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.

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