Beyond the Neon Billboard Sidewalk Spectacle and Public Art by tgl10640


									       Beyond the Neon Billboard: Sidewalk Spectacle and Public Art in Las Vegas

                                                    Cher Krause Knight

Here we have the principle of commodity fetishismy                   however, that it is without its philosophical entangle-
absolutely fulfilled in the spectacle, where the perceptible          ments. Instead, Vegas’s great popularity—and alter-
world is replaced by a set of images that are superior to that       nately, the great derision against it—has drawn rose-
world yet at the same time impose themselves as eminently            colored accounts or twitchy academic attacks. The
perceptible. (Debord 26)                                             issues framing its public art are not nearly as cut and
                                                                     dry as either the casino entrepreneurs or the scholarly
    In his seminal work cited above, The Society of                  community would have us believe.
the Spectacle, Guy Debord offers a description of                         From its beginnings, Las Vegas was packaged for
simulacra applicable to Las Vegas. As a city that plays              public consumption. As early as 1905 its first lots for
on cultural cliches appealing to the lowest common                   sale were in high demand at auction, these being
denominator, it offers sort of ‘‘one-size-fits-all’’                  offered as part of Senator William Clark’s Las Vegas
entertainment. This is abundantly evident in its kitsch              Townsite scheme, which sought to make the city a hub
architecture, contrived public spaces, and ‘‘tacky’’                 for steam trains traveling through the desert (Schultz
art, all thoroughly postmodern and simultaneously                    49, 51). Today Vegas is the nation’s fastest growing
lowbrow vernacular. On the surface it may be                         urban area with about 7000 new arrivals each month.
tempting to make fun of Vegas and its trappings.                     Although the American exuberance for—and spend-
But with the publication in 1972 of Robert Venturi’s,                ing at—Vegas waned in the mid 1970s, by the 80s it
Denise Scott Brown’s, and Steven Izenour’s wildly                    mounted again, reaching a fever pitch in the 90s. But
influential Learning from Las Vegas, populism                         as annual gaming revenues topped 12 billion dollars
became a welcome antidote to rampant modernist                       in Clark County, casino owners still reckoned with
pretension. Izenour reflects:                                         increased competition as gambling became more
To architects like us, who had been trained in the hermetic,         widespread in the United States, especially on Native
hard-edged, black-and-white, concrete-and-steel vocabu-              American reservations. Traditionally, Vegas was
lary of Modernism, downtown Las Vegas was liberating. It             derided as an adult pleasure palace where question-
became our classroom. (Izenour and Dashiell 47)                      able—if not illicit—pursuits like gambling and
                                                                     prostitution were openly practiced. Its visitors
     Vegas ruptures the ‘‘normal’’ societal fabric as it             wrestled with temptation, financial frustration, and
suspends time, economics, and disbelief, thus begging                unchecked crime. In short, Vegas’s high-gloss veneer
a larger critical examination. While it may be the hip               could not hide the seedy core within. But today the
thing to out oneself as a Vegas enthusiast in certain                city has reinvented itself as a respectable place for
circles, it is still difficult to convince many scholars              middle America to holiday: it has become Disneyfied.
that the city is worthy of serious study: that its public            And it has done so with great success. Although the
art has deeper meanings for, and repercussions                       $1.99 buffet and cheap souvenir shops persist, they
within, our culture; that commercialism does not                     are overshadowed by themed hotel-casino complexes
necessarily beget mediocrity and a ‘‘dumbed-down’’                   offering children’s activities, upscale shopping and
society. Critics cite Vegas’s mass appeal as evidence of             dining, and exciting sidewalk spectacles. Over the last
its corrupted nature, which affords them superiority                 decade or so Las Vegas has consciously become a
through separation from the ‘‘common folk.’’ Yet the                 ‘‘user-friendly’’ destination run by a conglomerate of
millions of people who love Vegas—myself in-                         ‘‘helpfully competitive’’ entities, sharing in the wealth
cluded—are not lemmings. We love it not because                      (‘‘Dynamite’’).
we ‘‘don’t get it,’’ but rather precisely because we do.                  The Strip, once a vehicular thoroughfare, is now a
The city extends opportunities to transcend daily                    destination in its own right. Its first public art (and
existence, to play, to revel in life. This does not mean,            icons of 50s design) were flamboyant neon signs
10    Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

competing for the speeding motorist’s attention.               property includes lush palms, waterfalls, and a fake
Bright, colorful, easily seen and understood (i.e.             volcano erupting at convenient 15-minute intervals in
gaudy), they were unapologetic advertisements set              the evening. Geysers of steam tinted by red lights, and
against low-key buildings. But now the city itself has         gas jets spreading flames across its lagoon, enhance
become a sign as its new structures, with their                the eruption. But Worlitz’s volcano was even more
immense physical size and grand impact, dwarf—or               sophisticated, allowing visitors to explore labyrinths
in ever-greater frequency replace—the signature bill-          and mock horror scenes arranged for their delight. Of
boards (Anderton 14). The decorated sheds and ducks            course, the visitor Worlitz had to be invited by the
described in Learning from Las Vegas have given way            Prince, whereas any Vegas pedestrian can watch The
to what architectural critic Morris Newman has                 Mirage’s volcano erupt as many times as he or she
tagged ‘‘Flaming Volcano’’ urbanism. While the                 would like. Another garden, Hawkstone in Shrop-
decorated shed was a workhorse building enhanced               shire, England, owned by Sir Richard Hill, had a
with decoration, the duck’s shape was symbolic of its          10-mile tour of novel features, including scenes
function. By contrast Newman explains:                         representing Switzerland and Tahiti. Its exciting
                                                               visitor was left perched on ‘‘Raven’s Shelf,’’ below
In Flaming Volcano urbanism, environmental graphics            which cliffs dropped hundreds of feet. This was in
replace both sign and applied ornament. As a presence on       keeping with Edmund Burke’s suggestion, published
the street, the building virtually dematerializes behind the   in his A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our
spectacley. the Flaming Volcano is roadside architecture       Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), that
intended to be viewed by pedestrians. (84)                     perceived threats to one’s well-being tapped the
                                                               deepest wellsprings of the sublime. And in yet another
Over time, the Strip has evolved into a Main Street,
                                                               contemporary publication, Designs of Chinese Build-
although it was not originally planned as a walker’s
                                                               ings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils (also
promenade: its sidewalks are sporadically laid out,
                                                               1757), author Sir William Chambers urged designers
and one must continually dodge threatening auto
                                                               to render the landscape as ‘‘laughing,’’ ‘‘enchanted,’’
traffic. But brave pedestrians are rewarded with a
                                                               or ‘‘horrible’’ by utilizing buildings, statuary and
sensual bombardment of unforgettable sights and
                                                               manipulated natural elements (Schama 542-43).
experiences, arranged by the casino owners and resort
                                                               Clearly, theming is nothing new.
developers competing for our attentions. As travel
                                                                    Perhaps the most telling sign of our current
writer David Stratton describes it; ‘‘yyou have the
                                                               culture is the widely disseminated use of theming,
distinctly urban feeling of being onstage or, perhaps,
                                                               shifting from the private garden to the public street.
in the midst of a prison riot’’ (2).
                                                               We are hard pressed to escape it: restaurants, retail
    The sidewalk spectacle—Vegas’s particular brand
                                                               stores, even entire city neighborhoods are themed.
of public art—has its historical precedent in the 18th-
                                                               For cultural critic Mark Dery this is a troubling
century European garden. In such gardens careful
                                                               development, in which the shopping mall’s food court
design and manipulation produced the affectations of
                                                               becomes the new town square, ‘‘theme-parked for
natural growth. As Simon Schama writes in Land-
                                                               mass consumption’’ (15). But in Newman’s eyes,
scape and Memory, any balking at the simulacra of
                                                               theming has revived spectacle-oriented urbanism,
such environments was a moot point:
                                                               borrowing Baroque devices that ‘‘tasteful’’ architects
This was, after all, a time when the mechanical arts were      eschew, and using these to powerful effect (82). In the
being brought to the highest degree of ingenuity in the        case of Las Vegas, it is as if the entire city has been
name of profit or pleasurey. The name fabrique given to         themed into a pastiche of popular culture, most
the synthetic landscapes of terror and sublimity created by    grandly displayed at the mega-complex, where casino,
these spectacle-machines perfectly captured their air of       hotel, and entertainment spectacle are all brought
unapologetic artificiality. (540)                               together. In 1993, three of the then largest and most
                                                               expensive complexes (the Luxor, MGM Grand, and
An example of one such fabrique is Worlitz, the                Treasure Island) opened within the span of three
garden of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau, which               months. The Luxor Hotel and Casino opened in
included a mechanical volcano. Fire, smoke, and lava           October, with Veldon Simpson, who also designed the
(actually water flowing over illuminated glass panels)          MGM, serving as its principal architect. As a 375
accompanied its nightly eruptions. A similar effect is         million-dollar steel and glass pyramid complete with a
achieved in Vegas at The Mirage, designed by Joel              reconstruction of King Tut’s tomb, it is beleaguered
Bergman and built in 1989. Its South Seas-themed               by historical inaccuracies. But one must assume
                                                                                 Beyond the Neon Billboard     11

visitors paying to see artifact reproductions behind      explosions, culminating in the sinking of a full-size
Plexiglas are not really troubled by inconsistencies:     British frigate by pirates—eight times a day. While
never mind that by the time of the New Kingdom,           throngs watch from the Strip, diners inside the
pharaohs were no longer buried in pyramids! A team        building can peer through openings in the faux
of Egyptologists consulted on the reproductions           cliffside exterior and view the spectacle as well. When
(created with methods and materials dating back           issuing operating permits, Clark County had diffi-
3300 years), and the tomb measurements exactly            culty classifying exactly what Buccaneer Bay is: a
match those found by Howard Carter’s team in 1922.        theme park, a theatrical production, architectural
But ultimately, spectacle wins out. As Luxor interior     stage set or other? Finally, a designation was reached
designer Charles Silverman says, ‘‘This is not the        for the stationary pirate ship: it was declared a sign.
Natural History Museum’’ (qtd. in Weathersby).            At a cost of nearly 30 million dollars, Buccaneer Bay
Quite true. The pedestrian promenading past outdoor       has paid off, drawing large crowds who then step
holograms and man-made Karnak Lake is unlikely to         inside to see more, to be dazzled anew. To celebrate
be searching for historical fact. The Egyptology          Treasure Island’s opening day Wynn even marketed
proffered here is unapologetically channeled through      the 1.5 million-dollar demolition of an historic
Hollywood camp a la Liz Taylor in Cleopatra.              building as a media event, in which the Dunes Hotel
Interestingly, when only three years old, the Tut         succumbed to phony canon fire from one of the
Museum closed for ‘‘renovations.’’ One wonders if         Buccaneer Bay ships. As theater arts critic David
refurbishment was needed already, or if this was          Johnson aptly noted, ‘‘the pirates always win in
another case of the Las Vegas revisionist flu: constant    Vegas’’ (35).
change in pursuit of the bigger and better, the new and        This wave of new, family-friendly construction
improved. The history of this city is one of continual    pushed older casinos to up the ante as well. In 1992
expansion, revision and demolition, not of preserva-      Caesars Palace opened the Forum Shops, a collection
tion and conservation. Since Vegas resorts first           of upscale stores and eateries set in the guise of a
sprung up in the 1920s, they have been subject to         quaint Roman town among ruins. An illusionistic
zealous developers anticipating what the customer         curved ceiling painted to look like the sky changes
wants next. It seems Vegas often lacks sentimental-       from dawn to dusk and back again—in a half-hour!
ity—even for its own past.                                Terry Dougall, who designed the Shops asserts, ‘‘This
     The Old Hollywood-themed MGM Grand, built            isn’t great architecture, it’s great theater’’ (qtd. in
at a cost of 1 billion dollars and opening in December    Shillingburg 84, 88). This fantasy realm has been
of 1993, billed itself as the world’s largest hotel,      incredibly successful as a retail outpost as well,
casino, and amusement complex. The 88-foot tall lion      outperforming many other American shopping cen-
fronting its entrance, criticized by Newman as            ters. Caesars has long understood the importance of
            ˆ ´
‘‘papier-mache on a heroic scale,’’ has already been      popular—and populist—appeal. Jay Sarno, the casi-
replaced by a much smaller, anatomically correct one.     no’s initial developer, purposefully left the apos-
MGM’s Grand Adventures, sited on thirty-three             trophe out of its name: rather than being the domain
acres of prime Vegas real estate, is the city’s first      of a single ruler (Caesar’s), he wanted every guest to
full-blown theme park. Amusement riders must pay,         feel like sovereignty here (Stratton 29). From the start
but entrance to walk around is free. Casablanca, New      Caesars drew patrons in with a flashy welcome. Its
York, Paris, New Orleans, the Salem waterfront, and       initial 1966 layout by Melvin Grossman utilized
the old West are all conjured with less than sensa-       symmetrical wings embracing the visitor, similar to
tional results that never shake off the overarching       Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s colonnade for St. Peter’s in
commercialism. A more successful attempt at specta-       Rome. In 1972, and again in 1989 (to compete with
cle was achieved at the 475 million-dollar Treasure       The Mirage), moving sidewalks were added, carrying
Island, the brainstorm of development mogul Steve         visitors through a tholos or a series of triumphal
Wynn. Built by Jon Jerde Associates as a family-          arches, as a recorded voice announces their entrance.
oriented sister complex to The Mirage, it takes its       Reproductions of famous classical sculpture, includ-
pirate theme from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel of       ing Marcus Aurelius, the Nike of Samothrace, and
the same name, although reputedly Wynn was                Augustus of Primaporta, lend majesty to the whole
inspired visiting the set of Steven Spielberg’s Hook.     production. It is a popular culture gesamtkunstwerk
The theme carries onto the street in Buccaneer Bay,       (i.e. a total work of art) in the grandest sense,
where pedestrians see a ‘‘free’’ special effects show     sampling ancient Rome (and occasionally, and
with live actors, sound effects and pyrotechnic           perhaps unwittingly, ancient Greece) at will.
12    Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

     Perhaps the most obvious example of Vegas             tangible objects: rather, those shadows take on an
regentrification via the sidewalk spectacle is the          existence and substance of their own, based upon, but
‘‘Freemont Street Experience’’ by the Jerde Partner-       uniquely set apart from, the original model. They
ship architects: a ninety-foot tall, 1400-foot long        offer a new and different life experience. Vegas
latticework canopy above five blocks of the formerly        spectacle portends to nothing other than its own
dilapidated Downtown. Previously a Main Street             faux-hood. As Newman declares,
along the city’s original gambling district that was
                                                           the artificiality exhibited in Las Vegas isn’t phony anything;
open to both walking and vehicular traffic, the area is
                                                           it has its own resounding, relentless identityy And (it) is
now restricted to pedestrians. By day the canopy
                                                           arguably the most interesting American city of the moment,
provides shade, and at night 2.1 million programmed
                                                           the city most informed by the current state of American
electronic pixels light up its ‘‘Celestial Vault’’ to
                                                           mass culture. (82)
create, what one anonymous critic has dubbed, ‘‘the
twenty-first-century equivalent to the Sistine Chapel’’     Likewise Denise Scott Brown, who returned to Vegas
(qtd. in ‘‘Dynamite’’). This free light and sound show     in 1995 to see if it bore clues to the 21st century,
plays five times nightly, attracting 20,000 viewers a       observed that the city, which once signaled excep-
week. At a cost of 71 million dollars, underwritten by     tional extremism, is now a paradigm for the American
casino owners (willingly investing in urban renewal        street experience (qtd. in Stungo 24).
for the first time) and the city, the Freemont Street            Critically, Vegas’s efforts at public art have been
Experience attempts to revitalize ‘‘Glitter Gulch’’ and    maligned as tacky and dismissed as insignificant. But I
compete with the Strip (‘‘Freemont’’ 88). But can it       cannot help thinking that these works have something
really bring the glitter and tourists back to the Gulch    more to say; that they speak to the public in a way
for longer than a curious glimpse? Its sustained appeal    most monuments and memorials cannot. As local
to spectacle-weary viewers is doubtful, and even the       artist Anthony Bondi insists, the Vegas spectacles
soundness of the design is in question as it blocks        constitute what may be the most successful art project
many views of this historic district (Leccese 96).         of the 20th century, one that is not, and can never be,
     The art and authored spaces of Las Vegas have         finished (qtd. in Anderton 12). It is true that Vegas’s
far-reaching implications for our culture. Its designers   public art lapses into overwrought special effects and
induce an insular frame of mind, protecting us from        corporate-fueled manifestations of fantasy. But one
the unpleasantries—and reality checks—of the every-        should consider that the sidewalk spectacles are
day world that might make us reconsider that last          usually privately funded affairs. Casino and real
hand at the blackjack table. As a ‘‘touristic space’’      estate developers who pay dearly to have them
that reassures and diverts us (Tourist), Vegas can offer   constructed, in the hopes of many happy returns (of
us more excitement than we have in our ordinary lives      patrons and finances), do not have to answer to
as we sample its themed simulacra in relative safety.      percent-for-art programs or other dicta of taste. They
But is the city anything more than a ‘‘staged              answer to their clientele, one of the largest potential
authenticity’’(‘‘Staged’’), which consists solely of       audiences for public art. As a 1996 survey conducted
‘‘simulated’’ experiences known to, forgiven, and          by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority
even anticipated by the visitor?                           determined, 39 percent of American adults have
     Perhaps Vegas is the only American city that can      visited the city, half of them in the 1990s (‘‘Fast
intermesh fantasy almost seamlessly with daily life. Its   Track’’). The evolution of the sidewalk spectacles
juxtapositions of flickering neon and garbage trucks,       reaffirms how quickly things change in Vegas, yet the
sidewalk spectacles and police raids, are not so           presence of euphoric simulacra always persists. You
jarring. The daily and the extraordinary lives have        may be enthralled or even disgusted here, but you will
met here. But is one necessarily more ‘‘real’’ than the    never be bored. To observers lamenting the quality of
other? Is there anything more real about walking           Vegas spectacles, Newman retorts,
down a Manhattan avenue than past New York, New
                                                           If the taste level of theseyextravaganzas is often low,
York Hotel and Casino’s scaled-down skyline? Yes,
                                                           (they) nonetheless manage to animate public spacesy and
Manhattan is more gritty and edgy, but does that
                                                           engage pedestrians more readily than the lifeless ‘‘public
mean the experience counts for more? In both
                                                           art’’ that litters many major cities. (86)
contexts, the walker propels herself through a built
environment eliciting responses ranging from horror        If the essential goal of public art is to ‘‘animate’’
to wonder. It is not that the Vegas visitor prefers to     public places and ‘‘engage’’ viewers, then the sidewalk
gaze at shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave instead of    spectacles represent a new level of achievement in
                                                                                         Beyond the Neon Billboard       13

civic design. They are resounding populist successes,           Johnson, David. ‘‘Las Vegas: Buccaneer Bay.’’ TCI
if not always nuanced aesthetic ones. Those of us who                (Theatre Crafts International) May 1994: 33–37.
make, place, and write about public art must                    Leccese, Michael. ‘‘Against the Odds.’’ Landscape Archi-
remember to listen to what the public tells us it wants.             tecture April 1996: 66–731.
It seems Vegas developers are doing precisely that.             MacCannell, Dean. ‘‘Staged Authenticity: Arrangements
The next generation’s spectacles—Bellagio’s spark-                   of Social Space in Tourist Settings.’’ American Journal
ling Venetian waterways and Paris’s not-so-miniature                 of Sociology 79 (1973): 589–603.
Eiffel Tower—have already taken their places on the             ——. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New
Strip.                                                               York: Schocken, 1976.
                                                                Newman, Morris. ‘‘The Strip Meets the Flaming Volcano.’’
                                                                     Progressive Architecture Feb. 1995: 82–86.
                       Works Cited                              Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York:
                                                                     Knopf, 1996.
Anderton, Frances. ‘‘Hurry, hurry to see the natural Pop        Schultz, Elizabeth. ‘‘Las Vegas: A City that Never Sleeps.’’
     Art icons.’’ The Art Newspaper Oct. 1995 intl. ed.: 121.        Telephony 16 Mar. 1987: 491.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of       Shillingburg, Donald. ‘‘Entertainment Drives Retail.’’
     Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. 1757. London:           Architectural Record Aug. 1994: 82–89.
     Bell, 1889.                                                Stratton, David. Ultimate Las Vegas and Beyond, 2nd ed.
Chambers, William, Sir. Designs of Chinese Buildings,                Berkeley: Ulysses P, 1995.
     Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils. 1757. New      Stungo, Naomi. ‘‘Relearning from Vegas.’’ RIBA Journal
     York: Arno, 1980.                                               Jan. 1995: 24–25.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald        Venturi, Robert, Denise, Scott Brown, andSteven, Izenour.
     Nicholson-Smith. 1967. New York: Zone, 1994.                    Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of
Dery, Mark. ‘‘Past Perfect Perfect.’’ 21.C 24 (1997): 14–17.         Architectural Form. Cambridge: MIT P, 1972.
‘‘Dynamite Ducks.’’ The Architects’ Journal 20 Oct. 1994:       Weathersby, William, Jr. ‘‘Las Vegas: Luxor.’’ TCI
     22–23.                                                          (Theatre Crafts International) May 1994: 27.
‘‘Fast Track: Miscellaneous and News of the Weird.’’
     Anthony Curtis’ Las Vegas Advisor Aug. 1996: 10.           Cher Krause Knight is an Assistant Professor of the
‘‘Freemont Street Experience.’’ Architecture April 1996:        Department of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College
     87–89.                                                     in Boston.
Izenour, Steven, and Dashiell III, David A. ‘‘Relearning
     from Las Vegas.’’ Architecture Oct. 1990: 46–51.

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