankham-Hughes is the project manager and costumes expert. Being a resident of Portland, active in the local arts community (and also Rob's partner) means that she's got all the knowledge to get the logistical aspects of the project in place.

Trish Wheatley, Co-producer, has worked with Sue since 2009. Together they've set up Freewheeling and spent hours on fundraising and development. Trish is also the 360 degree videographer - she knows her way around a GoPro or six!

Trish is also the director of Disability Arts Online, a journal for discussion about arts and culture from the unique perspective of disabled people.

Rob Hughes is our team dive instructor and creative fabricator. He combines his unique knowledge and skills to make sure eveything under the water is safe and looking fabulous. He keeps us on time and is a really valuable and charismatic advocate for the project in Dorset.

Mac Dowse is a local disabled diver who is volunteering with us to make 'Creating the Spectacle!' a true spectacle. He's also got extensive experience assisting with disability dive organisations in the UK and abroad and a wicked sense of humour to keep us all on our toes!

Dan Burton is our esteemed underwater videographer/photographer. With over 23 years experience as a professional photographer, Dan's career spans a variety of genres and specialties. His professional photographic qualifications and on-going experimental photography work is complemented by his additional skills as a highly proficient and experienced deep-sea technical diver, freediver and Paramotor pilot. This combination of skills has given Dan access to some of the most exciting and unusual photographic shoots ever seen.

Adi Jones is another local diver and experienced engineer who has been working with Freewheeling since Testing the Water. He was introduced to us through Rob and taught Sue on her first try dive in the pool - excellent it was too! He's got a really cool and calm head in and out the water and has come up with some ingenious techie solutions for the chair and dye release mechanism.

Karen Lambert was Sue's Devon-based enabler and a vital member of the crew during the Cultural Olympiad. She has supported Sue since before the idea of an underwater wheelchair was even thought of. 

Malcolm Chave is working with us to fabricate the technical changes to the wheelchair so that it can operate well in the water. Based in the metal workshop at the University of Plymouth, he has all the skills and patience required to get the changes made, often to our very short timescales. He also builds his own bike frames - fantastic!

Kelvin Dougherty is Trish Wheatley's long-suffering partner and puts up with various people coming home at all hours after long sessions working for the project! Like Trish, he has learnt to dive for the project and absolutely loves it. He'll be giving us assistance during filming and the performances.

Adam Benjamin is mentoring us on choreography and producing live events. Sue says "It's been amazing working with Adam because he understands when there's a weight of preconception that unconsciously creates limits in peoples expectations it takes a great deal of energy and focus to create the new narratives. Adam’s confirmation and input has been an essential ingredient in supporting me lead this team in liberating that energy to enable us all to take important roles in creating that change through ‘Creating the Spectacle!’.” Take a look at Adam's website for more information about him and his work. 

Dr Brian Wybrow, who runs an innovation management service called Patently Creative for inventors, is our Intellectual Property expert who is working with us on patenting the new technology developed for the underwater wheelchair. We are pleased to announce that the UK patent on the underwater wheelchair has been granted. 

Tim Hardy is a lighting designer & production manager, who has said he is very pleased to support such a fantastic project… He has toured widely, but is glad to have added a swimming pool to the list of venues!!… In his spare time he is the technical manager for performing arts at Plymouth University!

Norman Lomax was our videographer for 'Finding Freedom' and 'Finding the Flame' and shot many of the stills on this website. He's got a wealth of experience and skills in photography, film, digital and diving - a perfect combination for this project!

The extended team includes a whole host of other very gifted and generous individuals who have really gone out of their way to help move 'Creating the Spectacle!' forward and make it a success. We are very grateful to everyone involved. As you explore the site, you are sure to come across them.


Pool Performance Description

woman in swimming pool, sat in wheelchair wearing summer dress

Sue Austin: Portal 2008

A unique opportunity perhaps never to be experienced again… the sense of excitement is palpable. The audience enters the familiar public swimming-pool environment into an extraordinary underwater theatre space to be seated, with masks and breathing equipment. They sit poised in anticipation, while those wishing to remain dry witness this spectacle seated around the edges of the poolside.

The audience is plunged into a theatrical darkness as sound becomes master: At first only the bubbles from the scuba equipment can be heard until, soon after, a whir of a motor enters into the audience's consciousness.

Unidentifiable, and impossible to locate, this motor leaves the audience searching for its origin. Then, quite suddenly, spotlights find a wheelchair suspended in the water with its pilot, her hair flowing free behind her.

The performance builds suspense and drama as the wheelchair becomes more and more mobile, looping and weaving in the water, performing seemingly impossible manoeuvres, accentuating the freedom that it facilitates. While the underwater audience witness this firsthand, a big screen creates a window into the underwater world for the poolside spectators.   

Emerging from the water, the wheelchair is then born aloft and carried in triumphal procession before its admiring public – ‘An adoration of the wheelchair by the able-bodied.’ The procession, led by a creative team and accented with ‘wheelchair red’, draws the audience outside.

A stone’s throw from the Olympic and Paralympic Sailing venue, they gather at a slipway to set the wheelchair free into the sea.

This intriguing spectacle will be accompanied by a red line that hangs glowing in the water leaving a trace of the joy and freedom facilitated by the wheelchair below. The audience is left in wonder as the wheelchair heads straight out to the horizon for new adventures in tropical oceans.

Following on from the live performance, the audience will re-gather in the University of Plymouth's ICCI immersive 360-degree arena to experience the première of a film showing the outcome of those adventures.

This moving-image installation is designed to transpose the position of the spectators: they now find themselves immersed in a tropical underwater world as they gaze up at this unique new mode of transport soaring free above their heads.

This multifaceted work will also be revealed through a series of web-based portals and other national and international events that open up the richness of the messages being conveyed.

The NHS wheelchair is one of the most ubiquitous images of disability. This work will focus on leaving a legacy of attitudinal change through the creation of surprising and unexpected juxtapositions which present empowered and empowering images.

Sue Austin Artistic Statement

Woman on scooter looking at wheelchair in exhibition

Sue at the Niet Normaal exhibition, Amsterdam in 2010 Image: Trish Wheatley

Sue Austin is a multimedia, performance and installation artist. Over an extended period of time her practice has operated as a vehicle to open up a thinking space around the materiality of the wheelchair. This is being used as a metaphor to raise questions about the value of diversity to society through raising the profile of ‘difference’.

Rather than being didactic, however, a primary aim will be to create portals or multiple entrances into the resulting artwork (eg. through live art, associated online and multi-platform presentation, etc) so that it can find a way to ask questions but at the same time leave space for the audience to generate their own meanings. She aims to find dramatic and powerful ways to re-position disability and Disability Arts as the ‘Hidden Secret’. She argues 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’.

Through the performative presentation of a diverse embodiment, the main focus for this work is about reconfiguring preconceptions through the use of dramatic and unexpected juxtapositions that act to surprise, open up thinking and then, through that reordering of associations, to create empowered and empowering narratives. This manifests in an artistic practice that makes use of “surreal juxtapositions and quirky re-presentations of disability equipment to facilitate new ways of seeing, being and knowing”