What Happens Stays

It’s something you have to remember, then remind yourself: Vegas is not Vegas. And this not really in any highfalutin sort of way, either: the Last Vegas Strip isn’t *in* Las Vegas, and it never has been. What it is in isn’t even a city, it’s in an unincorporated community – well, three, actually, (only one of which is Paradise). I’ve said this before, which is also the point. And there is no pure Las Vegas, on or off the strip: looking at Las Vegas is like watching an animated gif of its own history in time lapse, looped: everything grows and burns and grows and burns and grows and burns (controlled burns), reinventing itself as something new and something of the same. But this growth is up, then down, never out. It might be now, in its current moment, with its behemoths clenched up around the boulevard like a sphincter, that things might finally be seen to harden, and Vegas might actually change itself into staying the same (and then it will be able to die?). Maybe that’s what is significant about the seeming de-emphasis on gambling, and the growth of high-end consumer capitalism. But I don’t know: I don’t imagine the two can’t co-exist.

Downtown Vegas (which is actually *in* Vegas) is itself a kitsch re-representation of what it used to be (what it has always only or ever used to be), which might’ve already been that, but that today isn’t sure if it knows it or not. It flickers because it’s an ironic city, maybe even the ironic city- but it’s real. The forces that make Vegas Vegas are material: they have to do with tax bases and legality and policy and wealth: what kind of place is more profitable (what are the profitable possibilities for this kind of place), what is able to be done here as opposed to there, what is able to be said about what is expected to happen once you’ve either agreed to or have already performed the necessary transaction, what must necessarily remain unsaid.

It’s out of this morass that the compulsion to go, to look, to touch and taste and participate- to write- springs. Like a vacuum or a call to worship or a, you know, temptation. Not to make sense or elucidate, but to partake of, up to and against the what-happens-stays injunction: to disclose, to reveal, to undress.

Forces
“The forces that give something form are the forces that bring something into being versus the forces that halt it.”

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The Last Honest Place In America OR Some Of The Ways In Which Something Is Not That Thing

Recently I asked Facebook what it thought of when it thought of Las Vegas. One answer, in particular, struck me:

“THE LAST HONEST PLACE IN AMERICA”

Which is perfect because Las Vegas isn’t even Las Vegas. The world famous Las Vegas Strip isn’t actually in Las Vegas. In fact, it begins immediately on the outside of the city limits; is explicitly not Las Vegas. It runs for about four miles, first through Winchester (formerly Paradise “A”), and then (and this for its vast majority) through Paradise (proper, formerly known as Paradise “B”), Nevada- neither of which are actually cities. They’re places, designated as such by the census and that liminal space that comprises the interface between criminality and business, and administered by the county.

Four miles outside of town stands a sign that has been famously welcoming people to Las Vegas as they enter a place called Paradise for over 50 years. Half a century ago Paradise was mostly desert; today the sign- an icon of Googie aesthetics– stands in the median at 5200 Las Vegas Boulevard, next to a parking lot built specifically for its visitors, rising like old desert wisdom out of decorative artificial turf, the backdrop to a perpetually proliferating virtual archive of tourist selfies.

Even the Las Vegas that is Las Vegas isn’t Las Vegas. The part of Las Vegas that you might think of when you think of Las Vegas and that you probably think of as being on the Las Vegas Strip, but isn’t, is in downtown Las Vegas, on Fremont Street.

But it isn’t even a street. At least, not any more- not the westernmost five blocks anyway. A pedestrian mall / “attraction” has been built over where one used to be able to- up until 1995 – experience Fremont Street as such, a pedestrian mall / “attraction” known as The Fremont Street Experience.

newyears81lasvegas
The Fremont Street Experience Before the Fremont Street Experience was The Fremont Street Experience: Fireworks on New Year’s Eve, 1981, courtesy of VintageLasVegas.Tumblr.Com

Where the experience of a thing becomes something other than that thing: Las Vegas institutions and symbols still line the walkway, some of them in their original locations, others relocated to the experience, where something like an essence of Las Vegas is distilled and displayed by fabricating itself. But none of this is particularly ironic: “original location” is very much a problematic term for a city that is comprised of a constant rise and fall, building up and tearing down and starting over, buying and selling and renaming and re-branding and re-theming; there is nothing therefore new or singular to (The) Fremont Street (Experience)’s act of duplicative re-fabrication: what it displays when it displays itself isn’t necessarily itself, but the way it’s itself.

90 feet above the walkway stretches a massive four-block-long video canopy, beneath which a zip-line runs, whizzing tourists from one end of the experience to the other, high above the heads of the crowd. There are outdoor stages featuring bands playing hits of the 90’s, outdoor bars featuring scantily clad tenders dancing on them, grandmas and babies, Ultimate Avengers impersonators, a white middle age Midwestern couple bumping and grinding to Alanis Morissette while sipping warm Bud Light from 3-foot plastic beer mugs, and every hour- on the hour- it all stops. The lights go out, the bands take a break, and the canopy explodes with snippets of highly edited videos of live Bon Jovi performances accentuated with graphics and effects not unlike what I imagine an apocalyptic Guitar Hero orgy might look like. Everyone stops and looks up, mouths agape, smartphones held aloft in the act of recording, the act of adding to whatever it is another layer of displaying what is being displayed, of experience.

 

Free Aspirin & Tender Sympathy

PlazaFremont
The Plaza, at the Western Terminus of Fremont Street, in the early 90’s

An old photograph of Las Vegas is somehow not a representation of Las Vegas; is somehow coextensive, perfect for the job of disclosing whatever it- Las Vegas- is. Scanned and posted onto Vintage Las Vegas [dot] Tumblr [dot] com, the suggestion -or reminder of the fact that- of an actual photograph’s materiality is inescapable: one can almost feel it on the tips of one’s fingers. The fact that it is (was?) a photograph creates a second surface that emerges and effaces here and there, reminding you (whether you realize it or not) what it is.

endofthedunes
The end of the Dunes. Las Vegas, 1993. Photo: William Mercer McLeod.

Old photographs of Las Vegas are texture comprised of texture like fabric. Something synthetic, smelling of stale cigarette smoke, made to be a backdrop in a photograph, a snapshot, the location of a flash glare, a pale angel that photobombs everyone’s memories. Like fabric because the smallest elements, the lights, are so close together, comprise so much of the surface and therefore the object. The surface is the object but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing on the other side, the inside, but that’s the problem: Las Vegas is an hermeneutic that claims to be impenetrable: what happens there stays there. The problem is that it is a claim that can’t negate, but only supports, its own tentative truth (as a claim): one can never really know what’s in there. And what’s more: the surface is enough. A spectacle, what matters is what it does and/ or does not disclose, what it can disclose, what is able to be disclosed about what is on the other side, about the nature of the other side, about the process of traversing the space the surface-spectacle divides, whether or not divide is a suitable verb for what it is doing, something about a double-sided mirror, etc.

freeaspirin
Free Aspirin & Tender Sympathy. Las Vegas Strip c.1970s.