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South West Artists Build On The Olympic Legacy

  • Date: 26 November 2013
  • Area: South West
Girl in wheelchair under water next to coral and orange fish

'Creating the Spectacle!', Sue Austin. Copyright: Freewheeling. Credit: photographer: Norman Lomax.

South West artist Susan Austin is celebrating this week after receiving an award of £8,435 from Arts Council England's Artists' International Development Fund to build on the success of her groundbreaking live art and video work using the world's first underwater wheelchair.

The project Creating the Spectacle! has received global attention since Susan Austin used the underwater wheelchair in a series of choreographed acrobatic underwater events produced by her not-for-profit organisation Freewheeling as part of the London 2012 programme Unlimited during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Following a successful application to the Arts Council's National Lottery-funded Grants for the arts programme, Freewheeling has been exploring ways of increasing public engagement, including plans for a tour of live art events in large tank aquaria and swimming pools, with part of the audience underwater.

Susan has also been invited to speak at TEDMED, an annual conference focusing on health in Washington DC and, using the Arts Council grant, will visit the Johnson Space Center, Houston to engage in dialogue about the work.  She will meet with artists, curators, filmmakers and scientists in California to explore future possibilities for public engagement with the underwater wheelchair, including a visit to the large tank aquarium in Monterey Bay.  

Both Susan and arts organisation Diverse City have gone from strength to strength since they created their breathtaking art works in the South West for the Cultural Olympiad with commission grants from Arts Council England's Unlimited programme. 

Diverse City's Breathe was a unique project created by British disabled artists Jamie Beddard, Alex Bulmer and Dave Toole and culminating in a huge theatrical event on Weymouth Beach before the Olympic Sailing Programme began.  The performance became part of Battle for the Winds created by Cirque Bijou and Desperate Men, bringing together disabled and non-disabled performers in a story of the quest to gather the winds across the South West to power the sailing, with a grand finale featuring pyrotechnics, dance and aerial performance, people flying above the crowds and London 2012 Olympic  torchbearers.

Since this project, Diverse City has jointly created Extraordinary Bodies - the UK's only professional integrated circus company - with partners Cirque Bijou, who approached Diverse City about setting up an integrated circus company following the collaboration on Battle for the Winds.  Together they have developed a new show Weighting, commissioned as the finale to Exeter's 2013 Unexpected festival and planned to tour in 2014.

Diverse City describe themselves as cultural entrepreneurs working for social change through the performing arts.  They create shows to profile the abilities of diverse groups, and Chief Executive Claire Hodgson has seen the Unlimited funding as 'a game changer for everyone involved'.

Claire said: 'This is the point about legacy.  You can't make it happen or parachute a project in.  You need to listen closely to the artists who were at the centre of the work and support them to develop naturally the relationships and art that emerge.'

Last month Arts Council England announced that Shape and Artsadmin have been awarded £1.5m to act as national delivery partners for the Unlimited II commissioned grant programme.

Unlimited II will build on the success of the programme that took place during the Cultural Olympiad 2012.  Artists were offered an opportunity to develop ambitious projects across a variety of art forms, to develop work that challenged the public perception of disability, and that inspired collaborations with new partners.

The Arts Council will invest in Shape, the disability-led arts organisation, and Artsadmin to support Deaf and disabled artists through a programme of commissions and run a complementary mentoring programme between 2013 and 2016.

The programme will support Deaf and disabled artists to develop ambitious and high quality work, which will help inform their practice. It will also help to build new relationships and collaborations with producers, venues and promoters, increase distribution of the work (through touring, including international touring, and digital means), and afford greater opportunities for audiences to see the work.

Susan Austin said: 'Unlimited has been a fantastic experience. I was so impressed with the way it was structured to give meaningful access and support, enabling me to work with the Freewheeling team on a previously unimagined level.  So many opportunities have arisen because of the profile the Unlimited commission facilitated.  Creating the Spectacle! really has gone global and pushed my artistic career onto another level.  There have been invitations to speak, show the work and perform all over the world, with many people getting in touch to say how the underwater wheelchair has changed their perspective about disability.  We are really pleased that the most of the money was invested in the South West region to deliver the project and that the commission also attracted many partners, leading to exciting relationships with Arts Council England and Plymouth University.'

Alan Davey, Chief Executive for the Arts Council, said: 'Supporting diversity in arts and culture is the right thing to do. I firmly believe that artists and organisations should make work that draws upon the full range of backgrounds of our society. Unlimited in 2012 was a real success story, enabling deaf and disabled artists from across the UK to showcase their talent as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

'Building on this success, Unlimited II will ensure that deaf and disabled artists have a strong platform from which they can create ambitious, high quality work to develop and stretch audiences across England and beyond.

'The collaboration between Shape and Artsadmin is a really exciting combination with both demonstrating really strong experience in supporting artists' development; we believe this partnership will enable us to build on what was achieved in 2012 and continue to challenge public perceptions of disability.'

For more information or to register an interest in the Unlimited II programme visit

The next deadline for applications to the Artists' international development  programme is 5pm Friday 7 February 2014. Please download the guidance (word / pdf) for more detail on how to apply.