It’s Friday night and I’m hidden away in the sultry red bowels of the Downtown Cocktail Room, having a quick drink as I glance through my collection of images. I can vaguely make out the burlesque twitter of “The Cutter” by LA’s Sister, a video loop showing in the alley next door that’s a salty mix of Carolee Schneemann, Marilyn Minter and Russ Meyers. I am alone, or at least I was until that tall guy with crazy white hair and what my unreliable memory insists is a white suit started pacing next to me. Our eyes meet in a quick tick-tock and then I’m back to the images. Intimately wordless, we resume our pre-show rituals in this spontaneous green room hidden by heavy velvet curtains.
In seconds I will settle into the alley and tell a story ... with pictures. Kind of like a DJ, but with poor quality printouts and an opaque projector in lieu of vinyl and turntables. I am an accidental performance artist, I will admit. But the particular thrill of operating without a safety net distills the last vestiges of a truly extraordinary art experience. And let’s be honest, the world is in painfully short supply of those.
Maybe that’s what makes the CAC’s three-day Off the Strip: New Genres festival so exhilarating. Now in its second year, this mini-festival of performance and video work is unpredictable, ambitious and raw, beautifully reflecting in one fell swoop the joy and pain that is Las Vegas.
It’s tough as a performer in a festival to see everything you hope to, but this year’s leaner, meaner festival was pretty terrific. And Off the Strip did an inspired job presenting work in some of the city’s most undervalued venues: the Atomic Testing Museum, the Sci-Fi Center, the Beat. What I didn’t see but wished I could have: Laura Napier’s spontaneous conga line spiraling through the Fremont Street Experience’s “American Pie” show. Diane Dwyer spending the better part of two hours dressed as a waitress, pad and pencil in hand, asking visitors on Fremont Street if they “needed anything else.” The Bridge Club’s haunted ’60s airline stewardesses wafting in and out of Don't Tell Mama, dreamily in search of something ... more.
Videos I did see and couldn’t get enough of: Roger Beebe’s gorgeous, language-laden Strip Mall Trilogy and Joe Nanashe’s sublime Lionel Richie tribute, 3xladyx3.
Lesser work felt like a subtly proscribed response to the tarnished idea of Las Vegas, rather than a truthful negotiation. This festival begged for more dialogue, an exchange in which the artists might take away a more informed perspective and residents might consider the conditions of Las Vegas through a fresh lens. Which might be why Kerry Laitala’s three-channel video, Glitter Gulch, was so poignant. Through 3D glasses, Laitala luxuriates in an entirely magical vision of neon, so much so it made my heart hurt. And I fell madly and achingly in love with Vegas all over again.