ARC Fellows: Fieldwork in Las Vegas
Submitted by our 2018 ARC Fellow Team:
Gabriella Willenz & Asma Kazmi (Art Practice)
In March 2018, Asma Kazmi and Gabriella Willenz went to Las Vegas for artistic research utilizing the ARC Fellowship funds. For Kazmi, this trip was an expansion of the ideas she has been pursuing in her work called Cranes and Cube, which maps the radically changing sites and topographies of various cities of the Persian Gulf region. For Willenz, an interest in locating systems of power and studying a city steeped in the binarily oppositional forces of the religious and the secular became an impetus for this trip.
Our challenge was the profusion of visions of Las Vegas in mass media. How do we say something new about a city when it is so heavily photographed and imagined? Our approach involved looking not only at the architectural style and symbolism around the strip, but to veer off into examining religious communities nearby for generating new systems of thinking about the public and private spheres of Las Vegas. We were thinking of reading the city as a palimpsest—a mode of observation which considers simultaneous strata of information to locate the social/political/religious desires of communities that inhabit and visit the city.
We found that in Las Vegas, the discernable overlaps between the producers, laborers, and consumers of the entertainment culture, and the patrons of the mosques and synagogues formed networks that intermeshed the market economy with the private and public realm. The “culture industry” —as Adorno would call it—in Las Vegas is not relegated to a secular mindset, and religiosity in proximity to the excesses of the casinos is flexible and sometimes compromised and vexed, yet remains pragmatic and open to adapt. Perhaps this is the dialectic between modern religion and capitalism, which the artists located in Las Vegas, but also in Mecca, Jeddah, Karachi, Paris, New Delhi, and Tel Aviv.
The final outcome of this research project will involve making and gathering a heterogeneous set of objects, images, and gestures. These objects represent the monumentality and spectacle of the city, but also call into question and destabilize visions of Las Vegas and the dichotomy of the sacred and the secular by considering the periphery, namely the immigrant workers, the gaming dealers, the cleaning staff, the Kosher meal chef for the casinos, and the Mosque muezzin.
Gabriella Willenz, originally from Israel, received her BA from the Marc Rich Honors Program in Arts and Humanities at Tel Aviv University and is currently pursuing her MFA in art practice at UC Berkeley. Coming from a background in theatre and performance, she is interested in time-based art, as well as the theatricality of objects and images. Taking the form of video, performance, sculpture, and photography, her work engages with the dynamic interplay between the construction of reality and its representation, examining power structures and the cultural neutralization of binaries. She recently received the Eisner Prize in Photography and in July will be in residency at the Ox-Bow School of Art at Lake Michigan.
Asma Kazmi creates transdisciplinary artworks where people/media/objects come together. Shaped by her experience as an immigrant to the US, and as a person shifting between multiple languages/identities, Kazmi’s research based process allows her to imagine embodied relations with her subjects in various cultural contexts. She works between the US/India/Pakistan/Europe/the Middle East. Kazmi has exhibited nationally/internationally at venues such as the Faraar Gallery, Karachi, Pakistan; IBA, University of Karachi, Pakistan; Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City; Queens Museum of Art, NY; LACE, LA; 18th Street Arts Center, Santa Monica; Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis; H&R Block Space, Kansas City; Guild Gallery, NY; Gallery 210, University of Missouri St Louis; & Gallery 400, University of Illinois in Chicago. At Berkeley, Kazmi has received the BCNM Seed Grant & Al-Falah Grant to support current research in Saudi Arabia. She is also the recipient of a Fulbright Research Award, (CIES) to India; two Faculty Research Grants, CalArts; Great Rivers Biennial Grant, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis; Rocket Grant, Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas; At the Edge: Innovative Art in Chicago Award, Gallery 400, UIC.
Note: Over the course of the spring semester, each 2018 ARC Fellows team will submit a short blog post about their project and findings. We hope you will enjoy these short readings! The Fellows Program advances interdisciplinary research in the arts at UC Berkeley by supporting self-nominated pairs of graduate students and faculty members as they pursue semester-long collaborative projects of their own design. To learn more about the program, click here.