There was 100 miles of darkness behind the big signs. No matter how bright they were they did not impinge on the vast darkness around them. Their brightness was a flick of a match in a cave. Neon signs alerted me to wonder about the light of Gothic stained glass windows. Gothic cathedrals would have been lit with neon if the masons and glaziers had known how to do it.
Thirty miles outside of town was a prime viewing point to see the most violent human-made explosions in all of history, for awhile.
We identified ourselves to the world with an icon that was a glorification of sexualized femininity. In the old days Vegas would have been Aphrodisias. Aphrodisias never quite recovered from the 7th Century earthquake.
We were wary about the natural landscape that was always close around us. It was inhospitable to human life. Our survival was wholly dependent on imported technology.
"Mont St Michelle and Cartres" by Henry Adams
Dozens of city-states devoted all their generations for 150 years to building what remain among the glories produced by all human culture, vast architectural expressions of joy. This is the personification of the ideal of an arts’ based society.
"Movies that Blitz the Mind"
As a minor I was forbidden entry to the Strip production shows, our most notable visual attractions. But what they promised to show was suggested on billboards and in the press. I was challenged to envision a singing chorus of topless girls overseeing a tableau of WW 1 trench warfare.
I had spent my childhood enjoying the most gargantuan towers of lights ever built. I had been led from them to Gothic stained glass. Both were examples of technology used to evoke joy through amplified light.
Magazines began to offer images trying to describe multi-sensory and performance-based art. The events used technological innovation in the presentation of imagery and to define space. The events were immersive and participatory; with the necessity of personal engagement with the environment and performers, for the theater to function. The photos were impressionist sketches of events that had been constructed to be unavailable for documentation in secondary media.
Movies were integral to the events. Underground Film was the larger culture that was the source of the movies.
In the small halls where Underground Films were shown, it was always 1910. George Lucas was Alma-Tadema and Spielberg was Bouguereau. We felt like Cubists.
John Whitney suggested to IBM that the unprecedented complexity of imagery which could be produced with computers offered a new way to describe Enlightenment. IBM offered Whitney whatever computing power he wanted to make more movies.
Both high technology and woefully built stages found usage in Underground Films.
There is a wide spectrum of sensibilities between the work of John Whitney, Carolee Schneeman, Jordan Belson, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, and Stan Brackhage.
In the late-Eighties, digital imaging technology became available to the public for the first time, through the Canon Color Copier, available for use at our neighborhood Kinkos. The color copier made available as source material for artists all the pictures printed in any book in any library. A copy could be made of any image. No such opportunity had ever before been available. Images could be enlarged or reduced in comparison with one another. This was as intriguing an opportunity as it was to be able to copy images. The copies could be cut with scissors, extracting a single image from among many, to make collages.
Collage is an act of intrusion, a disruption of a first intended meaning of an image through changing its visual context. Collage occurs at the intersection of the collaged elements, in the transition from element to element. Collage asserts the primacy of composition as the arbiter of value of an object. An image or object has no essential meaning separate from the context in which it is set. Context is always subject to change.
Vegas and Collage
We are accustomed to the heart of a place being a tangible thing such as a building or a public square. It may be that the architectural heart of Vegas is in the intersections between its tangible elements, in the steps between its enveloping environments. When we create a narrative in these points of transition, as we do, it is there where Vegas’ unique identity is most clear. It is in its intersections.
The Original Bomb Card
A photograph was published in Life Magazine in November 1951 which showed the mushroom from an atom bomb test as it appeared over the rooftops of the Fremont Street. It was the very image of nuclear Armageddon. That would be the last sight we would see, the mushroom clouds on the horizon past our town before the bombs reached us.
Postcard producers in those days casually altered the photos they presented in the cards to suit the mood they wished to convey. There was lots of lab work in the cards.
One of those lab technicians had the notion the A-bomb mushroom looked like an excellent bright Vegas sign. A sign as good as that deserved to be the crown of Fremont Street. The evidence of our experience was that our rules, in Vegas, for what objects might appropriately stand together, were going to be more relaxed than what rules applied elsewhere.
My first interest in using a color copier was to copy the first bomb card. If the copy was good, more people might have a chance to enjoy the image. It was when I saw the quality of the copy that the notion occurred to me that I might make my own version of the card.
My new version of the bomb card was printed as a new postcard and sold as a fundraiser for American Peace Test. From the gates of the Nevada Test Site, the cards were carried to Europe, Israel, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Brazil, and Japan.
A crowning achievement was for the card to be offered for sale at The World’s Greatest Gift Shop on the Strip.
The postcard is in the collection of the Nevada Test Site Museum.
American Peace Test
From the late-Eighties to mid-Nineties, American Peace Test staged large-scale protests, involving tens of thousands of people, at the gates of the Nevada Test Site. The basis for the events was determined non-violence. APT called for a halt to the detonation of nuclear bombs. The protests were little noted in the US, but were noticed in Kazakhstan.
In the USSR, the equivalent site to our NTS, was the Semi-Palatinsk nuclear weapons testing site. Natives to the area had felt defenseless for fifty years as their lands were decimated by nuclear fallout. They learned about the protests at the NTS, and that APT was acting in support of Western Shoshone land claims. They were inspired by the example of their US cousins.
The Nevada/Semipalatinsk movement in Kazakhstan, galvanized the nation. In response to vast scale of the protests the USSR closed the Semi-Palatinsk site in 1991.
This chain of events continues to be a happy source of wonder for all who were involved with APT.