Neon Boneyard, Las Vegas
I like to say I went to Vegas to escape my material reality. What I mean to say is that I wanted to escape San Francisco. I was underemployed and it was the Labour Day holiday, an unpleasant reminder of my negative net present value. My odds of securing a lucrative job appeared to be lengthening because no one wanted what I was selling. So I sought out Vegas, its diametric opposite. It was gluttonous where SF was health-conscious; it was seamy rather than hygienic. But both cities shared commonalities. Gambling was a core trait: the Vegas economy was powered by people who took chances on luck with real capital, while SF was fuelled by bets on revenue and potential investments that had yet to materialise. Another aspect shared was how both cities traded on the promise of reinvention.
The tourism tagline “What happens here, stays here” was devised in 2003 by advertising agency R&R Partners in an attempt to diversify the city’s reputation as something other than a garish gambling haven. While people overwhelmingly travel to Las Vegas to gamble, they also associate the city with a state of being. “The emotional bond between Las Vegas and its customers was freedom,” a case study of the campaign read. “Freedom to do things, see things, eat things, wear things, feel things … Freedom from whatever we wanted to leave behind in our daily lives.” It’s a place, in other words, in which one can suspend reality.
Upon arriving in Vegas I was reminded of a passage in a Geoff Dyer essay on luxury hotels. When you check in and hand over your passport, he says, a kind of self-abdication takes place. Your identity dissolves as you are unburdened of physical and psychic baggage. It’s freeing, this feeling of being unbound. “You become a non-person and are granted an ethical equivalent of diplomatic immunity,” Dyer writes. “You become morally weightless.” His observations seem especially acute in a city that makes its revenue as a glossy “safe space” for indulging in vices and bad habits. Market liberalism masquerading as liberation, as Herbert Marcuse would have it.
If you’ve been to Las Vegas, chances are you haven’t spent much time in the city proper. You’ve more likely frittered away your hours and savings in Paradise, Nevada – the sublimely gaudy oasis a few kilometres over, for which Las Vegas is renowned. There I stayed at Caesars Palace, a giddying tribute to the days of ancient Rome. The lack of apostrophe in the hotel’s name is deliberate – as if to suggest each of us are emperors of our own empires – though the angular typeface of its signage inexplicably recalls ancient Greece, as depicted on an Anthora coffee cup. It is said to have the tallest colonnades in the world, fashioned from a material that mimics marble from a distance. At the entrance, a six-metre-high statue of Julius Caesar asserts an imperious gaze while appearing to hail a taxi.
Like all casinos, Caesars is clockless, windowless and deprived of natural air. Each time I tried to make my way from my room to the Garden of the Gods – a complex comprising seven pools of differing temperatures and functions (swim-up blackjack, topless or “European” bathing, house DJs) – I found myself discombobulated by circuitous pathways and convulsing poker machines. It felt like a time sinkhole: the hours bled into each other, a mark of good holiday. In this adults-only Disneyland, the price of admission was shamelessness, the kind that enables grown-ups to sip spiked slushies from giant bong-like receptacles at nine in the morning. The greatest pleasures in life are often undignified.
I was struck by a description in Wired magazine of the city as an inverse arcology – a word coined by Italian architect Paolo Soleri to describe his hermetic, self-sustaining community in the Arizona desert – though what makes Vegas enticing is its unwavering commitment to unsustainable practices. The city’s very existence represents the triumph of man over the Mojave, a kind of American exceptionalism in action. To ask why it was built in a landlocked state in arid desert is to ask the wrong question: “why not” appears to be the governing ethos. At Caesars’ Bacchanal Buffet, where a two-hour time limit was imposed, diners juggled multiple plates piled high with crab legs, prawns and oysters, brought from the coast. In the height of summer, when temperatures turn oppressive, many buildings including Caesars have an in-built misting function, periodically emitted to keep human skin dewy and hydrated. Caesars is said to use 910 million litres of water a year, some of which sustains its multiple fountains and pools. This sounds excessive, but it’s not unusual, as the Las Vegas Strip is home to an uncommonly large number of water parks and aquarium bars.
Enjoying the Strip demands a surrender to fantasy and maximalism. There’s an obvious reverence for objects: you can’t miss the public monument buffet comprising replicas of the Eiffel tower, Egyptian pyramids, the Trevi fountain, Venetian canals and the Statue of Liberty, jumbled together in the desert, untethered from their original context. Hordes of people shuffle along the boulevards, overwhelmed by an abundance of stimuli. This part of Vegas is especially surreal and fixed in time, specifically the ’90s: buildings are plastered with ads for upcoming concerts: Mariah Carey, Blue Man Group, Britney Spears, Smash Mouth, Céline Dion. Magicians such as David Copperfield and Penn & Teller have residencies in casinos. It’s as if the Strip’s purpose is to resurrect that decade’s faded icons, or at least keep them on life support.
The neon signs are another nostalgic drawcard. Once a barometer of a city’s progress, enterprise and vitality, neon signage then became a shortcut for seediness, particularly as the minimalism of the ’60s triumphed over the glorious ornamentation of previous decades. Businesses that clung to neon signage were often those that were down at heel; they were increasingly associated with pleasures some might consider morally dubious, such as dive bars or strip clubs. When a number of municipal councils passed ordinances that discouraged their use, it was a death knell for a once prosperous industry.
In Las Vegas, neon’s warm glow has been usurped by the cool efficiency and precision of LED. Rationality has trumped romance: the latter technology is more environmentally friendly, requires little maintenance and can be changed at a whim. Before coming to Vegas I was not aware of the intricate labour involved in constructing a neon sign: glass tubes are placed over a ribbon burner, bent, shaped and blown to a designer’s specifications, then filled with inert gases such as neon, which emits a red glow, or argon, which gives off blue. Other colours are created by pouring the gas into tubes coated with fluorescent powders.
Defunct neon signs are laid to rest at the Neon Boneyard, an outdoor museum in a desolate stretch downtown. In the daylight the Boneyard recalls an abandoned amusement park; at night the signs are illuminated and given a second life. Stripped of their utility, they are works of art, beckoning you to take a second look and marvel at their craftsmanship. Petula Clark was onto something. I could see how neon lights, modest in scale compared with LED, could be comforting, even sublime. But they were also haunting: a reminder of bad bets, market upheaval, booms gone bust.
At the Boneyard our tour guide regaled us with countless tales of casinos that were undercapitalised and had gone bankrupt, as well as those that thrived.
The opulence of Caesars Palace disguised the fact that it too was bankrupt and some $US18 billion in debt – a consequence of too many deals struck at the height of the leveraged buyout boom, which subsequently collapsed during the GFC. After avoiding an internecine conflict with furious creditors, Caesars Entertainment now awaits a court trial in January where its corporate reorganisation will be confirmed. If all goes to plan, its emergence from bankruptcy will be complete. I wonder if it will use its second life to reinvent itself.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 12, 2016 as "Neon liberalism". Subscribe here.