Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

Whiskey Pete’s Casino at the California/Nevada Border

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From Dublin, Ireland I traveled on to New York City, then to southern California. The Baudrillard-America trip had begun. Moments after entering Nevada by car, we encountered Whiskey Pete’s casino. Here an important Baudrillard conference had taken place in 1996. It was dusk as I walked across the parking lot, my right jeans pocket loaded down with American quarters that I needed to quickly sacrifice to the slot machine gods.

I knew that I was standing at this spot for perhaps the only time in my life. The first and the last time. “No two moments of your life are exactly alike” — the clichéd sentence from some book on consciousness that I had read rose up in my mind. But I am a materialist. I want to win some money, right now.

Taking photos in this casino was allowed. I had struck semiotic gold.

The juxtaposition of blackjack tables and McDonald’s hamburgers inside Whiskey Pete’s casino was amazing. Fast money and fast food. Save on dinner so you can lose at the tables.

I spoke with a security guard. I told him that I am from Germany, and that I found this living image to be an extraordinary snapshot of American culture and of what makes us Americans great, especially for those of us Americans who are Germany residents and who love the Frenchpersons Jean Baudrillard and Alexis de Tocqueville. The security guard had no idea what I was talking about. He replied in deadpan, becoming the protagonist of the story: “We have McDonald’s at all three of our properties.”

“We are the dream that other people dream. The land where other people land.” — Ray Bradbury

Everything below that is not in italics is citations from Chris Kraus’ 2004 lecture-performance called “Chance: A Philosophical Rave in the Desert.”

The rest is either written by me, or taken from the 1977 song “Hotel California” by The Eagles, or taken from Albert Camus’ 1942 book “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

1996: The Chance Event at Whiskey Pete’s Casino

Located at the California-Nevada state line in the town of Primm, Whiskey Pete’s hotel and casino is 35 miles from downtown Las Vegas.

In November 1996, Jean Baudrillard traveled to Nevada to headline at The Chance Event at Whiskey Pete’s Casino.

America is not a cultural desert.

I [Chris Kraus] organized The Chance Event for my own reasons. Is there anything that happens, ever, that really matters, that is not a confluence of mutual self-interest? You are not American if you do not believe this. In 1996, I’d left New York for Los Angeles after 15 miserable years of trying to be an experimental filmmaker. I’d started writing I Love Dick, which one year later would be published as my first novel.

Nowhere motels.

Discarded oil drums in a sprawling garbage dump.

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair.

People basked in his [Baudrillard’s] presence, it made them happy to be photographed with him, and to this day there are those who boast about their face-time with Jean Baudrillard, sitting beside him on a Nevada bus or on the roller coaster.

Hear the endless loop of musak in the dentist’s waiting room.

Chance, like Baudrillard himself, would have to be no mere academic conference, no recitation of important concepts.

See the ripped-out pay phones.

There would be divinators, poets, croupiers, butoh-dancers, trip-hop DJs, Indian land rights activists and stock brokers.

Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light.

It would be a highly-structured chaos field with equal time for both philosophers and gamblers.

You feel the blast of heat stepping out onto the parking lot pavement under the arid Nevada sun, leaving the air-conditioned casino.

I set out to create a line-up that would be reflective both of Baudrillardian concepts, and that moment [of the explosion of Masters of Fine Arts programs around southern California as the new Mecca for young wannabe artists in the mid-1990s].

Architectural shapes bounced back from a limousine’s opaque window.

DJ Spooky would travel from New York to give the “Keynote Address” in the form of an ambient trip-hop performance.

Mirrors on the ceiling, pink champagne on ice.

We’d have Diane di Primi, the legendary Beat poet and her partner Shephard Powell, an I Ching divinator.

And she said: We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.

Doug Hepworth traded stocks on Wall Street using chaos theory – what could be more natural?

Some dance to remember, some dance to forget.

Mike Kelley got involved, creating Chance’s gorgeous neo-psychedelic organ poster and forming The Chance Band, that would eventually play back-up to Baudrillard’s prophetic vocals.

Anytime of year, you can find it here.

Since the casino had been built on Indian land, I sought out Calvin Meyers, a nuclear-waste advocate for the Moapa Band of Paiutes.

So I called up the Captain.

Meyers spoke, and led participants on a Sunday morning post-dawn desert walk outside the casino.

Please bring me some wine.

Noise bands Ohm-A-Revelator and Towel came from San Francisco, poet band Homer Erotic came from New York City, and the Butoh company Renzoku would perform and talk.

He said: We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.

Fly ball to left field, Cleon Jones settles under it, catches it, he bends his knees nearly to the ground.

We’d have a professional croupier from the Las Vegas Gambling Academy, Nick Kallos.

You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

Roller blader/mathematician Marcella Greening spoke on chaos theory.

To alleviate the overcrowding of the Parisian higher educational system and the old Sorbonne, a brand new university is constructed in 1965 at Nanterre-la-Folie, a rundown suburb to the west of the City.

The Event took place within the casino’s large black-box theater, but we also rented ten adjoining rooms to set up Hotel California, an ambient, site-specific art show organized by Sarah Gavlak and Pam Strugar.

Baudrillard teaches sociology at Nanterre starting in 1966 (at first as Henri Lefebvre’s assistant).

In it, Mexico City poet Luis Bauz performed an homage to Jean Baudrillard.

Alain Peyrefitte, de Gaulle’s Minister of Education, sends in the police to evacuate the courtyard (after student unrest spreads from Nanterre to the Sorbonne).

Liz Larner did a remarkable autobiographical performance called Learn To Deal, about her brief experience as a casino dealer.

The forces of order on foot are backed up by their Black Maria camions waiting in the street.

The Chance Band took the stage with Baudrillard and he repeated fragments of his lecture but the only words that I recall are Suicide … Suicide Moi.

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. — Albert Camus

For a grand finale, one of the Chance Band members found a box of betting chips backstage and hurled them at the audience and everything erupted in an ecstasy of Free Money.

Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. — Albert Camus

That weekend, a photo of Jean Baudrillard in his gold lame jacket, dwarfed by Chance Band vocalist Amy Stoll in her cocktail waitress outfit, appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times.

All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterward. These are games; one must first answer. — Albert Camus

And Camus answered. ASKED AND ANSWERED, as the trial lawyers say (at least the ones on TV). Read “The Myth of Sisyphus” carefully, and you’ll see that Camus’ argument is watertight. Do you want to live? Camus answered in the affirmative. The answer is that life indeed is worth living. The sense of the absurd that gave rise to the question, to the doubt, is not a static condition. It is a dynamic, a relationship, a gap, a cleft — between my aspirations for a good life and the frustrations of the existing social-existential order of things. This dynamic is the groundswell of creativity.

This is what I (Alan Shapiro) most basically think as a philosopher: every question has two sides to it (a very wise man taught this to me on a Tuesday). Including the question of philosophy’s value. Most people spend their lives making money and engaged in the tweaking of bits and bytes. Philosophy is simultaneously of much greater and of much lesser value than such pursuits. Philosophy is priceless. At the same time it is total bullshit.

In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus makes a sojourn into philosophy, but with that one book he makes his complete reckoning with philosophy. Note that he says that suicide is the one truly serious philosophical problem, not the one truly serious problem of the thought and action and creation of a thinking man, of a man who takes life seriously.

Suicide is the serious problem of Western philosophy, not of Buddhist or Hinduist philosophy, both of which contain answers to that Kierkegaardian fear and trembling already built-in, and go on to other concerns. Suicide and philosophy began with Socrates, at the dawn of Western philosophy. Western philosophy ended with Derrida, who told us what is wrong with it, pointed out its limit. Now it is time to move on to something else, to spread out our wings, to initiate a project within which philosophy will retain an honoured place as a core component.

A new dawn is here. “C’mon baby, take a chance with me.” (Jim Morrison)

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