Elementary Contractions .
Las Vegas is known as being the Sin City of North America and everyone knows that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. This week learn about a group of artists who are working to change this common perception and shed light on the arts and culture that exists in this city. Read on as writer Aneya Fernando takes you along for First Friday in Las Vegas.
Text by: Aneya Fernando Country:USA
hen one thinks of Las Vegas, art is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. The neon lights of the strip, the ringing of slot machines and maybe a scantily clad showgirl is usually what would pop up in your head, along with endless buffets and Elvis impersonators. However, there is one organization that is trying to bring a sense of culture and community back to Las Vegas: First Friday.
First Friday is an outdoor community event that takes place, predictably, on the first Friday of every month. It’s a celebration of music, food and, most definitely, art. First Friday events occur all over the United States and the festivals take on many functions including art gallery openings, social gatherings and even political networking. Many U.S. cities use First Friday to encourage people back into historical neighborhoods that were once perceived as being dangerous and in need of a serious PR makeover. Downtown Las Vegas is one of those places.
The downtown city of Las Vegas was founded in 1905 on Fremont Street. This area had many ‘firsts’: the first telephone, the first hotel, even the first elevator in the city. For years after that, downtown was the heart and soul of Las Vegas. The western end of Fremont Street was frequently used in movies and TV shows to depict the bright lights of Sin City. However by the 1990s, the novelty of downtown had worn off and the nearby Strip, which by then had begun to develop everything from small hotels to mega resorts, was becoming the place to be. Downtown developed a bad reputation and people didn’t feel safe bringing their families to an area known at the time for its homeless population. Since then, downtown has gone through major renovations and First Friday is hoping to bring a whole new clientele to the area.
First Friday recently celebrated its 9th anniversary and it’s still getting bigger, thanks to social networking and strategic online marketing. First Friday in Las Vegas is primarily about art. Although there are local food trucks and live bands that perform throughout the evening – the event runs from roughly 6pm – 12am – the majority of people come for the “art walks” where numerous galleries and artists’ studios are open to the public. The idea is to attract more people downtown and to enrich the art community by pooling all the openings together and creating a monthly event.
Having lived in Las Vegas for the past two years, I had vaguely heard about First Fridays but like so many young people living here, I’d never really ventured downtown. The Strip was always too enticing and I really didn’t give downtown a second thought. Once March rolled around this year, a friend recommended that I check it out. She told me they would be burning a showgirl named Lucky Lady Lucy and it would be a spectacle to see.
So I ventured past the Strip, past the towering Stratosphere, and into an area that seemed to be bursting with new life. There appears to be a counterculture growing and it’s coming from First Friday. Las Vegas can sometimes feel like a very homogenous city in that everyone looks the same, acts the same, goes out to the same hotels, the same restaurants, and the same clubs. The wonder of living in this city fades pretty fast and what you’re left with is an industry and town built on excess, superficiality and sex.
First Friday was a breath of fresh air from the superficiality. It was held away from the staleness of the casinos and the supposed glitz and glamour. With humble people selling food out of trucks, lovingly sharing their artwork, and torching a 20-foot wooden showgirl, what was not to love?
Now, the burning of the showgirl was a new addition to this already hippie-infused event. The idea was inspired by Burning Man, a week long, countercultural event that takes place in the remote Black Rock Desert here in Nevada. Burning Man is an experiment in community, based on radical self-expression and self-reliance. Basically, an entire 50,000-person city is constructed overnight and several principles are adhered to: no cash transactions or commerce allowed, communal effort is a must, and the community members are to “leave no trace” at the end of their stay. On the last night, a wooden effigy is burned as a sign of rebirth.
Obviously, Las Vegas is an urban, metropolitan area and not exactly suited to the burning of an effigy in front of a crowd of thousands. But Joey Vanas, Managing Partner of First Friday, attended Burning Man and was inspired. With the help of Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh, he successfully recreated the city’s first ever burn.
As Vanas told Las Vegas Weekly, “The reason we’re doing First Friday is because I went to Burning Man this year for the first time. Those guys have nailed community like nobody else. We’re trying to figure out how to rebuild a city. These guys build a city in a week every year. The only way you can do that is through cooperation, pride and ownership.”
As I meandered through the crowd that March night, I couldn’t help but feel I was in a different city. Punk, goth, hippie-chic, retro, they were all here. Every type of person you could imagine: young families with babies, senior citizens out for a night on the town, loud teenagers and their friends, and college kids like myself made for spontaneous dancing, drinking, and cheering which could be seen and heard throughout the night.
Although I was too far back to get a good scent of the burn, the communal reaction was evident. The galleries I ventured to were packed with the artists sitting happily in the corner, in awe of the volume of people viewing their work. The lines for the food trucks seemed never-ending and the general feeling was one of community, of celebration and, above all, an invigorating sense of energy.
I have a feeling that the First Friday organizers have nothing to worry about. These events will forever change downtown Las Vegas. They already have.