History of the Present: the sonic memory of voice in conflict
by Maria HASSAN
19 April 2023
A sold-out Queen’s Film Theatre was the venue for the world premiere of History of the Present. The experimental opera-film was written and co-directed by interdisciplinary writer Maria Fusco who grew up beside a peaceline in Ardoyne during the Troubles. The screening and panel discussion formed part of the Belfast International Arts Festival’s spring programme curated to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
A semi-autobiographical exploration of class and conflict, History of the Present layers sociological, cultural, and political themes from the recent history of Northern Ireland. The intersectional feminist film platforms working-class women’s voices asking: who has the right to speak and in what way?
The project was produced in collaboration with artist-filmmaker Margaret Salmon and composer Annea Lockwood. Other key creative partners included the Royal Opera House, the British Council, Creative Scotland, and the Abbey Theatre.
The home crowd in Fusco’s native Belfast were joined by 30 international delegates from 11 countries.
Introducing the film, Skinder Hundal MBE (director of arts for the British Council) spoke of feeling at home in Belfast. Referencing the city’s recent recognition as a UNESCO City of Music, he said, “There is a higher frequency at play, that frequency is the frequency of belonging”. Hundal added:
“Art and artists are a very vital part of our ecology, and this is a very historic time in Belfast. Art plays a role during conflict, during war, and in its aftermath”.
History of the Present observes how the peacelines define movement and enforce intersectional identities within the lives of those in conflict and post-conflict zones.
The film blends operatic improvisations with archival sound on 35mm and SD video footage filmed in modern Belfast.
The film screening was followed by a panel discussion chaired by Annie Fletcher, director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The discussion gave Fusco and her creative collaborators the opportunity to explain the creative processes and intentions behind the work.
For example, Annea Lockwood told of how she captured the sounds that emanated from the interface architecture itself. She spoke of the “tremendous power” of the sounds produced by different objects interacting with the peacewalls:
“It began to feel as if the wall is imprinted with the sounds of the communities’ experience”.
Filmmaker Margaret Salmon highlighted the decision to allow sound and voice to lead the work. Originally from North America, she explained encountering the communities and the city as an outsider, navigating the politics of imagery and representation “without dictating what is seen”:
“It felt important to open up a visual possibility for how diverse communities could encounter the work and access the universal elements.”
Fusco described their shared aim to develop “a visual lexicon which would allow moments of access to certain points in history without being overly representative.”
On the deliberate decision to omit archival video footage, Fusco said:
“When you are in a very dangerous environment and there is a riot going on outside you are not standing at a window looking out. You are hiding to keep yourself safe. This idea of how violence is experienced — it is a sonic memory.”
Fusco introduced the idea of the audience as “the contemporary witness” to opera singer Héloïse Werner’s improvisations to emblematic sounds from the Troubles.
The material included an armoured vehicle, a helicopter and an interview between Jon Snow and Gerry Adams during the BBC broadcasting ban.
Fusco explained that her intention was to explore “how history enters your body, becomes part of your body, and exits your body through voice, through song, and through spoken word.”
Praising the opera form, she recognised “the presence of voice, the imperative of voice, and the capacity of voice to hold history and also to hold a complex mixture of various types of emotions with integrity and flexibility.”
Emphasising the deeply personal nature of the work, Fusco identified that her young voice can be heard in the archival recordings alongside the voice of her mother, who passed away 18 months ago:
“The libretto grounds into certain moments in time and place. My mother’s voice is of a particular time… Understanding the spatial materiality of a place allows us to understand that you are here, and you can speak.
“The child’s voice, my voice, is following the notes of my mother’s voice.”
With a view to the future and how the work might be received, Fusco said:
“The emotional range in the work people will recognise. Whilst it is situated clearly in one place, with specific voices that represent that place, the work will I hope speak to other women who have experienced the type of violence that we have experienced.”
One audience member said, “I didn’t understand it, but I felt every part of it”.