Nelson Sullivan's Selfie Videos

Curator's Note

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.  


This is great! I love that we are ending this week with a reminder to historicize and contextualize the practice of self-mediation. Sullivan's work is also important to discussing the ways that individuals from underrepresented groups have used media to make themselves and their lives visible. 

Agreed, this is such a great way to close out our discussion. I think there are a lot of productive comparisons this suggests and absolutely agree that the historical precursors of self-mediation have to be considered, A few things that struck me: I like this idea of using the self as a focalization point, his approach even makes me think of the anchor (both in the literal newsanchor and the metaphorical sense). His style is closer to maybe Vertov in Man with the Moving Camera than we may think of a lot of typical vlogging practices where the self really dominates the apparatus. It even reminded me of Tangerine and the use of the iPhone as apparatus there.  I think his approach is very into suggesting relationality as you say, Joe and this reminds me of Grant Bollmer and Katherine Guiness' suggestion in their article "Phenomenology for the Selfie" that we should evaluate selfie practices in terms of the ethics of the figure ground relationship they establish. Nelson Sullivan definitely provides a good model.

I second Andrea's comment! As we analyse and immerse ourselves in contemporary audiovisual artefacts, it is imperative that we remember the media archaeology which surrounds and contextualises the methods and aesthetics of today's artists / creators. Revisiting the work of [proto-]selfie proponent Nelson Sullivan at the end of this engaging, thought-provoking week is a great touch. Cheers guys! x

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