One of capitalism’s massive blind spots lies in its inability to assign proper value to a society’s social and cultural artifacts. Sometimes those artifacts are living, breathing people, as is the case with artists Bettina and Taylor Mead. Thematically, Corrine van der Borch’s GIRL WITH BLACK BALLOONS and Jeffrey Wengrofsky’s THE PARTY IN TAYLOR MEAD’S KITCHEN are linked by their devotion to those artists, who themselves are completely committed to their art. Mead, the scion of a political dynasty who transformed himself into a scion of beatnik royalty, is completely forthright about his desire to seek absolute freedom in his life, even if it meant chaining himself to poverty. Both Mead and Bettina are living examples of the costs of an artist’s single-minded devotion to their work, but also an illustration of the exquisite beauty that can be found in a life lived in service of an idea, instead of a dollar. Following the screenings, Stranger Than Fiction Artistic Director Thom Powers spoke first with Mead and Wengrofsky, and then with Bettina and van der Borch. Click “Read more” below for the Q&As.
The following is the Q&A with Mead and Wengrofsky.
Stranger Than Fiction: Watching that I was thinking about how you had this big moment on the West Coast, in San Francisco, and yet you’ve always been a figure of the New York scene. Did you ever see yourself staying in San Francisco? What did you draw from those two different cities?
Taylor Mead: San Francisco is too damn cold at five in the evening. I spent six months and made one or two great films in San Francisco. But I also spent three and a half years in L.A., and went to the Pasadena Playhouse many years before. And lived literally on Venice Beach for a couple of years. That’s my California trip.
STF: New York City obviously had some kind of hold on you. What was it about New York that caused you to make it your home?
Mead: I had come down from boarding school in Connecticut, I was very overawed by New York. Hitchiking the country, I tried to get around New York—this was in the 40s, during the war. Anyway, the bus went through the Upper West Side, and I saw people sitting on their stoop minding their own business. I come from a very prominent family in Michigan, my father was the fucking boss of Michigan. So I couldn’t cruise Detroit. And I saw these people minding their own business, and it was New York in the 40s. I thought, this is where I belong. But the bus wouldn’t stop until Provincetown, which was almost too gay for me. So I got back to New York and I slept in Central Park and all over and begged and everything.
STF: Jeffrey, Taylor was in The Flower Thief, a piece of iconography from the beatnik era. When you approached him to make a film some 50 years later, was there any intimidation factor to make a film about someone so celebrated in the early days of independent cinema.
Jeffrey Wengrofsky: I don’t think of my film as being in competition with anyone else’s film. For me, I just thought of it as an opportunity to make some art. It’s part of a series. There are 10 films, each focusing on a different artist, on a different aspect of the intersection of their life and art.
STF: Taylor, you do so many things, as a poet—
Mead: Oh, I have a show at the Churner and Churner gallery on 10th Avenue and 22nd Street, a great show of 20 of my paintings. Most of them have been sold years ago. But go anyway.
Wengrofsky: Some of the paintings are in the film. So if you go, and I encourage you to go—in fact, this film, The Party in Taylor Mead’s Kitchen, will be shown there February 10.
Mead: I made a hundred and some movies. I’m all over Google. I’m the biggest thing in Google.
STF: So my last question, do you think of yourself primarily as a poet, as a painter, as an actor?
Mead: I’m a drifter in the arts. But every Monday at 6:30 I’m at the Bowery Poetry Club, courtesy of Bob Holman, husband of the late Elizabeth Murray.
The following is the Q&A with van der Borch and Bettina.
STF: Bettina, you’ve now seen the film a couple of times with audiences. So much of this film is about an artist working without appreciation and recognition. I wonder what it’s like for you to get a little more recognition with this film?
Bettina: Well, I could hear some people laughing and having a good time, so that was wonderful.
STF: Corrine, can you bring us up to date. Since this film was made the Chelsea Hotel itself has gone through some changes. It’s been sold and a lot of residents have been cleared out. Can you describe what your experience of it has been.
Corrine van der Borch: It’s a ghost house. There’s a handful of people living there. One of them is Bettina, and everyone is living behind plastic zippers, so it’s like walking into a science fiction film. It’s very awkward. The art has disappeared from all of the walls. Bettina told me the owner thought he bought all of the art with the hotel, but you think he has not, correct?
Bettina: The new owner thought he had bought the art when he gave them a certain price for the hotel. Then it turns out the hotel didn’t know about it.
STF: A complicated situation.
Van der Borch: It’s very complicated, yes.
STF: Talk to me about some of the thought’s you’ve had about preserving Bettina’s art and doing other things with it.
Van der Borch: I’ve had many thoughts on how to help Bettina. I’m very honored that this film is getting recognition and that Bettina is getting recognition. But I think there’s a lot more that needs to be done. I have an idea, I want to through it out there. But maybe I would like Bettina to talk about a project in her boxes for more than 30 years.
Bettina: I’ve been working on a film about New York City for a very long time. It’s all about phenomenology, you saw part of it in Corrine’s film. I went all over New York City with tracks and wheels and a tripod, carrying everything on my back. No money for taxis, no subways. It’s ready for transfer now, this is 30 years later. It’s still in good condition.
Van der Borch: It’s basically a Super 8 film that Bettina made back in the days that I’m dying to see. I hope everyone that sees this film also might be dying to see. My idea is to start a campaign online and get some crowd funding going and hopefully get the money together to get it digitized, edited and back onto something presentable. I have no idea how I should do this, and if anyone is interested to help out you can like our Facebook page. I really want to stay in touch with the people who are interested, for Bettina’s sake.
STF: We’ve talked to some archivists about doing work with this, so we hope to have more news in coming months.
Audience: How did the title come about, what was it about black balloons?
Bettina: One of my neighbors went to a party and they gave me black balloons. He thought I could use them and gave them over to me. I immediately put them on my car, as it were, and drove around New York with them. I used to go over to the river to get some fresh air in the summer. I have a lot of fun when I’m out.
Van der Borch: Bettina’s a girl, we all know that now that we’ve met her. The black balloons were just something that happened to float by. It was basically how she floated by me in the hotel. But they also carry some weight by them being black. And I think if someone carries weight, it is Bettina. So I felt it was a good title. Also, it’s like the name of a still picture.
Audience: What happened with Sam, the neighbor. What did you think of him?
Bettina: Sam made his film about Bettina also, and maybe you will get another chance to see that. He doesn’t live in the building anymore because everybody had to leave.
Van der Borch: He is somewhere on the West Coast now, right?
Bettina: No, he was on the West Coast, and now he’s somewhere else.
Audience: Can you talk a little bit about the editing process. How much footage did you have, and what was it like constructing the story.
Van der Borch: We should give the editor of the film, Laura Minear a really big applause. I shot for over two years and I had 35 tapes, roundabout. I constantly looked back when I was shooting to see if what Bettina said made sense. Because shooting and doing sound and doing everything is a lot from a filmmaking perspective, to also grasp what is in front of you. A lot made sense. It was so overwhelming to be doing everything that I found Laura, and she was my partner in crime for a while over the summer. We created and crafted this story out of two and a half years.
Audience: Did you already know you were going to do narration, and did you already have in mind the framing devices, like the staircases?
Van der Borch: Did I know ahead of time what I was doing? No. I knew I wanted to make something intimate. I knew I wanted to do something with the structures of the stairwell. I always told Bettina I was doing a film about the stairwell, remember? I realized I was a character in the film, so we had to work on that, that’s how the narration came about. The dreams, I actually had, they’re not written or made up. Bettina was under my skin.
STF: Bettina, in the course of the film you see a lot of resistance from you to the process. Are you pleased with the outcome?
Bettina: Resistance to what?
STF: To the process of Corrine filming you. Is that fair to say?
Bettina: No, no. Was that fair to say? I wasn’t resistant. Was I? There are too many beautiful things out in New York that I go to visit a lot, and I was not resistant to having it recorded.
Van der Borch: I think the timing was right. Bettina not only had me in her life but also Sam, she had two filmmakers, so I would walk out and he would walk in. That’s the way it was for a while. But I do feel like you had some resistance to who was in control. I thought I was in control, but now I think I was not in control and I should not have been because you were in control.
Bettina: I have a resistance to being controlled, yes.
Van der Borch: So did I.
Audience: Was it really difficult after the hotel changed ownership?
Bettina: The process is extremely difficult—very, very difficult. No one knows who is going to continue living there, and who is going to be forced out. It’s difficult. And of course, they’re removing all the pipes now. The pipes had asbestos in them, it’s all over. Vile stuff.
Audience: Is your studio still intact now?
Bettina: My studio is intact. The people who are permanently residents there, they are still there. The other rooms are all whitewashed doorways with black x’s on them and padlocks. And solitude.
STF: It’s an uncertain future.
Bettina: An uncertain future.
Van der Borch: How do you feel about that?
Bettina: Oh, I love it.