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Sep 25, 2008

Michel Auder, a video artist before the term existed, exposes himself.

By Anna-Katarina Gravgaard

“You better turn the camera on,” advises the tall, 64-year-old French video artist, Michel Auder, as he sits down to be interviewed. “I am not good at repeating myself.”
And normally he doesn’t need to. Since 1969, when the then-17-year-old French filmmaker hooked up with a group of independent filmmakers in Paris, Auder’s existence has been almost pathologically self-recorded and turned into the material of his work as a video artist. Through decades of dalliances with drugs, sex and celebrities, Auder has documented his life, his friends and the scene as it all happened.
He is a man obsessed with the moving image: the walls of his studio are covered with VHS tapes, while on the high bookshelves, long rows of more videotapes mix with modern mini-DV tapes, editing notes and old 35 mm film rolls.
Today, Auder is still compiling films from his archive, which contains over 6,000 hours of footage. The Feature, his cinematic “fictional biography,” co-directed with Andrew Neel, works these visual diary entries into an examination of raw humanity. The result is showing this fall at film festivals in Toronto, London and Copenhagen.
But it was in New York during the ’70s, when Auder became a fixture at the Chelsea Hotel, that his work first gained traction. Mixing with the likes of Andy Warhol, Viva Superstar and Louis Waldon, the “downtown” scene proved to be his perfect playground. Everyone was fabulous and more than anxious to pose and play before his ever-present lens.

Watch our video interview with Michel Auder, one of the most influential and original video artists around, in which he speaks about his life in motion.

Warhol Superstars
“I met Viva and Waldon on the street one night at 3 o’clock and asked them if they wanted to be in my film,” explains Auder about his meeting with two of Andy Warhol’s superstars. They agreed, and that became the beginning of a passionate relationship between Auder and Viva.
That relationship proved to be fertile fodder for Auder’s lens. In 1969, he produced, Keeping Busy, an unscripted film diary of the two art-house superstars on holiday in Rome. The production of such a diary is an intensely personal process that blurs the line between reality and performance.
On camera, Viva proposed to Auder, and they were soon married in Las Vegas. According to Viva’s semi-autobiographical book, Superstar, the wedding was delayed several times so that Auder could film the ceremony.
The newlyweds moved into the Chelsea Hotel, a legendary hotel in New York that had also served as a long-time home for Jack Kerouac, Mark Twain, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Mapplethorpe and Jasper Johns, among many others. There, Auder kept the tape rolling on his surroundings. The result became the 88-minute feature, Chelsea Girls with Andy Warhol 1971–1976, which was edited and released almost two decades later, in 1994.
Auder typically employs this process of delayed editing. His work is as much in the act of shooting and the compilation of footage as in the review of the material, the collection of themes and the final production. Thousands of hours of unedited film exists, and the tiny portion that has been edited has mainly been shown at private screenings.
“Everyone seems to have known Michel Auder as a figure,” says art historian Ondine Chavoya. “But very few people in the art world seem to know his work.”

From radical filmmaking in Paris to Andy Warhol’s Factory to the Chelsea Hotel, Auder’s life has been filled with reel-worthy moments. Explore a timeline of Auder’s life, and watch clips from each of his videos along the way.

Unrecognized Pioneer
As home movie technology transitioned from film to video, Auder found a welcome tool for his work. In 1969, he purchased his first video camera, which recorded both image and audio, allowing him to chronicle the world around him more freely than he could with 35 mm film.
“At first, all the artists wanted to work in video,” recalls Auder. “But then everyone got very disappointed. They wanted it to look like film…but they didn’t understand the tool the way it is. Whatever it gives you, you have to make something out of that.”
In a way, Auder and his fellow pioneers of the diary genre, Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage, initiated the kind of self-recording and editing of life and sporadic thoughts that YouTube popularized more than 30 years later.
Auder’s subjects are often explicitly sexual or controversial, as in his movie, My Last Bag of Heroin (for Real), which he shot in 1983 and released in 1993. The film includes footage of Auder as he freebases the drug for the final time after 15 years of drug addiction.

Watch a clip from My Last Bag of Heroin (for Real).

Sensationalism aside, most of Auder’s work focuses on everyday scenarios. In the footage used in The Feature, he captured his wife and daughter in tender, everyday interactions, Sunday mornings in his bedroom and intimate domestic quarrels. Mekas was quoted in 1991 as having called him “a poet of moods, brief encounters, tragic moments of our miserable civilization.”
“Michel is someone who finds beauty in everyday mundane habits,” says Chavoya, “but who is also always attracted to—and participates in—this kind of overly theatrical, hyper-avant-garde, bohemian way of living.”

A Picture of the Times
Several years before PBS introduced the weekly documentary series “An American Family” in 1973, Auder chronicled his own family in a style that anticipated today’s reality TV and the millions of point-and-shoot videos on YouTube.
When his self-described “fictional biography,” The Feature, is screened in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Oct. 8 and 9, audiences will see Auder as he creates a dandy figure out of his own life.

Watch a clip from The Feature, Auder’s latest work.

In a self-aware moment, Auder pokes his head out from behind a ridiculous centerpiece of fruits and flowers and tells us that his work can be cut, censored and edited in countless ways. Based on the footage, he could be portrayed as “a total asshole, a monster or a great poet.” The Feature shows a bit of each.
Although it might seem narcissistic, exhibitionistic and even random at times, every facet of his work constitutes a part of a bigger whole.
“It is not just about me, because I don’t really think I am that interesting,” he says. By exposing his own life in the medium he pioneered, the vidéaste hopes to hint at some universal quality that defines his time.
“I would hope to achieve something, let’s say like Dostoevsky…or Flaubert—19th-century writers,” he says. “I hope to have that kind of vision.”

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