The Co-terminus experiment
I confess that I write this is a first time visitor to Las Vegas. Save for a 45-minute layover at the airport, and a two-dollar and fifty-cent win at a gateside slot machine, this vision of the city is in some ways based on legend and reputation, and anticipation. It is, in my mind’s eye alternately, and in reality concurrently the home of Liberace, Sigfried and Roy, Jewish gangsters played by Warren Beatty , there are the perennials, or the eternals—The Osmonds, Elvis, and Imperial Rome. How this happens without collapse under the scrutiny of logic or even workaday consciousness, is both the inherited legacy of collage as well as the anticipation of willful suspension of disbelief for fantasies from dressing up to virtual reality. As the image builds, anything becomes possible to include or preclude. This possibility is the role of an archetype—Las Vegas like two other examples, Times Square and Rome, is not typical and its image projects beyond its boundaries, often with a time lag (I think Siegfried and Roy and company are still here, but new images have supplanted their reigns). Las Vegas is not a palimpsest like Rome where 2000 years of living history have not only evolved organically, but have remained to some degree visible as an anchor. As fantasies shift, Las Vegas shifts. Think of it as using repositionable adhesive—a temporary placement, or as a series of PhotoShop layers, but turn off the earlier layers——Not like Rome, but not without Rome. . Not built in a day, but we’re getting close.
I’d say this attempt to synthesize two forms of accumulated narratives owes debt to the agitation of two gentlemen John Heartfield and Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegal. Two tricksters who used incongruity to strike what was first a chord of dissonance in the world, whose efforts found their original intent trickle down into some of the most digestible forms of consumption. They had the cahones to stick their necks out—the willingness to be an irritant. These efforts are all brought to you on one hand at the beginning of this continuum, with the diffusion of the camera, the basis for one visual revolution. The latter can thank the automobile, cheap electric and a zoning ordinance
2.Testing ground Let’s go back to the PhotoShop layers. As a locale most visible to visitors as a world of fantasy, Las (I’ll use this instead of Vegas wherever possible, in the spirit of being a pioneer—pass it on and it make take off) can alter its form with entertainment or attraction, without the approval of a historic commission, opposition from neighbors or the constraints of plausibility. Rem Koolhaas, architectural hypotheist of the moment saw a similar role in the early 20th century’s fascination with entertainment parks like Coney Island. Koolhaas’ equation: Cardboard plus theater equals reality. Well in Las Vegas, the material might be a little less transient, but that doesn’t mean that foundations are immutable.
Las Vegas was and continues to be inspired by and inspires collage logic of adaptability, unorthodox scale shifts, unconventional stagings of space. Give it a shot—nothing is sacred, and anything is possible—renovations, repositioning and removals are routine. The evolution is relatively continual, and its a vision predicated on individual fantasies for mass consumption, Las lives a life opposite Hausmann’s Paris, DC’s radial symmetry or Boston’s strident historicism, inviting anyone with a buck to make a mark on the town.
This welcoming democracy was dear to the hearts of an early 20th century group of Europeans whose lives in the historically minded cities were repressed by the visual forms that surrounded them. They called themselves monteurs, which means roughly putters. George Grosz and John Heartfiled, Hanah Hoch and those loosely or tightly associated with the dadaists—agitated for a form that was inherently democratic—an effort away from oil painting towards readily available subject matter and material without the presumed necessity of technical virtuosity or rarefied media. In their works, the putters grabbed from the growing mass of printed matter and ephemera. Incongruity of images and scales betrayed conventions of scale, orientation and preset hierarchies. Regarding all printed matter as grist for their mills, the Dadaists used the languages of photography and typography as disarmingly familiar forms, which were also reproducible and diffusable.
Las’ pioneers were putters for sure. Who knew an all you can eat lobster buffet no where near the water, golf courses in the desert and pirates went so well together? Like the revolution that picked up bits of discarded printed matter and recombined disparate imagery, both visions made surrational leaps—spatial and pictorial logic both felt free to distort.
While Heartfield and company’s imperatives were political and social in the face of fascism, Las Vegas’ grounding for experiments is legislative and sequestered, a place decreed for the unfiltered pursuits of the nearby metropolis, Los Angeles–there is both a dependence and a reaction to the spawning grounds. The revolution of putting something somewhere it wasn’t supposed to go is a naughty tactic of tricksters everywhere and there will, necessarily, be something out of place and Dada’s images were forcibly abrupt in content. Technically, some of these folks, Heartfield and Ernst worked the exacto like a surgeon, but is technique really so consequential when seemingly seamless digital realms effortlessly extend propositions without the impact of the earlier social causes?
Trying it on for size in Las—the early developers were outsiders, experimenters—and the then under-populated desert was perfect level terrain to serve as stage for the juxtapositions. The town was in the early half of the 20th century, a typical western town, and the new resort promoted itself through what was surrounding—the western themes of early casinos were all very local, and with little irony, while the beauty of the landscape was prominently promoted. By the 1950’s, the balance shifted from referring to the landscape to building counter environments, the incongruous elegance of the Flamingo’s sophistication amidst the desert lost its curious tension as the growing mass shut out its indigenous roots, and created elaborate schemes to be somewhere else. With the loss of perceptual tools that might help orient and make distinctions that register the incongruous—whether theme or smell, or climate, Las takes on aspects of the collage space. Co-mingling the modernist presumption of a neutral ground as blank slate allowed for extreme disorientation, obscuring the desert or other vantage point, while building spaces not grounded in linear perspective.
The recent monograph on the Jerde Partnership, architect for projects from Universal City Walk to Bellagio and The Freemont Street Experience is called You Are Here, but maybe the question is rather, I know I am here, but precisely where am I? Signs of this sort are as much confusion as orientation. Add to that the near certainty that the present tense is continually remodeled and you are really lost. As the signs clamor all at once, like Greek restaurants, nice for you nice for the lady, you’re lost in the phantasmagoria of Wagner’s greatest aspirations. There’s the forum, there’s a 60 foot clown, there’s Donny Osmond and Elvis, and at 11 there’s a pirate battle. Who wants to know where you are all the time anyway? These are realms of endless free-association where nothing ever congeals, where the loss of the ground takes with it the retrospective distance that might object to the spectacle, or anchor you in a world of conventional logic.
Where should I put this? A great moment of anxiety follows. It could go anywhere. Without guidelines of taste, hierarchy or perspective, the field is open. Why can’t this sixty-foot clown go near the Roman statuary? Anachronism? Unfathomable linkage of subject? In their study, Collage City, Fred Koetter and Colin Rowe often return to the ruminations of Claude Levi-Strauss, and particularly his interests in bricolage. Collage City reasons that the city’s denizens thrive on self-expression, on organic evolution at odds with top-down design restrictions that might tell them where to put the sixty-foot clown. Bricolage, like the putting of the Dadaists, is an ad hoc building intelligence, involving the frequently eccentric (read unprofessional) use of materials. The bricoleur is going to do it his or herself—we’ve all seen the results of the bricoleur’s handiwork in additions, customizations and conversions. Las Vegas takes bricolage to an urban scale—although the builder’s might have more specific training, their intra mural cooperation is not as developed.
Thus, in Bricolage City, growth is irregular, and additions become protrusions. These irregular appendages, free from the conventions of workaday urban planning, classical proportions or recognizable hierarchies, are easily incorporated into a super structure built on a flexible frame.
The bricoleur allowed the rough edges of Hanah Hoch to put things where they were needed. Irreverent? Sure, why not. Images of the marriage of German women and African American servicemen, the collision of European and non-European cultures could be freely grabbed from their original sources (magazines of the day) and with a few deft cuts, give form to new realities lurking within Weimar society. In similar curious scale relationships, Hannah Hoch’s uncomfortable figures wear the physiognomy of post W.W.I amputees, or the visages culled from nightmares.
The giant castle turrets of Excalibur aren’t the tallest in town, but their placement affords their prominence, and their squat appearance is bot h awkward and striking. Later examples include Martha Rosler’s series House Beautiful, Bringing the War home in a selected recombination of newspaper images and House Beautiful interiors. The juxtapositions were neatly done their suggestions messy, uncomfortable through the co-mingling of different targets in the same space. Likewise, Julia McLemore’s digital images vacillate between placidity and turbulence—the coexistence of two different states within one frame is unsettling, but isn’t seeing a castle opposite Lower Manhattan equally disruptive of linear logic?
Las Vegas has reveled in this logic since the 1960’s—as desert fantasies grew increasingly bolder, suggestions competed with desires to build a cadence that depended on the surprise combinations of something out of place for its appeal. The promise of Vegas, a democratic American dream story if there ever was one, was that you too could ride a gondola in Venice, stride through an imperial palace or walk where Howard Hughes walked (well, not exactly)
Scale and Speed
As car travel became increasingly more accessible the myth of Vegas expanded beyond its West Coast genesis, and the town got thicker. What had been a two street western town punctuated with activity, built itself up to a two street town whose punctuation were exclusively exclamation points in the form of emphatic billboards. Soviet agit-prop envisions this future, both in the structural contrivances that would be found not only in Tatlin’s monument to the third International, but in the photomontage and graphic experiments of El Lissitsky and Lazslo Moholy-Nagy. These collages with scaffold images anticipate the need and desire for something monumental that was not the spire of a church. Russian avant gardists also prefigured some of the other visual—billboards competing with each other on the integration of text and image—clarity and compulsion. Heartfield the typographer and YESCO the sign maker go head to head in Las Vegas. . Need to attract someone—get a big sign. Competition? Get a bigger sign, and light it up. We can find the impact of this sign and support in the work of Barbara Kruger, who like Gilbert and George employs a confrontational scale to address the commercial space of the billboard while using the text and image integration of graphic design pioneered by Heartfield. Later on, this synchronicity finds its home in concurrent media that we experience everyday, processing multiple strains of information at the same time. The integration of text and image learned from the early twentieth-century Constructivists is now easily rationalized through the language of digital storage which sorts and organizes data whether text or image with an identical language.
In order to vie for attention, Las Vegas signs got larger, lights got brighter and tactics of seduction raced to out shout thy neighbor. Curious scale shifts allowed certain features to be exaggerated, while others could be reduced. If you can see it as you speed by it off the interstate that’s all you need. As we learned to browse, to scroll, to scan, collage reality takes on a dream logic or nightmare—where you only need a few clues to believe you’re in Rome, or looking at a new vision of the future metropolis dependent on ignoring context or conflicting information In their enormous photo montage murals, Gilbert and George take on the confrontational scale of historic narrative painting, using a strategy of unlikely occurrences at unpredictable scales. Through the repetition of reproducible images, alarming scale can be built of small pieces.
As Las Vegas became one sign bigger than the next, one way to deal with it was to get a different sign. The growth of the giant cowboy, the fountains, the pirate ships. The evolution from the post ranch minimalist slab with a giant sign encouraged the proliferation of buildings that were signs themselves. This hypothesis is described eloquently in the now classic treatise—Learning from Las Vegas. In 1972 a graduate studio in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania led by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour brought students out to the strip for an in depth look at what made America’s fantasy boulevard tick, Learning from Las Vegas finds inspiration in the honest vernacular of raw commercial necessity the city openly displayed.
Learning from Las Vegas continues to find efficiency in the example of the A & P supermarket. An enormous sign by the road, not unlike those outside the casino’s toady directs passers by to what is essentially a bazaar in an enclosed rectangle. All the bounty of the world brought under one roof, dominated by the A&P parking lot (because people drive). As the signs outpaced each other, the form that Learning describes as a duck grew in popularity. This Duck, in Flanders, New York on Long Island once sold eggs (although as a child, I thought it was a house that looked like a duck, but what did I know). Other ducks include gothic cathedrals, whose formal iconography is immediately recognizable, without clearly stating its purpose. There are ducks all over Las—the Eiffel Tower down the strip is not a monument to a 19th century engineering marvel, but it’s a giant sign for a casino and hotel. A lot of ducks in a row, the collage of competing iconography building along the strip.
Showing it all at once
How do we pick from all the ducks? The bounty of choices, the agora of fantasies is the subject of 19th century urban experimental forms from the Crystal Palace to Department Stores—proto collages that juxtaposed ranks of diverse and dizzying offerings. Remarking on elements culled not only from the pace of increasingly frenetic urban life, but the material of information and entertainment, the imaginings of 20th century photo montage and film, particularly in the work of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, responded accordingly a search for what Eistenstein called forms that were coterminous with life. These experiments with multiple projections and performance spectacles involving projections tested a form that would realize itself publicly in Las Vegas before a large audience. These forms ultimately find their way in a dilute form to malls and desires at all scale.
Simultaneity and accretion were the m.o . for Eisenstein, . The ability to absorb has been infinitely expanded by experiments in logic and representation. The question should be what do we do with this capacity, besides absorb more?
How can there be more? What do we do when the whole page is filled? When all voids in collage logic are plugged? In many ways, the Baroque tactics of narrative visions covering every surface anticipated this, Barbara Kruger reaffirmed it, and Las builds it on an inhabitable scale. The persistent soundtrack expected from film surrounds us, whether it is the kerchunk of the slot machines, the beck and call of the talking billboards or the complete orchestration by the Jerde Partnership of the Freemont St. experience –the downtown democracy of the bricoleur can be climate controlled and coordinated.
Mass adaptable medium
Perhaps going back to the layers turning on and off, or the repositionable adhesive can regain the original vitality. For better or for worse, there is not forcibly always more, because some of it disappears, as Las Vegas reimagines itself. Collage City sees this as strength—perpetual democracy and change resists totalitarianism. As photomontage served as both a protest movement and a radical experiment, its marginal status has long been assimilated to the point of visual mimicry without the ideological focus. Similarly, Las Vegas chances find their way out into the world, where some diluted version of the experiment will reveal itself somewhere in American life the climate controlled spaces of shopping malls, and the surface fantasies of all manner of built places from suburban subdivisions to theme restaurants.
The desire for visual forms co-terminus with life that Eisenstein experimented with in his films and Heartfield engaged with topical photomontage work finds its descendants in structures that are responsive to our desires and us. Digital media technology is uniquely suited to go along with continual updates that feed our desire for more and more. Doug Hall’s Neighborhood Watch. Nancy Burson’s mid-80’s statistically generated works propose a rational image derived from multiple social and political combinations that predate the rating and sorting systems of Amazon and ebay with two realms of constantly changing, apparently responsive information. Is all this information vital or are we merely fascinated by having access to it? Jump Cut, the marquee of a California movie theater designed by Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scoffidio with Paul Lewis imagines subjective fantasy and gratification on a Las scale—as movie patrons ride up the escalators to the theaters, surveillance cameras capture their ride, intercut with trailers from current and upcoming films, projecting everyday people into fantasy scenarios by association.
Without the abrupt jolts of their predecessors, these visions become routine rather than stunning. Without the seams, references or anchors to anything else, we enter the possibility of desiring a world of suggestions.
In his novel The Persians, Montesquieu chronicles a group of sultan’s who had everything –harems, treasure—but they’re bored with everyday life, and find their ways to Paris, where the pace of urban life throws them surprises at every turn (including women without veils). “Everything shows itself, everything speaks out,” exclaims one of the new arrivals. For the Persians the surprise upon reaching Paris is that in plain view, right on the streets—is the power to imagine new possibilities. But as the sultans, just as the high rollers to the nickel slot players discover, the price of every fulfilled desire is the sadness that fulfillment is fleeting. We are only cleverer for all this experience if we can take some of these marvelous moments of possibility back home, and use it on our own.
-Nick Tobier. A version of this text was first presented at the Tropicana Hotel, Las Vegas, March 2002.