by Madison Davis
This is where we learn—in the beautiful science that is Brittany Billmeyer-Finn’s The Meshes. We learn about the painstaking task of investigating another artist’s work. We learn about dwelling in complexity. We learn about obsession and translation. We learn about viewership and authorship. We learn new ways to imagine collaboration.
Billmeyer-Finn’s debut book, The Meshes, explores the work of experimental filmmaker Maya Deren in a four part text that includes The Poems, The Essay, The Play and The Bibliography. In her elaborately complex undertaking, she knows precisely where the lines of complication exist in the work of Deren and in her own role as translator and collaborator. She finds each line and diligently pulls it apart, allowing her reader to follow each step. Billmeyer-Finn embodies the conversation on all sides – as she moves toward Deren, Deren in turn moves toward her.
The book reads like a performance score. If one is familiar with Deren’s films, the text immediately conjures her characteristic style. Quick cuts, a strangeness, a compression and expansion. The text offers an accompaniment and complication to the genre and artist it is built around while allowing the reader to see the gaps between the voices that are stitched together in tender collaboration.
In these poly-vocal scenes the reader is able to interact with an energetic translation of the film as well as examine it broken down into essential parts. We get to investigate the films alongside Billmeyer-Finn and process them as both part of a history of colonialism and an experiment by a pioneering female filmmaker. a duet of space (22). Each scene becomes elastic such that Billmeyer-Finn can reveal to us what relations hold (28) and the gestures of resistance that she offers up. We are asked real questions: subject position? powers of access? juridical power? institutional power? material power? Instead of answers, we are offered complications and the occasional love note from Billmeyer-Finn in the form of a footnote: A sway across space; perhaps a wave or the oscillation of leaves on a tree (55).
A swift and compelling weaving happens in the written text of the play in part three. Layer upon layer of meaning is developed with the use of characters, rhythms, repetition and an irresistible momentum. The reader is offered a cacophony, a swirling matter that makes for so many interpretations that it can sustain interest and passion after many readings. The text dares you to attempt its revival on a stage, in a living room, in the car on a long drive, on the beach or just in your mind as it bounces across the page. Billmeyer-Finn offers gentle and open ended suggestions: perhaps they move slowly, perhaps they move at different intervals, perhaps their movements are choreographed into some sort of dance, perhaps they move up and down ladders on stage, perhaps…(63). We are given the sense that all is flexible and earnestly open to collaboration. She gives us the tools to expand this work into infinite productions: The object holds some sort of magical quality. The object is an egg or the object a mirror or the object a camera or the object a mask or
the object a fan or the object a book or the object a drum or the object…(82). We are asked, what magical object can you imagine here? We are left without conclusion but with infinite variation, with a wildly enthusiastic web of possibilities to construct in our minds. This web of iterations extends much further than the book itself—Billmeyer-Finn has reimagined it as a series of performances and a full length play. It is also in the process of becoming an artist book in collaboration with artist Kate Robinson.
In many ways, the bibliography offers the most important scaffolding for the text. This is where we see the foundation of this experiment. Billmeyer-Finn permits us to see her process and shows us how the mess is made. The reader is not only given a reading list, but insight into how one goes about creating art and meaning. We see the way history is made and concentrated. New York City as a publishing hub is made an active participant in the work and thus is rendered accessible for challenge and critique. We see a familiar form stunningly subverted and are left wondering why all bibliographies are not this engaging and this troubled.
During the performance of The Meshes choreographed for the SAFEhouse Arts residency in San Francisco last April, the cast held mirrors to the audience in order to push back on the elements of spectatorship and voyeurism that are embedded in Deren’s work on Haiti. The audience was confronted with their own image illuminated by candlelight in an environment in which an audience is most often blanketed in anonymity and darkness. In many ways, the entire text of The Meshes does similar work to the mirror sequence in the play. It holds up a mirror to the reader and challenges them to bear witness to all that Billmeyer-Finn lays out with such incredible honesty.
The reader is granted special permission to wander around inside Billmeyer-Finn’s process of discovery and obsession, translation and collaboration, witness and challenge. Reading The Meshes gives me hope that we will continue to learn and value work that embraces difficulty, work that gives the reader something remarkable: access to a labyrinthine process of learning that refuses easy answers and dwells in all the ways her subject is difficult and beautiful.