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Desert Companion

Buy it use it break it fix it: On The Cosmopolitan's sculptures

Should we scold tourists for crawling on our Strip sculptures? No. Instead, let's give them the interactive art they want



You may have read accounts about tourists climbing over the elaborately detailed, six-foot-tall, cast-plastic woman's high-heeled shoes on the second floor of The Cosmopolitan, posing and mugging inside the outsized footwear. It causes a lot of laughter, but also a little worry. After all, they're formal sculpture - California artist Roark Gourley's, to be exact. Should tourists really be touching it?

Gourley's sculpture are set adjacent to another sculpture designed to encourage play. It looks like an oversized steampunk periscope. It's made of beautifully textured tin and steel, covered in knobs and dials. The periscope faces what looks like another element of the piece, a small column also studded with knobs and dials, about 40 feet down the hall from the periscope. Why is one element of the sculpture set so far away from the rest of it?

On one of my recent trips there, a mom and dad with some kids peeked through the periscope's eyepiece. At first glance, the view shows what looks like a grainy film loop of people walking, maybe a clip from a '20s silent movie.

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"It's here!" said one of the kids. The eyepiece view showed a live scene from the hall where we stood - but not what was in front of the periscope. The four or five of us had to position ourselves carefully all around the hallway to locate what view of the hall was reflected in the eyepiece. The piece had given us an excellent reason to say howdy to each other. Thanks to this art, some strangers had had some social fun.

That's not the kind of experience we expect to find in a traditional art gallery. An art gallery is traditionally a contemplative space. The most universal art gallery rule is: Don't touch. But we would have been deceived about the intent of the periscope had we not studied it from as close up as we could, instead of from a respectful distance.

In every way, casino design is intended to distract us from sober contemplation. Casinos are designed to make us feel literally playful. The design of a casino fails if it does not lead us to start punching the bet bar on a slot machine, or lay some chips on a table.

Can it be a proper response to good art to want to climb on it? Can something be art if the artist's intent is to make us want to climb on it? Yes - and that's what Strip art should be and should expect to become: suited for interaction, a part of an environment engineered for hands-on play. Those tourists crawling on Gourley's high-heel sculpture aren't to be written off as rubes or philistines. They're responding in a small way to an implicit invitation on which a billion dollars has been spent in the average new casino, suggesting this is precisely what they should do in a casino.

The potential aesthetic sophistication of art that calls for such direct engagement is no less than that of traditional art. Such work is the focus of interest of the French art critic Nicolas Bourriard. In 1998, he offered a description of a new school of art, which he called Relational Aesthetics. Simply put, this form of art aims at creating an environment that gets people to do something together or talk to each other. I think Steve Wynn anticipated this notion sometime in the '80s, in a speech in which he explained how he designed casinos. He said, "How do you create an intimate space for 10,000 people?" Who would argue common ground shared by both Steve Wynn and a French art critic? Bourriard critiques discrete pieces of art or performance. A website that starts social transactions and creates community can be contained in his art theory. Wynn's palette is the entirety of a casino. Both of them suggest there is a form of art particularly appropriate for casinos.

The Droog store at the Cosmopolitan has an odd location. At first glance, the Dutch-design furniture and accessory outlet looks like a generic gift shop. But why is it set at the very front of the casino, where its display windows face the sidewalk in front of the Cosmopolitan? Square foot by square foot, frontage on the Strip has been, for a good while, the most expensive land on the planet. Why would you set a common gift shop there? In the place of honor in front of the Droog store, in the center of the window facing the Strip, is a plain-looking steel bench, maybe 10 feet long. In a tray where the bench pad might be, are a lot of marbles. The marbles slide in the tray, the person sitting on the marbles slides with them - and whoever else is sitting on the bench will catch a bump.

Designed by Nina Farkache, the piece is called the "come a little bit closer bench." Like the periscope, it's designed to create a shared social experience between strangers - by encouraging a form of physical play. It's appropriate art for a casino, and it points the way to a kind of art whose ethos fits the sensibility of the Strip.

When tourists sit, crawl, touch and play on our Strip art, they know what they're doing. They are anticipating the fun they'll have later when they hit a slot machine.

Las Vegas artist Anthony Bondi has been designing interactive pieces for Burning man since 1996.

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