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Nelson Sullivan's Selfie Videos

by Ethan Tussey

Nelson Sullivan moved to New York City from North Carolina in 1970. His earliest 1970s 8mm films captured gay male cruising spots such as the West Side Piers. Once Sullivan purchased a portable videorecorder and tape deck in 1983, he began capturing himself. Sullivan’s thousands of hours of videorecording are a rich archive of gay life as the AIDS crisis reeled throughout New York City.

This video produced by independent filmmaker Laurie Weltz shortly before Sullivan's death documented Sullivan’s signature “selfie” video practice. Akin to dancing with his camera, Sullivan talked to the lens as he held the camera pointed back at his face. Nimbly navigating the city, Sullivan captured videos that often feel like vlogs to viewers today, a side-effect of his videos having a second life on the 5NinthAvenueProject YouTube channel. In capturing his life from a first-person perspective, Sullivan revealed his private, interior world through a running commentary to an imagined future audience. In this video, he explained in voice-over why he chose to record himself:

When I first got the videocamera, I was desperate to have an anchor to focus on in my videos, somebody or something that would move through everything…. I’ve decided that the simplest way to make the videos I want to make is to anchor them on myself, because, after all, I’m the most convenient thing there is.

Sullivan’s archive records and preserves the public queer rituals of NYC’s downtown scene in the 1980s, but always through his first-person mode of framing his experience. Sullivan’s video practice was personal through being communal and communal through being personal.

One week before his death, Sullivan went to 1989 Gay Pride in drag as his persona, Amnesia. Walking to the parade, Amnesia strolled through the crowd, training her camera on a group of drag queens. One queen remarked to the camera with surprise: “I thought you were filming yourself!” Nelson replied without missing a beat: “I feel like I am.” Sullivan’s nostalgic vlogs, old media made new through YouTube’s viewing practices, demonstrate a deeper history to contemporary selfie media practices.

Nelson Sullivan - Video Vampire: a short film by Laurie Weltz

Laurie Weltz was planning a longer film about Nelson until Nelson's fatal heart attack intervened.

from Nelson Sullivan - Video Vampire: a short film by Laurie Weltz (2009)
Creator: 5ninthavenueproject
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey