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Americans for Burning Man Reform
by Andrew Kiraly | posted July 31, 2014
Grover Norquist at Burning Man. Grover Norquist at Burning Man. Grover ... Norquist ... at ... Burning Man. I can’t be the only one getting images of a shirtless, sunscreen-slathered Norquist dancing riotously on the dust-swirled playa, his marshmallowy form stuffed into a leather loincloth.
Sorry. But, inasmuch as the National Journal can be believed, the conservative activist and founder of Americans for Tax Reform will be there this year:
And the seed was planted. But the why is more interesting than the how. How to reconcile the apparent tension between a conservative anti-tax activist and an ostensible counter-culture festival of organized, mass-scale, art-fueled, communitarian whimsy — or what the National Journal, lips grimly pursed, disapprovingly refers to as an “annual festival of debauchery”? What could the two possibly have in common? A-ha:
Finally, someone comes out and says what Burning Man is all about. Why, all along, turns out it was a living crypto-libertarian diorama that shows noble, Rousseauean pre-government humankind living, sharing and partying, free of the bonds of the state! And here we thought it might be a spectacle-fueled rejection of passive consumer society, or a playful pop-up barter economy, or even an example of successful private-public partnerships that promote responsible, profitable and culturally productive use of federal lands. Of course, it’s all those things, and more. An event as large, resonant and unusual as Burning Man is bound to become a mirror that reflects our fears and desires — whether we’re nunnishly worried about debauchery or we dream of a utopia where we can trade Fiji water for Marlboro Lights without The Man looking over our shoulder.
That’s what’s troublesome about Norquist’s assertion — besides the fact that this “Burning Man-as-‘refutation’-of-government” requires permits, contracts, negotiations, fees, and besides the fact that Burners are subject to a suite of very un-Mad Max-like rules and regs — not to mention the existence of Burning Man cops known as The Black Rock Rangers or the litter police known as the Earth Guardians (yes, breaking news: Even in this fugitive desert utopia, there are cops): the reductionist mindset of ideological appropriation that turns an international cultural wave into a conservative talking point.
Drawing notice to the necessary organization of Burning Man isn’t intended as a gotcha! move on a naked emperor. It’s merely to point out that Burning Man has become a big, interesting, complex thing. Some observers, considering Norquist’s gaze to be some evil, curdling beam, have declared that Burning Man is dead — that his sanction signals a hopeless infestation by powerful corporate egos that the festival’s spirit militates against (see also Burner Google CEO Eric Schmidt). That could be one unfortunate scenario — but only if the Burners who embrace the festival in all its muddled, manifold ethos flee to leave room for the guys in ties who want an intoxicating taste of Ayn Rand boot camp.
Well-meaning art, made by committee
by Scott Dickensheets | posted July 17, 2014
The good news: Clark County just received $50,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to add public art to the Maryland Parkway renovation being undertaken by (inhale now) the county, the city, UNLV, the Regional Transportation Commission and the Urban Land Institute (exhale). That’s a few pounds of bureaucracy by anyone’s measure. Those entities will augment the NEA grant with fiscal contributions and in-kind services for a total just north of $101,000.
Hooray, public art!
The blah news, straight from the county’s press release: “The goal is to install art that increases the social capital of the area while building and encouraging community pride and expressions of localized civic character, officials said. … Another goal includes arts-based community development that drives economic revitalization.”
Hooray … social capital and … expressions of localized character …?
Clark County was among the 66 recipients of “Our Town” grants announced Wednesday, totaling some $5 million divvied up across America and also in Texas. The public art program will be a small part of a more involved, longer-range spiff-up of Maryland Parkway, between McCarran International Airport and downtown. (That area was the subject of a grabby photo essay in the June issue of Desert Companion.)
Next step: “A multi-disciplinary design team comprised of architects, landscape architects and artists is expected to guide development of the public art plan.” This team will, of course, seek public input; neighborhood history will be looked at; collaborations will be encouraged; holders of stake will have their say. Two years from now, in August 2016, after much labored breathing, a “Public Art Urban Design Plan” will be birthed, presumably resulting in art that’ll provide “an incentive for residents and visitors to frequent the businesses along the parkway.”
This is, of course, a development to be cheered. I'm always happy to see art get some attention and artists (hopefully, down the line somewhere) some money. But, in the realm of public aesthetics, basic skepticism and a little cultural history prompt one to wonder about the likelihood that five public or nonprofit entities + a design team + innumerable “stakeholders” + two years will = amazing art. I mean, that’s an awful lot of filters. “Doesn’t sound like anything will get through,” one office wag said. And any work that does survive the gantlet of competing agendas, constituency-servicing and simple differences in taste will surely have been emptied of ideas, idiosyncrasy and challenge — which is to say, content. It’ll very likely be so larded with good intentions and positive messaging that by the time it’s installed it will have left the realm of art to become feel-good civic decoration, possibly encouraging community pride but probably not doing much as art. (The valley has a mixed record when it comes to this stuff.)
One might also wonder if it’s even in art’s job description to “encourage community pride,” to “drive economic revitalization.” Sure, that happens — the invariable first step of neighborhood gentrification is the arrival of creatives, who lend the area a zippy cachet that's catnip to yuppies and Realtors. Arts boosters love to cite studies that indicate cultural institutions provide as much economic benefit as a major league sports team. And certainly public art can be an important element in place-making; there’s plenty of potential for that in a diverse urban area such as Maryland Parkway. (Really, look at our photo essay.)
Placemaking possibly aside, those things are generally secondary effects of art, and shouldn't be its explicit reason for existing. At its best, great art creates what the theory types call “communities of desire” — people drawn to the work thanks to the talent, sensibility and risk-taking of singular artists. It's hard to imagine that happening by committee. I could be wrong, of course. Indeed, I hope I am. Otherwise, as one arts person told me, “They should just install large renditions of the press release.”
Death and resurrection in Las Vegas
by Jenessa Kenway | posted July 8, 2014
(Photo by J.K. Russ)
A review of Matthew Couper's exhibit Horror Vacui, at the Winchester Cultural Center:
The gallery was permeated by the staccato of small cards slapping back and forth on wrists. Attendants wearing ball caps aggressively flapped the cards before offering one to each guest during the opening of Mathew Couper’s exhibit Horror Vacui. Instead of a stripper’s starred nipples, the card depicted a painting from the exhibit, needlessly censored in places. Mimicking the porn card-pushers who nightly line the Strip is just one way Couper appropriates and comments on the Las Vegas experience.
The gallery lights have been noticeably dimmed and large paintings on wooden hinges swing out from the wall, casting shadows; the effect is subterranean. A video diptych runs clips from the film Nosferatu, showing the vampire rising from his coffin along with footage of casino implosions running in reverse.
The catacomb-like environment, the vampire casino montage and paintings of casino logos (Flamingo, Tropicana, Dunes) popping out of coffins all drive home a metaphor of Las Vegas as both resurrection and undead experience. Casinos are destroyed and new ones rise from their graves. Throngs of tourists lurch in zombie-thick packs, intermittently offered meals, tickets, topless dancing and other pleasures of the flesh by the ubiquitous card-flickers.
Scattered throughout the exhibit are graphite cameos of persons who figure prominently in the historical milieu of Las Vegas, such as Howard Hughes, plane-crashed starlet Carole Lombard, burlesque dancer Holly Madison and Steve Wynn. Las Vegas contributed to the immortality of each.
The cycle of death and rebirth feeds into historical and political themes in a painting of a snake symbol found in an old political cartoon by Benjamin Franklin. The original drawing demands “Join, or Die,” each severed serpent segment labeled with the initials of a state. Couper replaces state names with popular fast food joints — Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Panda Express — making the new mandate to “join” obese consumerism or “die,” the surrender to which is slowly killing thousands.
Couper’s work even goes so far as to suggest art itself is facing resurrection. In the center of the space, a replica of the white-and-red-cubed grave marker of artist Kasimir Malevich rests before a fresh grave, shovel still resting in the soil. Malevich is known for his disturbing piece, “Black Square,” signaling the death and the rebirth of art. Within the black void Malevich intended to paint “the face of the new art.” In lieu of a zombie arm popping out of the grave, Couper gives us a rough sketch of the controversial Warhol portrait discovered at a garage sale in Las Vegas. The image invokes a work hovering between rebirth and acceptance back into the world, or languishing in the purgatory of questionable legitimacy.
The exhibit’s title references the physics concept that nature does not tolerate vacuums, as well as the art concept expressing fear of empty spaces. By packaging the two, Couper simultaneously rejects voids and demands the filling of space. Vacancies created by the passage of one object must inevitably be filled by something or someone else. And, of course. Las Vegas is all about filling vacancies. Hotel rooms empty out, slot machine seats are abandoned and snake eyes come up at the craps table — all soon refilled with a fresh batch of visitors.
Locating Las Vegas within a cycle of death and rebirth is a darkly fascinating and grim prognosis for the city. As we are consumed by the entropy of the current cycle, a question surfaces: What will the next phase of rebirth hold? To paraphrase Malevich: What might the face of the new Las Vegas look like?
Through July 18, Winchester Cultural Center, 3130 South McLeod Drive
Sun up: An exchange on the new state of the Las Vegas Sun
by Scott Dickensheets & Andrew Kiraly | posted July 2, 2014
SCOTT: Sing it with me, Andrew: Here he comes to save the day! (C'mon, you know the words …) It seems that Brian Greenspun, through some combination of buyout, asset-swap and/or threats of big brotherly noogies, has wrangled sole control over the Greenspun Media Group from his siblings (with whom he has been notoriously squabbling). First order of business: He halted the negotiations, previously approved by his brother and two sisters, that would have dissolved the joint-operating agreement with the Review-Journal, which keeps the Sun alive. Until now, despite Brian's various legal maneuverings, most of us assumed that the doomsday clock was ticking off the paper's final minutes.
In a way, I'm surprised I was surprised by the deal. The minute I heard about it, I mentally smacked my forehead: Of course. It makes sense. An ownership shuffle is a clean, angst-free way to resolve both the family and the JOA issues, and it leaves the media holdings in the hands of the only Greenspun who really cared about them anyway. That Brian appears to be going all-in on the journalism properties isn't surprising: As the oldest son of a complex, charismatic father who built the Sun into the cornerstone of his family's civic stature — and left it as his real legacy, Green Valley and the cable system notwithstanding — Brian has always appeared more emotionally invested in the journalism stuff than his brothers and sisters. Now this deal appears to save the Sun, and preserves at least the theoretical possibility of another compelling journalistic voice in the community, even if the print Sun has lately been reduced — correction: reduced itself — to running reams of wire copy.
ANDREW: It was definitely a nice little surprise checkmate — I can totally imagine RJ Publisher Ed Moss doing a whaaaat just happened?! face-grab — that hadn't occurred to me. In both our chit-chat about it between us and other media gossip circles, the dissolving of the JOA and the presumed subsequent death of the Sun had taken on this sense of a grinding, inescapable heat death. Is it me, or is Brian Greenspun kinda giving off quasi-hero vibes in all this?
But hold the comeback "Eye of the Tiger" music montage! Now Brian has shored up a bunch of Greenspun legacy media — Las Vegas Magazine, Las Vegas Weekly, Vegas Inc., among others, including The Sunday, which I'm still baffled by. It starts to look as problematic and unwise as it does noble: He's calved off from the family iceberg a host of primarily print publications. In the 21st century. In a crowded market where weeklies are thinning or dying. In an economically recovering city where dailies are slashing staff. The rest of the pubs he took as part of the deal don't have the convenient corporate-welfare IV drip that the Sun does via the JOA, which injects the paper with a share of annual RJ profits (according to the RJ, it was $1.3 million in 2012). I don't know how the GMG empire was previously structured, whether everything was silo'd off, whether profitable divisions that were big producers could carry the losers and the limpers, but I'll be curious to see how well a "pure" media company does with him at the helm.
SCOTT: Ah, the implications of "Brian at the helm"! He is, after all, the same Brian Greenspun who reportedly invested a truckload of family treasure in Sam Zell's kooky Tribune Co. misadventure (goodbye, money!), and who continued bankrolling the costly schemes of online guru Rob Curley long after everyone else got fed up with them. Some ex-Sun staffers can regale you with tales of stories supposedly spiked because they might've conflicted with some Greenspun agenda. More recently, journalists Dana Gentry and Jon Ralson left the Sun for what they felt was insufficient backing of Gentry's reporting on a prominent investment firm (the subject of which shared an attorney with Greenspun). So, a mixed record, let's say. What those foibles portend for his leadership, unencumbered by family input, is anyone's guess. Yet I also think the GMG staff will appreciate the new clarity of single-sibling ownership. And the sense of renewed, squabble-free commitment from the top. Because, again, credit where it's due: Brian's putting himself on the money line on behalf of journalism, print or otherwise, and the rank sentimentalist in me roots for that. (Not to mention that I worked for GMG for most of two decades, FYI.)
I'm as puzzled by The Sunday as you are, Andrew, but in a Q&A posted on the Sun website, Brian insists that it's taken off like a tasered cat. Readers love it! Advertisers say it's what they want! The Weekly is doing fine, too, he says. And the future's so bright you gotta wear shades: "In the next few months," he says, "we’re going to unveil bold new plans for high-impact and enterprise reporting that could create a model for the rest of the nation." Sounds groovy but, really, the nation? Still, for all that hyperbole, a true, legit, balls-out effort to achieve such goals ought to be good for the state of journalism here, don't you think?
ANDREW: Yeah, in light of that glittering cloud of PR bloviate matter, we should also remember he promised that The Sunday would be "an essential guide to Las Vegas." Okay, okay, I'll admit that I'm intrigued and even pleased by some of the moves The Sunday has been making, and hopefully the Sun comes to embody at least a promising percentage of what he's promising. I suppose it's too early for irrational optimism. Right now, I'll let myself be happy that there's a Sun, if not the Sun — you know, the sleek machine that was nabbing awards and finalist nods just a few years ago, scrabbling through the ribcage of the RJ like a hungry baby alien. However, if they want bold and high-impact and enterprise, they're going to need, you know, journalists, and my understanding is that these days, that exit door is getting quite a workout.
But yeah, part of me wants to say to all that compelling hyperbole, Whoa there, one thing at a time. When I hear "bold new plans," I remember, uh, 702.TV. I'd be more stoked if he'd said something like, oh, We're going to focus on in-depth reporting and great writing that tells the stories — good and bad — of Las Vegas. From where the Sun is at now, reaching for the stars might result, I'm afraid, in another dire faceplant. I hope they have the courage to aim not so high.
(Note: This post was updated on July 3.)
DTP and you
by Andrew Kiraly | posted February 26, 2014
1. Talk about burying the lede. Nestled at the bottom of The Sunday’s most recent cover story about Tony Hsieh is this nugget:
When I read that, I felt like I finally had on my plate something tangible after an unfulfilling, 2,500-word pastiche of drumbeat complaint, anonymous sniping and even a dose of tabloid innuendo (Is Tony Hsieh’s secret mind-control program making people commit suicide?). That detail about Massoumi suggests more about The Downtown Project’s values and motives than all the swings of the velvet hatchet that come before. It would have made an interesting story to track down all the small local businesses that had been displaced, directly or indirectly, by the molasses wave of downtown redevelopment, giving the kumbaya narrative some counterpoint zing.
2. However. My purpose here is neither to criticize The Sunday’s journalism, nor is it to chime in with my own cheap divination of the mindset of The Downtown Project. (Sometimes that divination takes on such extravagant, self-important gravity that I’m reminded of the inscrutable sentient planet in the novel Solaris. Which reminds me: Is The Downtown Project ... alive?)
3. But I will offer a cheap mind-reading of Las Vegas as it continues to warily nose and sniff at The Downtown Project. With a few notable exceptions, the complaints, the reservations, the imprecations have been aesthetic, and not even aesthetic in an interesting way. They’re variations on this theme: Hey. You’re taking away the grit, you’re bringing in hipsters and mixology and fixies and artisanal donuts. Translation: You’re ruining my competing vision of a more authentic and personally relevant consumer experience. You’re cramping my lifestyle. Well. Whether you’re eating at Joe’s Donuts or power-noshing at Spr!nkles: A Boutique Donutisserie, it’s still about buying things. Thinking about redevelopment merely along the lines of preferred transactions and products is fruitless, bankrupt and morally vacant.
4. There’s another variation to the complaints and reservations: The Downtown Project and Zappos culture feel insular and cult-like, and ... you know, there’s just something not quite right about that. Now, this is the kernel of a promising line of thought. It has nested in it a salient proposition that no one seems to be nourishing. It goes something like this: DTP and Zappos have an ethical obligation to engage and improve the downtown community beyond the benefits that trickle down from their profit-seeking activity. (You could cast that obligation as mere “corporate responsibility,” but given DTP’s swift, jarring — and, sure, beneficial — impact, and the delicate culture and troubled history of downtown, that phrase feels chalky and faint. But developing a muscular working vocabulary about ethics in business and economic justice in Nevada is an entirely different project.)
5. You may believe that any given company has this kind of ethical obligation; you may not. We can have a philosophical discussion about that over drinks at your favorite dive or mixology bar. But a lot of people do believe it, and they believed that The Downtown Project believed it, as evidenced by the fostering of “community” as one of its much-touted core values. Hsieh has since peeled that "community" sticker off the DTP bumper because it implied DTP is different, that there is to it a feeling and moral dimension beyond simply following the law. “We found that when we used the word 'community,' there were a lot of groups that suddenly expected us to donate money to them or invest in them just because they lived in the community or because it was for a good cause,” he told Vegas Inc in explaining the walkback. Hsieh is carefully calibrating public expectations about DTP’s goals and intentions, but you sense he can’t quite get all the toothpaste back in the tube. It says something about the sense of optimism and energy gathering downtown that people seem to be holding on to their high expectations — if not for DTP, then for whoever comes along next advertising feelgood values as a selling point.
Step aside ... and have a nice day!
by Heidi Kyser | posted February 25, 2014
About halfway around the White Rock Loop Trail, on the backside of White Rock Mountain, I come upon two guys heading the opposite direction. All three of us step off to the same side of the trail; they to their left, I to my right. We gesture – “Go ahead,” “No, you go ahead” – then add vocal courtesies: “After you”; “No, after you.”
I decide to end the standoff, in case they’re privileging chivalry over trail etiquette. “International hiking protocol,” I say, “dictates that the person going downhill (me) step aside for those going uphill (them).”
They blink a few times, trying to decide if I’m joking. Then, the chubbier of the two replies, “Actually, it’s the other way around. But OK.” They go.
They’re long gone by the time I’ve worked out a clever reply, so the debate continues only in my head. That is the rule, right? Of course it is … It only makes sense that the one going downhill, who can see where he’s going, stop for the one going uphill, who wouldn’t want to lose his momentum … What do they know? Beer-bellied wannabes … Well, actually most of the hikers I know do drink a lot of beer …
The poll I conduct for the remaining 3 miles of the route is no help. “It’s downhill steps aside for uphill, right?” I ask people repeatedly. Befuddled tourists shrug and inquire how much farther it is to the parking lot. Even a weathered old couple with Kelty backpacks and hiking poles isn’t sure. “We just pulled over ’cause we need a rest,” they say.
Turns out I’m right, according to Professor Hike of Backpacker.com, who writes, “Since gaining elevation requires more energy than going down, it’s polite to give way to the person burning more calories.” So there!
My confidence renewed, I thought about all the other unspoken rules I believe in yet so often see broken by newbies and visitors frequenting sites such as Red Rock and Mount Charleston. So, here’s a little more of my “When in Rome” advice on how to do as hikers do.
- Savor the sounds of nature. Loud singing is best saved for your church choir or shower. Loud cell-phone conversations are best saved for that alley behind your office where people go to smoke. Unless you’re calling for help, talk in a normal tone of voice … or consider just listening for coyotes.
- Respect privacy. If you see someone picnicking or stopping for a rest, give them space to enjoy the view. (By that, I don’t mean the view through your camera as you pose for a picture you’ve asked them to take.)
- Hands off. You’re not a third-grader at a natural discovery museum; the stuff you break and deface here is irreplaceable, and sometimes quite valuable. See with your eyes, not with your hands.
- Yes, please ask. Locals love displaying our outdoors knowledge and skills. Want to know the best route or distance to that panoramic view the guidebook mentioned? Stop the next person you see sporting well-worn gear and hit her up. Because she wants you to have fun here, too.
by Scott Dickensheets | posted February 24, 2014
"De-accessioned." That's the demure word (from dictionary.com: "to sell [a work of art] from a museum's or gallery's collections") that the website of the city Arts Commission uses to describe the final fate of "Ground Zero" by William Maxwell, a batch of bright plastic strips that used to scamper up the curved blank wall of the old City Hall — the commission's first major public art project. Too bad the website doesn't just come clean: It was taken down in a mist of derision, exhaustion and defeat. And its dismal fate not only delivered a blow to public-sculpture efforts to follow, it also offers a few key lessons in what can go wrong.
A detailed recollection of "Ground Zero" was the early highlight of a Feb. 20 talk about public art in the Contemporary Arts Center's Main Street gallery. Moderated by Zappos historian Brian "Paco" Alvarez, it featured Patrick Gaffey, a cultural supervisor for Clark County; Denise Duarte, a public art specialist also with the county; and Lisa Stamanis, from the City of Las Vegas' Department of Cultural Affairs. Much of the meeting meandered through a discussion about how artists can best interface with the municipal arts bureaucracies. But it opened with Gaffey offering a wry but quietly forceful account of the "Ground Zero" episode.
Back in the early '90s, he said, the initial roster of arts commissioners spent the first three years of their four-year term "educating ourselves about public art." With their fourth year looming, some of the commissioners pushed for the body to get moving on a sizable project. Thus the idea for a piece to grace City Hall. Proposals were solicited, entries received, finalists winnowed and maquettes of their projects displayed for public vote. "Maxwell's won overwhelmingly," Gaffey told the small crowd at CAC. It was a strongly anti-nuclear piece — the Cold War hadn't been over for long — that employed references to the Native American ghost dance, desert creatures and more. It was to be etched into the building's travertine marble skin, and at certain times of the day the sun would send shadows dancing across its face. At its base, lights and a water feature. "It was wonderfully subtle; that was one of the things people loved about it," Gaffey said. And its lefty politics? "Political as it was, no one had any problem with it whatsoever."
But someone did. City maintenance. They refused to let Maxwell etch his design into the "irreplaceable" marble, saying he would break it; indeed, so irreplaceable was the stuff that they didn't even have leftover samples Maxwell could test his process on to show it was safe. "Maintenance dug in its heels," Gaffey said. (Too bad no one representing city maintenance workers from 20 years ago was on hand to offer rebuttal.)
Eventually a compromise was reached: Maxwell would replicate the design in translucent, neon-colored plastic. In place of the subtlety and sunlight-play of the original, the new version offered a cheap-looking garishness — presumably appropriate for Vegas in some conceptual way, but still "pretty much the opposite of what he originally came up with," Gaffey said.
This was 1993. After the successful opening, Gaffey said, the maintenance people shut down the water feature at the sculpture's foot, saying its automated elements — which required electrical wires in the water — could pose a hazard for the homeless people who'd try to bathe there in the summer.
Not surprisingly, the civic view of the piece began to sour. Nationally, too, it was a period in which the arts were under pressure. The 1989 controversies over Robert Mapplethorpe's work and Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" had intensified arguments about whether public dollars should fund art; that was exacerbated by the "NEA Four" controversy of 1990, in which the National Endowment for the Arts vetoed grants it had given to four performance artists whose work was considered inflammatory. Such was the cultural climate that a year later, a resurgent Newt Gingrich would call for the elimination of the NEA altogether.
"Ground Zero" didn't last a decade; by 2001 it had been taken down in a mist of derision, exhaustion and defeat.
"It was a pretty unmitigated disaster," Gaffey recalled at CAC. "It took years for public art art in the city to recover."
Some might argue that it hasn't fully recovered. With a few exceptions — Stephen Hendee's "Monument to the Simulacrum," for example, named Best Public Sculpture in Desert Companion's February issue — Vegas isn't overburdened with grabby public sculpture that has the scale, conceptual complexity and possibly confrontational content of Maxwell's. But we do have a pair of giant paintbrushes. (Side note: There have been some great murals, ZAP programs, pedestrian bridge decorations and yarn-bombings that have enlivened parts of the city.) While political bodies are always over-cautious about public sculpture — no elected official wants to explain a hunk of avant garde plop art to a huffy taxpayer — one has to wonder if "Ground Zero" doesn't lurk in the civic memory, a cautionary tale no one wants to repeat.
Book review: The Secret History of Las Vegas
by Scott Dickensheets | posted February 19, 2014
It’s an odd, frustrating, thought-inducing book, this new novel by Nigerian author Chris Abani, The Secret History of Las Vegas (Penguin, $16). Odd in its shifting mix of genre tropes and high literary intent — it may have aspects of a mystery, but this narrative of amok science, racism, hatred, memory and depravity is not escapism. Indeed, you may want to escape it, depending on your tolerance for gruesome behavior and bizarrely frequent public urination. It’s frustrating in its too-restrained, sometimes flat prose and cliché-o-matic insights into Vegas — this is “America’s, and increasingly the world’s, darkest and brightest subconscious”? You don’t say. But you still have to give it up for a book you don’t particularly enjoy but can’t stop thinking about, thanks to its thematic depth, moral rigor and global sensibility.
The main storyline, enmeshed in a nest of secondary plots, concerns Sunil, a dark-skinned South African of Indian descent, a psychiatrist who once worked at the notorious (and real-life) Vlakplaas death camp in South Africa during apartheid, and who now works at a U.S. government-funded think tank in Las Vegas. In Abani’s telling, practically everything about Sunil signifies: the in-between-ness of his mixed heritage in racially conflicted South Africa; his terrifying childhood of innocence and betrayal, told in extended flashbacks; the blotting of conscience required to participate in such Vlakplaas “research” as putting a woman and her infant in a room with a steadily heated floor to see how long until she stands on her baby to escape the pain. By the time we meet him in Las Vegas — where he is again secretly pursuing highly illegal, utterly immoral experiments — any humanity he possesses is entirely vestigial.
Into his life like a screamingly obvious metaphor come the conjoined twins Fire and Water, who perform in the Carnival of Lost Souls, a sideshow based in a nearby ghost town. They are suspects in a series of body dumps at Lake Mead, and Sunil is brought in to assess their state of mind. But their true function is to provide a baseline reading for one of the novel’s major themes: deformity. Their abnormality is physical, blatant, on view for the world — and thus honest — whereas the moral deformities of Sunil, his bosses (both in South Africa and here) and several other characters are far more devastating and completely interior, as hidden from view as the atrocities Sunil and his colleagues commit at the blandly named Desert Palms Institute.
Unlike Fire and Water, Sunil wasn't born disfigured; he was corrupted by the bureaucratized depravity of life under apartheid's systemic brutality and the moral gymnastics it required of survivors: “I think that they are honorable people," one of Sunil's white South African bosses says of the black masses during a chilling flashback, "but in the hierarchy of food, they are the wildebeests and we are the lions. The lion doesn’t hate the wildebeest; he just knows he is the better. I’m not a racist, ja? Just a pragmatist.” The man has, by the way, just had a black prisoner executed and burned as his soldiers cheerily roast meat at a second fire.
Because this is a novel of fractured reflections, we are offered glimpses of this government-level debasement in the U.S. government's disregard for victims exposed to above-ground nuclear tests — the cause, we learn, of Fire and Water's mutations — and in the military's sponsorship of Sunil's inhumane new research (he's looking for a drug that will trigger and control psychopathic behavior).
Complicating the narrative are subplots involving an abrasive detective haunted by an unsolved murder; Eskia, a black South African who's come to Vegas to kill Sunil for his past sins; and the backstory of Sunil's onetime girlfriend in Johannesburg, a white girl whose torture and death Sunil is complicit in. In Abani's view, no one escapes their history, not even in this city of second chances.
Much of this is conveyed in prose so measured it often seems distant from the actions it describes, almost as numbed to their horror as Sunil has willed himself to be. That imparts a certain literary quality — you know it's Art when the author doesn't use quotation marks — but it also robs some scenes of a potentially enriching emotional nuance.
A few words about Las Vegas: For locals, easily the weakest parts of the book are the attempts by various characters to express something original about this city. "The tinsel of it mocked the obsessive hope of those who flocked here" is a typically wan insight, perhaps better suited to a Vanity Fair travel piece. When Abani metaphorically conjoins South Africa's cruel history to Nevada's by way of atomic testing, he engages in what appears to be a little historical fudging — two historians I consulted say it's unlikely that, as Abani has it, the government let families with children drive to within two miles of ground zero to watch the nuclear fun.
At best, the narrative sideswipes Vegas profundity, as in this passage: "Vegas is really an African city, Sunil thought. What other imagination would build such a grandiose tomb to itself?" Okay, you think; here's a globalized view I haven't heard before. Next sentence: "And just like in every major city across Africa ... the palatial exteriors of the city architecture barely screened the seething poverty, the homelessness, and the despair that that spread in townships and shantytowns as far as the eye could see." Well. You had me at palatial exteriors of the city architecture; you lost me at the despair that spread in townships and shantytowns as far as the eye could see. Despite what you may have heard about Henderson, it's not a shantytown. There's some poverty and homelessness in Las Vegas, yes, but not on the scale Abani implies, the air leaking out of his comparison.
If there's a money quote in this novel, it belongs to Fire, who tells Sunil, "A circus is an escape, a sideshow is a confrontation." He means that when viewers face the unashamedly grotesque, it upends their notions of what's normal and, perhaps, opens them to expanded definitions of humanity. But that line takes on a greater resonance later, in a flashback depicting Sunil's arrival at the horror camp Vlakplaas. Because he hasn't yet wholly disfigured his conscience, Sunil is able to tell throw down some hard truth to his commander — "If you brutalize an entire people to have your way then you must always live with the fear of retaliation" — even as the soldiers cock their guns at him.
That willingness to confront is a pathway to moral clarity, and it's precisely what Sunil and Abani's other compromised characters, and by extension the complacent societies that enable them, have finally surrendered in order to just keep going. Only a few people — the twins, a prostitute who loves Sunil — defy that grim algorithm. In this carnival of lost souls, only those who embrace their brokenness are capable of the hard truth.
Quiet down and learn
by Andrew Kiraly | posted February 4, 2014
To a weary observer who’s watched Nevada’s K-12 education system limp into the 21st century, it can sometimes seem like the problems facing the school district aren’t just problems, but Problems — implacable, inscrutable, systemic, dyed so deep in the grain they’re less symptoms than a larger syndrome. Whether it’s state funding for education, graduation rates or test scores, the school district’s struggle to educate Clark County students has taken on the same sort of flavor as efforts to right our state tax structure: that of an ongoing epic with some small victories, precious few triumphs and lots of heartbreaking setbacks. Call it Game of Groans.
So, you can hardly blame a weary observer for reading an article like this with some sense of wolfish, almost desperate hope: Maybe this is it? Maybe this is the secret, the magic formula, the key, the grail? The this is, simply, Quiet Time. Could something as basic as meditation help turn our schools around? It’s an appealing idea after you read this article about how a meditation program in a troubled school has been linked to dramatic improvements in attendance, discipline and even GPAs. (Interestingly, one of Quiet Time’s most vigorous proponents is filmmaker David Lynch, whose filmography, er, seems hardly the stuff of a placid, om-chanting mind.) Since officially adopting the practice of Quiet Time in 2007, San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley Middle School seems transformed:
Part of the appeal, of course, is that meditation is virtually free — welcome news for a cash-strapped school district. (Note to school district officials: If you contract a six-figure “mindfulness consultant” or “cosmic awareness facilitation expert,” you’re probably going down the wrong path.) And, particularly for its size, the school district has shown a willingness to experiment and innovate with what's-old-is-new-again concepts such as magnet schools and career and technical academies. If institutional desperation moved the school district to, say, oh, sign a pricey contract with Edison schools for a big bag of mixed results, a meditation pilot program shouldn’t strike anyone as all that far-fetched. Quiet Time may not be the cure-all for a school district beset with problems, but I can guarantee you that a roomful of quiet students will make for some truly blissed-out teachers.
Writing your own backyard
by Andrew Kiraly | posted January 31, 2014
What does a Las Vegas literature look like? Is it vivid and brash, like neon? Is it spontaneous and risky? Is it populated with casinos and cocktail waitresses, jackpots and cheap drinks? Is it preoccupied with themes of chance, luck, swift changes of fortune? Does it even have to have any of these qualities to be considered “Las Vegan”? These are questions crossing my mind after reading Sandra Beasley’s recent rumination on the importance of regionalism. Beasley is chiefly concerned with regional poets, but her point could readily apply to the creative elements of any form of writing:
Beasley argues that, particularly in a era when success is often measured by exposure (think ubiquitous memes, viral videos, blockbuster movies, the best-selling author on the talk-show circuit), regionalism proposes to stake truth in local texture: “The rewards of a region are not easily quantified on a curriculum vita.” And if regionalism requires a deep fascination with place, she also suggests that fascination results in a sturdiness, a rootedness and realness to the artistic expression that results: “... regionalism is not a box to cram your poems into; regionalism provides the bones that let the skeleton dance.”
It’s interesting to consider the challenges of writing about Las Vegas in the context of this article. The temptation to knit the threads of Beasley’s defense into a manifesto tailored for Las Vegas is strong — particularly if, like me, you’re a sometimes knee-jerk Vegas defender who thinks it’s important to create the space and foster the talent to make it more possible to tell our own story. I’m not going the manifesto route. But it is worthwhile to consider a few things about writing, about Las Vegas, and about writing about Las Vegas. One thing to consider is how the raw appeal of our mythology has perhaps worked against homegrown writing. Vegas is magnetic as both subject and setting; what writer, filmmaker or journalist can resist? But maybe the glut of books, films and TV treatments that come out of this dampen native enthusiasm rather than spark it.
Another development to consider is a countercurrent to this. It’s the seeming trend of artistic homesteading. That is, in recent years, I’ve met several artists and writers who originally arrived as wanderers or pioneers, but have decided to put down stakes in Southern Nevada. And, just as crucially, they did so because they’ve embraced Las Vegas and they want to explore its spirit and its quirks, its faults and its fascinations. There’s also a sense among them that there’s much more to the story, or stories, currently being told about Las Vegas. This charged sense of possibility is regionalism at its most hale. It’s a mindset enthused about place, not preoccupied with provincial cliches. And, as Beasley writes, getting into that mindset is as easy as looking outside:
Surviving in a food snob desert
by Heidi Kyser | posted January 24, 2014
When I stopped in the Albertsons on Maryland Parkway and Sahara Avenue on Monday and saw it being emptied out, pallet by fork-lifted pallet, my heart sank. The liquor department manager, still in apparent shock herself, told me she and her coworkers had just learned of the store’s closure a couple days earlier and that it would be gone for good by the end of February. Corporate communications confirmed this in an email, adding that, despite the company’s best efforts to make the location more competitive, it hasn’t been profitable for “quite some time.”
“I don’t understand it,” the employee said. “We had all those customers from Turnberry and the Country Club.”
Her observation suggested that the store catered to a well-heeled clientele. Perhaps it was trying too hard; some friends from the neighborhood had complained to me about the prices. I liked it because it carried things I might need stat – organic milk, say, or baking products – less than five minutes from my house.
But if Albertson’s was a reliable friend to me, I was a bit of a cad in return. I only shopped there when I couldn’t make it to Trader Joe’s or Fresh & Easy, which have a less expensive and more expansive selection of the stuff my family and I like. We’re food snobs with limited means.
Also, lately, I’ve been cheating on Bert with White Cross, a mom-and-pop venture that happens to be right on my route home from work (full disclosure: my significant other is the plant and floral supplier there). White Cross owner Jimmy Shoshani is still futzing with the product mix, figuring out how to satisfy the divergent tastes of the hipsters, retirees and tourists that pass through his doors. Though I like what he’s doing with the place, it’s too small to rely on for all my groceries.
Actually, I’m kind of tired of not having a place in my neighborhood that I can rely on for all my groceries. I may be picky, but I can’t be the only person in Greater Downtown who hits the Friday farmers market on Third Street for produce, treks to TJ’s on Decatur for packaged foods and runs to White Cross in a pinch. Three supermarkets within walking distance of my house have closed since I moved to the much-hyped heart of Las Vegas 10 years ago: Fresh & Easy at Eastern and Charleston, the carniceria on Maryland and Charleston and now Albertson’s. As far as I know, only small shops like White Cross and Resnick’s have opened.
When I brought up the Albertson’s closure, an office mate spent considerable time arguing that the Smith’s across the street, which remains open, is better anyway, even for the type of products I like. Another pointed out that there’s still the Albertson’s on Charleston and Bruce and the Food for Less on Eastern and Sahara. We’re hardly in a food desert, and with the SNAP Experience, which challenges public figures to live on food stamps, coming up next week, I’m especially aware of the first-worldliness of my complaint.
Still, there’s something here for downtown revitalization proponents to chew on: if I moved to Henderson or Summerlin, my problem – satisfying all my food needs in one location – would be solved.
CityLife: Chronicle of a death foretold
by Scott Dickensheets | posted January 21, 2014
Now that it’s about to happen, it seems grimly inevitable: the closure of Las Vegas CityLife, the city’s altiest alt-weekly, after 21 roller-coaster years of reporting, snark, cultural judgment, occasional juvenilia and general cognitive dissidence. If you're a CL reader, you've seen it coming. In the paper's final zombie stagger, the masthead has dwindled to two (from seven in 2011), ads have been few, circulation's spotty. (Most frequent reader complaint: "I can't find it.") Stephens Media, CityLife's parent company, hasn't officially announced the closure yet, but there's been enough down-low confirmation that the social media eulogizing began in earnest last week. Two more issues, we hear, then the plug's out of the wall.
The shutdown is part of a larger set of changes rattling Stephens' Bonanza Road campus following the arrival of cost-cutting new CEO Ed Moss. A number of Review-Journal employees were let go last week in the company's latest round of doing more with less; and there are rumors that the View papers will scale back come spring, adding more "shopper" content and covering less of the valley. And, of course, all of this is backdropped by the ongoing American print media horror story: technology and social shifts that have led to advertiser attrition, audience fragmentation, a devaluation of the slogging craft of reporting. It was all too much for a struggling product like CityLife.
“In this fast-evolving age of glossy nightclub ads, blogs, Twitter and all the rest, CityLife could not hold its ground,” says Geoff Schumacher, the paper’s editor from 1997-2000, and its publisher from 2005-2011. “Its devoted readers were now middle-aged, middle-class, while the next generation preferred the new shiny objects.”
Add to that an ownership of traditional newspaper folks who for years couldn't quite grok how to position or support the alt-weekly in their midst. Disclosure: I edited CL from 2011 until last September and sat through more than one meeting in which a company official said, We shouldn't even own an alt-weekly. (RJ Editor Mike Hengel, under whose purview CityLife more or less falls, didn't respond to a request for comment.)
Asked for a few words on the occasion, caustic CityLife columnist Chip Mosher responded, “CityDeath. Ouch. F**k.”
Facebook mourners say they'll miss the paper's gritty authenticity, the way it never softened its content to attract lucrative but strings-attached nightlife ads. For those readers, it filled a gap. “It was a progressive counterpoint to a local mainstream news media that are predominantly conservative and reluctant to question the status quo," Schumacher says. "CityLife was the place to go to find new ideas and different ways of looking at local issues. It also was not afraid to call a jerk a jerk or a crook a crook, a trait that will be sorely missed. Some of the city’s best writers now work for CityLife’s shimmering competitors, Vegas Seven and Las Vegas Weekly, but those pubs have no intention of delivering the progressive counterpunches needed to keep the mainstream media on their toes."
A few CityLife highlights over the years offer a hint of what will be missed: "The N-Word," a memorable package of stories and essays about racism in Las Vegas; a two-part investigation of life in the storm drains beneath the city, by Matt O'Brien and Joshua Ellis; the annual Get Out of Town and Local Heroes issues, in which the paper parsed the good guys from the bad; a cover story calling on then-Gov. Jim Gibbons to resign; league-leading coverage of the homeless, including dispatches from a homeless writer; any number of columns by George Knapp; and a welcome skepticism about some aspects of downtown redevelopment.
“Though the paper had shrunk in recent years and lost some of its independence," says O'Brien, who joined the staff in 2000 and eventually became managing editor before leaving in 2008, "it continued to hire talented writers and editors and cover important issues. It maintained some of its ancestral traits — passion, compassion, open-mindedness — and that will indeed be missed in a city that, at times, seems bereft of those things.”
Asked for a few words on the occasion, CityLife columnist Sarah Jane Woodall responded, “CityLife is pulpy, grimy and totally unsexy — an aesthetic vital to a thriving metropolis, but anathema to Vegas. Even an 11th-hour infusion of T&A in the form of yours truly couldn't save this rusted-out relic from local obsolescence ... and so it sinks to the bottom of the dead media cesspool, its eyes and genitals nibbled away by bottom-feeders and nightlife-ad salesmen.”
A few people on social media expressed the certainly vain hope that another scrappy paper would rise up to fill the void left by CityLife, but that seems unlikely. The economics of print-based publications are unforgiving. Readers have moved on, anyway, into the brave new media world.
"The increasing fragmentation of the business and the way we can now tailor the news to our individual preferences is, to me, chilling," says Bill Hughes, who was the paper's photographer for much of its lifespan, and who also edited it for a short period. "Despite the disdain some people have for journalists, most don't know how much work it takes to produce good journalism, or even mediocre journalism. Most don't even know that just babbling about current events isn't journalism, it's just babble."
As for CityLife, he says, "It's going to be weird living here without it. Even when I didn't have time to read it or couldn't find it, it was a comfort to know CL was out there, its staff fighting the good fight."
An influencer's musical influence
by Andrew Kiraly | posted January 13, 2014
Hey, look! We highlighted Andrew Donner in our Influence list in the latest issue. He's the head of Resort Gaming Group, which, among other things, helps do the real estate wheeling and dealing for The Downtown Project in its ongoing llamafication plans for downtown. Now Donner's got a new influencey title to add to his resume: CEO of the Life Is Beautiful festival. (Eve Cohen was also named managing director.) Why? Today on the official website, the release has festival founder Rehan Choudhry saying:
What does it mean? Our internal Magic 8 Ball says: "Cannot predict now." We've heard some muttering that it means the festival did better than expected and, whoa, let's get Rehan some help here. But it certainly suggests that Choudhry and Co. are heartened enough by the success of the inaugural bash to see that it's got some legs -- not just enough legs for another festival -- that seems a given now -- but maybe next-level mothership megacorporate brand platform business synergy type stuff.
Which is fine, I guess. After having a blast at Neon Reverb several years in a row -- sweaty, loud, rootsy, real, if somewhat sparsely attended -- I went to the inaugural L.I.B. festival with my brain somewhat sensitized to its aggressively slick brandiness and big-box sensibility, in the way you'd be wary of a shiny megamall that popped up overnight. You know, the catchall suspicion described by the word "corporate." You kind of go in wondering whether such a fact is going to pre-suck the pulse out of that strange tribal magic that occurs at massively attended live music events — the spontaneity, the grit, the sweat, the contact highs, the whooping of those enviably blissy hippie/stoner/raver hybrid people who seem to emerge from their couches only when there's a music festival. There was, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, plenty of that at L.I.B., and, thankgawd, none of that creepy Downtown Rangerness/"spirit of downtown" mental regimentalism that can sometimes make you increasingly ask whether Fremont Street is a public street or private club. So, to invoke the 8-Ball again, outlook good, but for this year they should also consider bookending the roster of musical crowdpleasers with a really musically challenging side-side stage featuring some truly adventurous bands. The 8-Ball says, "Hellyeah!"
A "dog day" you'll love!
by Andrew Kiraly | posted April 29, 2013
Here's something to bark about! Join us 6 p.m. May 9 at The District at Green Valley Ranch for Desert Companion on Tour. We'll be talking to members of the Vegas Valley Dog Obedience Club about keeping your dogs happy, healthy and well-behaved.
Whether you've got a new pup or a whole family of furry friends, be sure to bring your friendly pet companions to this enlightening talk. Carol Riback of the Obedience Club will demonstrate simple training and obedience principles -- and a few fun tricks you can teach your dog, too!
Pick up your Desert Companion today at one of these Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf or Jamba Juice locations.
Also available at Clark County and Henderson libraries.