Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A Vista of Neon: A Wabi-Sabi View of Las Vegas

Perhaps it is a matter of landing in the city just at dusk, the desert skies a crosshatch of jet plane vapour trails as Friday afternoon provides the prelude to the artificial lighting that will keep the stars out of view in this most darkness-deprived of places.

The artificial light, whether the fluorescent blasts of the slot machines and VLT's, the traditional neon and the enchanting new LED variations that throb through the night to achieve sensory overload and ensure that the place has the allure of the new, polished and appealing. This is the way Vegas is. The way it has to be. Apparently.

As with even the lowest stakes tables in the smoky lairs and basements of the casinos, there is a high cost of entry if you are to thrive and have the type of experience that Vegas promises and that peer pressure expects us to have. It is the place to get away with things as the commercial mantra -- which goes supernova on the cliche scale here -- and which peer pressure further asserts during the preamble and debriefing of a trip to Vegas.

The price of entry is high, whether you are trying to get a seat at even at the lower stakes tables or if you are trying to carve a niche for yourself in the wavering consciousness of people walking the strip. The two CVS Drugstores on the strip pitch themselves for their 24 hour availability and contribute their own lumens to the visual cacophony of the light shows and sheen that make this landscape. The darkest spots on the strip are for the closed businesses that have not been able to carve a niche in people mindsets in this place of acute, commercialized attention deficit. There is a darkened 10 metre sword, kissed by the ambient neon. The steakhouse it once provided a beacon for idled by the declines that face businesses everywhere but the fate here was decided by the inability to thrive according to a formula that is unique to Vegas. It is hard to tell here whether the rules are different or merely amplified by the scales that are required to sustain here.

The hotels, casinos and other venues need to have the architectural botox required to vaunt their brands to the levels that justify the mark-ups and price points that appeal to the high rollers who come here to amplify the one aspect of themselves, whether shopper, gambler, self-debaucher, that they want to flaunt at the expense of the wholeness of who they are. On the retail level, there is a certain sadness for those on the strip who aspire to do no more than sell they typical souvenirs that tourists would seek. Without even darkening their doors, the lighting there a subtle, but noticeable and off-putting coolness of older fluorescent fixtures that will prompt more shoppers to move on to a newer place with a different tone and a bombast that assaults a different sense with a different blatancy. Without the maintenance to ensure that the experience of the Vegas "machine" is compliant with the expectations that have been built to trick the senses in to forgetting the passage of time and the cycles of the day.

The formula in in Vegas is a simple one. It has been adapted and calibrated over the decades and the influx of gambler and investor money has refined the city into a well-oiled machine for distracted play. The effort to expand the senses is overwhelmed by the ambition to define each experience. The scents that are pumped through the hotels and the corridors between the smoky casinos are another way that the setting is micromanaged and the range of experiences is controlled rather than expanded. It sounds paradoxical to suggest that there is both sensory overload and a limited experience in Vegas but the stereotype of excess that is associated with the city and the Strip do not leave much room for a wide variety of experiences as might be the case in New York or Paris. The possibilities are in the intensity rather than in the variety of experiences that the city accommodates (or tolerates.) One thing that further distinguishes Vegas from Paris and New York is that so much of the city is derivative from those cities and others. There is probably much about city's surroundings that can be drawn upon - the desert, the western heritage, the wonders of Hoover Dam are a few examples, but these seem to be exiled to the suburbs of the imagination in favour of preserving the playground mood.

Little is allowed to age on the Strip, and less still allowed to go dark. Opposites are not allowed to balance. Even if legislated, the acknowledgement that gambling is in a realm that risks inducing addition is merely given lip service while the lures remain untethered. Youth, not age. Excess, not restraint. Vegas makes no apologies for what it is and it should not have to. The lack of nuance or the slick calibration of the Vegas "machine" leaves it unlikely to adapt to changes in the future and reinvent itself. While Vegas is the oasis or enclave for the play that it promises makes sustainability a challenge. It is disconcerting, but telling to see so much energy invested in maintaining a certain look. It is illustrative that Cher's 72-year-old face looms over the strip, her presence projected in neon while the collective restraint to not comment on cosmetic surgery indicates the willingness to buy into the illusion that here, at least for the weekend, in these snapshots and postcard moments the ideal has been attained, regardless of the price of entry. Can all of these illusions be sustained, especially in the desert as other resources dwindle away?

I would not dare suggest that Vegas try to greater encompass the qualities or the wisdom behind wabi-sabi and recognize the impermanence, the incompleteness and imperfections that lurk behind the glimmering facades of the city. People would simply say that Vegas doesn't do that. However, I am curious about the cost of maintaining the playground's appeal and appearance in the face of changing tastes and the physical challenges of maintaining this city in the desert at the pace it maintains. It would be compelling to look behind the curtain and see the margins and machinations of sustaining all of this at its apparent peak. The challenge of maintaining this vista of neon will prove unsustainable eventually and it will be interesting to see what becomes of Vegas when and if the decline proves to be inexorable.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The False Promise of Progress

I was a reluctant adopter of digital photography. I held out against it for a long time, but have to confess that the 12 years that I have been shooting digital seem longer than they have been. I might even be tempted to confess that I was merely holding out for better technology before I transitioned from film. Today, I still have my film camera and there are a few rolls of film that I take out to breath that familiar scent.

Feel free to accuse me of rationalization, but there was an inevitability to digital photography's ascension in the last decade or so and it is one of several instances in our time where science or technology have distanced us from not only an older, more familiar world, but from reality as well. Perhaps it is merely an attachment to the analog on my part and the extra craftsmanship that goes into creating and finishing in analog mediums such as film or vinyl. I still find it more wondrous and miraculous that a precise concoction of sounds can be delivered via vinyl and stylus or a certain richness of colours and tones from plastic and whatever inky emollient the film carries, expectant to contact with an instant of light.

The digital, however, turns sound, light and countless other things into data and arranges them before us in mediums and dimensions for our reflection, absorption and distraction. In my case, it may just be trading the smell of film in for the benefits of digital photography, which would include the instant feedback, the control in the editing process and the opportunity to more accurately capture colours thanks to light temperature controls. The trade is more substantial than that, however.

When committed to an increasingly technological way of doing things you do so at the expense of having to stay on that path. There becomes an integration into a way of viewing and experiencing the world strictly by digital or technological means. Evidence exists that supports the theory that we are less attentive when reading e-books, experience less brain activity when listening to music via MP3's rather than vinyl. The digital is ubiquitous now and while we might make it universal it lacks the depth to have the required impact on us. The superficial aspects of the song or the image are captured and despite the suggestion that these digital artifacts are complete, we do pick up on the absence of "something."

Apart from the absent architecture that is absent from a JPEG image, but is more substantial (to an extent) in a RAW file of a photograph, there is something essential that we are unable to contemplate in the digital realm. The mediation, whether by computer, thumbnail screen on the back of a camera or some other means of transmission to convert that binary data into an experience is lacking something because of the digital nature of the form. There was a time when the material form of a photograph, a phonograph or a book had some meaning for us. With music there was not only the tangibility of the "software" of an LP, but an evidence of purpose in the oldest phonographs that had a horn to them to suggest that this was a means of transmitting sound.

Beyond merely being quaint and appealing for the obvious embodiment of purpose these things also linked themselves to our senses. Consider the form of the phonograph as a mechanical approximation of sound reception and transmission. Go from there to the approximation or consideration of vision that has gone into the creation and use of cameras, microscopes and telescopes. In an increasingly digital world, more and more of the old mimetic artefacts we were surrounded by have morphed into boxes that bear little indication of their purpose. Scale aside, there was little to distinguish a VCR from a strip mall. As we proceed further and further into the digital realm there is more and more expectation that we fulfill more and more of our needs through a laptop.

One possible conclusion of this convergence into the digital world as it closes in on that fading dot in the middle of an old TV screen became apparent to me a few weeks ago upon an OS update on my computer. For a moment after installing the update there was a sudden uncertainty about whether or not the digital photography program I have on my computer would be compatible and operable with the new OS. The fate of the photos I had stored in the program was in doubt and the possibility of not being to access those images a clear possibility. With a reset of the software, the images and program were restored but this may be a harbinger of the possibility if I continue to rely exclusively on the digital realm.

There may be a point where the scope of experience is radically altered by the dependence of the digital. On one level there is the doubt about how immersive an experience can be without the tangibility of an object. Beyond that, there is the doubt of how much we can realize about our world if double-down on the belief that continued progress toward the virtual and the self-selected versions of reality that we can cocoon ourselves within will provide us with the experience and the wisdom that can come from the absence of illusion or digital mediation.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Illusion of Culmination

Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.”

The Imogen Cunningham quote above is too precious for my liking, but it communicates the need to remain open to new perceptions and experiences rather than identifying a select few as culminations to build your worldview around.

Regarding a moment with a contented, "It doesn't get any better than this," expresses a gratitude that we ought to identify often, but it is a contentment based too often on lakefront cottage summer sunset conditions rather than a mindfulness that can enrich a wider variety of moments. There are things to appreciate at any moment, not just during the ones when we feel most favoured. The cloud and rainbow coexist at times and we ought to be aware of the balances that (must) exist rather than just the imbalances that favour us at a given moment.

If we are privileged, we often cocoon ourselves with the technological or material interventions that favour and comfort us with a preferred version of things that is less-than-realistic - comprised of slick, well-sold aspects that cloy with the built-in obsolescence lurking just beyond the flush modularity. The appetite for more comfort is a key thing that makes many reluctant to buy into a response to our mounting environmental crisis. Our contentment is bound up in the material and mindless rather than tuning our receptiveness to what can be experienced if we were to reflect on what we have and what we are surrounded by. The contented sigh that accompanies "it doesn't get better than this" expresses an aspiration to merely be sated. Humility and the potential for greater receptivity to simplicity, wisdom and the serene melancholy that is central to wabisabi remain at the periphery or hidden in plain view when we are locked in on the accumulation of material advantages.

The absolute, couldn't-be-better realm that we so often contrive attempts to dress up splendour as a substitute for beauty. Rather than cocooning ourselves with a false ideal, it is better to be open to a beauty that is subtler and more organic. It is better to adapt to full life cycles, rather than selected moments such as an unopened rose, and appreciate each moment for the various stages of life or passage of light we are witness to.

If we indulge in mere splendour rather than less evident beauty that accompanies each moment of time, we put ourselves on a roller coaster of peaks and valleys of contentment and dissatisfaction when the conditions do not suit us. The parental rite-of-passage visit to the ER will be stressful, but it can be a moment of peace and reflection if you acknowledge the visit's eventuality, especially if it is a minor incident that you can look back upon with a laugh. Grey hairs and wrinkles, despite the dread they provoke, are gentle reminders of the passage of time, of change, of a humble challenge to the perfection we attribute to newness and youth. We ignore the contradiction that we are looking to the future (newness) and to the past (youth) at the same time when we clamour to acquire such perfection.

Remaining in the present and accepting it poses the risk of being a platitude, but it gives us the possibility of achieving what Frank J. Barrett calls "radical receptivity" in his book Yes to the Mess. Listening, seeing and reflecting intently on our surroundings and the moment enlightens us. The pursuit of the perfect is paused as we extend our senses to more deeply engage in the moment and the realities that are layered around us as we amplify the passage of time moment by moment.

When we expand and maintain an openness to input and weigh those inputs carefully and sensitively, there is an opportunity to respond to our surroundings and integrate them into our view of the world continually. From a photographer's perspective, there is strong motivation to make use of what we experience and make what we can from what our senses are receptive to. Photographers may choose to enchant, bewilder or shock us. They may indulge in the option of breaking our hearts. Whether there is a camera or not, anyone can do the same, if they choose to be receptive. The same opportunities are offered to us by each of our senses, but opting to narrow our experiences by marking our life experiences with culminations that are ideal, perfect or conclusive shuts us off, bit-by-bit, from the depth of feeling that can come from new experiences.

Without taking note of it, we regularly bestow the status of "culmination" on experiences in our lives. Ultimate cakes or kisses come to mind first and there are other experiences and states that can suspend us in the past and narrow our receptiveness to the present. Nostalgia takes root and it keeps us out of the present. Advertisers and opinion-makers offer that recollection to us with an empty promise of restoring a vanished moment in time, but pursuing that is an exercise in delusion.

Turning away from both nostalgia and the teched-out future perfect, we can come to appreciate the transience and the instructive change unfolding around and within us. Rather than regarding them as moments as peaks which ought to be preserved and maintained by whatever means necessary, acknowledging and accepting their transience might nudge us away from the pursuit of that material culmination and toward a more spiritual and reflective grasp of the textures of time and material that are available to enrich a moment if we are receptive to them.