Friday 05.08.09– Michel Auder and C. Ondine Chavoya

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Friday 05.08.09 — Michel Auder and C. Ondine Chavoya — Screening / Discussion
1. About this Friday
2. *
3. About C. Ondine Chavoya
4. Michel Auder: Chronicles and Other Scenes (by C. Ondine Chavoya)
5. Michel Auder (by Lars Bang Larsen)
6. The Art of Transcribing a Sunset (by Rebekah Rutkoff)
7. Useful links
1. About this Friday
What: Screening / Discussion
When: Friday 05.08.09
Where: 16Beaver Street, 4th Floor
When: 7:00 pm
Who: Free and open to all
We recently saw ‘the Feature’, at Anthology Film Archive, which is a collaboration between Michel Auder and Andrew Neel, playfully using Auder’s life and archive of video and film diaries since the sixties. We were inspired by the richness of the material, and by the many layers that are presented in the film. We were interested in the original works by Auder that the film uses liberally and thought it would be interesting to see more of them. What we had seen in this screening and on other occasions already inspired thoughts.*
Upon meeting Michel and Ondine at a screening, we decided to organize this evening together. Ondine is a friend whom we first met around the Interventionists exhibition in 2004. We could dedicate a whole weekend or a month of screenings to some of these works which defy conventions of time and attention, but we have to begin somewhere. And our beginning will be modest but hopefully interesting for all.
We have invited Michel to make a few selections from a range of works. This will then be followed with a conversation between Michel, Ondine and the public. Michel will then pull up clips from previous works which may seem relevant or interesting.
2. *
Auder’s work, by virtue of its openness to duration, and its unconventional subversion of attention places everyday life side by side with what we might refer to as history. His works are often able to loosen history out of its slumber, back into something worldly, part of the present, active and living. Thus, in his version of ‘Chelsea Girls’ Warhol is no longer a static muse or deity upon which all can project their desires. Instead, he is a voice on the phone, murmuring things, coherent, incoherent, funny, quotidian, offensive, absurd. Or in his video, ‘Chasing the Dragon’ the Lower East Side of the 70’s New York is not a profane past made sacred through today’s romanticization. Instead we see a reality at play with fiction, where the grime, poverty, and squalor are neither minimized nor robbed of their potentiality (for another form of life). The Lower East Side is neither the subject nor object of the work. It is neither something to be exploited, gentrified, romanticized, nor to be brought back to its ‘real’ harsh grit. Instead, we are placed in the midst of myth-making, story-telling, and history all wrapped indistinguishably together. The works’ perceptiveness = their openness. Their lessons or truths are made possible by their remaining irreverent and even hostile to the demands of film qua ‘movie’ or video qua ‘art.’ Thus, what may appear as subjective, first person, home-made video, has the capacity to open up to an impersonal account of life amidst other lives, singular – neither general nor specific – a life.
3. About C. Ondine Chavoya
Ondine is Associate Professor of Art and Latina/o Studies at Williams College where he teaches courses on contemporary art and Latina/o visual culture. At present, Ondine is finalizing a manuscript for publication, titled, Orphans of Modernism: Chicano Art and Urban Space in Southern California.
4. Michel Auder: Chronicles and Other Scenes
By C. Ondine Chavoya
Michel Auder has fervently recorded his life, experiences, and observations on video for over 30 years. Auder is an exemplary video raconteur, whose work elicits a sense of intimacy paired with the conscious pleasure of looking. The participatory character of Auder’s videos is shaped by his use of the camera as a tool of social interaction. Auder’s video chronicles create the impression that he carries a camera with him everywhere and that the camera inevitably mediates his perception and experience. This seemingly indefatigable use of video provokes a sense of infinite coverage, ostensibly effacing the distinction between experience, memory, and representation, and consequently brings further attention to the way technologies of representation mediate between individual and social histories.
Launching his career as a fashion photographer, Auder began making films in the early 1960s. By 1968, filmmaking became his primary conduit through his association with a constellation of radical independent filmmakers in Paris known as the Zanzibar Group. Auder began exploring the documentary value and creative possibilities of video soon after portable video equipment became available beyond the television industry. Auder acquired his first Sony Portapak video camera in 1969; since then, his work has spanned a variety of styles and genres, from fictional narratives to media appropriation collages, travelogues to exercises in mediated voyeurism, and video portraits of artists and friends such as Taylor Mead, Alice Neel, Larry Rivers, Cindy Sherman, Annie Sprinkle, and Hannah Wilke. Fundamentally, Auder is an assiduous visual chronicler who has documented and shared his life and observations with the medium of video. His cinema verité-style memoirs have simultaneously documented personal domestic environments and that of the New York art world, from the glitterati of Andy Warhol’s Factory in the late-1960s to the present. A confluence of representational systems informs these video chronicles, however the home mode and video diary formats are the most immediately perceptible.
The archive of footage he has amassed, and continues to collect, provides the source material from which he creates discrete works that range in length from under five minutes to several hours. While a few works were formed completely in-camera, most have been edited years, and sometimes decades, after the original footage was shot. As time passes, certain situations, people, and images are revisited, edited, and released from the archive. His process of explicit recollection is not about retrieval as much as it is about retelling and the processes of memory: looking back from the present on events in the past and searching for a means to tell stories, to communicate.
Auder is a poet of visual observation, who has been informally named the “Video Laureate.” (1) Auder’s chronicles of situations, behaviors, intimate details, and unexpected gestures offer glimpses into the quotidian and profound. These videos are remarkable for their aesthetic and historical value, offering an intimate view into a social scene “whose members have long since
apotheosized into cultural mythology” (2) or have been otherwise recognized for their important contributions to art and culture. Collectively, the archive and videos effectively function as a form of visual autobiography. Film historian and theorist Michael Renov has identified this form of “essayistic” autobiography in recent film and video as “the site of a vital creative initiative being undertaken by film- and video-makers around the world that is transforming the ways we think about ourselves for ourselves and for others.” (3) France, 1968
France, 1968
Auder was born in 1944, in the small industrial town of Soissons, France, approximately 60 miles north of Paris. An aspiring filmmaker, he moved to Paris in his late teens, where he found employment as an apprentice photographer. By 1961, Auder opened his own photographic studio and was introduced to New York City while on assignment with the legendary fashion photographer Hiro for Harper’s Bazaar. Enthralled with the New York scene, Auder overstayed a two-week visa until he was deported several months later. Returning to Paris, Auder learned he had been conscripted for military service. He was instated in the photo and film division of the French Army and ultimately deployed in Algeria as a military photographer shortly after the war ended.
Like other young filmmakers of his generation, Auder was interested in challenging how modern life was represented, particularly by television and the classic narrative techniques of cinema. He found encouragement in the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Nouvelle Vague for the manner with which they presented certain aspects of modern life, including frank explorations of sexuality, and challenged bourgeois morality. To this day, the French New Wave’s cinematic fascination with the details and small rituals of everyday life is lavishly evident in Auder’s work. Jean- Luc Godard and Andy Warhol decisively inspired Auder. Both film artists eschewed traditional realist conventions and in distinct ways manipulated the basic form and elements of cinema. Godard and Warhol were formative influences and confirmed his desire to “make films differently from the principles that had been laid out for so many years in the Hollywood system.” (4)
Auder encountered a cadre of kindred thinkers when he became involved with the Zanzibar Group that formed in France in early 1968. Incorporating roughly a dozen young filmmakers, most in their early twenties, the group was allied in their conviction that cinema was the medium with which immediate actions and emotions could be captured and transformed into history. Between 1968 and 1970, the Zanzibar Group made thirteen films funded entirely by a single patron, Sylvina Boissonnas, a young heiress and future militant feminist. Henri Langlois often showed their films at the Cinémathèque Française in late-night screenings and thus ushered in the first installment of the post-Nouvelle Vague generation. Many of these films have been lost forever, but are perhaps best known today through Jacquie Raynal’s Deux Fois (1968) and the expansive career of Philippe Garrel. Glamour and style were so central to their code of ethics and aesthetics that Zanzibar participants were often referred to as the “Dandies of 1968.”
At times bewilderingly innovative and experimental, Zanzibar films enact a more extreme rejection of classical narrative than their forbearers, preferring improvisation and untrained actors while often making films without scripts. Such concepts were not necessarily new to Auder; between 1964 and 1965, he shot, directed, and edited his first 16mm film, Anne Evadée des Saisons, which starred Sabine Surget, Miss France 1962, first runner-up Miss United Nations 1963, and his romantic interest at the time. Discovering that the screenplay was irretrievably misplaced during production, Auder was nonetheless determined to carry through relying on improvisation to complete the film.
A parallel cinema, existing apart from and in opposition to standard structures of production and distribution, Zanzibar films were rarely screened in the U.S. Although most were shot on 35mm, these renegade productions were noted for their immediacy, directness, and stripped-down style that, by comparison, made the French New Wave look slick. Generally, Zanzibar productions are films of images, in which shots tend to be autonomous and narrative is secondary. Editing was consistently subtle and minimal, while sound was often asynchronous or absent. The coalescence of these formal elements has been stalwartly maintained in Auder’s practice after thirty years of production.
These were defiantly personal films, hovering between documentary and fiction, marking and recording the emergence of the desires and demands that were expressed in the May 1968 political uprising in France. Thus, the Zanzibar films have been recently described as “a curious collection of cinematic parables that either addressed the demonstrations head-on or examined the personal and political issues that were at their core.” (5) Such is the case with Auder’s no longer extant films featuring lush Ektachrome footage of the 1968 protests.
1968 unfolded to be a propitious year for Auder. In that same year, he attended a screening of Andy Warhol’s underground epic Chelsea Girls in Paris at Galerie Alexandre Iolas. Chelsea Girls (1966) was Warhol’s first commercially successful film, which Newsweek deemed the “Iliad of the Underground” and the New York Times decried as a “travelogue of hell.” (6) Auder considered it “the best fucking film I had ever seen,” (7) and his decisive response confirmed and reinvigorated his desire to make films differently. Wandering through the streets of Paris while on a dandy dérive, Auder recognized Nico from her performance in The Chelsea Girls. He boldly approached the model turned spectral chanteuse for the Velvet Underground and introduced himself. Accompanying her was Viva, the ultimate “offbeat vamp of the underground” (8) and star of the Warhol films Nude Restaurant, Bike Boy, Lonesome Cowboys (1967), and Blue Movie (1968). A “high-cheekboned Botticelli beauty,” (9) Viva was the reigning queen in Warhol’s camp of “handsome women and beautiful men” (10) that were transformed into serial Superstars. Viva and Auder started dating and she soon inspired and starred in his next film. The ensuing relationship was one of several associations between Zanzibar filmmakers and Warhol’s factory scene. Other Zanzibar participants, including Oliver Mosset, Caroline de Bendern, and Zouzou, had previously spent time at Warhol’s Factory or had Factory ties. Nico would become Philippe Garrel’s muse and they collaborated on several films, including La Cicatrice Intérieure (1972), released in the U.S. as the Inner Scar.
5. MICHEL AUDER By Lars Bang Larsen
Lars Bang Larsen
The sentence “this is not a true account” hangs at the beginning of Michel Auder’s 2008 film The Feature, and it is not a reliable disclaimer. Something like “no exit” would have perhaps been more apt, because the film paradoxically refuses to help us escape to a dreamworld: The Feature prevents us from returning to daily life as though it were untouched by fiction.
In the first scene, a doctor lets Michel Auder, played by Michel Auder, know he has fallen from grace: the artist’s brain is being eaten by a tumor. Auder refuses surgery, a decision that promises a rapid demise. From here, a three-hour long self-explanation begins, where new dramatic scenes by co-director Andrew Neel mix with excerpts of the 5,000 hours of film and video that Auder has recorded since the 1960s. Loosely constructed around his filmic persona’s fight with a rampant cancer, The Feature spools out with a kaleidoscopic flow that mobilizes a vast archival memory to punctuate day-in-a-life scenes in an approximation of the mundane.
The Feature revisits Auder’s life as he has recorded it, and continues his autobiographic project in a force field between the unrehearsed and the dramatized. In a retrospective chronology, we follow him from Paris in his early days, to the bustling downtown scene of New York in the ’70s (where he moved to and “fell into the art scene in a big way,” as he puts it to me over the phone), to a more sedentary New York of the ’80s and beyond. Oddly enough, the only major European artist who Auder knew before he hit the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City was Giacometti, a bohemian of the old school, who would hang out with the hookers around Les Halles.
More than the film’s actual plot, however, the cancer story is a nagging truth that occasionally erupts in fear and sadness. This, it turns out, is how Auder tells us about the certainty of death, as that which is doubly absent in life: something perforce elusive and with repercussions that we try to repress (a version of vanity at which Auder’s character in The Feature excels). It is as if Auder is saying, yes, cancer kills, but the accumulation of recorded life is also evidence of our mortality.
Yet, as much as anything, the film is devoted to the women. In the middle-aged man’s life, the ex-wives are still the scene-stealers: Viva Superstar, a Warhol actress who proposed to Auder while the camera was rolling, and the artist Cindy Sherman, whose conceptual photography carved her name into the art canon of the 1980s. Many other women populate Auder’s Parnassus of desire — in his mind, his bed, and his camera, which, in The Feature, amount to the same thing.
In Auder’s universe, something that “is not a true account” could still have happened, by slipping into one of those bright crevices where art and life intermingle. Neither accuracy nor happiness is ever striven for, if they figure in as criteria at all. Auder is the first to undo any plausibility, and hence nostalgia, to which his works could claim. For example, what’s with the X-ray image in the background of the opening scene? The radiated person holds up bejeweled hands before his face, and clenches empty air in a gesture of theatrical fright, making it look as if his skeleton had known of the diagnosis before the rest of him did. So is Auder indeed terminally ill? It somehow isn’t the right question to ask. He could really be dying – well, who isn’t? — and still be taking a piss. A better question to ask is how could that which can be imagined not have a reality? And for that matter, why would anyone in their right mind try to convince a reader of the Marquis de Sade that what he or she reads is unreal and could not, should not, happen at home?
The French left didn’t lose a big agitator in Auder. As he — or somebody — says in the film, apropos of the working class, “Their only ideal is to jump on their dishwater-smelling wives every night, to vibrate on top of them and make a new child, and to spend weekends in their compact car. I prefer the villainy of the ruling class — decadent and rotten.”
Even if he isn’t exactly a politico, Auder’s sense of corruption keeps self-complacency at bay. In a paradoxical and self-deprecating move, Auder has cast himself in The Feature as a smug bastard who is more into his career, girls, guns, and jewels than the “real world” around him. The film’s Auder is quite the French cat: audacious, profligate, and cool — and a pompous brute. Still, this asshole persona also makes for seductive effect, as such persons often do. One wouldn’t mind being there with him on the shooting range, with an AK, looking smooth in a grey suit, smoking a wrecked car — enjoying a quiet William S. Burroughs moment with this dude.
Auder says of the film, “It is also a composite portrait of people we know in the art world: asshole, self-obsessed prick, hedonistic. It’s a mix of artists, collectors, and myself. Sometimes I wouldn’t mind being there, and sometimes I have.”
The more or less obvious contradictions in the film don’t help focus the crosshairs of biographic veracity. For example, Auder seems to be leaving his will to at least two young brunettes as next of kin. At another point he says, “Money runs through my hands like water… I can’t hold onto the stuff.” Then what about the Manhattan condo, the flashy cars, the hotel suites, and the collectors desperate for his work? We end up asking who exactly it is that appears, slowly, between the cuts of the montage, between Neel’s vignettes and the patchwork of Auder’s own, previous works. It’s hard to say, but this is not because things are withheld from us: in its own strange way, The Feature is nothing but frank, and sometimes pathetically so. The movie alternatively opens up various possibilities for biographic narrative, and different kinds of duration. Auder uses his archive-memory to comment on how available the space between truth and fiction is to us. This is not just to make a new statement about the blurring of biography and invention; it is a meditation on the deadly serious necessity of fictionalizing life processes — of praising folly, fun, and masquerade — in order to grasp what the stakes in life really are.
The Feature is something like a home video adaptation of Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. It is a long, meandering hybrid of the mundane (childbirth, television, divorces, college graduation), and a desire that is out of, or below, the ordinary — with plenty of sex (in groups, with prostitutes and strangers), heavy drugs (which, like the sex, are undeniably real and cover an impressive variety), and a stretched out cast of the ambitious and famous. There is some Pop art in there, but one cannot explain Auder by calling him a Pop artist. When I ask him about his take on Pop, the voice in the telephone laughs and says, “Well, you tell me!”
Okay. On the surface, Auder’s work resembles Andy Warhol’s sexed-up and deliberately uneventful film works of the ’60s. And like Pop, it is not about originality, but about one’s social competence in keeping a good flirt going with the insignificant. An Auder film is uneventful because one’s life can’t be an action movie if it’s all day spent shagging and smoking opium. When watching an Auder, you don’t just put yourself in the image, or blank out in front of it. You are moved, embarrassed, aroused, and affected, in unglamorous ways. He makes a garden party at John and Yoko’s look as if it were your aunt’s backyard, and we catch ourselves thinking, as if he were a family member, “What’s up with your hair today, Jack Nicholson?” In short, Auder is about intimacy. If Warhol is the entrepreneur, then Auder is the French existentialist in New York.
Further, the anecdotal differences between Auder and the Pop artists are big. Auder managed to stay underground long after Warhol had become a snob beyond redemption in Club 54, and through the majority of his career Auder’s marketing awareness has been close to zero, compared to the seemingly spaced-out but incessantly calculating Warhol. Nor does an Auder have much of the pathos of a Nan Goldin, another chronicler of NYC bohemia. In fact, he has a knack for not framing his subjects as exotic animals in a zoo of glamour and dependency. On this count, it helps to see the Warhol superstars having become old in The Feature, and, in the case of Louis Waldon, literally toothless, even if his lively philippics against Auder (“You tried to fuck my daughter!”) prove that, metaphorically speaking, Waldon is anything but.
Another reason for Auder’s distance to Pop is that he is, at heart, a writer. “I have always believed that I am closer to literature and writing than to cinema,” he explains. “Probably the early reading that I did — Camus, Marquis de Sade, and so on — has marked me more deeply than I thought, and made me handle filming like a text, and editing like a continuous process of rewriting. My films are like cut-up writing, like Burroughs’s experiments with text montage, you know. This is a very particular poetics of associating images by using text, or in my case [visual footage], as a material to be recombined beyond the meaning they were initially invested with.”
Michel Auder is obviously not the lone scribe hunched over in his attic. He is nothing if not a social animal. He observes with a lens as if he were writing a journal, in a language that is embodied by the people around him. As a result, The Feature, with its multiple tenses, has the sticky temporal grammar of a diary, given that there is more to writing a diary than producing a memory about the given day that came and went. As the philosopher Henri Bergson tells us, while we customarily think in terms of the “present,” the past is not strung out behind us, like some long tail of lived time. Memory’s paradox is that the past is contemporaneous with the present; the past is here with us, and we live through it because it bleeds into the present. To compile a diary, whether with pen or camera, and with all of its delays, is to follow our multiple presents back to their pasts.
The Feature not only is about the complexity of biographic truth (i.e., an attempt to define the recorded life), but is also testimony about lived time. If memory is like a film, our mind is the celluloid that is being spooled in the projector, in the same way that writing a diary is not only the act of reconstructing, but the act of closing the book, and forgetting the particulars until you start writing again. The Feature has this kind of closure, the undoing of one’s old self that confession makes possible. Auder’s film is about a guy in his sixties who is pushing his past — a past that was lived very close to the bone — ahead of him, and relieving himself of some of its burden by teasing us with the possibility of illusion.
The first crowd Auder fell into in U.S., as he tells it, was the Factory, the industrialized Manhattan studio of Warhol’s that was basically a gay commune of speed freaks. Filmed in the wintertime in New York City and in the legendary Cinecittá Studios in Rome, Auder’s Cleopatra (1970) is populated with the usual Factory denizens: Waldon, Taylor Mead, Ondine, Gerard Malanga, Andrea Feldman, and Viva. The cast of characters improvises their way through the eponymous 1963 epic by Joseph Mankiewicz that stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Auder’s version is a spoof on the movie industry that Warhol could never have pulled off. His freewheeling ensemble looks like a mime troupe rehearsing an unworried premonition of Caligula, replete with an orgy in a bathhouse and a no-holds-barred wrestling scene with some hairy gladiators.
“The film was my bid for the independent chapter of the Cannes film festival that year, even though my producer refused to acknowledge the film. He said it wasn’t finished, and I told him, you know, fuck you, I know when my own film is finished.”
Auder’s beefs with the film industry continue. This year The Feature has not been accepted at the Sundance and Brooklyn film festivals — unsurprisingly, perhaps, when one sees how Auder still refuses to obey even the independent circuit’s industry standards for narrative and duration.
There are many parallels between drugs and media. It is said that the self is enhanced when one is high or transmitted. Nevertheless, media — whether digital or narcotic — hypnotically massage one’s personality. Media do not work for you as much as they work upon you; there is always something in them that goes beyond the element of pleasure. As the artist Henri Michaux wrote in his logbook of mescaline trips, Miserable Miracle (1956), “to enjoy a drug, one has to enjoy being a subject.” So if you don’t enjoy being yourself, you got another thing coming when tripping.
Auder read Michaux as a teen, and he counts Michaux as the reason why he first tried LSD. From there, Auder will go on to get more involved. Fast forward to 1986: My Last Bag of Heroin (For Real) shows Auder’s aquiline profile, riding the dragon but never again, finally bidding his monkey goodbye. It is a piece redolent with drug slang and rituals, as equally fascinating and clichéd as they get. But his wife Cindy Sherman breaks the spell. “I’ll just be a minute,” he intones back to her as she shuffles through the room and asks when he’ll be ready to go shopping. The title’s parenthetic “for real” is the junkie’s plea to be believed when he says that he — honestly, cross my heart, just wait and see — is going to kick the habit.
“Drug culture is what I come from,” Auder says. “When I was young, in Paris in the sixties, it was the thing to do, and to me it meant living like Rimbaud did. I gradually went on to opiates, and towards the end of the ’70s, they had made my life miserable, because they made me sick. When I did My Last Bag of Heroin, to film myself smoking was a control thing in relation to kicking. So the drugs ultimately made my life miserable, but they also saved my life, because they gave me the strength to go on when I was desperate or had no money.”
My Last Bag turns up in The Feature as a way of making sense not only of Auder’s past but also of his personality. For Auder, drugs weren’t about breaking on through to the other side, and the Californian metaphysics of all that. They were about having fun, getting by, and ridding yourself of everyday bothers. Paradoxically, and much like his need to film what goes on around him, drugs were a way of staying if not exactly on the straight and narrow then at least socially functional, which is exactly what the prescription variety will do for you now, but without the hassles from the law.
“Today the doctor will give you what the fuck you want anyway, to make you function, uppers and downers, the exact equivalents of needle drugs and amphetamines. The flipside of that is that taking illegal drugs is not necessarily a very experimental thing anymore. I mean, now that we’re all on something.”
And did he finally kick the habit?
“I kicked it. But of course I am not going to poop on the party and say no if people are having a good time.”
For all the effervescent uncertainty it generates, The Feature leaves no doubt that this man has lived his dream. This is not to say that living one’s dream is always so hard as it sounds. After all, dreams have a way of taking over.
Another earlier project that gets a showing in The Feature is La Plage (1967), a fragment filmed on a beach in Morocco. Here a desolate stretch of bleached sand becomes an existential scene wherein Auder’s camera dwells on a beautiful young woman and a lean man, the filmmaker Donald Cammell. The couple flashes their naked parts to the camel and donkey drivers that pass by and try their best to ignore these Europeans. Thinking about the experience, Auder can’t seem to hide some surprise at his own past:
“Drifting around in Morocco for a month with Cammell and this model, whom we shared, eating cough syrup with codeine that makes you kind of dreamy, was something that happened in this world — but it was out of it too. It’s amazing to have lived such moments.”
Recall that, together with Nicholas Roeg, Donald Cammell was co-director of the feature film Performance (1968), starring Mick Jagger, James Fox, and Anita Pallenberg. Fox plays a goon from the London underworld who’s on the run from his boss. While waiting for his passage to the continent, he hides out in a cavernous Notting Hill mansion belonging to a shopworn rock star, played by Jagger. Staying there, Fox is sucked down in a schizophrenic spiral of black magic, sexual ambiguity, and split identities. Cammell and Roeg hired real gangland characters to help the actors with the authenticity of their performances. Marianne Faithfull, Jagger’s then partner, characterized Performance as “a psychosexual lab run by Cammell, with James Fox the prime experimental animal.” Cammell and Jagger would spike an unknowing Fox with acid and film him while he underwent “personality changes.” {NOTE TO EDIT: make endnote into footnote under text column}
Fox emerged shell-shocked after the film, took up fundamentalist Christianity, distributing pamphlets door to door. The next year, Mick Jagger went on to organize the Altamont rock festival, which would become infamous as one of the death knells of the Summer of Love. Pallenberg became a heroin addict. And Cammell, upon whom Hollywood never smiled again, shot himself in L.A. in 1996.
Apart from its obvious contempt for reality, Performance, and the reports that surround it, may seem to be marginal in relation to The Feature. But once you know about it, the darkness of Cammell’s story taints the celluloid Moroccan beach scene. It makes you think of two things. Firstly, considering all of those who fell to drugs, AIDS, or from their own hand, one feels happy that Auder got away in one piece. Secondly, it is an indication of how Auder’s incessant filming-while-hanging-out has made him a character witness: scratch the surface of one of his works and you’ll see that its densely stacked subtext is a seminar’s worth of subculture history and art world fables.
Like other independent filmmakers in the U.S. (particularly the two other New York greats, Jonas Mekas, and the Warhol of the ’60s), Auder has kept, throughout decades, his Portapak trained on those who are intent on struggling with life. He has done so indiscriminately, in a moral sense, without any assumptions other than the imperative to keep filming — and not always with a particular exhibition or project in sight (in fact, usually without). This is not art that believes itself capable of scooping up life and expressing it in a definitive form, but art that is pushed ahead by the energy of life.
The Feature does not belong in the tomb of a movie theatre. It is seems so alive that we should instead project it in broad daylight to let its characters spill out onto the streets. That Auder has had a pioneering role for both citizen journalism and a large strand of contemporary video art is obvious. In a sense, he baptized the lay recording devices that we grew up with: our digital camera, our home video, and the one in our cell phone. However, consistent with the democratic spirit of new technology, it is a role from which he refuses to capitalize. He is not the maestro; he is more like the guy in your corner bar with a digital camera (who is probably right now likely using it to the best of his abilities as some kind of sex toy). Auder stands by his freedom in the Nietzschean way: out of respect of life and creation, and fuelled by contempt for law and hierarchy.
“After seeing the film for the first time in a theater, at the Berlin film festival, I blurted to the audience that it should have been titled The Trailer rather than The Feature. This is only the beginning. Just wait and see what comes next. L’esprit d’escalier.”
This would be the necessary conclusion to his auto-biopic. It is the director’s cut, sure enough, but still only a preface. Can there ever be a final version of anyone’s life? Personally, I prefer to think that the camera is always rolling and the cutter is never quite done piecing it all together.
“I haven’t used it yet,” Auder says of some 30 hours of stock from the ’70s starring Warhol superstar Brigid Polk.
It’s as if to say the more of his past he has so the more of a future.
6. The Art of Transcribing a Sunset
By Rebekah Rutkoff
I refuse to be the dupe of a kind of magic which brandishes before an eager public albums of colored photographs instead of the now vanished native masks. Perhaps the public imagines that the charms of the savages can be appropriated through the medium of these photographs. – Claude Lévi-Strauss1
Claude Lévi-Strauss forcefully registers his skepticism about the capacity of color photographs to transmit an anthropological journey in the opening pages of Tristes Tropiques (its first sentence: “I hate traveling and explorers.”). He wants to keep magic for himself, on the interior of an ethnographic escapade, guarded by the boundaries of his professional expertise and sensitivity; naïve are those who believe native secrets can be imprinted on photographic paper, who fall for identification between color and the real. As he says, “Nowadays, being an explorer is a trade, which consists not, as one might think, in discovering hitherto unknown facts after years of study, but in covering a great many miles and assembling lantern-slides or motion pictures, preferably in color, so as to fill a hall with an audience for several days in succession” (Tristes 17-8). The proof- boasting quality of photographic forms, both still and moving, is so obvious that it exposes its own sham. And in his vision of the impressionable who are attracted to such charades and “fill halls,” Lévi-Strauss imagines a continuous flow of bodies and misguided curiosities to match the mesmerizing flow of mo- tion pictures: a foil to his solitary excursions and the erratic rhythms of their physical and mental labors. Though he doesn’t say so, these colored pictures are clearly a foil to language as well.
But in his “Sunset” chapter—the transcription of a setting sun seen from aboard a Brazil-bound ship, shortly after departing from Marseilles in 1934— Lévi-Strauss rides on color, and produces an optical trip with language. In so doing, he provides my favorite example of the power of color to shock a philo- sophical investigation into quiet submission, transmission occurring not via the reality-imprint of a photograph but along the surface of a colored picture that’s composed of words. Perhaps because he hasn’t arrived at his destination yet, some rough, broken-down form of ethnography can only be conducted by docu- menting a morphology of color; Lévi-Strauss’s refusal of the association between the pictorial and the ethnographic quiets down as he gives in to a journey that’s narrated by the sky.2 I read it as a lyric ode to magic without mention of magic by name—not magic-as-ritual, delicately uncovered and recorded in the heat of aninaccessible jungle, but magic in its most modest, culturally neutral state: as a picture of change.
The vision of a complete performance with so many rapidly dissolving acts, the surprise of finding the gaudy, neon and jewel-toned in the daily, and the drive to narrate the spectacle in detail combine to momentarily topple Lévi- Strauss’s professional sense of identification. He no longer needs anthropology; or, anthropology for a moment is contained in the joint beholding and transcrip- tion of a sunset: “If I could find a language in which to perpetuate those appear- ances, at once so unstable and so resistant to description, if it were granted to me to be able to communicate to others the phases and sequences of a unique event which would never recur in the same terms, then…I should in one go have discovered the deepest secrets of my profession” (Tristes 62). His language in this chapter jumps out of the skin of its usual container; he stretches for the words to mark his vision of the sky and rushes to include it all in eight pages of sunset- hypnosis. He sees “bloated but ethereal ramparts, all glistening, like mother of pearl, with pink, mauve and silvered gleams,” then a “laminated [mass] like a sheet of metal illuminated from behind, first by a golden, then a vermillion, then a cherry glow”; there are “bulging pyramids and frothy bubblings” and “streaks of dappled blondness decomposing into nonchalant twists” and a “spun glass network of colors…shrimp, salmon, flax, straw” that, with the final setting, be- comes “purple, then coal black, and then…no more than an irregular charcoal mark on grainy paper” as night finally arrives (Tristes 62-9). And then he returns to being an anthropologist, making his way through South America without the accompaniment of a painted sky. He returns to being a structuralist, a writer, and to black and white.

As evidenced by Lévi-Strauss’s professional un-doing in its midst, the sunset is a zone of reversal. The day trades places with the night, and announces the turn-over with paint and time; it’s a rare site of ocular access to x becoming y in a temporal register that’s both fast and slow (fast enough for the entire mor- phology to unfold in one sitting, slow enough to note and record each transition). When water is part of the tableau, the identities of sea and sky break down too— the shapes of clouds and spills of pink and purple pass back and forth. And as the stream of his documentation unfolds, Levi Strauss’s use of figurative lan- guage collects around another kind of reversal: the turning of the sky is linked to forms of art, and the comparative leap that characterizes metaphor finds in the sky the artifacts of culture. “Daybreak is a prelude, the close of day an overture which occurs at the end instead of the beginning, as in old operas” (Tristes 62). In a double back and forth, he notates clouds “immobilized in the form of mould- ings representing clouds, but which real clouds resemble when they have the polished surface and bulbous relief of carved and gilded wood” (Tristes 64). And in the end, the scene is a “photographic plate of night” (Tristes 68).
Although Lévi-Strauss does not invoke “magic” in his sunset reverie, its presence hovers. For magic in its essence runs on the surprise and gratification of encounters with condensed, sped-up forms of change, foils to the durations by which changes of state—in material form and psychic interiority—take place in non-magical life. Magic offers a display of its own effectivity, turning abstract ideas into objects. In A General Theory of Magic, Marcel Mauss tells of a Murringsorcerer, for instance, who produces chunks of quartz from his mouth as proof of a nocturnal encounter with the spirit world.3 But as Mauss crisscrosses content, geography and time, reviewing demonology, rites and role-acquisition in Aus- tralia, Madagascar, and Malaysia at ancient, medieval and contemporary mo- ments, he is most interested in language; he remains a spectator who gets to use logical language and watch its illogical applications at once—the ideal position, perhaps, of the anthropologist. Mauss boils magic down to its core: “The magi- cian knows that his magic is always the same—he is always conscious of the fact that magic is the art of changing” (General 75). And again: “Between a wish and its fulfillment there is, in magic, no gap…. [M]agic’s central aim is to produce results” (General 78-9). In response to criticism leveled against Mauss for drawing generalizations from such diverse examples, Lévi-Strauss re-framed Mauss’s move as the seed of a radical semiotic observation: magic is a turning of the mis- matches of language into useful material; it takes the peripheral excess (outside logic, but hovering, waiting for attention) and allows it to motor and fuel the ac- tivities of change.4 As David Pocock explains in his “Foreward” to Mauss’s General Theory: “Rituals do what words cannot say: in act black and white can be mixed; the young man is made an adult; spirit and man can be combined or separated at will” (5). The idea that a photo could not only stand in for a mask, but also carry the mask’s contexts, auras and the anthropologist’s hard-earned understanding of it, is for Lévi-Strauss an unbearable shortcut. Photography is a variety of magic that he “refuse[s] to be the dupe of.” In contrast, in his beholding and written tracking of the sunset, Lévi-Strauss finds a way to stay with the stream of his consciousness without break—the sunset holds his perception and reverie, con- tains and is coextensive with it: the sunset functions doubly, as any satisfying magical event does, as object and stream.
An overwhelming number of videos made by the French-born American artist Michel Auder (b. 1944) feature sunsets: Brooding Angels (1988), Personal Narrative of Travels to Bolivia (1995), Polaroid Cocaine (1993), Rooftops and Other Scenes (1996), TV America (1988), Voyage to the Center of the Phone Lines (1993), and others. A sunset and a videotape are somehow meant to commune: the furriness of the tableau of a dropping sun; the temporariness; the bleeding colors, pale and florescent at once, tending toward gradation and chiaroscuro; and the strange impossibility of their location in the sky—all find ideal recognition among televisual tubes and scan lines and their chromatic tendencies. Video is prone to disappointment in a variety of directions. It degrades with ease, can produce unsolicited clarity, stubbornly refusing mystery, and it fails to behave and gratify like film. But when it finds its proper objects and gestures under the auspices of the right light, a poem is made. Auder once told me that making videos feels like working with language: like writing.
7. Useful links