In the post-impact of Sandy’s tirade, the minutia of our collective daily grind have become revelatory gifts: having lights, getting coffee, even making it onto the island. When in full swing, these apparently minor functions are not just a set of ends but a collective ritual that dictates a culture.
In his essay, Spatial Stories, Michel De Certeau lays out the details of what makes a place a space. He writes that there is a performance that charges a place: a geographical stage set for cultural choreographies. He explains a place as: “An instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability.” The geography of a place is grounded, however fleetingly by physical structures, and waiting for a kinetic kick-start by the people in it to open it up into becoming a space.
This pretext could even go a bit further. The suggestion could be made that if these places are ignited actively and daily by performances that are the exact antithesis of their original intent, the places are then spaces for abject behaviors— spaces of protest through ritual, the Queering of a space. The pier once used for import-exports that is now a runway for Voguing transgendered youth, a grand piano in the middle of Washington Square Park, and the bird of prey, Pale Male, making a home atop a fifth avenue high rise are all instances of places being transgressed- the Queering of spaces.
Videographer, Nelson Sullivan, spent the greater part of a decade documenting Queer life in New York’s Greenwich Village with an 8mm handheld. In the video below, a simple home movie, Sullivan guides us on a metaphysical stroll through the places near and dear to him in New York’s West Village.
Mundane daily rituals continually queer this space. But we also feel that we are queering it ourselves because of Sullivan’s unique voice and handheld camera techniques.
The form of Sullivan’s spatial queering is simple but complex in content. In the beginning the place being spatialized is internal, he simply introduces himself to us saying, “Hi, I’m Nelson and this is my first cable show.” Then, through the niceties of his everyday routine, we glean his intentions. He stops to wave to the servers at Florent, a local restaurant. He addresses his dog, Blackout, and hopes he doesn’t fight with other dogs (which he doesn’t). He longs for a cup of coffee. These small performances plant him plainly as a man in the world. He says, “I don’t always know what to think of my life, but at times I find it interesting and exciting.”
Nelson then slowly but surely begins to ingratiate us into his otherness through dialogue and camera technique. A shirtless man rides by on a bicycle and we watch as the camera effortlessly pans to follow the man down the street. Before our eyes Nelson is breathing otherness into this place.
Nelson’s kitsch and camp grow as the choreography of queering geography increases. “Yeah, we’ll go down there and give the tourists what they pay their money for. New Yorkers really have a big responsibility, you know.” This line alludes to something sinister, maybe sexually off color.
The biggest give away of his sexual otherness is when Nelson explains how everyone is gone from a particular restaurant because, “They’re all at Fire Island.” The trail of verbal signifiers and poignant markers lead us along the map of Greenwich Village, each step and word a tiny flag planted in the name of otherness: “Oh look. There’s a whole family of colorful little birds.”
He says: “Sheridan square is one of those places you feel like you never left when you get back.” This kind of intricate phrasing puts us in about five places at once. He’s stating, while actively spatializing/queering Sheridan Square, that it is consistently being performed on and spatialized, and therefore is also a place because of it’s refusal to shift in meaning, then, now, and ever.
Sullivan takes his spatial voyage on to the ubiquitous Stonewall where he discusses not only the event of the original riot, its social implications and weight in the neighborhood; but he also goes on to underscore the importance of the rituals of reenactment and artifice. “Just this last week there was a riot here to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Stonewall. It happened the night of Judy Garland’s Funeral.” This bit of information tells us a lot about the making of places into spaces. The reverent ritual of burying a queer icon, added to the daily ritual of police raids on a gay bar, forever changed a place, Stonewall, into a space of protest, and subsequently, protest reenactments. “So, last week this momentous occasion in all of our lives was commemorated by the radical fairies… a mock funeral for Judy Garland, twenty years after the fact… then they burned some flags to show that they could.”
Nelson Sullivan, through the ritual of traversing the Queer geography of downtown New York, relates to us the performative measures necessary for a culture to redefine a place as a space. What is our responsibility when creating a space if any, and how does that compare to the intentions of the place?
Toward the end of spatializing the West Village, Sullivan even does us the pleasure of mapping out a Queer geography for our television viewing experience. He says, “You can walk in my shoes and others’, just stop flipping when you see my face.”