Fifth Street

February 17, 2022

The slacker hangout coffeehouse of yesteryear gets a reboot at Fort Bedlam | Local luminaries achieve a scintillating sainthood in this art show | See Hear Do: Art, theater, dance, and more for your cultural calendar

WHAT KIND of magic is happening at Commercial Center lately? In the past couple years, the historic shopping complex has manifested more downtown mojo than Downtown itself, bristling with an ad hoc mix of eateries, art galleries, shops, venues, and other small businesses perhaps priced out of the decidedly shinier Arts District to the north.

One of Commercial Center’s more recent arrivals is Fort Bedlam. It’s a coffeehouse, but it might be better to describe it as a time warp. If its decor — a riotous pastiche of art, found objects, and rescued furniture — and slummy vibe call to mind the slacker cafés of the ’80s and ’90s, that’s not by accident. Owners Ben Borgman and Chris Connors essentially transplanted their storied spot, Bedlam, from Seattle to Las Vegas after the 2020 pandemic. Note: Fort Bedlam is not “themed” or some kind of stylized tribute. Its scraggly aesthetic is less a calculated design than a declaration of generational identity.

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“I came into coffee culture in the ’80s,” Borgman says. “It’s weird to even say that — ‘coffee culture,’ eew! But that’s the stamp that was on me. I used to go to places like (legendary Seattle cafés) The Last Exit and Café Roma, which were more about the place and the people than they ever were about the coffee. The Last Exit’s coffee was actually quite awful.” From 2008 to 2020, Bedlam continued the tradition in the heart of Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood as a bustling hangout known as much for its punk shows as its pineapple upside-down cake.

“I guess we were a throwback,” Connors says. “Because in the end, it was more about the space. Our coffee was good, but that’s really not enough. People have to have a reason to come in. Because, especially in Seattle, you can get good coffee almost anywhere.”

Fort Bedlam in Commercial Center was originally intended as a second location (thus “Fort”), but between the impacts of the pandemic and the rising costs of running a small business in Seattle, the two decided to shutter Bedlam and start new in Vegas. “We looked at a few spaces, and when we came and looked at this, it was like, okay, it is a strip mall, but it is different,” Borgman says. “It’s way more ‘us’ than that Town Square place.”

Actually, the start isn’t entirely new: Fort Bedlam boasts much of the congenial clutter from its Seattle incarnation, and just about every piece has a story — from the graffittied restaurant booth hailing from various grunge-era Seattle hotspots (and bearing, purportedly, somewhere, Kurt Cobain’s carved initials) to an Edie Sedgwick portrait painted on a drop cloth by notable artist and naturalist Obi Kaufmann. “We put it all in a 28-foot-long truck trailer, and we unloaded it on the hottest day ever in Las Vegas,” Borgman says. (“It was 117!” Connors whimpers in disbelief.)

And, lest you get the wrong impression: The coffee at Fort Bedlam is good, a secret roast that Borgman keeps hush-hush. (By my palate, it’s sturdy, robust, but unfussy.) Connors, whose previous career was on the laboratory side of the pharmaceutical industry, likes to apply his scientific rigor these days to custom-blending their chai, and calls out the drink menu’s lavender mocha, Cherry Bomb (spicy cherry hot chocolate), and hot pink lemonade as some of his finest creations. “If it’s weird,” he says, “it came from me.”

Just, please, resist the urge to request a fancy design on your latte foam. The very idea elicits a good-natured grumble from both of them. “This whole single-origin latte art stuff is what you do if you don’t have anything else to offer,” Borgman says. “It’s like, I have a house. That’s what we do. We do a coffeehouse. We do games and places for people to sit and hang out and meet, we do movie nights. Everybody who comes in here says the same thing: 'Wow, I love this place.' Honestly, I’d rather hear that than, ‘The coffee is good.’”

Fort Bedlam is located in Commercial Center at 900 Karen Ave #A102.

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ON THE GROUND floor of luxury high-rise Juhl last Friday, a glass-front gallery beckoned with the promise of glow-light saints and mingling locals. It was a who’s-who of Vegas’ creative edge, people who know each other, but may not have met in the flesh for two years. The small gallery reverberated light — to be expected, since it was the opening reception for the culminating exhibit of the Neon Museum’s 2021 artist in residence, Gabriel Barcia-Colombo (headline photo). Titled Simulations of The Sacred, Barcia-Colombo’s show applies his signature video sculpture work to regional themes.

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Just inside the door, I stand mesmerized by “Vegas Vickie Nicho,” a container a bit larger than a shoebox holding a digital version of local influencer Laci Ceronne dressed as a cowgirl, with not a lot of fabric but a whole lot of fringe. She’s on the right-hand wall, sharing space with “Vegas Vic Nicho,” embodied by artist Brent Holmes. The revolving figures gesture, make faces, tense, and relax. Vickie takes her wig off and puts it back on again. Vic smokes and postures, his box occasionally erupting in flames. Their small size and high-definition detail make them slightly unnerving, as if they might soon escape their containers.

Traditional nichos are mixed-media altar displays, typically framing statues of saints. Barcia-Colombo’s interpretation of the form is wall-mounted boxes, lined — as is customary — with ornate tin frames. He adds an edging of neon, replaces the Virgen de Guadalupe with a hologram-like avatar of someone you may have run into recently on the grass at Fergusons, and the result is surreal. “I didn’t want to make Brooklyn art here in Vegas,” Barcia-Colombo, a Brooklyn-based artist, says in his opening remarks. And so, he inhabited his nichos with local artists and creatives, effectively sainting them in the process.

On the left side of the gallery’s main space is “Temptation in Paradise Pink,” two white neon figures lounging in opposite directions, holding their pink neon phones above them. Between them sits a green neon snake. “I identify most with the snake,” Barcia-Colombo says.

What’s most striking about this piece is that a pink neon rectangle is so easily recognizable as a phone, the strange angle the figures are holding them at making it clear, from just a glowing outline, that they’re taking pictures of themselves. “Are they sexting? Are they on a Zoom call together?” Barcia-Colombo says. “Does it matter anymore how we communicate with each other in space?”

A small room in the back is lit fiery pink by the neon framing a piece titled, “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” It’s a 12-minute portrait of Heidi Rider, a local artist and clown, transforming into and back out of the Elvis persona she assumes to marry couples at Sure Thing Wedding Chapel. It feels like she is both performing for me and doesn’t know I’m there, and the experience of standing in that room, my own face also pink-lit, is as voyeuristic as it is ethereal.

Barcia-Colombo has a knack for this combination. “All my work is about technology and how we relate to each other through technology,” he says. A professor in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, his work often combines tangible, built objects with virtual people, and sometimes has an interactive element.

An example of this is “Holy Roller,” an AI piece in the shape of a slot machine. Barcia-Colombo fed 500,000 inspirational quotes into it, then programmed it to intelligently generate new ones at the pull of a slot machine lever. I get “Finding The Truth Hurts Every Day” and “Two Words Are Enough,” which both seem pretty appropriate for a writer.

The collection’s use of the sacred fascinates me, as I’ve often thought of our rapt belief in technology as today’s most prevalent religion. Barcia-Colombo’s work simultaneously brings up important questions about technology use and encourages its perpetuation — it’s among the most Instagrammable shows I’ve seen. Still, there’s an intuitive truth in comparing a place of art to a place of worship, and the reverence I feel when interacting with the physical form of any artist’s intelligence and creativity is amplified here by the sheer immersiveness of Barcia-Colombo’s work. No phone recording could truly depict this experience. You have to be there to soak in it.

Simulations of the Sacred is viewable Thursday-Saturday, noon to 6pm, and by appointment, until February 26. The installation is located 353 E. Bonneville Ave. The entrance is on 4th St., and the space is wheelchair accessible.

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The Desert Sea
Feb. 23-26
Art exhibit

It’s a looong way from New Zealand to the Mojave Desert, but perhaps not as long as you think: The four artists behind The Desert Sea can’t help but note striking parallels between the two geographies. Collectively known as Grüüp, artists Matthew Couper, JK Russ, Maryrose Crook, and Brian Crook (portrayed in the headline art) originally hail from New Zealand but now call the Southwest home, and they collapse and intermingle those parallels in this exhibit that considers the desert as oceanic and the sea as a mountainous landscape. (Right, "Deep Sea Dance" by JK Russ.) Not just visually: In addition to haunting evocations of place in paintings, collage, and sculpture, The Desert Sea will also feature an immersive soundscape to complete this virtual journey. For an extra dose of cosmic transport, be sure to attend the closing reception for a mask-making session, a mini-parade, and rousing performance by psyche-noir band The Renderers. Andrew Kiraly

Closing reception 6p Feb. 26, free, ASAP Available Space Art Projects, 900 Karen Ave. #C-214, availablespaceartprojects.com

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Transformance
Feb. 17
Film screening and dialog

“Everything that we experience changes us,” artist Rose B. Simpson says, in the trailer to documentary film Transformance. “In our ancestral homeland, we have navigated a lot of powerlessness. How do we use an experience to transform us?” That’s the question that guided Simpson’s two-week residency at Nuwu Art + Activism Studios in Las Vegas, culminating in a live performance last November. After living and working with local Southern Paiutes — and to draw attention to the land-back movement — Simpson, her daughter, and five performers donned traditional regalia and led a procession around Huntridge Circle Park, a supposedly public place about a block from Nuwu Art that has been closed to the public for several years. Filmmaker Ben-Alex Dupris and Nuwu Art owner Fawn Douglas will join Simpson following the premiere to discuss the film and the project. Heidi Kyser

4-5p, free, online, register here

Recent Tragic Events
Feb. 4-21
Theater


Tell me if this scenario strikes a chord: Despite an unfolding national crisis, a woman decides to go through with a first date. But because of said crisis, she and her date get stuck, along with a family member whose flight is grounded, insider her apartment. This is the premise of Craig Wright’s drama, Recent Tragic Events, being presented by A Public Fit Theatre Company with Erik Amblad directing. The plot — familiar though it sounds—doesn’t center around the COVID pandemic, but around 9/11, providing the framework for an examination of human connection, fate, and free will. Just goes to show: “recent” is ongoing. HK

2p and 7p, The Usual Place, $35-$40, apublicfit.org

The Proletariat
Feb. 18-26
Theatre

Writer-director Ernest Hemmings, best known for his performance art collective TSTMRKT, has revived his 2013 dark comedy The Proletariat for a limited run at The Playhouse LV, home of Poor Richard’s Players. I haven’t seen the show, which explores office workers’ futile attempts at labor justice, since its original run, but if memory serves me, it’s even more relevant today, post-Great Resignation, than it was eight years ago. And if it’s true to Hemmings’ usual style, seeing this play will invoke that time your older brother held you down and tickled you till you threw up. Funny, not funny. HK

8p, The Playhouse LV, $10-$20, theplayhouselv.com/proletariat

Kinetic Languages

Feb. 25-26
Dance

In an era when we communicate through memes, emoji, Tik Tok videos and other disembodied digitalia, it can be easy to overlook our original tool for self-expression: our actual bodies. *walrus-slaps you with my flailing torso as an example* The UNLV Dance Department hasn’t forgotten the demonstrative power of our all-too-analog meat suits. In this performance, UNLV Dance faculty and select guest artists explore the idea of dance as a language of motion. In other words, you are the emoji, starchild! AK

7:30p Feb. 25 and 26, 2:30p Feb. 26, UNLV’s Judy Bayley Theatre, $18, unlv.edu/pac

Representation Matters
Through March 3
Art exhibit

For Black History Month, Las Vegas artist Q’shaundra James curated a collection of works by 18 local artists, from a range of backgrounds and experience levels — all answering the question of what it means to Black. James’ own work explores African American portrayal and self-image through paintings of figures with veils draped over and around them. Announcing the show, Clark County Commissioner William McCurdy said, “It is imperative that we have representation in every facet of our lives. It’s an honor to display, view, and appreciate these pieces from such artistic community members.” HK

7:30a-5:30p daily, free, Rotunda Gallery at the Government Center, 702-455-8685, clarkcountynv.gov

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Photos and art: Fort Bedlam by Christopher Smith; Gabriel Barcia-Colombo and Simulations exhibit photos courtesy Neon Museum; Proletariat courtesy TSTMRKT; Transformance courtesty Nuwu Art; Kinetic Languages courtesy UNLV Dance

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