Writing as a Visible Practice: An Interview with Maria Fusco

Writing as a Visible Practice: An Interview with Maria Fusco

Northumbria University

November 21, 2018
Chris Sharratt
Northumbria University

When Maria Fusco became director of art writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2009, quite what was meant by the term was still very much up for debate. While the idea of artists as writers was by no means a new one, it remained an unestablished subject in art pedagogy. Fusco brought her experience of art book publishing and her own writing practice to the role—her first full-time job in academia—and with colleagues and students set about defining the field, in 2011 cowriting the short manifesto “11 Statements Around Art Writing.” Fusco left Goldsmiths for the University of Edinburgh in 2013 and earlier this year took up a new role as Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University. Here, she shares her thoughts on the shaping of art writing as a practice and academic subject, discusses her teaching methods, and explains why she now feels that “interdisciplinary writing” is a more useful description of her own practice and the field she teaches.

Chris Sharratt: From 2009 to 2013 you were director of art writing at Goldsmiths, heading up the MFA in Art Writing. Why do you think it’s often cited as an influential program?

Maria Fusco: What was new about the Goldsmiths MFA was that, before the course began in earnest, art writing was not an academic subject; it was the first time it was acknowledged as an academic field that had some sort of visibility. The program was making visible practices, plural, that were already happening for some time. For example, Andy Warhol wrote a novel, A, basically a big transcription, in 1968, and Salvador Dalí had written a very bad artist’s novel, Hidden Faces, in 1944.

CS: You were given free rein to define the approach of the course. What was your starting point for what you wanted the program to do?

MF: I had a strong idea that writing was a studio-based activity, that it was a practice. And it wasn’t writing about something else—the writing itself was the practice. I had experienced that through my own research, through my own work, so it seemed obvious to me that that was what it should be. Goldsmiths had assembled the skeleton of a course so that the director would give it shape. I think, but I’m not sure, that perhaps they had thought it would be more like an art theory course, but Goldsmiths already had a very good visual cultures department, so that was not how I thought the course should be. I had about six months to reconstruct the whole thing.

CS: In the past, you’ve described “art writing” as a contested field, but it’s a term you no longer use, is it?

MF: I feel that “art writing” is a redundant phrase now, it’s not so useful anymore. The value of having a phrase like “art writing” at the time of the Goldsmiths MFA was a bit like ringing a bell and saying to people, “We’re doing this here! Do you want to be involved in it, do you want to do it together?” By doing it together we could all make it a bit better. I strongly believe in that idea, hence doing things through practice, embodying the rigor and originality of scholarly activity as practice. But now, much in the same way we might have talked about time-based artists or new media artists in the past, it’s no longer a relevant term. It’s not completely irrelevant, but it has lost much of its use value and gained more symbolic value. Phrases are very useful for building a constituency of people who are interested in challenging the practice, but now I think that “interdisciplinary writing” is a clearer, more nuanced phrase; “art writing” now has a smack of antiquity about it.

However, I do think the definitions in “11 Statements Around Art Writing,” which was produced in 2011 with and for the Goldsmiths students, still stands as a kind of definition of the field. This was cowritten with colleagues after the program had been running for perhaps two years, so those statements came out of the practices that we observed and enacted. Two of the statements are particularly important: number 7: “Art writing is an anthology of examples”; and number 8: “Art writing is reinvented in each instance of art writing, determining its own criteria.” I think those two are essential. What we all expect, both within teaching and of ourselves and other practitioners, is this sense of reinventing something at each instance. That’s what excellence is.

CS: Would you say then that those two statements define your approach to teaching, as much as they define art or interdisciplinary writing?

MF: Yes, in terms of my engagement with work and working with students. I think those statements represent the principles of teaching and how I improve my own teaching and what I expect students to think as they practice.

Maria Fusco. Photo: Ross Fraser McLean / StudioRoRo.

CS: What are your teaching methods and what does “writing as practice” entail in an academic context? How do you teach interdisciplinary writing?

MF: The most productive relationships with students develop when they arrive with something of their own, something that is perhaps not completely defined but exists vaguely as something to work on. It’s not about, “I want to be an art writer”; “I want to be an artist”; “I want to be a writer.” They’re coming with stuff, and that’s a very important first point from which to begin teaching. That’s why I’m not interested in briefs, like “Go on a bus and write a poem about what you’ve seen.” Those might be useful for an undergraduate to begin writing with but not at postgraduate level.

I think it’s important to say as well that at least a third of the work I do with students doesn’t happen in the academy, it happens outside the academy in different sites and with different audiences—it’s about developing that sense of experimenting in public and not having presuppositions about the way something’s about to go. And emotionally that’s not the most comfortable place to be, but in terms of an intellectual and creative practice it’s crucial to have this constant testing, and, to evoke Roland Barthes, to be a “flayed” subject, to experience the slight horror of writing as well.

The teaching of it is a hybrid of things that people from a fine art or creative writing background will be familiar with: group critiques, individual tutorials, group tutorials. Group tutorials are so useful for writing practices because often many of the initial technical problems are shared and resolved through students editing each other’s work. So, the early phase of teaching pertains to close reading and reading as a writer rather than reading, in a sense, for pleasure. There’s a shift there, like how one might look at an exhibition as an artist rather than as a visitor to a gallery. Although it can be an onerous chore, to become embedded in the sense of reading as a writer and the sense of the power and pleasure of editing is essential.

The next thing after that would be to insist on consistency within editorial and writing habits; not to insist that one must write it in a certain way, but that the rules of the way one chooses to write must be followed precisely—Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style is a good reference for this. For example, there is a writing workshop in which the students write from the point of view of an object and, let’s say, in this exercise the writer is not allowed to use any adverbs or adjectives to describe oneself but the rest of the group must be able to decipher what the object is. That could be written quite quickly in the workshop context and then the students might be asked to write it again but in the past tense and the first person. The students then become used to having more control over systems of writing, like tense and person and so forth, but through practice rather than instruction. It could be said that, with my guidance, the students teach themselves through practice. We, me, and the students, are critics—a critical ear working together to hear where the errors are.

CS: As well as being a teacher, you’re a very active writer yourself, from the Artangel and BBC Radio 4 project Master Rock, to critical essays, to the book Give Up Art, recently published by New Documents, and the play ECZEMA!, produced earlier this year for National Theatre Wales. How important is your own practice to your teaching?

MF: I think it’s essential. Essential. I strongly believe that teaching requires practicing, being very active in the field. The people who I teach—the people I work with—are predominantly working in interdisciplinary ways that are natural for them to work in. It’s about using the disciplines against each other, like a sharpening stone with a knife, to create something that has a finer edge to it.

CS: You mentioned Roland Barthes earlier. In Give Up Art, you republish your “Ideal Syllabus” article for Frieze from 2009 which includes Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text as “the only actual theory on the syllabus.” Do you still regard that as an important book that underpins your approach to teaching?

MF: It’s a seminal text, and it is a text that I have revisited many, many times. I would often reread it before I embarked on a research project. But in terms of teaching, I would use a lot of different types of materials, including theoretical ones. What I’m not keen on is using secondary sources—I only teach from primary sources. I’m not really interested in books that are looking at how to write or how to be an art writer. I’m interested in books that embody the methodology and the skills; in a way, I’m teaching how to read them. The Pleasure of the Text is so formative because it has a poise and a lucidity and a register of writing that I find pleasurable and am envious of, as many people envy Barthes.

CS: What do you ultimately hope an artist, a writer, will gain from learning interdisciplinary writing?

MF: Most essentially and honestly, that they will get better through practicing. I think this idea of how one goes about doing something, i.e., research methods, and what one does by going about it, i.e., research output, are obviously very intertwined. A student considering and engaging the processes of close reading, of writing more, of cross-editing, of durational writing, of doing live projects in spaces where the writing is tested and the writer experiments in public, of using the voice as an editorial tool, of speaking their work aloud, is, in a sense, training. These are analytic skills, first and foremost, and they are transferable skills. They are the skills of taking something apart and then reconstructing it. And one can either put it back together again in exactly the way it was originally and it will still function properly, or, more interestingly, take it apart and reassemble it so that it will do something slightly different, something extra.

CS: You’re presently on research sabbatical for your new position as Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University, following five years as a Reader in Interdisciplinary Writing at the University of Edinburgh. How do you envisage your role at Northumbria?

MF: The research sabbatical is until January 2019. I will live in the fine art department but it’s within the Department of Arts, which also contains the theatre and art history and art theory programs. It works very closely with design as well and has very close associations with literature, so it’s very much embedded within the humanities. The students I’ve worked with since I started at Goldsmiths have tended to be a combination. So, although very much living within a fine art department and with some fine art background, their interests have always been much broader than one discipline. I imagine it will be the same at Northumbria. It’s very much about working with students who come from other areas, some expected like literature or theatre, but also some further afield like philosophy or even geography, which relates to the idea of site writing. Unusually, criminology is within the Department of Arts at Northumbria, aspects of which are very concerned with site, and with voice, and how, in a sense, one listens carefully and interrogates, analyzes, and examines voice and site—writing skills and editorial skills.

CS: Almost like roving across these different disciplines.

MF: I think so, yes. At Edinburgh I was employed as a Chancellor’s Fellow and became a Reader. The Chancellor’s Fellowship was defined over five years and certainly for the first two years it was pure research, which allowed for focusing on building a much bigger research project. But I really enjoy teaching and I think it’s essential to be teaching; I would not say that teaching is a practice in itself but I think that one must “practice” teaching, one has to be doing it. But most of my teaching at Edinburgh involved supervising PhD students, so working on longer research projects with them, which was quite natural because of the way the art writing program was taught at Goldsmiths. Students came with their own interests and obsessions.

CS: How do you think the academic field of art writing has changed in the ten years since it was defined at Goldsmiths

MF: There were, of course, many programs that predated the Goldsmiths MFA that took writing very seriously—CalArts is a very good example. I cannot say there’s been a proliferation of programs since Goldsmiths per se, although newer programs have developed. Most importantly, I think, there’s been an embedding within practices like fine art, which hitherto had not valued writing as a visible practice. There’s certainly a much greater visibility now within and beyond academia. For example, the annual Whitechapel Writing Residencies, of which I happened to be the inaugural one in 2009. That created a model for having a writer-in-residence in a fine art space: What does it mean to be writing in public? What and how should one be writing? There are more of those now, but they all have different paths.

In terms of the rest of Europe, over the last the years, this kind of experimental, interdisciplinary writing and its visibility have gained certainly more support within academic environments than it hitherto had. Not that it wasn’t happening before, but now there are more anthologies, there are more instances of interdisciplinary writing being thought of as an academic endeavor in the same way that chemistry is an academic endeavor. It’s a very active field, and there are so many interesting things going on, lots of experimental methodologies that preexisted perhaps but are coming more into mainstream culture. The visibility of the field and the variety of work that is produced within it continues to be surprising.

Chris Sharrat

Contemporary Art, Education, Literature
Artistic Research, Art Criticism

Chris Sharratt is a writer and editor based in Glasgow.


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