An experimental opera film, History of the Present screens an abstract, archival account of Northern Ireland’s Troubles within a feminist framework. In conversation with Maria Fusco we discuss the film’s source and impact, alongside her upcoming collection of essays Who Does Not Envy With Us Are Against Us.
Set predominantly in Fusco’s native Belfast on the peace line front, the film, co-created with Margaret Salmon features new music by Annea Lockwood and vocal improvisation by Heloise Werner. As a collaborative whole, the work confronts head on the popular narrative of political violence. Vocalisation draws on sounds associated with that very particular time of conflict—a Saracen armoured personnel carrier, the whirr of a helicopter: the film fore-fronts a sonic archive over a visual one, allowing a circumvention of the kind of historical distortion so often repeated in news and documentary. Describing the use of familiar, emblematic images of the conflict, such as Bloody Sunday or masked militias, as ways of ‘short-cutting into a history’, Fusco asserts that she and Salmon were determined to avoid such cliched pursuits of collective recollection and narrative, to centre on that which isn’t seen, the background, the overheard. Remembering her own experience, Fusco tells of how journalists would bribe children on her street to wear balaclavas in order to manipulate the media-pictured scene. She says that within marginalised communities, it is common to find that residents’ narratives have been edited and altered into almost unrecognisable form. ‘Take responsibility to narrativise yourself’, she advises: both she and Salmon were determined to avoid a clichéd pursuit of recollection and narrative to instead centre on that which isn’t seen.
What is shown in this film is loaded with these unsaids and unseens. Salmon’s camera stays close in to the conservator’s hand that gently dusts the F.E. McWilliam bronze sculpture ‘Woman in a Bomb Blast’ (1974), a work from the series Women of Belfast, on display at the Ulster Museum. While the sculpture is an arresting piece, it is the attentive hand in action that fixes the viewer’s eye. Fusco speaks of the dual nature of care and vigilance, both necessary in communities gripped by political turmoil. Another example of the artists’ vigilance is evidenced in the film’s production values. When asked if there was a conscious colour palette for the film, Fusco reminds me that given the film’s context, there were colours steeped in political associations and allegiances that couldn’t be used. The colours that remain—slate and cement greys, tenacious pinks, rust red of bricks—are interrogated in abstracted shots of glass panes, brick walls and Dublin’s city streets, asking questions about hidden labour and silenced voices.
History of the Present is deeply concerned with time: the impact of trauma and poverty on the perception of time is a theme that can be traced in this film and also in Fusco’s latest book. What unfolds in both is the manifestation of a continuous present that gathers past narratives into now. By circumventing a visual interpretation, one which would reinforce boundaries, the focus on sound in the film allows for a fluid capacity for time travel, offering the present as a time with potential. In her essays, she invites the reader to think alongside her, proposing changes of mind, working on hardened subjectivities. The words plead, confess, demand, encourage. ‘You’re always working class, even if your circumstances change,’ Fusco says.
Speaking about the idea of ‘working-class as methodology’, particularly as it relates to listening, she and I discuss how hearing accents, intuiting markers of wealth, proximity, direction, are all such necessary skills. For those people like Fusco who have grown up amongst social chaos and insecurity in the most literal sense, knowing where the sounds of violence are coming from is crucial for survival.
As a self-described keen listener, Fusco speaks of the difficulties in engaging with her research recordings, particularly when hearing the changes to her mother’s voice recorded across a decade. Her essay ‘Why I Write the Way I Write (Sally)’ wrestles with this emotional challenge, paying tribute to her mother’s passing and to the strange, private sovereignty working class women build for themselves. Given the transgenerational group of women working on the film, and the length of the project, Fusco expresses a desire for lightness in her book—for all its brevity, it’s an angry and gorgeous work. The final essay differs from the others, its tone more focused. We speak about the tendency in contemporary creative essays, particularly those that blend personal memoir with critical analysis, to come from middle-class sources, and of the rupture in reading when universality is elusive at the mention of a childhood family holiday or a writing retreat. Fusco’s writings are an antidote, a call-out, a shot—she reiterates the importance of staying true to her own source in her writing, reading, and personal life. Both History of the Present and Who Does Not Envy With Us Are Against Us present an alternative archive of the effects of political violence in the context of a very personal landscape.
Cheryl McGregor is an arts writer and poet based in Dundee. Examples of her writing can be found at: linktr.ee/Cherylmcgregor
History of the Present, an opera film by Maria Fusco and Margaret Salmon, featuring new music by Annea Lockwood and vocal improvisation by Heloise Werner. Screenings 2023: Dundee Rep, 24 June. Royal Opera House, 2 July. Edinburgh Art Festival, 11 August, 8pm
Who Does Not Envy With Us Are Against Us, Maria Fusco, Broken Sleep Books, June 2023, £7.99