Fifth Street

March 25, 2021

In this issue: The Cosmic Capers of Area15 | Follow That Photographer! | Unpacking the Clark County Lands Bill | This Quarantine Cuisine is Shame-ilicious!


THERE'S NEVER BEEN a sufficient elevator pitch for the off-Strip entertainment complex Area15. Back when it was announced in 2018, the complex’s founders tried all sorts of ways to paint the place as a futuristic mall. When it opened last September, Area15 finally revealed itself to be more of a psychedelic entertainment complex with a few art installations, food and beverage options, and niche shopping spots. That’s still a mouthful, and one that would hardly drive attendance. Had anyone asked, I might’ve offered “the black-lit lovechild of Dave & Busters and Burning Man.”

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In reality, Area15 was always most talked up as the future home of the next Meow Wolf exhibition, Omega Mart, which wasn’t ready for September’s grand opening. Fast forward six months later, and Meow Wolf is introducing itself to Las Vegas just as infection numbers are diving and visitation on the Strip is escalating. It was great timing for all involved. Not only does the Sante Fe art collective’s Omega Mart solidify the Area15 concept, it essentially completes the compound despite a few remaining additions to come (more on those in a bit).

You can’t describe Omega Mart without a primer on Meow Wolf. Senior Creative Producer Marsi Gray recently told KNPR’s State of Nevada that the collective was “a social impact art project that fuels business and a business that fuels a social impact art project.” That might look good on a grant application, but what has attracted millions to its New Mexico exhibit is the way its Disney-like worldbuilding and non-traditional storytelling completely envelop and transport its audience. Meow Wolf is one of the many practitioners of immersive entertainment, a cultural evolution that has changed the way people experience art, movies, live music, attractions and, yes, the Strip. No longer can museums just hang paintings or amusement parks rehash the traditional log flume. With the millennial generation putting a premium on experiential, Instagram-ready diversions — and developing technology at a pace that could give Silicon Valley whiplash — entertainment must serve as a DeLorean speeding into another world that blocks any real-life sightlines. This is why Disney spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a 20-minute Star Wars ride, and why every single square inch of the expansive Omega Mart helps tell the story of its multidimensional universe.

The Area15 anchor starts at a brightly lit supermarket, filled with send-ups of nearly every major grocery item — all goods you can actually buy, from mints disguised as aspirin to potato chip bags that are actually throw pillows. Once you’re done guffawing at Meow Wolf’s winking commentary on capitalism (not for nothing was this concept revived in Las Vegas), you’ll eventually stumble upon one of several portals taking you to the back-end operations of the fictional DramCorp, which, according to the story, has moved far afield from the vision of late founder Walter Dram.

There’s no logical order to experiencing the 59 other unique spaces of Omega Mart, and the attraction’s Pynchonesque backstory is at best something to piece together, should you even bother. Some of the set pieces, corridors, and adjoining rooms are more abstractions than narrative devices. To that end, a two-story desert with a projection-mapped box canyon is a whole mood, down to the soundtrack by ambient composer Brian Eno. On the other end, there’s the Factory — the primary focus of Meow Wolf Art Director and native Las Vegan Spencer Olsen (one of the dozens of local artists that contributed to Omega Mart) — which unveils DramCorp’s unconventional manufacturing of the market’s products. Crawlspaces, laser harps, and a trio of spiral slides round out this very hands-on otherworld. If you’ve done Omega Mart right — and there’s no wrong way to do it — you’ve killed about 90 minutes.

So now what? What else is on the docket at Area15? More interactive immersion!

You knew there were going to be infinity mirror rooms — the now-omnipresent creation of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama that has replaced the escape room as the trend-gone-overboard of the attractions/museum industry. Area15 actually has no escape rooms, but eight variations of infinity rooms, including one in Omega Mart.

Museum Fiasco is essentially another infinity room — a 5,000-square-foot gallery box covered in mirrors, but it’s not the endless yous, thems, and galactic bulbs that define the experience. Current exhibit “Cluster” is a sensorial bath of rumbling sound and pulsating lights that recreates a German techno club, minus the ketamine and open fornication.

The remaining six are just next door at Wink World, the brainchild of Blue Man Group co-founder Chris Wink. Instead of entering a disco ball turned inside out, you tour a series of portals, each with an open window. In front of you are the mirrors. On either side of you are speakers blasting out what my mother might call “acid rock.” And above you are neon-fluorescent toys that look like they came out of a 25-cent vending machine at Big Lots. One plus: At Museum Fiasco (right) and Wink World, your selfies are never interrupted by an impatient docent hovering 45 seconds into your room visit.

Area15 is also all-in on another experiential phenomenon du jour: virtual and augmented reality. For those who need some connection to the real world, Particle Quest and Brainstorm are the two augmented reality options. The latter uses a HAL-like host and your facial expressions to generate response patterns on the wall. (Open the pod bay door of your minds or the talking computer goes into insult comic mode.) On the VR front: Birdly is a flight simulator that requires you to lay atop a bird-like contraption and flap your plastic wings. There’s a missed Hitchcockian opportunity here, but the family-friendly mandate seemingly in place at Area15 means your goggles keep you high above Manhattan. Meanwhile, OZ Experience syncs your headset point-of-view video to a gamer’s chair to create a roller coaster-like experience. Your equilibrium may vary.

For an experience that actually moves, Area15 actually has the first indoor overhead electric glider in the country. Haley’s Comet pits you against another rider as you both lap around the compound, zipline-style, at about eight miles an hour, which still feels faster than driving through a school zone. It’s my favorite non-Meow Wolf attraction at Area15.

There are also millennial standbys like axe-throwing, virtual golf, and a barcade. And if you don’t want to drink your craft beer to the sounds of clanking air-hockey pucks and boinging Super Marios, you can glug it under a striking, 23-foot-high LED tree at the de facto center bar, Oddwood (right). On the food front, Todd English has a multi-cuisine restaurant concept called The Beast. L.A.’s Lost Spirits Distillery will give you another booze ‘n’ food option come spring. Area15 will also soon host the touring Van Gogh projection-mapping exhibit at its Portal venue and build out a four-acre festival grounds outdoors.

It’s at this point I should inform you that the longer you stay, the considerably lighter your wallet will become. To put it bluntly: Area15 is hella spendy. Meow Wolf alone will set two local adults back $70, or $130 for a family of four. And if you were to add in a few of the other a la carte attractions — and throw down for a meal at the Beast — well, those stimulus funds will come in quite handy. We don’t discourage a date night at Area15. Just brace yourself for steakhouse-level sticker shock. Or spread your experiences out over multiple visits. However you work it out: You and your peeps are aching for some revelry off the Zoom grid. There’s nothing like coming off a year of hard adulting and finding your way back to the jungle gym. And Area15 has some of the best playtime on offer.

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WANT TO ADD some snap and sizzle to your Insta feed? Or perhaps you need some last-minute inspiration for this year's "Focus on Nevada" photo contest? These local photographers — from working journalists to street documentarians to visual artists — offer fresh visions of Las Vegas and beyond.

JOHN LOCHER
@locherphoto

Long a mainstay in local photojournalism — first at the Review-Journal, now with AP — Locher imbues your feed with strong topical bass notes. Political and sporting events, disasters — he shoots it all. But his aren’t meat-and-potatoes news snaps. Locher matches impeccable technique with an artist’s eye. Check his image from a local Trump rally, the one with a face shadowed on a Gadsden flag amid the MAGA milling-about: It’s once documentary and poetic, and, like many others, rewards a slow, thoughtful look.

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MIKAYLA WHITMORE
@mikaylawhitmore

Whitmore is a prominent local artist (and occasional DC contributor), and her Instagram account is best viewed as a kind of working sketchbook. She continually switches modes, from casual snaps to the documentary to the artistically complex, and these juxtapositions impart the sense that you’re watching her think through ideas and techniques, probing even mundane images for something latent within: What is this tattered flag, hanging open like a smile, trying to tell us?

RICK R.L.
@rick.rl

His Insta tagline is “Documenting the Streets,” and there certainly is a palpable frontline urgency to Rick R.L.’s photos from various local social-justice protests. No fancy aesthetics here, no self-branding, no journalistic distance — just unambiguous, unflinching glimpses of the real lives of this city’s communities of color. But he hits plenty of other notes, too: celebrations of POC life and deeply felt portraits of people who are too rarely reflected in the dominant images of the city.

CLAUS SCHMIDT
@lvelectrified
@lvelectrified_bw

Like many in the 702, Schmidt is smitten by neon, which, hey, cool. But amid the bright lights he shoots the big city, his streetscapes exalting the real Las Vegas without cloying into bleh boosterism; there’s a sly commentary about the contours of human achievement in his shot of a Downtown construction site with snow-topped mountains behind. And bless his dogged attempts to find a unique slant on such clichés as the Lou Ruvo building and Big Rig Jig. On his black-and-white channel, Schmidt emphasizes portraits, abstractions, and offbeat compositions.

NORMA JEAN ORTEGA
@normajeanortega

Because photography is an art of excerpted moments, it most often highlights moments of drama or overt meaning. Ortega’s Insta feed, a mix of her professional and personal photos, achieves an affecting sense of the dailiness of life in Las Vegas. A couple kissing in Sunset Park; offhand scene-grabs of local musicians; a portrait series centering Black women of achievement. The easygoing intimacy of her photos comes off as real, not as an influencer’s strategic decision.

STETSON YBARRA
@stetson.ybarra

These hero shots of big Western landscapes — sweeping desert views intensified by top-notch photographic razzmatazz — provide an epic mood-board for your fantasies of post-vaccination travel. Based in Las Vegas, Ybarra — a past winner in our “Focus on Nevada” photo contest — shoots locally and around the West, from California to New Mexico and every charismatic rock formation in between. Until you can leave your squalid pandemic shame hole (or is that just us?), these photos will reassure your quarantine-sozzled brain that there is indeed a world worth going back to.

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The Clark County public lands bill has divided the environmental community since the county introduced it in 2018. Its latest iteration, introduced in Congress this month by U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, is less controversial than previous versions, but still doesn’t have unanimous support. While several conservation nonprofits have lauded it as an effective compromise to accommodate growth and protect sensitive species and their habitats, others have openly decried it as enabling sprawl or just kept quiet altogether. Leaders of two groups, with different perspectives on the legislation, sat down to talk it over. Here’s part of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

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Grace Palermo: I'm the Southern Nevada Programs Director for Friends of Nevada Wilderness, and we've been involved in the process of this bill's creation for many years. Our biggest priority for four-plus years now has been keeping the Desert National Wildlife Refuge protected, and this bill would do that. So, we're excited that fight could be over.

Jim Stanger: And I’m the board president of the Friends of Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area (NCA). Our involvement with the bill began about three years ago, when the county had a meeting with some local stakeholders in the conservation community and filled us in on what their plans were. After some subsequent feedback, there was a period of time where draft of the bill was kind of out there somewhere, and then it appeared magically last week, when it was introduced to Congress. Some of the feedback that we initially gave, we noticed, wasn’t in there.

Heidi Kyser: Related to that, Jim, your group recently issued a statement expressing concern about several things in the bill, including the proposed disposal boundary expansion. For people unfamiliar with the lingo, what is that?

Jim Stanger: A major part of this bill is the expansion of the disposal boundary, the imaginary line around the county in which all development — industrial, commercial, residential — happens. The county is looking to expand the disposal boundary in many areas around the county edge, but most of the acreage where the growth and expansion would happen is south of town, along Interstate 15 near the old Sloan Township, in the Jean (/Roach) Dry Lake Bed and Hidden Valley areas.

Heidi Kyser: And how does it affect you?

Jim Stanger: If this development actually happens in the years ahead, the (Sloan Canyon) NCA and especially the North McCullough Wilderness inside it, will be surrounded on many different sides by development. How that affects the natural and cultural resources in an untrammeled area like the North McCullough Wilderness is unknown. But based on current visitation and usage, there could be significant growth in graffiti, land disturbances, (garbage) dumping, issues like that, that are already prominent in areas where the NCA is bordered by development.

Heidi Kyser: I'm sure that there are people who are going to read this and think, “You got NCA designation. Your area is protected. What more do you want?”

Jim Stanger: I understand that point of view. But there's a new challenge ahead; these national conservation areas are managed as though they're outside of town, away from urban areas. But we’re next door to a lot of residents in Henderson and Clark County. And, indeed, I think maybe some of our civic leaders think of Sloan Canyon not as a place to be conserved but as something akin to a city park. That's a concept that a lot of us in the conservation community are having to challenge. All of our community outreach is about letting folks know that an NCA is not a city park, and it really shouldn't be treated as a city park, even though there are trails in the area, and opportunities to have fun and relax in a public lands setting. Its primary management is for conservation, to protect the natural and cultural resources.

Heidi Kyser: Grace, since Jim brought up conservation groups like yours and his, I wonder how you feel about this development going right up to the edge of a protected area.

Grace Palermo: Yeah, the points that Jim raises about development right up to the NCA are really important, and there are different issues for protected lands that are near urban areas from those that aren't, because of all the impacts and how they get mitigated. We absolutely agree with that and look forward to continue working on those areas where we can make improvements.

Heidi Kyser: What are the opportunities within this particular process to, as you say, continue working on those issues?

Grace Palermo: This legislation has been circulating in different forms for years, but right now, we're at the very beginning of the legislative process. So, the bill will be subject to committee hearings in both chambers of Congress, and there is a lot of opportunity to still voice all of our concerns to our members of Congress. It has a ways to go until it is finally a law.

Heidi Kyser: From both a practical and philosophical standpoint, how do you add a needed layer of protection to an area that's already protected? I've lived in Southern Nevada for 17 years, and people have been talking about a buffer zone around Red Rock for as long as I can remember. It seems like that particular problem was solved in part in this bill, by adding two proposed new wilderness on the edge of the Red Rock NCA. But, taking the development perspective, what's the point of drawing a line if you're just gonna keep adding layers around it?

Jim Stanger: Yeah, I can see why somebody would say that. The lines are there to be respected. That's what lines are for. And indeed, the enabling legislation for Sloan Canyon does not make any accommodations for buffers. Our concern is that current management of the area is predicated on visitation coming from a few key entry points. If there's development in Hidden Valley, there'll be practical reasons why people want to create new entries. Like now, people say, “How come I can't ride my bike from Hidden Valley to Inspirada?” Well, there's a wilderness area in the middle. This is a new situation in the West. And it calls for a new way of thinking about public lands conservation.

Heidi Kyser: Do you have suggestions?

Jim Stanger: We've got some solutions in mind that we’re discussing with fellow conservation partners, city commissioners, our congressional delegation, to see if they’re reasonable and realistic ideas that can be included. We're not experts at this kind of thing. We are a ragtag band of folks that's like picking up litter at Sloan or maintaining the trails, things like that. This is new to us. So we're engaging with partners, doing some research, and making sure that if we're raising these red flags, we also bring solutions to the table.

Grace Palermo: Yeah, with wilderness being our main issue, we know that wilderness does not have a buffer zone. It's great when you can transition from a city or some other type of development into somewhere more outdoorsy, and then to these really remote and protected areas. But even without a buffer zone, having that line on the map is really important, because it protects those areas. And it prevents the developments of residential areas, oil and gas, or even big renewable energy projects. So even though we can't have that buffer zone, it is still important to have that line on the map. The issue is, as Jim mentioned, if there’s easy access … it’s really important to manage those areas to keep them as they are.

Jim Stanger: It involves also talking to the county and getting the county to perhaps change their viewpoint on what a buffer zone would be. That's worked in the past with the City of Henderson. After Sloan Canyon NCA was designated in 2002, they recognized the value of it. There were some high-density residential developments planned right against the border. But the City of Henderson was very proactive in creating what they call an Open Spaces and Trails program, which is a sort of zoning program that says basically, okay, there'll be a sort of a transition zone, where we won't allow high-density development of any kind. … Our worry is, that  program is not really legislated. It's not set in stone, so it could be changed in the future.

Heidi Kyser: You've both mentioned the conservation community, and that community isn’t unified in its support for, or opposition to, this bill. Is it possible for groups to get what they want in it, such as wilderness areas, and groups that don't get what they want, such as protection for Hidden Valley’s Desert Tortoise habitat, to agree and still fight for the common good? or has this created a permanent fissure?

Grace Palermo: I think that we all have our different priorities and goals and can work on a lot of different things as a larger community. We often go to Sloan Canyon and help with on-the-ground stewardship and trail work and things like that. We find things that unite us where we can and understand that we won't always agree, especially on issues that are complex, like this bill, and that's okay. Our hearts are all still in the right place.

Jim Stanger: Agree, definitely. … The process that led to the introduction of this legislation is a tried-and-true process. It's a process that involves, perhaps, doing what some think of as horse-trading, that says, “Hey, we'd like to grow and develop our community, and in exchange, we will preserve some other areas as an offset.” With this initiative, there are plenty of offsets, but it's also threatening an area that's already been set aside. It’s a new style of threat that we're looking to address.

Heidi Kyser: Climate change is one of those greater-good issues that unites groups like yours. If the Earth is burning and drowning in its own filth, all the NCAs and wilderness areas in the world won’t do any good. Do you both agree that this bill does a good job of addressing that overarching issue of climate change?

Grace Palermo: This bill does protect nearly 2 million acres of land, some really incredible places. That is a really good step in the right direction. But it's also a part of a larger process. So we aren't going to say, “You know, hey, here's one bill. And this is how we're addressing climate change.” There's also the All In Clark County and Transform Clark County processes and a lot of other pieces that go into that. We have to keep being involved and voicing our concerns and making sure that people know what's going on, and how to speak up for what they care about. And that, of course, includes climate change.

Jim Stanger: Definitely, and we're eager to see these new wilderness areas designated. These are areas that some organizations have been fighting for, for a long time, and they're worthy of protection. We do have constituents that are asking us to speak more about these larger issues, the potential for greater traffic, air pollution, CO2 emissions, these larger climate change issues. We really aren't experts at that. But we do hope that conversation happens, that there's still time and room for our community to talk about what growth and development looks like … to make sure that if we go down this road and expand more, we're doing it with our eyes open, knowing what the alternatives are, and making the best choice for the future. We'll make sure that our constituents know about it and can be part of that conversation.

Heidi Kyser: Is there anything that you two want to ask each other or say to each other about this issue?

Jim Stanger: There's a part of me that is a little bitter, that these threads weren't recognized early on, but we could have been louder beforehand, during the feedback process. Friends Of Nevada Wilderness crushes it on a daily basis for public lands and wilderness. They're doing what they need to do to protect public lands and ensure that there are open spaces available for folks to have fun in, and we're their biggest fans.

Grace Palermo: Yeah, I just say thank you, to you, Jim, because these concerns you're raising are very important and very valid, and we need to continue to help address those concerns.

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AS THE VAX rolls out and we shamble forth from our Zoom-lit caves, I find myself marveling with more than a bit of simmering envy at those who leveraged the lockdown as a cocoon for reinvention and renewal — the people who took classes, launched businesses, learned new skills, or otherwise emerged slightly shinier and happier than before. Yeah, props, you a beast, whatever.

Me? I’m a quaranbarrassment. I confess that I largely spent my pandemic year in a glog of stasis, sloth, and morbidly sentimental solipsism whose logo might be the whirly Netflix loading icon. Mine was a Groundhog Day director’s cut of didn’ts. During lockdown, I didn’t get ripped with kettlebell workouts, didn’t pen a poignant and perceptive COVID novel, didn’t read as many books as I’d hoped, didn’t even learn how to make f#$@*!! pivot tables in Excel.

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I did eat a lot, though, and badly. So, from my own imagined need for some kind of public reconciliation to account for time viciously misspent, I offer the dubious — yet undeniably tasty! — fruits of my far-too-frequent forays into pando blues stoner comfort cuisine. My culinary motto: f#$@*!!  Excel pivot tables.

Try one of these recipes any time it’s 11:47 on an angsty, fretful weeknight and you need just one more distractive dopamine hit to propel you forward on your own desperate personal hedonic treadmill that teeters perilously on the edge of The Void. Enjoy!

’Murica Nachos
Make nachos with all the fixings, but use Triscuits instead of tortilla chips.

“This is fine” Chicken Parmesan (headline photo)
Bake up some frozen chicken nuggets. Make pasta with the sauce of your choice. Mix in the chicken nuggets. It’s like a completely acceptable lonesome microwave chicken Parm in every whimpering, guilt-ridden bite!

Ham ‘n’ Cheese Donutwich
Make a ham ‘n’ cheese sandwich but use a sliced donut for the bread. If you’re feeling especially fancy, by which I mean dissociative anxiety, butter the donut slices and warm the sandwich in the oven before eating while continually refreshing your Facebook feed in a numb compulsion loop.

SouPasta (tm)
Canned soup is just sauce with a successful solo rebranding campaign. Spittin' truth up in here! Anyway. Make pasta. Heat up a can of broccoli-cheese soup. Mix it in with the cooked pasta and, voila, you have a shockingly edible downticket alfredo-type situation on your mouth's hands.

Pairs well with Googling how to remove Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle from your “Watch It Again” list as you prepare to welcome family and friends into your home this spring.

HOWEVER! Dinner Cereal
Why do I call this HOWEVER! Dinner Cereal? Read on. Make a bowl of cereal for dinner. HOWEVER! After you pour your milk, add a generous splash of flavored coffee creamer on top for a taste that turns breakfast into dinner into dessert in one thrilling, morally vertiginous swoop.

Breakfast Burrito of Inertial Resignation
Butter a warm flour tortilla. Make a pancake, a fried egg, and bacon. Place them on the tortilla, drizzle with syrup, roll, and eat while glumly avoiding anything resembling productive self-reflection. *kisses fingers*

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Photos and art: Area15: Omega Mart and Museum Fiasco photos courtesy of Meow Wolf, Oddwood by Anthony Mair; conservation photo by Christopher Smith; quarantine dishes by Christopher Smith

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