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Remembering New York’s Downtown Documentarian Nelson Sullivan

Twenty-five years ago this month, on July 4, 1989, video artist Nelson Sullivan suddenly died of a heart attack, leaving behind almost 1,200 hours of footage of the now iconic and heavily romanticized Downtown New York scene.

Twenty-five years ago this month, on July 4, 1989, video artist Nelson Sullivan suddenly died of a heart attack, leaving behind almost 1,200 hours of footage of the now iconic and heavily romanticized Downtown New York scene. Ranging from performances by renowned drag queens RuPaul, Lypsinka, Taboo!, and Lady Bunny at the Pyramid Club to parties with notorious “Party Monster” Michael Alig, Sullivan’s videos record an insider’s view of the DIY self-constructed world of nightlife personalities set against the barely recognizable terrain of 1980s New York City.

As his friend and frequent subject, nightlife columnist Michael Musto wrote in an obituary for Sullivan in the July 10, 1989, issue of OutWeek magazine: “Thanks to his scrupulous attention, Nelson’s left behind a treasure trove of late-night videos that, even more than the Warhol diaries, trenchantly capture the party years in all their gleeful decadent fun.”

Whether documenting the humble and hilarious beginnings of today’s superstars by taping a young RuPaul strutting through the Lower Manhattan streets in football shoulder pads draped with toilet paper or preserving the legacy of greatly missed performers such as Dean Johnson, the six feet six bald drag singer of the rebellious punk band Dean and the Weenies, Sullivan’s videos present an unparalleled look at this thoroughly outrageous and unfortunately long-gone era. Not only do Sullivan’s videos show nightlife at its height, but he also depicts the ever-changing geography of New York, walking his dog Blackout through the desolate streets of the Meatpacking District to the decaying and decrepit former cruising spots on the Hudson River piers.

Nelson Sullivan and Sylvia Miles. Photo by Paula Gately Tillman

Even with the overwhelming interest and nostalgia for this period of New York history, as well as its pop cultural continuation through television shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, Sullivan’s work remains one of the lesser-known records of that nightlife scene. However, Sullivan’s videos have recently been revitalized through both the Internet and archival collections, asserting the importance of his captured performances and Sullivan’s art itself.

Born in South Carolina, Sullivan moved to New York in the early 1970s. A classically trained pianist, Sullivan, by day, worked at the Joseph Patelson Music House, a classical music store located behind Carnegie Hall. Originally planning on writing a book similar to Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations on his experiences in New York, Sullivan suddenly realized that it would be easier and more effective to turn on his video camera, showing his audience what was happening. 

In 1983, Sullivan began videotaping his daily (and nightly) excursions to famed clubs such as the Saint, Limelight, Danceteria, the Tunnel, the Pyramid Club, and Area. In addition to the clubs, Sullivan also attended and recorded the booming East Village galleries, street protests, and parties in his own home at 5 Ninth Avenue, which became an almost Factory-esque meeting place for Sullivan’s nightclubbing friends. 

Like many artists of the period, Andy Warhol heavily inspired Sullivan as seen in his ever-present video camera, which like Warhol’s tape recorder, became almost an extension of his persona. Drawing on Warhol’s adoration of boredom, Sullivan’s tapes revel in the lengthy and at times mundane backstage and dressing-room conversations. Warhol himself even makes an appearance in Sullivan’s work at Fiorucci.  Discussing his relationship to Warhol, Marvin Taylor, the director of New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections, which holds the Nelson Sullivan Video Collection, explains, “He’s clearly heavily influenced by Warhol—even the notion of documenting a scene. His relationship with Holly Woodlawn is important because of that lineage, but he has his own set of people—John Sex, RuPaul, and all the others who were part of his moment and his scene.  He’s very consciously working that.”

While much of Sullivan’s earlier work sees Sullivan disappearing into the background like a fly on the wall, noticeable only when one of his subjects greets him with a nonchalant “Hi Nelson,” his videos evolve in 1987 when he turns the camera on himself. Abandoning his enormous VHS camcorder for a smaller Hi8 after suffering a hernia due to the camera’s weight, Sullivan begins to maneuver the 8mm camera in order to transform himself into the narrator of his own artistic documentation. Much like his friends’ self-fashioned identities in the nightclubs, Sullivan constructs his own persona as a witty, queer, and unquestionably Southern flâneur, wandering through the decadence of 1980s nightlife. Drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys, who points to Sullivan as a predecessor of his own video documentation of drag, views Sullivan’s sudden appearance in his own videos as significant. “What’s amazing to me about Nelson’s work is that he includes himself in his own,” says Jeffreys. “He’s able to take the camera, turn it on himself, and become the narrator. He’s not just the vocal narrator, but he’s actually visually present as the narrator in his work, which takes it to another place and another level. A lot of people looking at the work think there must be another cameraman out there, but no, he was just that fluid with the camera he was using.”

After Sullivan’s tragic and unexpected death, which came just days after he quit his day-job to pursue a cable-access show, his childhood friend Dick Richards quickly secured Sullivan’s staggering collection of videos, storing them in his Atlanta home with his partner David Goldman and occasionally screening a selection on his own cable-access show, The American Music Show. In 1993, queer historian and archivist Robert Coddington was introduced to Sullivan’s work through Richards. While at first fascinated by Sullivan’s merging of art and documentary, Coddington did not realize its historical importance until years later, in 2000, when he, Richards, and Goldman dedicated themselves to preserving and promoting Sullivan’s work and legacy. Since then, the three have mounted numerous exhibitions on four continents, placed Sullivan’s videos in film festivals, and, more recently, started a YouTube channel, the 5 Ninth Avenue Project, hosting a selection of edited versions of Sullivan’s videos.

Through the 5 Ninth Avenue Project on YouTube, Sullivan’s videos have gained a new, younger and wider viewership. Asked what the response has been to the 5 Ninth Avenue Project, Coddington responds, “It’s incredible. There’s so many people that write to us at the channel. There’s a lot of younger kids who are looking at New York. Of course, New York is not what it was back in his day. One of the biggest hits we’ve got is a video taking the subway to Coney Island. A lot of websites use that footage to talk about old New York, especially with the graffiti on the subway. There’s a lot of nostalgia in the comments.”

However, the moment that, in Coddington’s opinion, “really solidified issues about Nelson being relevant or not,” came in September 2013 when Fales Library and Special Collections acquired the Nelson Sullivan Video Collection as a part of their Downtown Collection, which holds archives from New York subcultural luminaries such as Richard Hell, Nick Zedd, and David Wojnarowicz. Director Marvin Taylor recalls, “Robert Coddington contacted me, said that he had Nelson’s material, and asked if I knew about him. I knew the name, but I had not seen very much of the footage. So he sent me a link to it and I went, Oh, this is unbelievably amazing. Not just his documentation of the club scene in the 80s, but also because of Nelson’s work himself as this queer flâneur artist very consciously floating through the scene. It conjured all kinds of notions from the Rimbaud series from David Wojnarowicz and a link with French decadence. We didn’t have any documentation like this at all.”

Questioned about the historical importance of Sullivan’s videos, Taylor says, “The club scene often gets dismissed as just partying, but the truth is and what Nelson actually shows is how much art was being created there. It was one of the last little bubbles before the internet–one of the last insular cultures that we don’t have anymore because everything has gone global and digital. He captured perhaps one of the last analogue moments in New York.”

While Sullivan’s videos may be the last analog moment in New York, as Taylor suggests, his work also clearly foreshadows more contemporary forms of DIY videos. Recording his experiences like video diaries, particularly after 1987, Sullivan’s work takes on an undeniable similarity to the self-representation and self-constructed personas inherent in vlogging. While Sullivan’s work may have been too obscure to have a palpable and perceptible effect on the development of vlogging, Coddington notes, “He was the first vlogger when you look at it.”

Another perhaps more direct continuation of Sullivan’s video documentation of raucous, rebellious, and sometimes raunchy nightlife and performance scenes is Joe E. Jeffreys’s Drag Show Video Verite, a video project screening Jeffreys’s footage of nightlife performances from drag to burlesque to boylesque including many of the same performers that appear in Sullivan’s videos years earlier. Introduced to Sullivan’s work through Coddington during his research on Downtown drag legend Ethyl Eichelberger, Jeffreys immediately recognized the power of Sullivan’s videos to capture and preserve past performances. As Jeffreys remembers, “It was an amazing thing to see these old pieces of history that I’d otherwise see in a still photograph. You weren’t there but this is generally as close as you’re going to get.”

Asked how Sullivan’s work influences and connects to his own frequent video work, Jeffreys responds, “It’s the idea of a unique form of capturing this thing that’s going on every night. You do start to see the circles and connections with people within the scene today. A lot of people of Nelson’s period are still around and still working, so it’s a continuation of that. The video camera can change the world in that way. The revolution won’t be televised but it will be videotaped. We’re going to videotape this, project it into the future and see what happens. I don’t know if that’s what Nelson was trying to do, what his intent was, but to some extent, that’s what it’s become. It’s a gift to the future, capturing the past and the moment. This is the moment I’m in right now, let’s point and shoot and see what happens.”

Thinking about the importance and ongoing legacy of Sullivan’s videos, Robert Coddington explains, “He did more than just capture a scene. He was able to show the people of today and the future, the start of this DIY culture that we have.” Considering the question further after our conversation, Coddington sent me a quote from an interview he conducted with World of Wonder co-founder Fenton Bailey as a part of his archival research on Sullivan. Bailey understands Nelson’s videos as a record of the origin of today’s pop culture. “If you want to understand why we are here now, all you have to do is look at there then,” says Bailey, “And thanks to Nelson’s archives, you can do that. How important is that? Well, that is actually incredibly important because that’s history. And no one else, funnily enough was doing it. And no one else did it. So his archives are a completely unique moment. Nelson’s archives are as valuable in its own way as the pyramids in terms of telling you about a society at a certain point and what it believed it was about.”

As Marvin Taylor echoes, “I think people will come to understand if you really want to know what it was like in the 1980s in New York, you have to watch Nelson Sullivan’s videos.”

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