Fascinating article about wowlebrity and ’80s nightlife documentarian Nelson Sullivan in Vice:
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.”
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.
Questioned about the historical importance of Sullivan’s videos, Marvin Taylor, the director of New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections, which holds the Nelson Sullivan Video Collection, 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.”
Thinking about the importance and ongoing legacy of Sullivan’s videos, queer historian and archivist 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.”
Read the entire article here.
And if you’ve never seen WOW’s ultra-compelling documentary Nelson Sullivan’s World of Wonder definitely watch the trailer below and then check it out on iTunes.
“At the time, we were broke, living in a sixth-floor walk-up in crack-infested Alphabet City. It had that inverse kind of glamour that people bedazzle as ‘bohemian’: drug dealers, addicts, hookers, and even a psychotic murderer. The fag-end of the American dream. We loved almost every minute of it!
There was a lone club, the Pyramid, on Avenue A and 7th Street – the very edge of civilization. There was something about the place. It pulled people in. Fabulous drag artistes. Hapi Phace. Tabboo. Faye Runway. Sister Dimension. Lypsinka. And occasionally, from Atlanta, the not-yet-famous RuPaul and Lady Bunny. Todd Haynes debuted his notorious Karen Carpenter film there. Victor Weaver and Trey Speegle hosted “Straight to Hell” strip parties on Sunday nights. And on hand almost every night was Nelson Sullivan, a gentleman charmer with the most languid southern drawl and a fag in his mouth, videotaping everyone and everything.
That camera was like a pirate’s parrot, permanently perched on his shoulder. He said that one day he was going to edit his thousands of hours of material into a public access cable show. But on July 4, 1989, he dropped dead of a heart attack. Nelson’s death was our call to action. We didn’t really know what public access was, but we soon learned. Cable companies had to make a couple of channels available for local community access. In other words, people could make their own shows and get them on TV. Simple as that. They could be about whatever they wanted them to be. There was no editorial screening process. Slots were assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Manhattan’s public access channels presented a glittering seam of talent. Willa Sands – possibly tipsy – hosting Happy Hour. John Wallowitch – no less tipsy – banging out “Sing Along in Lithuanian” on the piano and knocking back Long Island Iced Teas. He was friends with Warhol, reportedly. Mrs Mouth, who painted a face on her upside-down chin then talked about picking her nose. And, for the adults, Voyeur Vision, where viewers could call in and talk to comely Lynn lying on a bed, touching herself where they requested. And veteran fixture Robin Byrd, in her trademark crocheted bikini, introducing strippers.
It was pure Videodrome, but without the inconvenience of sprouting a video vagina. We figured there was no reason we couldn’t make a public access show, so we came up with the idea of Flaunt It! TV, a talk show taped once a week at New York’s Limelight nightclub, and hosted by us. Quentin Crisp, Kate O’Toole, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Michelangelo Signorile, Michael Musto, and a monosyllabic Stephen Saban were some of the long-suffering guests on the short-lived show. It wasn’t exactly ratings gold. It ran for four episodes before we collapsed in exhaustion, followed by a prolonged period of deep depression. Not that failure ever stopped us. In the long run it was our fuel.”