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  • Virtuosic Distortion:Nelson Sullivan's Queer Hand
  • Ricardo Montez (bio)

"Hi I'm Nelson, and this is my new cable show," begins a videotaped monologue by 1980s video artist NELSON SULLIVAN, the sound of his footsteps hitting the pavement of the Meat Packing District where he lived.1 Sullivan's face, large and slightly distorted, inhabits the center of a circular frame as the industrial buildings of the neighborhood curve around the edges and move into an extended rear view, trailing off into the distance with each step Sullivan takes. The streets of New York unfold around and behind Sullivan. With its fish-eye effect, the wide-angle lens produces a slightly tubular view, creating a visual wormhole and enhancing a sense of time travel

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Figure 1.

Nelson Sullivan in Front of Florent, July 1989. Image from a video by Nelson Sullivan. Nelson Sullivan Collection, Fales Library, New York University. Reprinted with permission of Dick Richards.

[End Page 395] with Sullivan at the helm. "And look, here we are at Florent and Lambert and the waitresses at Florent are here waving hello to us. Oh, Lambert it's so good to see you today. Anyway, we'll go on. Bye." Keeping himself in the frame, Sullivan shifts the camera slightly to show his viewers the window of Florent, the famous twenty-four-hour diner where notable figures from the downtown art and performance scene continued the party long after last call had been announced at the club (fig. 1). The two people he has introduced wave from the other side of the window before Sullivan shifts focus again, maneuvering himself around a dumpster as the restaurant falls away from view. "My dog and I are out for a walk," he explains, angling the camera down to show his dog, Blackout, turning a corner. At the end of an expandable leash held by Sullivan, Blackout's form appears small and narrow, evoking an exaggerated sense of distance from the camera and highlighting the spatially distorting effects of the wide-angle lens. Viewers are invited to come along with Nelson as he makes a scene of this seemingly routine morning dog walk. In his framing of Florent—an eclectic Meatpacking hotspot long before Sex In the City seduced its suburban audiences to the neighborhood—Sullivan remarks upon the restaurant and its employees in a way that suggests its cultural capital before quickly moving on. The ephemerality of the moment evokes, for the present-day viewer aware of Florent's eventual closing, a scene of queer sociality lost to gentrification.

In the video, shot two days before his death on July 4, 1989, Sullivan is rehearsing and recording an introduction for the first episode of his public access show. This was a broadcast opportunity for Sullivan to share selections from nearly 1,200 hours of his documentary video footage, in which he narrates details of his downtown life and describes his physical surroundings, announcing cues for the insertion of materials from his archive. The walking monologue described here is a record of great physical skill in which Sullivan, holding an 8mm VHS camera at arm's length, steadily navigates an urban terrain and safely guides his dog on leash through the city streets. As a docent to the downtown streets, Sullivan anticipates and reacts to what comes into view, exerting himself to manufacture a surprisingly fluid and immersive experience of the city. Sullivan's [End Page 396] manipulation of the camera and the distorting effects of the wide-angle lens produce a mobile experience of inhabitation where the labor of his flexible body encodes the video tape with a formal structure for his public access project. Sullivan's spoken commentary is central to this gesture-driven mediation of his environment. He presents his viewers with a programming guide while also indicating an overall affective tone for the television show. "I don't always know what I think of my life, but at times I know it's interesting and exciting, and I want to share it all with you," he says before announcing the date: July 2, 1989.

Originally from Kershaw, South Carolina, Nelson Sullivan moved...