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In the realm of contemporary literature, Maria Fusco stands as a luminary, an award-winning Belfast-born working-class writer whose interdisciplinary practice spans critical, fiction, and performance writing. Her unwavering commitment to honesty and inclusivity defines her work, the core focus of which is a profound exploration of intersectionality and class. Maria currently works as Professor of Interdisciplinary Writing at the University of Dundee, and previously held the position of Director of Art Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. In her latest collection of essays, Who does not envy with us is against us (2023), published with Broken Sleep Books and recently launched at Burley Fisher, Maria closely examines her personal history growing up working-class during the Troubles in Belfast. She shares with her readers fragments of memory, of the everyday violence of her neighbourhood, the echoes of war which could be heard through poorly built homes, and her mother’s use of language harshening across many years of conflict. Through her personal anecdotes Fusco paints a clear picture, not only of how working-class experience shapes daily life, but also of how it profoundly influences how we perceive and evaluate those experiences within the context of writing and teaching.

For her most recent project, Maria took the bold step of challenging the Royal Opera House to address its historic exclusion of working-class voices. The result is the ground-breaking experimental feminist opera-film titled History of the Present, for which she has been honoured with an Engender Fellowship. Co-created with artist film-maker Margaret Salmon, and filmed on 35mm in unpredictable ways, the piece centres the voices of working-class women. It includes compositions by avant-garde 83 year old composer Annea Lockwood, a compelling libretto by Maria, archival audio featuring Maria and her mother, and improvisational vocal works by soprano Héloïse Werner, that together radically challenge the conventions of opera and carefully articulate the way that trauma is carried in the voice. The piece is currently touring nationally and internationally and is being made available to stream with the Royal Opera House’s on-demand service, making it the only non-stage performance to feature. I had the privilege of attending a screening at the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival, where it was part of the festival’s New Cinema Awards Strand, and of engaging in a conversation with Maria following the screening about this work and her latest projects.

Photography by Greag Mac a’ tSaoir

In History of the Present, vocalist Héloïse [Werner] improvises the archival sounds of conflict, using her voice in challenging ways to mimic the distinctive sounds of war, of low-flying helicopter whirrs and the rumble of a Saracen armoured personnel carrier. You've discussed the initial conception of the piece as a live performance. Could you share more about what led to your decision to transition it into a cinematic work?

Because I work in an interdisciplinary way, the form of my work often does develop and I'm not unused to significant changes mid-process. I had made a number of large-scale voice-based live performance pieces before, so in that way, an opera was a fairly logical way to work. I was drawn to opera’s potential to hold multiple layers of emotional registers. But operas are inherently very expensive to produce, so ultimately I felt it would be more logical to be able to make a work with this sort of subject matter that could travel around and reach different countries, in a way that people could see for free or for not very much money. 

Throughout the work, violence is expressed through the embodied experience of the voice, and through observing a contemporary Belfast informed by its history. In one of the sections in the opera-film, you speak aloud violent instances of the Troubles. In the most unequivocally clear section, you describe stunning moments: torn flesh lying on the pavement and a severed head, kept on ice with the Christmas turkey in the path because the ambulances couldn’t get through. These images are visceral. Could you tell me about your decision to eschew visual archival footage of the city during the Troubles and, instead, work with artist filmmaker Margaret Salmon to film contemporary Belfast – in a way that is often obscured and unsettled?

When dealing with specific historical instances, even those from the recent past, there is a question of audience knowledge and responsibility. How much can you expect the audience to know? How much should they know? Who should tell them, and whose responsibility is that? As the work begins to travel, the embodied work of the camera becomes a manifestation of these questions. In one sense, it involves attempting to acknowledge the inherent challenge of not being able to quite ever definitively get at something, as if the pursuit can only be in an effort to. You can make an effort to try and get at a particular history, or particular historiographic re-telling. Importantly, for me, there is a very strong sense in the work, of testimonial, and of being a contemporary witness. The work is not a documentary, clearly, it's an experimental artist’s film. Its subjectivity is evident therefore, with the use of my voice and family recordings. I think there's an analogous relationship between the attempts that the singer, Héloïse makes, these improvisational attempts to keep up with something which is largely mechanical, and not of the body, but that the body is still trying to process, the inorganic. The experimental methods, that Margaret uses, the double exposure and the chance meetings of image upon image inherent to this technique, and sometimes with the obscuring of lens with Vaseline – there is a kind of pushing back of this notion of existing visual material by its nature being true. As we know, it’s often not true and a documentary is never a straight documentary. 

Did Margaret's experimental filming approach bring any surprises or unexpected perspectives that made you see the familiar location in a different light?

The process of creating images involved a deliberate choice for me not to accompany Margaret during the shoots. I felt that I might reminisce too much about the familiar places, constantly being like, "I used to go here, and then we went there." While we decided on the locations together, I didn’t attend the shoots. I also didn’t accompany Annea during the in-situ field recordings. These recordings were made in Ardoyne, the area I grew up in with the peacelines there. We didn't make an enormous amount of extra material, most of what we see is mainly what we made, there’s very little wastage with it, and that's partially economic. But it's also because we made it in a modular way. We made the first bit and then we worked out what we wanted or needed before doing the next bit. It wasn't storyboarded in a traditional way, and in that way, the process was quite intuitive. On a basic level, exposure is by its nature surprising, because you don't know what you're going to get. There are some things that interested me that I hadn’t really thought about: Margaret noted that when filming folk on the Belfast streets, that they were very easy around the camera, they sort of just glide past the camera observing them and that’s because the people of Belfast are so used to having surveillance on them all the time. It’s not that they’re comfortable but they are accustomed because the level of surveillance is so high. This was something that I think I knew in myself, but hadn’t articulated, and I learnt that through seeing what was happening and the way that Margaret filmed it.

History of the Present, 2023 (stills)

The vocalisation also draws from archival audio of your infant voice variously crying and learning to speak, echoing your mother's inflections - it powerfully explores the intergenerational impact of violence, and trauma through voice. Can you talk a little bit about your choice to include the audio footage of you and your mother?

There are three clips – one when I’m about one year old, learning to speak, and another one when I’m a bit older, present in the room but not speaking. And of course, there’s one where there is the aria towards the end where my Mother, Sally, is relating an anecdote about cleaning in the hospital she worked in. I wanted these to be historical plumb lines – the particular way of women speaking amongst themselves within the house, in a domestic space. There is an element of performance with my mother in the first one, not massively, but there was definitely a bit because she knew she was being recorded. In that recording, my grannie, is also present in the room, and those recordings are of my grandmother, my mother, my two eldest sisters, me and my brother, who is the one recording it. I wanted to include them because I think they're quite special through their ordinariness, and because the sonic spatial quality within them, is really unusual. We don't often get to hear recordings in domestic settings like these. They’re very different to the more standard oral history project, where someone would be being interviewed about what it’s like to be a woman in the Troubles for example. The spatial sense, especially the volume of the voices that people use when they’re in a small room together, it is not easy to listen to comfortably. In the first recording, I’m mimicking the tonal patterns of my mother’s voice, which obviously is one of the ways that people learn to speak, and also importantly, how they learn accent. That's how you're learning because that’s what you're hearing, so being able to, I guess, capture, that moment in time. Then sort of building an analogous relationship with the singer, Hélöise [Werner], attempting to not speak exactly, but to vocalise because there is this central question in the work and, I would say, in most of my work, about who has the right to speak, and this second bit, in what way? and who may be listened to and that tying in with that testimonial. 

And yet, working-class voices, particularly those of women perhaps are the ones extended most often, the ones facing strain most daily.

In 2015, I made Master Rock, an experimental radio play, which was made in-situ inside of a granite cave in a power station, on the west coast of Scotland. There are three voices in the piece – an English woman’s voice, a Northern Irish man, and the voice of the granite itself. The woman’s voice is depicted by the poet and philosopher Denise Riley, known for her particular, somewhat brittle voice. She’s someone who doesn’t like performing, which she’s told me before, but is used to it as a poet. She’s got this amazing voice, and people like hearing her speak. But by recording the piece in situ, she really had to push her voice outwards. She consistently pushed her voice against the granite to see, rather to hear what came back. It wasn’t literally an echo, this process did have the quite radical effect of rewriting her voice. Working with performance writing and crafting scripts for others to perform, means that your words are no longer your own. You give them to others and all you can remember is how others have spoken them – in a sense you lose your own words. There’s an interesting distinction with that. I often write for specific, individual voices, so, in way that is not repeatable like a traditional play and I think that that testing of voice is very much at stake within a feminist close listening of what a working class women's voice is like. Particularly, what a working-class women’s is voice is like a militarised environment and how they use their voice. An example of that is in the chapter of my new book, Who does not envy with us is against us, when I talk about my mother’s swearing and her having to be hard – having to be aggressive in order not to portray weakness. Interventions, of physical or sexual violence, all the things that might be experienced in a heavily regulated military setting, are held in the voice. I can hear my mother’s voice changing across the two recordings we used in History of the Present – I wouldn’t expect anyone else to hear that change but I do, distinctly, this makes me very upset. And it’s very much linked with this sense of history entering the body, and how we hold that in our body. Obviously, we hold traumatic histories in our body, and various therapies like post-traumatic stress disorder therapy and somatic therapy focus on the voice, and putting back together, the bits that have been torn asunder through various physical, sexual acts of aggression. Somatic therapy is a particularly useful way through post-traumatic stress, to bring the bits back together again. Sometimes that literally means giving a voice, so for me, that's very significant.

"One voice. One organ.": Fusco's 2018 play Ezcema explored co-occupation and incessant dialogue with eczema, a skin disease affecting an estimated 15 million people in the UK, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the NHS and commissioned by National Theatre Wales.

Could you share more about your role as the founder of the Intertextual writing course at Goldsmiths, especially considering that, at that time, the term wasn't widely recognised or established?

Yes, the art writing programme was the first of its type internationally. I approached the programme [in 2007] with more of a notion than a concrete idea. I’d done lot of freelance writing myself and know how difficult even writing traditional reviews are. I’d always been interested in reviewing things that I didn’t have an inherent interest in so that I’d really have to work, squeeze it, and examine it. I think there’s something within that – divergent from literary criticism or normative theoretical endeavours. At that time, there was still a prevalent belief in the possibility of an objective voice, which I found to be specious. The interdisciplinary nature of the art writing programme brought together people with varied interests. Really what it did was kind of ring a bell for people who had a sense of the importance of writing, beyond traditional training and methodologies. Whether it was performance writing, film writing, or literary writing, the focus was on the material qualities of writing within an artistic or literary context. Around the same time, I founded The Happy Hypocrite, a new journal for and about experimental art writing. The ‘for’ and ‘about’ qualification in the title strapline is crucial, it reflects on what it is doing as it is doing it, now we have clearer terms like ‘auto-theory’ or ‘auto-fiction’ or even ‘auto-textual’ to describe this approach… I think there are times when things need to be examined closely by a group of people who are intensively focused on a particular set of issues, this was my intention with the art writing programme. And those times called people towards them, and people oriented towards them and that contributed to a more rigorous and precise level of discussion that will continue to develop. As you’ll know from your own work around experimental writing, it's incredibly precise and there’s nowhere to hide. Not only does it create its own rules, and processes, and sometimes some syntaxes, it also then has to stick to them. It's a whole worlding of affect, words, phrases, space, and time – things that we hold in our bodies. Over time, as the practice evolves, certain aspects become generally accepted, because the discourse has moved on a bit. I think that's what that programme was good at doing, because of its constituent parts, the students, coming together to contribute to a nuanced and evolving discourse. 

In Who does not envy with us is against us, you talk about not being a reader growing up, and of watching a lot of television instead. Can you tell me about how you became engaged with literature and art?

I was going on a bus with my mother, I must have been about nine, and the bus went past the art college in Belfast, which is right in the city centre. This is in the midst of the Troubles, and I saw a man standing outside the art college with a giant papier-mâché lipstick. I mean, I was a child, but I was like wow, it was so surreal, and so joyous. Amidst horror. And I said to my mum, what is that place? and she said that's the art college, and I remember thinking, interesting things go on in there.  I've said this quite a lot before in public contexts because I think it’s important, but I could see the front door of the art college, and I think I may have orientated towards literature, if I had seen a door that was the front door of a literature building, but I didn't. I think that the material properties that interest me in writing, and sometimes in performance reading, but I think just generally in the use of language, and the demands that brings to me is informed by a fine art background, and a practice of materials. Of course, that's not new. Many poets speak about that much more eloquently than I could. But I think that there is something in that, when one works in an interdisciplinary way, there's still always a writer within that. I never shift from being a writer. I’ve co directed this work as you know, and I've directed other works that I've written, but I'm always I'm always a writer, it’s the core activity and the practice. When I came to reading, it was at art college, I read theory, out of interest. I find theory very useful, actually from an emotional point of view in my life, in terms of thinking through emotional things. I find it very helpful and useful and sometimes very enjoyable – it depends on the writer! I think that, for me, it's very important to try and be honest about that, that I wasn't someone who read, and that you don’t have to be someone who is incredibly well read or educated in order to create things which shove and pinch and move and push through traditional forms and move into abstract and experimental forms. Furthermore, with that there is still hope, I believe and push for that within the mainstream that there is space for that.

I'm fascinated by the constant adaptability of your text, your economical use of language, and its perpetual flux. Can you tell me about your creative process and collaboration with Olivier Pasquet and Maxine Peake with Mollspeak at Museum of the Home? —an immersive eleven channel sound installation where the voice of an eighteenth-century maid, narrated by Peake, reflects on her duties, desires, and role in the world. The piece is a constantly changing composition of words and sounds that highlights the transposable nature of servants. 

I've collaborated with Olivier before on the Master Rock piece. Collaboration is always about sensibility; I think it's got to do with certain creative and intellectual sensibilities, like a vibe. In Mollspeak, I was commissioned to make a work for Museum of the Home reopening. I had visited the museum while I’d lived in London and always thought it was great. But, I had always been dissatisfied and wondered who cleaned those rooms, who kept them in good order? I felt like it's really annoying because you never get to see the labour of the maids whose job it was do that. Because I had a good relationship working with Olivier previously, I had a sense that we could work with some objects from the museum and evolve a soundscape from them. We selected objects that the maids would have kept in their personal boxes—simple items like a paper doll, a teaspoon, a tinderbox. Those boxes are the only historical record of the maid servants, so the reason why I could find this information is because the boxes were searched when something went missing in the master’s house, and as a result the only recorded evidence of the maid servants and their belongings comes through court records reporting things being stolen from the main house, which tells a poor and interesting history. So, we made recordings using those objects. I'm drawn professionally to individuals who can handle various aspects of their practice themselves, Olivier is much like Margaret in this respect who manages everything herself as a filmmaker, with intensity and integrity. As a writer, you really don’t require anybody else, and I like that economy. I'm attracted to working with others, that are like that, and exploring how to communicate with people across different fields. For Mollspeak I’d always said that I really wanted Maxine Peake to be the voice for the performance. Fortunately, due to the COVID Lockdown, she had a lighter workload, and could only really do recording work. So we borrowed equipment, sanitised it, and sent it to her for remote recording. She was sitting inside a wardrobe in her house, to create this distinctive sound. I was just terribly nervous to direct her, as you might imagine, but she was very warm and patient. So then the work was installed in the under croft of Museum of the Home. The museum is very traditional in its museological sort of space, and this is a work that is really quite experimental. It's a work which is generative, so an audience member will never hear the same thing twice. It's programmed to be generative, hence speaking towards the disposability of servants. But I think it's interesting to have it in a space which has a sort of directional museological function to have something that really is ambient because of course, when one thinks about it, the servants were ambient, they just sort of like drifted about, sort of like vapours and didn’t speak. 

Animation courtesy of Maria Fusco

How did you go about developing the script for Mollspeak?

I did a lot of archival research, delving into the Old Bailey records that I mentioned, and practical aspects like garment cleaning techniques for specific materials. That was the kind of material that we could find, there aren’t memoirs or that sort of thing, which led me to looking through quite diverse sources. I wrote the script in anapestic tetrameter, which was a period meter traditionally used in comic verse of that period, I took advice from a specialist at the University of Glasgow, so that I could authentically replicate the specific historical form of that time, which is quite jovial and is something that the maids would have listened to, when they went to the park on their maybe two hours off on a Sunday, or something. I would say that that script is perhaps one of the more straightforward scripts that I’ve written, it could be delivered as a play, but its experimental nature emerges in the work’s overall form. 

I’m interested in the label of ‘working class writer’ that you carry – why do you feel this category is important?

I think it is important to create space for other people as well as yourself. I have worked as an academic full time for many years now alongside my work as a writer. There’s an ethical responsibility in teaching, as well as in simply being a person in the world, which is to create space for other people. In the UK, the class system is so stratified, melodramatic, and based gaudy stereotype. I think unless you appear and present as being working class with all the features that appear go along with that, people will not necessarily know that you are working class and will assume that you are middle class. By being obvious and labelling that you are working class, it indicates that things aren't necessarily always as they appear, that class is less obvious and more interestingly nuanced. As my work was more widely experienced, sometimes people ask me, whether it is easier to exist in the art world, assuming there are fewer middle-class individuals compared to literature. I'm not sure where that idea comes from!

Images courtesy of Maria Fusco

I think that by being clear, about where a work has come from, as I try to articulate in my new book, it substantiates into a defined process and a method. The last two works that I’ve made, have been auto theoretical, but I think that my previous work also speaks to the fact that that there is a particular way of sort of being in the world that is often invisible because our class system in the UK is so disagreeable. All our identities are intersectional which is an obvious thing to say, but if I'd grown up in Northern Ireland, and I had been middle class, my personal experience would have not been the same and I would have barely seen that the conflict was happening. So, really, again, as in many other places, it's often the poorer people that experience it and it’s often women and children who experience it most, this is not new news. I think that just being open about that feels like it’s important to do, and I've always spoken about it, I'm not ashamed of it. In the work that I've made recently, the address to that is more direct, but I believe that my methodological approach through many different things that I have made, has an attention to economies of production, to thrift, to paring away, so that you are left with less, sort of like a figure and I think that that’s working classness in action.

Cover photography: Greag Mac a’ tSaoir


Agnès Houghton-Boyle is a critic and programmer based in London. Her writing features in Talking Shorts Magazine and Fetch London.


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