(Queen’s University Belfast)
This article, and the research out of which it springs, has a number of points of origin; it may also have more than one point of conclusion even as it argues that the current manifestation of Las Vegas could well be read as its last. This is not to say that Las Vegas will cease to create its new versions of itself; after all, this is one of the main sustaining factors of Las Vegas’ success in the last two decades, as a new Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard has arisen from the demolitions and redesigns of the original Las Vegas Strip of the 1950s and 1960s. What is argued for here is a reading of Vegas as a terminal point within American culture, and particularly within its visual realms. Las Vegas’ place within the dynamics of American visual and exhibition culture comes as the latest in a sequence which, since the nineteenth century, has included among its manifestations World’s Fairs, side shows, freak shows and travelling carnivals. America’s experiments in the visual domain have been updated in both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in a variety of spectacular forms and entertainment zones (Disneyland, EPCOT, the new Las Vegas). Vegas is the ultimate incarnation of a carnivalised display culture, the city’s casino Strip re-clothed primarily as a theme park for digital camera-toting tourists than as a resort for dedicated gamblers. The possibility that the current incarnation of Las Vegas, that of late 2009 and 2010, will be the last Vegas hovers as a spectral remnant of the economic downturn and financial collapse of 2008: this is marked by the unfinished skeletons of projected new casino hotels on Las Vegas Boulevard and by a sudden reversal of fortune for the nation’s favourite gaming location.
Moreover, given the city’s dependence, due to its desert location, on imported natural energy resources, and its financial ability to exploit such diminishing reserves while not supporting methods of sustainable or renewable energy technology, the possibility that Las Vegas may soon be facing into an abyss of its own making quickly gathers credence. Mike Davis noted over a decade ago that for the casino entrepreneurs of modern-day Vegas, the city stands as “the terminus of western history, the end of the trail” (Davis 86). Writing in 1998 on the then phenomenon of Vegas’s redevelopment and population explosion, he connected the contemporary worlds of Las Vegas with the temporary mouldings and exhibition halls of the 1893 Columbian World’s Fair in Chicago:
[a]s an overpowering cultural artefact [Vegas] bestrides the gateway to the twenty-first century in the same way that Burnham’s “White City” along the Chicago lakefront was supposed to prefigure the twentieth century. At the edge of the millennium, this strange amalgam of boomtown, world’s fair, and highway robbery is the fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States. (Davis 86)
That Davis elides these two particular phenomena of American display culture (World’s Fair and Las Vegas) in a discussion that otherwise highlights the ecological implications of the continued redevelopment of urban and suburban Nevada is of particular relevance. The 1893 exhibition marked a crucial evolutionary point in America’s World’s Fairs: the world’s first Ferris Wheel (later relocated to Coney Island) vied with a carnival midway as central components of the entertainments on offer amid the Fair’s white, neoclassical halls that housed exhibitions on technology, science and imperial conquest. The World’s Fair experience was expanded to include aspects of the amusement park. It was being redefined along the lines of what today may be more recognisably referred to as a theme park. America’s versions of the international exposition quickly developed its mass-entertainment possibilities, rewriting the World’s Fair events as prototypical theme parks, themselves very much a symbol of the leisure pursuits of twentieth-century middle-class America.
From the mid-1990s up to the onset of the economic recession in 2008, Clark County, Nevada, juridical home to Las Vegas, had the fastest growing population in the U.S., a trend which showed a marked increase in the months and years following the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington D.C. Coincidental as these events may have been, such a random but important factor offers a tantalising argument about America’s response to terrorism on its own doorstep, as well as a context within which to consider the place of Las Vegas in the popular psyche at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Las Vegas is a site of very particularised American re-makings, whether of its own identity as the nation’s gaming capital, or of iconic locations of other nations (the Luxor casino’s reinvention of the pyramids, or the Paris Hotel and Casino’s compression of its French counterpart [Fig. 1]).
The new Vegas has produced an architectural map of its own evolution, one substantially formed by way of a global cultural shorthand in its kitsch imitations of other places. One wonders, however, if this most recent incarnation of Vegas might possibly be its last. In the period between 11 September 2001 and October 2008, Vegas had been the fastest growing city in the United States, with exponential levels of immigration into Clark County: in 2004 for instance, 7000 people per month were moving to Clark County in Nevada, while in 2006 Nevada was the second fastest growing state in the union (Federation for American Immigration Reform statistics). In 2007, in the last year of the boom, Las Vegas was visited by 32.9 million tourists (http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2010/jun/11/best-and-worst-las-vegas-tourism-times-display-dur/) and revenues showed steady— indeed healthy—advances. However, by the summer of 2009, when the recession was hitting hardest, Nevada’s rate of foreclosures on homes was the highest in the United States, standing at 72.9%; indeed, July 2009 marked the state’s “31st straight month” as the nation’s region with the most foreclosures, a rise of thirty-two percent on July 2008 with “one in every 355 homes” in receipt of a foreclosure-related notice (http://www.lvrj.com/business/53116852.html). Unemployment had risen from 3.8% in 2006 to 12.3%, and hotel occupancies had dropped to 72% of available rooms (Time, 31 August 2009, p.30). By July 2010, Nevada’s unwelcome record as the nation’s leading state of foreclosure filings had stretched into its forty-third month (http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2010/aug/11/foreclosures-down-nevada-still-ranks-no-1/), though recent figures show a drop of 30% in comparison with the mid-year figures of 2009. Construction work on new Strip resort hotels such as the Fontainebleu and the Echelon (Figs 2 and 3) was delayed or halted altogether; indeed, in an article by Richard Velotta in its 22 June 2010 issue, the Las Vegas Sun reported that “some $1.2 billion in construction permits were pulled for the idled Fontainebleau casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip this month” (http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2010/jun/22/12-billion-fontainebleau-construction-permits-pull/), leaving tourists and city residents alike unsure about when, if ever, the almost completed shell would be finished. Work on the Echelon was stopped in August 2008, leaving a concrete and steel skeleton surrounded by empty cranes on the site of the once-iconic Stardust casino.
The visual impact of this abandoned development is matched by the economic impact such dereliction is having on neighbouring casino enterprises at the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard (http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2010/apr/05/empty-lots-hurt-nearby-casinos/). Some projects, however, have been completed: the $3.9 billion Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas (Fig. 4), begun in October 2005, opened its 800 hotel rooms and 2200 condominium-hotel units in December 2010.
Up to the point of the economic collapse, Vegas had translated itself from a gambling paradise into a gaming and entertainment zone dedicated to producing new casino resorts specifically aimed at maximising the lure of the tourist dollar. Just as the World’s Fairs had capitalised on the possibilities offered by theme-park entertainments, Vegas’ casino owners began the process of redeveloping Las Vegas Boulevard into a series of themed casino hotels. With the construction of Steve Wynn’s Mirage in 1989 began a wave of fantastical developments that has continued into this century: Wynn also opened the Treasure Island resort in 1993, while Circus Circus Enterprises, already responsible for Excalibur (1990) at the south end of Las Vegas Boulevard, followed suit at the end of 1993 with the Luxor Hotel, complete with black-glass pyramid and miniature sphinx. To make room for the new resorts, the old and, in some cases, famous casinos were destroyed: the Hacienda was blown up on New Year’s Eve 1996, the same year that the Sands hotel was destroyed to make way for what is now the Venetian; the Dunes hotel had already been removed to be replaced by Wynn’s $1.6 billion Bellagio (site of the remake of Ocean’s Eleven, released in 2001). Arguably one of the most recognisable resorts of the old Strip, the Stardust was imploded on 13 March 2007 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJ8z-OzJGVg&feature=related) to make way for the still-to-be concluded Echelon, a completion date for which is unknown at this time. Vegas approached the new millennium high in economic confidence and propelled to new and more fantastical architectural experiments by a core group of wealthy resort owners determined to exploit the new opportunities offered by the coming century and by the possibilities of America’s visual display culture. Building and building big were the watchwords of the 1990s and first years of this century, with casino owners outdoing each other in terms of scale, room capacity and the visual impact of their latest creations.
The beginning of a new millennium is perhaps unavoidably attended by thoughts about the construction of a new age, a possible reinvention of the United States, or at least a redefinition of its role in the world, and a challenge to see if the twenty-first century could be another “American” one like its predecessor. Arguably, the election of George W. Bush to the White House in 2000 signalled that optimism about a new era should be short-lived, and September 11 ensured that whatever America’s opinion about its role in the global complex of international relations, it could not stand idly by in the face of violent provocation. The initial hope offered by the Obama Presidency again shifted the focus to the idea of new beginnings in the United States, despite its ongoing involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of September 11. In this opening period of the twenty-first century, Las Vegas, possibly more than any other city in the U.S., has experienced the extremes of boom and bust, success and failure. In the century’s first decade, Vegas’s perpetual experiment in reinvention has been first buoyed by a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, coupled with an American propensity to stay at home rather than travel to potentially dangerous locations overseas; and then potentially scuppered by the sudden collapse of the market forces of which Las Vegas is the nation’s most potent and visual manifestation.
To read Las Vegas as a city and a space of spectacular display that, certainly in recent decades, has become a site of continual re-makings – of hypervisual reconceptions – of America’s premier tourist zone, requires an acknowledgement of the back histories of the American display culture of which it is the ultimate incarnation. American versions of visual culture in its exhibitions, its architecture and its entertainment arenas were intricately connected to, and developed in tandem with, the impulses of American carnival, signalled in the nation’s side shows, freak shows, and, arguably most particularly, its contributions to World’s Fairs. The first examples of each of these visual phenomena in the United States developed simultaneously in the middle decades of the 1800s, becoming the locations for the construction and year-round presentation of versions of American culture in controlled spectacles based on a visual ethics of recreation, pleasure and delineated difference. Perceived subversive elements, unacceptable Others—in short any non-standardised identities (Siamese twins, bearded ladies, or midgets for example)— in regular American society were displaced to the extra-social arenas of American carnivals and amusement parks, along with the exhibition culture (through the Expositions and World’s Fairs) that developed across Europe and the Americas from 1851. The 1893 Columbian Exposition’s inclusion of the first carnival midway that contained freak shows ensured that the spectacular environments of the neoclassical exhibition halls of the so-called “White City” were counterbalanced by an ethos more dedicated to entertainment than education, to the display politics of American carnival than any egalitarian interest in the advancement of all of the nation’s citizens. In relation to the current argument, the Las Vegas that stands in the year 2010, and the readings and interpretations of the city, have only been made possible by the processes of this centuries-old American display culture. U.S. society has operated via such standardised conceptions of social acceptability, entertainment and the visual politics inherent to them since the mid-1800s. America’s cultural turn to the carnival—to carnivalised versions of representation and identity—and its capacity to produce sites capable of providing entertainment and spectacle while concurrently functioning as methods of social control, has served a number of functions over the last two centuries: to displace and simultaneously to display difference (or essentially non-Americanness) in terms of a visual economy that, while reinforcing a standardised (and notably white) middle-class identity as the homogenised norm, as the optimum in cultural and racial identity, has literally been placing on display for a fee-paying public both the spectacular as an example of American progress and of its counterpart, the subversive Otherness of non-standardised American identity. The (re)production of such a politics of seeing that interprets U.S. social space, as well as the identities that constitute the American population, across an array of locations has instituted a cultural shorthand capable of defining the nation, policing its social boundaries, and mapping its urban regeneration.
America’s culture of the spectacle and of the spectacular, of which Las Vegas has been the prime example over the last two decades, speaks to a broader and ultimately darker theory of the role of carnival and its intrinsic visual politics than, say, a Bakhtinian time-out-of-time definition of European carnival allows for: America has developed the carnival, and the spectacular politics underwriting it, as an ongoing method of seeing, a continuous mode of interpretation and visual segregation, and the reduplication and evolution of a display culture through which America fashions and interprets its definitions of identity as well as its blueprints for urban development. From minstrel shows in the nineteenth century, through the carnival midways of the World’s Fairs or the technological amusements of a resort such as Coney Island in New York, to Disney developments in Florida and California, to the rejuvenation of the Las Vegas strip in the last decade, America has been producing spectacles of – and for – itself by which it can categorise, interpret and control acceptable versions of identity, their subversive counter identities, and the spectacles of urban visual culture and design. In all its variants, this impulse is an interpretative and representative phenomenon activated at both the conscious and subconscious levels to produce new versions of an old theme and to consolidate normative American identity by marking the potential subversiveness and Otherness deemed troubling to normal standards of Americanness. Moreover, this impulse co-ordinates the visual politics central to the construction of American space. Following the success of Chicago’s White City Fair in 1893, the neoclassical blueprint for a new city was established (Greenhalgh 32). Rem Koolhaas noted that Coney Island was “the incubator for Manhattan’s incipient themes and infant mythology. The strategies and mechanisms that later shape Manhattan are tested in the laboratory of Coney Island before they finally leap toward the larger island” (Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York, 23). Vegas at the close of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first has produced its own versions of miniature cities (Paris, New York, Venice), touristic parodies of worlds elsewhere, allowing a newly terrorised American population the illusion of foreign travel without having to leave the U.S.
With the economic downturn has come a decline in population movement to Vegas, along with a hiatus in the new strip’s programme of redevelopment and the production of such sites of “false” tourism. Vegas’ ability to renew itself has been ruptured, however temporarily, as the unfinished casino and building projects on Las Vegas Boulevard testify. A fissure in the façade of continuous and rejuvenated images that Las Vegas has projected to the world for over half a century has developed into an all-too visible crack in the visual politics of the city. Given the continued and unresolved nature of this economic intervention, the intrusion of contingent financial circumstance into Vegas’ fantastical representations shatters the illusion factory that Vegas is perceived to be, while also throwing into sharp relief Baudrillardian readings of the city (and by extension, the United States) as a place only of images and little else. In his 1997 book Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, Simon Critchley takes a surprising detour – one that echoes, albeit from a different perspective, Davis’ concerns – to describe the physical apparition of Vegas on the American horizon and, by extension, its place within contemporary culture:
driving from Death Valley to Las Vegas is a trip from the unearthly to the unreal. One traverses the desert land and – lo! – the New Jerusalem rises out of the desert, shimmering with inexplicable, tacky splendour. Las Vegas is a shining beacon of nihilism, a place where European civilization evaporates into a series of casino complexes. Concrete, steel and glass accelerate into the desert scrub, a hallucinatory architecture adorns itself in a sub-mythology of imaginative travesty: Desert Sands, Excalibur, Treasure Island. (Critchley, 129)
Influenced in part by Baudrillard’s unsatisfactory readings of America (Baudrillard crucially negates, or just does not see, the contingent day-to-day reality of a place like Vegas), Critchley briefly steps out from a typically involved discussion of the function and possibility of death in both philosophy and literature to make this observation. As in the opening scene to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (to be discussed shortly), it conflates a number of issues and concepts: as both the end of the world and a promised land, Vegas, in Critchley’s register, marks the end-point of any vestige of European cultural input into the American project. The new strip, marked by the incarnation of fantasylands from fiction and legend, is both the terminal location of European arrival (begun arguably in 1492) and the starting-point of late-twentieth-/early twenty-first-century American voyages. Vegas is the ultimate in an American strain of urban construction and American image culture evident since the development of the World’s Fairs in the mid-nineteenth century. This terminus of European civilisation in what is arguably the ultimate manifestation of American image culture is simultaneously an endpoint for the American journey and American civilisation, where everything can be tourism and nothing has to be real. However, as the concrete eyesores of incomplete projects on Las Vegas Boulevard indicate, reality and its unavoidable historical contingency are all too real in today’s Vegas.
In addition, housed in the sporadically rejuvenated downtown area of Las Vegas, is the Neon Boneyard (http://www.neonmuseum.org/the-boneyard.html), a museum-cum-mausoleum for discarded examples of Vegas’ glorious past as the neon sign city (Figs 5a and b). Amid the spectacular fabrications of the new Vegas stand monuments to broken times past and difficult times present.
America’s contribution to the hyperreal territories of the postmodern and beyond produces carnivalised spaces which, in this interpretative taxonomy of visual politics and display, operate as sanctioned territories in which the tourist can witness carnivalised representations of America and the world for which s/he is conditioned by a politics of spectacular seeing that itself is alive in the wider culture beyond the entrance gates of the funfair, the World’s Fair, or the casino entrances of Las Vegas. Thus, Vegas capitalises on well-established, symbiotic, mutually reinforcing belief systems that exist between such overt spectacles and a covert politics of seeing by which American society is categorised and interpreted. The individual fairgoer, tourist or visitor to a city like Vegas is a pre-conditioned viewer aware of precisely what is going to be on show and what such spectacles mean. For those who walk the Las Vegas Strip, the hourly sidewalk displays and tourist-centred dramas played out at Treasure Island or the fountains at the Bellagio, for example, are the scripted and choreographed apexes of a manipulated politics of American visuality and interpretation that simultaneously entertains the onlooker at the same time as it defines their status as part of a homogenous mass of American consumerism.
It is clear that these instances of American display culture, which can be viewed at any time in Las Vegas, form the latest part of a representational impulse within the U.S. that is not just a consequence of more recent or postmodern times. Processes of spectacular stimulation or visual simulation did not first arrive with the advent of television, the creation of Disney theme parks, or the multiple opportunities for image construction available in postmodern worlds. They were a live issue a century before the invention of such technological or leisure-time activities. The ability to re-experience American carnival’s standardised representations of identity (white and Other) by revisiting the fairgrounds and the theme parks and amusement parks of the U.S. from the middle decades of the nineteenth century onward was a cultural precursor of the postmodern age’s repetitive and simulacraic experiences. World’s Fairs were forerunners of the “miniature cities” (Jameson 12) that Fredric Jameson outlines in relation to the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles: their presentation and organisation as complete worlds within themselves, with exhibition space allotted for each of the continents, necessitated a telescoping of reality into packaged, shorthand symbols of white American perceptions of the contemporary world. The makeshift nature of their construction, in plasterboard and other impermanent materials that were used in the creation of neoclassical designs commemorative of ages past, was a prototype for the mock replications of American architecture in the last decades of the twentieth century. They epitomise the American demand for the real thing realized in “the absolute fake” (Eco 8) that stands at the heart of contemporary unravellings of the postmodern. The gaudy polystyrene moldings of buildings such as the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, for instance, could trace an ancestral line to the casings and frames of Coney Island theme parks and World’s Fairs’ representations of the subcontinent in lavishly coloured and highly artificial pagodas and minarets. Such particular examples of American casino culture, magnified exponentially on the Las Vegas Strip, dressed up as tourist attraction, and driven traditionally by the promised capital incentives available on the gaming tables in America’s casino resorts, are fitted with an external layer of visual interest. Despite their absolute falseness, these edifices rise as spectacular decoys to lure visitors with a double-fronted illusion, at once mercenary and optical. The correlation between these U.S. entertainment zones, separated temporally as well as spatially, bespeaks an American cultural turn, the fulcrum of which is the production of visual territories capable of encoding and interpreting times and places, past, present and future.
One route which, at first sight, may seem tangential to a discussion of Las Vegas is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, starring James Stewart and Doris Day. Its opening scene in particular operates as a point of connection between two interlocking arguments: one that speaks to the territory of American visual politics, and the other to further considerations of the city and history of Las Vegas. These trajectories find fertile common ground in the first six minutes of Hitchcock’s film. Its opening scene offers an intriguing American vision of a foreign land (in this case Morocco) read through the eyes of normative white American viewers who cannot help but relate what they see on their travels to the environments of the United States—in particular to the previous year’s tourist trip to Las Vegas—conflating its American landscapes with those of North Africa. In many ways the film is about something as “innocent” as American tourism which, when read through the prism of politicised American seeing—a motivated, political view of the world both inside and outside the U.S.—is aligned with the liberation of Africa during the Second World War and the experience of racial difference (in particular here, Western encounters with Islam). The concordances between Ben McKenna’s (Stewart) wartime involvement in the liberation of Africa and this tourist trip from Casablanca to Marrakech is spun through an American lens that similarly conflates geographical as well as historical understandings of the world.
To summarise the film’s main action: Dr Ben McKenna, his wife Jo (Day) and their son Hank are on a touring holiday of Morocco when they meet the enigmatic Louis Bernard on a bus. The next day Bernard, disguised with face paint, is stabbed in a local marketplace; before dying, he whispers to Dr McKenna the details of an assassination planned to occur in London. Fearful that their plot will be revealed, the assassins—a seemingly affable English couple called Drayton who had befriended the McKennas the previous evening—kidnap Hank to ensure the Americans’ silence. Ben and Jo travel to London and take matters into their own hands. The film culminates in climactic scenes at the Royal Albert Hall and the Embassy of a foreign ambassador, the intended target of the assassination. In the opening scene, Hitchcock stages a set of multiple and interconnected narrative contours: foremost of these is a near-traumatic American encounter with the Muslim faith. In addition, the back-story of Stewart’s character’s “liberation” of Africa during WW2 is offered as a pretext for the family’s return to Morocco. Meanwhile, the stereotyping of racial and cultural difference (distilled through a precocious child) is a constant presence: a wider narrative of American tourists or innocents abroad plunged into sudden contact with racial and cultural difference is traced through Hank’s inadvertent “slip” when he pulls the veil from a female Muslim passenger’s face. There is also the mapping of Moroccan terrains onto American ones, specifically those near to Las Vegas, though, obviously, this is the Vegas of the first strip that was begun at the end of WW2 and which would last until the early 1990s before the new Vegas was imagined. In such a brief set of exchanges, Hitchcock manages to conflate a sequence of interlocking issues at the heart of which stands the politics of American seeing. Whether purportedly “comic”, as with Hank’s closing remarks about using a Frenchman to solve their snail problem back in Indiana, or “innocent”, as in his accidental grasping of the veil, the opening sequence of the film is plotted via particular co-ordinates of Americans encountering, or re-encountering in the case of Stewart’s character, difference. Such difference is religious as well as racial, and they encounter it both as tourists in a foreign land and at the same time, through the correlations they perceive with the back-home landscapes that run between Indiana and Nevada, as Americans who have never left home.
The scene closes in apparent harmony: the potentially explosive incursion of white “innocence” into Muslim culture is offset by the diplomacy of the multilingual and, we assume, multicultural Bernard. However, within the first six minutes of the film, Hitchcock traces a complex sequence of cultural difference and racial suspicion that is only increased by the death of Bernard (now disguised as an Arab) the following day. Watching the film today proves particularly resonant. This American engagement with Islam is constructed via apprehensions and mis-apprehensions of race, religion, and cultural behaviour. A post-September 11 2001, post- war in Iraq and Afghanistan, audience is offered, in retrospect, a preview of the more violent and catastrophic encounters with non-American identity that would follow the film by almost half a century. Confusion and potential disaster appear unavoidable once Hank slips due to the sudden braking of the bus. His accidental trip, however, uncovers more than the veiled face of a Muslim woman: Hitchcock is careful to delineate the questions of innocence and conflict within particular interpretative contexts. Hank’s innocence, for one, is open to question: although he is only a small boy who has trouble, according to his father, spelling words like “dog” and “cat”, he is able to wonder whether Muslim women feed “intravenously” because of their veils. He remembers from school that Africa is known as “the dark continent”. His innocence is also undermined when, while querying whether they have actually seen these landscapes before because Africa “still seems like Las Vegas”, he is semi-admonished by his father for saying “crap” (even though he is just recalling his father’s losing streak at the crap tables in Vegas the previous summer). His precocious ways lead him to surmise that Marrakech “sounds like a drink” and that Bernard, once he has saved him from an Arabic tirade by the husband of the exposed woman, “talk[s] Arab talk.”
To tie this to Las Vegas: in many ways, the security of this American family is at risk because they have left home shores to come to Morocco. Vegas offers a similar, yet safer, tourist option in the family’s collective memory. Even though Ben McKenna lost money at the crap tables, Las Vegas and its surrounding areas are for them neutral, possibly even benign, zones that are not freighted with the possibility of racial/cultural tension (as in the bus scene) or, later, with the family’s being caught-up in an intricate plot of kidnapping and assassination. Aware that, whatever the coincidence, Las Vegas after 11 September 2001 became the fastest growing city in the U.S. in terms of numbers of people moving into Clark County, Nevada, it is hard not to think of Las Vegas as a space of American safety when watching the opening scenes of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Whether security fears after 11 September 2001 had any role in the upsurge in population growth in the region may be difficult to determine precisely, but the provision of, or facilitating of, a “foreign” tourist “experience” (albeit through a very American set of manipulations and constructions) to stay-home American tourists mindful of terror threats and fearful of traveling to potentially dangerous locations in the new exhibits and casino hotels of Las Vegas is an intriguing byproduct of the national hysteria after the terrorist attacks. To the American national, not caring to take transatlantic flights, what could be better than a facility within the nation’s own borders in which Paris, Venice, and the Pyramids can be visited?
Such false, or “hyper” tourism, possibly inspired by a xenophobic undertow in the aftermath of September 11, finds its ideal home in the construction of duplicate and miniature versions of other places that allow the tourist in Vegas to “visit” these places without actually having to go to New York, Paris, Egypt or Venice. In the Venetian casino, the to-scale reproduction of St Mark’s Square, complete with gondolas and a changing “sky” on the ceiling that moves the viewer from morning to evening, is a prime example of such false tourism (Fig. 6).
(Caesar’s Palace has a similar display, which changes from day to night, once an hour every hour, overarching its Forum shopping arcade.) Entertainment effect and themed spectacle combine in the construction of another Venice, another St Mark’s Square, but with the added bonus that the viewer/tourist does not have to travel to Europe to experience it. Being able to move between Paris, New York, “ancient” Egypt and Venice speaks of a particularly American phenomenon—the hyperreal—distilled with a very particular Vegas slant and interpretation. Indeed, removing the need to travel to Europe to experience “Europe” is a major sales and promotional factor in these casinos’ brochures. The moving walkways that propel the casino-goer/visitor/tourist through the condensed Manhattan skyline at New York-New York, or past scale replicas of the Eiffel Tower or the Sphinx, are examples of Fredric Jameson’s postmodern manipulation of the visual in motion. One’s perception is manipulated in multiple ways in the new Vegas. Guided by the moving walkways that present the amusement-park type spectacles now familiar outside each of the new casinos, the viewer is the subject of ocular deceptions, the casinos and their hourly sidewalk entertainments proving to be a double front: at one level a marketing ploy designed to attract more than just casino-goers, these displays are ultimately just precisely that, a lure to attract business to the hotel and hopefully the gaming tables of the casino. Verisimilitude is exploited in the name of competition: Vegas produces these alternative spaces (Venice, New York), alternative replicas or duplicate texts of these real locations. In its re-writing of itself, the new Vegas becomes another of these “text”, a version of itself updated for the twenty-first century.
The cyclical re-writing of this city space ensures that Vegas is not yet, and may never be, complete: unlike other urban centres that are themselves adapting and growing, Vegas’s alterations are writ large on its skyline; old themes are done away with to be replaced by prospects that are more commercially more viable. Vegas’ continual reinvention of itself marks it as a city, then, not to be completed, one that resists a conclusive chapter. Replete with what Venturi et al, in their seminal 1977 study Learning from Las Vegas, referred to as “the architecture of persuasion” (Venturi, Brown and Izenour, 9), as both everything (through excess and fantasy) and as nothing (due to artifice, light shows, its desert beginnings), the Vegas revealed on the Strip is always a site of representation more than the main thoroughfare of a stable city in its own right. In significant ways, Las Vegas has evolved into its own theme park, amusement arcade and virtual tourist zone all in one, with the added but necessary financial attraction of possibly striking it rich. Yet, with the impact of the recession of 2008, and after still making its own visual impact on the fantastical streetscapes of Las Vegas Boulevard, the rewritings of Vegas have been delayed, in some cases indefinitely, if not altogether completely. The end of the trail in America’s experiments in visual culture, Vegas is itself a self-conscious experiment in city construction that shows too much, and that remains the manipulated, mutable sign of things to come.
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