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July 7, 2022

Two buzzy new attractions reflect the new “immersive” craze | Eat This Now: China Poblano’s beet salad literally pops | Media Sommelier: Reflecting on notable American poet … Marilyn Monroe?

YOU'D TYPICALLY take a hard pass on being in a dark warehouse in Downtown Las Vegas. But here we are at Particle Ink: Speed of Dark, wandering around what looks like a heroin den designed by Roald Dahl, most of us having paid some $50 to enter. We’re being led into an empty back room and someone puts a tablet device into my hand.

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Usually, when this happens, I’m being asked to pay for something. Instead, though, we’re instructed to hold the device up toward the center of the room — and suddenly it’s populated with digital characters. They appear to be more Bad Guys, and as I get closer to them, I wonder how, and if, this level of interaction levels up — mostly because each vignette we’ve witnessed so far has improved upon the one before it. Plus, after a half-hour in a world I’ve never experienced ( Particle Ink’s setting is officially called the 2.5th Dimension), I’m a little disoriented. Are these Bad Guys part of our world … or are we part of theirs?

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Augmented reality, or AR, has rarely lived up to its promise, more often than not a humdrum gimmick for some bigger spectacle. But during Particle Ink, it’s another eyebrow-raiser in an already otherworldly environment. Particle Ink is not quite an attraction, not quite a show, but a bona fide experience. And it’s one of the latest — and best — entries in immersive diversions in Las Vegas. That’s saying something, given how the city has become awash in entertainment that breaks the fourth wall — and then does the unexpected on every other wall.

Here’s an incomplete list of institutions that have gone whole hog to redefine your reality: video game arcades, movie theaters (namely, the 4D auditoriums that turn blockbusters into two-hour thrill rides), museums and art spaces (James Turrell’s AKHOB inside The Shops at Crystals mall, which also hosts a projection-mapped room featuring the artwork of Vincent Van Gogh), live theater (Troy Heard’s Table 8 Productions and Majestic Repertory performance space), escape rooms (Jason Egan’s Blair Witch Project and Saw-themed brainstumpers), and, of course, the sort of a la carte attractions the tourist sector has offered for families since the 1990s (this year’s Arcadia Earth edu-tainment walk-through, and FlyOver, the Strip descendant of Disney’s Soarin’ simulator ride).

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You could even make the argument that the Las Vegas Strip has been an immersion hotbed since the 1960s, when the Aladdin, Caesars Palace and Circus created the fantastical, richly themed resort experience. But rapidly developing technology has pushed us far beyond mere theming and facades. Area 15, which opened to large crowds only six months into the pandemic, has established itself as a hub of interactive/immersive entertainment powered by virtual and augmented reality, infinity mirrors and other encircling mechanisms. The complex is anchored by Omega Mart, a sprawling, psychedelic playground dreamed up by Meow Wolf, a leading innovator in multiverse amusements.

Area1 5 might have been the most obvious fit for Particle Ink, which opened in April at the very nondescript LightHouse on Main Street as a pop-up. But Particle Ink’s producers (which include former creatives from New York’s Sleep No More, Disney Imagineering, and Cirque Du Soleil, as well as The Light Poets from Las Vegas) have brilliantl

y transformed a drab industrial space and have given the Arts District another multi-dimensional, live-entertainment option. And when we say live entertainment, we mean there are real-life actors and performers throughout the show. There’s a parkour dancer, as well as a tarot-card reader and a puppeteer, so Particle Ink clearly has a significant budget.

Particle Ink’s story is based on a Creator who, along with his partner, is grieving the loss of their child. Conjuring up some magic in hopes of reviving their child has some unintended consequences, and from there — well, that’s all you’re getting from me. The less you know, the better, though you should know that you’ll follow along just fine, and you’ll also wander around the entire building’s footprint, sometimes guided and sometimes on your own. Interactive elements and technology abound, and what’s astonishing is how it all comes together to create a moving story about overcoming the darkness inside us and nurturing our inner child. Particle Ink is an hourlong hug of a production, and its sci-fi feels are timed perfectly to combat the horridness of the world.

Another immersive experience opened even more recently, this time on the Strip proper, just south of Circus. Perception Las Vegas calls itself a “digital art museum.” Put another way, it’s a deluxe version of the projection-mapping art shows blanketing the nation. Las Vegas currently has not one, but two attractions based on Vincent Van Gogh (the one at Area 15 also has a program celebrating the paintings of Gustav Klimt). Perception focuses on scholar/architect/artist Leonardo DaVinci.

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There are three rooms to experience Leonardo: The Un ive rsal Man. The pre-show room encourages guests to stand in front of one of six recreations of the Mona Lisa, and each one morphs alongside accompanying audio. Once the guests are properly introduced to DaVinci and the Perception concept, they’re led into a black room with LED panels. The five-minute program, “Painting With Light: The Last Supper,” is less about DaVinci’s famous painting and more an EDM-as-art demonstration. That sounds dismissive, but it was a trip.

The main event is “Grand Salon: Chapters of the Genius' Life,” a half-hour digital-art show that highlights the various accomplishments that made DaVinci a true renaissance man. Like most projection-mapping exhibits featuring the work of canonical artists, “Chapters” tells the DaVinci story using animation, stills, and text blown up on every surface but the ceiling. Unlike, say, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience at Area 15, the expository text is kept to a minimum, thankfully. There are drops and puddles at your feet as rain cascades down the screens next to you. Neon architectural plans float and come to life to form buildings, even put you in the middle of them. At the end, you’re completely surrounded by his paintings. The pixelated digital resolution disappoints, especially when tickets start at $30. The Dolby sound, however, emits the soundtrack loud and clear, and further envelops you in DaVinci’s world. Perception may be a work in progress — even weeks after its grand opening, there was still ongoing construction work, which may hint at expansion and alternative offerings.

With this swerve toward artificial aesthetics, we’d be remiss not to ask a perhaps obvious question: Are attractions with actual physical art dead?

It’s tempting to see Perception and other attractions as a threat to, say, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art or AKHOB or even the fine art assortment flecking the entirety of CityCenter — to say nothing of UNLV’s Barrick Museum just a short Uber ride away. But really, it’s entertainment versus culture. The showmanship of the DaVinci shows are light years away from the tangibility, craft, and pure human accomplishment of, say, the Picassos hanging in his namesake restaurant at Bellagio. Both serve different purposes, and the Venn diagram of attendance likely has a very narrow overlap. MGM and UNLV have clearly made commitments to classic art, and as younger generations burn out on tech and pivot to analog gear such as vinyl records and cameras with film, it’s not unreasonable to think mixed-media collages and sculptures could be next — assuming the bean-counters are willing to pay for it. Then again, casinos that might’ve thrown down for a Hirst or Koons five years ago may opt to invest in a much cheaper — and reprogrammable — digital gallery/attraction.

As Disney has shown since the 1950s, immersive entertainment is an art form in and of itself, however populist, commercial, and unrefined it may be. It’s clearly not going anywhere. Multimedia leisure aligns perfectly with the tourist demand for constant sensory overload and tech-assisted escapades. And as technology develops even further, trust that Las Vegas will keep dreaming up ways to deliver us from an increasingly unnerving reality.

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IT'S 2022 and the last thing I thought I’d be writing about is a beet salad. Beet salads are so passé. Remember how every menu in the ’90s had a stuffed mushroom appetizer, or how kale Caesar salads were such a thing 10 years ago? These dishes aren’t bad — I’d still eat any of them — but it’s all well-traveled territory.

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Same with beet salads. Even China Poblano’s Head Chef Carlos Cruz-Santos admits it: “Everybody does a beet salad.” But not like his. China Poblano focuses on both Mexican and Chinese dishes, with unusual flair and whimsical spirit, so it’s little surprise that Chef Carlos’ beet salad is such a standout. His Ensalada Betabel y Citricos features salt-roasted beets, apple, orange, pea shoots, and pop rocks praline. (More on that in a minute.) It’s finished with a chili-orange dressing and shaved goat cheese. The beets are a combination of golden and sweet red; they’re encapsulated in salt and then roasted for 45 minutes, lending a pleasing chewiness to the sturdy root vegetable. Beet chips add crunch, texture, and volume, and the bright green pea shoots, orange segments, and tart apple bring notes of startling freshness. The chili-orange dressing gives the entire dish a little kick.

But it’s the pop rocks praline — made with roasted walnuts and cocoa butter — that are the highlight. When you get a bite of the hidden praline with a forkful of beets, you’re hit with a surprise fizzy sensation that feels like you’re in on some naughty culinary joke. Sure, you’re an adult because you’re eating a salad, but you’re a kid because you’re eating pop rocks! It’s modern, it’s nostalgic — it’s the most fun, flavorful beet salad you’ll ever eat.

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1. "IT'S GOOD they told me what / the moon was when I was a child / It’s better they told me as a child what it was / for I could not understand it now” begins a piece by well-known American poet … Marilyn Monroe? Elisa Gonzalez, for The Paris Review, sheds light on a charming and unexpected corner of Monroe’s personal life.

Monroe’s once-husband Arthur Miller once described her as “a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.” While Miller sees her as “a poet on a street corner,” in reality she practiced poetry privately. Gonzalez writes, “Published only long after her death by editors who combed the detritus she left behind, they seem to have been part of the rhythm of her private life.

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Gonzalez also presents us with the blonde bombshell’s bookshelf: “Her library contained more than four hundred books, including verse collections by D. H. Lawrence, Emily Dickinson, and Yuan Mei, and an anthology of African American poetry.” Additionally, we learn that the only class Monroe took after leaving high school was a literature course at UCLA. While this biographical information is interesting on its own, the Monroe poems Gonzalez includes in the essay stand alone for their urgency and insight. In her poem “Oh damn I wish that I were dead,” she writes with the wit and gravity of Frank O’Hara; her poem “Life– / I am of both your directions” is, as Gonzalez points out, reminiscent of the “bold apostrophe” that is synonymous with Emily Dickinson’s work.

I am a veteran of — survivor of may be a more accurate term — early Tumblr, where misattributed Marilyn Monroe quotationscould earn thousands of reblogs. After reading more of Monroe’s poetry, I am struck by how viral her actual poetry could have gone. Watch out, Rupi Kaur!

2. Another woman who has posthumously loomed large online is Gabby Petito, aspiring influencer who was murdered by her partner Brian Laundrie last summer. Up front, I will say this: I don’t love true crime, or at least the true crime writing that sensationalizes rather than explores deeper systemic issues that underpin the violence. Kathleen Hale’s “Gabby Petito’s Life With—And Death By—Brian Laundrie”for Vanity Fair too often editorializes, with musings such as, “At times, Brian might have felt uncertain about whether he was Gabby’s boyfriend or her photographer” and “It was easy to picture Brian crouched over her, wondering, as he often did, ‘Did I do something wrong?’” These imposed thoughts on Gabby’s murderer, who is also now dead, give me the ick that most true crime writing does, so why am I suggesting you read this article? You should read this article because when Hale steps out of the way, she tells the reader Gabby and Brian’s story the way they presented it themselves.

In this article, Hale “forensically (examines) Instagram accounts” to weave a story that lived on the internet long before it became national news. Gabby posted their adventures online with the hopes of becoming a #vanlife influencer. Hale writes, “The whole point of the road trip, in (Brian’s) mind, was to isolate Gabby, but thanks to the internet, she was connected to the world.” The article is to crime reporting what found footage horror is to cinema. With 25 footnotes trailing, Hale’s reporting relies on years-old Instagram posts, tweets, and a Spotify playlist. In essence, Hale allows a couples’ digital footprint to tell their story. With its unique style and extensive research, “Gabby Petito’s Life With—And Death By—Brian Laundrie”is a worthwhile read for the age where we are all our own constant biographers.

3. While true crime is not my guilty pleasure, The Bachelor is. Therefore, I was happy to learn that two-time competitor, Becca Tilley, had recently come out at New York City Pride where she introduced her girlfriend, pop singer Hayley Kiyoko. In what could have very well been a standard Q&A with a C-list influencer, Katie Heaney from The Cut conjures deeper questions about identity politics and the influencer economy in “Becca Tilley Gets Her Rose.”

Heaney realizes that a woman coming out is not news — but it is when you come from the institution that is The Bachelor, which she accurately describes as a “prominent heterosexual propaganda machine.” Moreover, Tilley served as a Bachelor stock character on both of her seasons because of “her stance on sex before marriage (in deference to her Baptist upbringing, she was against it).” While Heaney could further pigeonhole Tilley as a conservative reality star gone rogue, she writes sympathetically, reminding the reader of the very real risks associated with publicly coming out. Heaney writes, “If there was ever a brief window in which queerness was not fundamentally threatened in this country (and I’m not sure there was), it has closed.”

And Heaney has  response for fans and friends who questioned why Tilley did not come out sooner: “‘I wasn’t ashamed,’ (Tilley) says, but these questions speak to a troublingly pervasive assumption (among many straight self-proclaimed allies and some queer people too) that to come out in 2022 is easy, straightforward, and even obligatory.” In the aftermath of an unfortunately violent Pride month, I think an influencer coming out and being welcomed to a community is something worth cheering.

4. We started with a poet, so let’s end with one. Mary Jo Bang offers us “The Bread, the Butter the Orange Marmalade” in the latest issue of The New Yorker. “Nothing was what I wanted,” the poem opens. Bang minces no words and plants us within the speaker’s hopelessness (in case the reader is not already hopeless). The poem then launches into six quatrains that paint a domestic scene, hinging on a domestic departure into the philosophical with the lines, placed perfectly in the middle: “That phrase, ‘I couldn’t / care less,’ as if zero were already a viewpoint.”

The scenes from the family’s life continue and lead up to the final line: “It was that kind of season.”

Maybe there is hope in that final word, season. This too shall pass … or will it? Bang casts a harrowed, familiar atmosphere that I think Marilyn Monroe would vibe with. Nick Barnette

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Photos and art: Perception Las Vegas photos courtesy Perception Las Vegas; Particle Ink: Maisato; China Poblano salad: courtesy China Poblano

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