Over quarantine, I’ve been spending much of my newly-found free time exploring Youtube. Through hours spent leaning over my laptop, I’ve stumbled upon many internet oddities. When I found the Youtube channel 5ninthavenueproject, I assumed it was another one of those strange gems of Youtube. However, I soon found that this digitized archive of the 1980s camcorder footage held much more than meets the eye.
Community of Outcasts
When video artist Nelson Sullivan died of a heart attack on July 4, 1989, he left behind nearly 1,200 hours of footage. After moving to New York City from South Carolina in the 1970s, Sullivan became somewhat of a fixture in the gay community. In his 5 Ninth Avenue townhome, Sullivan cultivated a community of outcasts, often hosting parties frequented by queer New Yorkers.
A classically trained pianist, Sullivan’s artistic drive soon found him documenting his everyday life through video. Beginning in 1983, he began videotaping his life. Many of his videos focus on excursions to now-famous clubs like Limelight and Pyramid Club. However, he also found beauty in the mundane, capturing walks with his dog and long-winded conversations amongst friends.
History on Film
These videos, though snapshots of life, carry important historical and cultural significance. Amongst Sullivan’s friends in the clubbing scene were a young RuPaul, Lady Bunny, and the now infamous club kid Michael Alig. The mundane videos, often filmed through a fisheye camera, capture the beginnings of some of New York’s queer icons.
But beyond this, they capture a feeling. In Sullivan’s videos, one finds a camaraderie of outcasts. Surrounded by the bleak landscape of 1980’s New York, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, Sullivan’s videos capture moments of joy through adversity. Clubs and parties transform into sacred spaces, and those excluded from the mainstream are celebrated and commemorated through VHS film.
Sullivan’s Legacy Lives On
After Sullivan’s untimely death, his longtime friends Dick Richards and David Goldman saved his recordings. Beginning in 2000, the couple began working with queer historian Robert Coddington to preserve and spread Nelson Sullivan’s work. The three eventually began archiving the videos on the 5ninthavenueproject channel. On this platform, Nelson’s work soon grew. Younger viewers, many of them fans of RuPaul, began to visit the channel for rare videos of the young drag star. However, Sullivan’s unique personality, as well as his “vlog” like style, have kept viewers watching.
Sullivan’s videos, while also incredibly entertaining, are unique pieces of queer history. They capture a unique moment and a unique zeitgeist. Often, due to intolerance, it seems as though queer history is lost to time. Sullivan’s work is a unique glimpse into a world that didn’t expect to be remembered. And what a wonderful glimpse it is.
The Demonization Of The Word “Lesbian”
Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman: Rewriting Black Queer History Through Film
‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’: Sexual Objectification And The Ziegfeld Girls