Edinburgh Art Festival: Maria Fusco on sonic history and collaboration in ‘History of the Present’

This year’s Edinburgh Art Festival opens with the debut performance screening of History of the Present, an experimental opera-film co-directed by writer Maria Fusco and artist Margaret Salmon. Drawing on the recent history of Northern Ireland – where Maria grew up beside a Belfast peace-line – the work forefronts working-class women’s voices to ask: who has the right to speak and in what way?

Taking place at the Queen’s Hall on Friday 11 August, the EAF iteration of History of the Present follows presentations in Belfast, Dundee and London, and is the first time that live elements will be integrated into the work. Percussionist Angela Wai Nok Hui will provide live improvisation, complementing music and vocal work made for the film by Annea Lockwood and Héloïse Werner.

Maria spoke to SCAN Communications Lead Claire Biddles about abstract depictions of trauma, ‘defensive architecture’, the collaboration process and more.

  • Claire: When did you and Margaret Salmon first decide to collaborate, and how did you develop the idea for History of the Present?

I began to develop this work during a fellowship at The Royal Opera House, as part of their ‘Engender’ scheme which addresses the perception of creative imbalance in opera of women and non-binary practitioners. Opera can be a costly thing to stage and tour, so whilst working through it (during Covid it has to be said) I thought that making an opera-film would be much more accessible and interesting to challenge the traditional notion of what an opera can be. I’ve known, and admired, Margaret’s work for quite a while, so she was the only person I thought of inviting to collaborate, there is something in the sensibility moves me, happily she said yes.

  • For the EAF iteration of the work, you worked with percussionist Angela Wai Nok Hui, as well as composer Annea Lockwood and vocalist Héloïse Werner. What do the musicians bring to the work?

Yes, so Angela Wai Nok is a brilliant percussionist, who will be improvising live at the performance screening which opens the Edinburgh Art Festival, it’s the first time we’ve done it this way… she’s been making politically-informed work for a while now so felt like a great fit for this event. In terms of working with Annea and Héloïse, this piece could not exist without their collaboration. Annea (who is 84 and who I am so in awe of) made a special trip to Belfast to make field recordings of the peaceline I grew up beside in Ardoyne, North Belfast, which she then directly utilised to make new compositions, or phrases, which are sewn throughout the film: she coaxed the walls to speak. Héloïse is improvising with ‘emblematic’ sound from The Troubles, like a low-flying police helicopter and a Saracen (an army armoured vehicle), she is embodying the sonic history of the place.

  • What has been your experience touring the work in Belfast, Dundee and London prior to EAF? What are the differences in these iterations?

It launched in Belfast as part of the official programme for the 25th anniversary of The Good Friday Agreement, which was a special and auspicious moment for me personally. EAF is the first time we will have a performance screening with live elements. I think Margaret and I needed to experience the work with audiences before we could make any decisions about how live elements would activate the film in new ways. Sometimes, it takes a while for the significance of what you have made to actually reach you.

  • What was it like to make something about a place you have such a personal connection to, with collaborators from elsewhere?

Yes, this work is rooted in my own lived experience, it features archival recordings of me as a child with my mother, I am learning to speak by mimicking the ‘music’ of her accent, I am absorbing her voice. She died during the making of the film so that close listening to her younger voice was painful at times, but necessary to ground the piece in a subjective history. It is not Margaret’s and my intention to make a documentary, what we have made is more personal, more abstract than that, depicting the resonances of conflict and trauma in a non-representational way: that is largely due to the precision and intelligence of Margaret’s film-making. Between Annea, Héloïse, Margaret and myself we established an intersectional, intergenerational feminist approach and process, this feels essential for a work that is amplifying marginalised working-class women’s voices.

  • The work is partly concerned with ‘defensive architecture’. I’m interested in how this phrase relates to the Royal Opera House, where it is partially filmed and was screened. Is this to do with class?

We filmed on the streets of Belfast, in the Ulster Museum and in The Linbury Theatre and backstage at The Royal Opera House. Directly, the defensive architecture refers to the peacelines in Belfast themselves (it was written into The Good Friday Agreement that the peacelines would have all been dismantled by now, only a few have been). I know opera is perceived (in the UK) as an elitist form, as indeed are many creative forms, as someone who comes from an impoverished working-class background I am keenly aware of privilege and closed doors, so bringing a work of this nature to The Royal Opera House is a socio-politically charged action, opening the door for works like it, or indeed not like it!


History of the Present opens the 2023 Edinburgh Art Festival on Friday 11 August. Maria Fusco and Margaret Salmon are in conversation with EAF Director Kim McAleese at Art, Book and Film festivals present: Sunday Salons on Sunday 13 August.

All images: Maria Fusco and Margaret Salmon. History of the Present, 2023.