Electric Boogaloo

Las Vegas

Left: Extreme Reality booth at the 2013 International CES. (Photo: Lauren Devine) Right: The Samsung exhibit at the International CES. (Photo: Kevin McGarry)

YOU MIGHT BE FORGIVEN for thinking Las Vegas is a desert for contemporary art. I was there last week for a fair, and the only artwork I spotted was an apparent clone of Isa Genzken’s New Museum rose, languishing outside the Prada store on The Strip. “I guess it’s not that weird,” said AIDS-3D’s Daniel Keller, positively ID-ing the flower. “The casino in Berlin and the Freedom Tower in New York both have the same Koons balloon dog outside.” There’s no better place for brand extension than a tourist trap.

But I wasn’t in Vegas for an art fair—per se. What lured me to town was something more . . . experiential: the International CES (Consumer Electronics Show), a spectacle whose volume, expense, and sensory stimuli dwarf anything mustered in hubs of art-world pageantry like Basel, Venice, or Miami. “I don’t know about CES this year. It’s getting too commercial. Too much about the parties.” No one said anything like this there. As the preeminent showcase for new and in-development products using electricity, it’s an essential event for one of the highest-grossing global industries. Interlopers like me just gawked; we left the talking to the army of spokespeople staffing more than 3,250 booths spread across almost two million square feet of the Las Vegas Convention Center and a large swath of the nearby Venetian Resort Hotel Casino.

The sheer breadth of the work on view makes any précis impossible. About 90 percent of the products seemed to be compulsory, best-in-class cords, USB drives, appliances, etc., which nevertheless left room for hundreds of inspired inventions in countless niche markets: digital health, green technology, massage, cooking, sex entertainment, eye-operated mice (for computers). There was a sidebar program on “MommyTech,” and low-concept gadgets for senior citizens like “TV ears” (wireless headphones).

Left: The TV Ears exhibit at the International CES. Right: A representative of Necomimi at the International CES. (Photos: Kevin McGarry)

The best “ears,” though, were to be found in the section of the show devoted to brain-wave reading. A representative of Necomimi—a headband that scans your thoughts and wiggles its furry cat ears in response (popular in Japan)—demonstrated a pair on herself as she explained how it works. “See that gentleman over there?” she added. “His headset doesn’t have kitty ears. But he’s flying a helicopter with his brain waves.” (A toy helicopter, I hoped.) Camp abounded. “Who is this?” I asked, looking at an anthropomorphic robot on display alongside a selection of high-end, Roomba-like machines. “He’s just our mascot, we’re not bringing him to market. But his head is a vacuum cleaner.”

Which company emerged as the de facto Gagosian? Apple doesn’t deign to set up shop in the company of others. Neither does Google. Their absence—along with other tech heavy-hitters like Amazon and Facebook—of course raised the question of whether the whole notion of the “gadget” (or, shudder, “electronic”) wasn’t riddled with a certain utopian nostalgia, an ancien régime fixation on solid things that, well, do stuff. In any case, the biggest dog in the room would have to be Samsung, whose Times Square of an exhibit was anchored by eight huge flat-screens cascading and twirling in a desperate, Busby Berkeley–esque choreography. (The company’s flexible OLED displays unveiled here dominated blogs.) Nearby, Nikon’s booth featured an elaborate Dutch garden, a mad scientist pouring a rainbow of gassing chemicals in and out of beakers, and two breathless flamenco dancers utterly committed to their fourth wall: all ideal subjects for the photographic gear on display.

Left: Pop star Lauren Devine. (Photo: Kevin McGarry) Right: The Lapka booth at the International CES. (Photo: Christopher Glazek)

One booth was full of familiar faces. Three members of the New York trend forecasting collective K-HOLE—artists Greg Fong and Dena Yago and strategist Emily Segal—were there on behalf of the Russian startup Lapka. “Lapka is an environmental monitor,” Segal explained. “A set of four tiny sensors that plug into your iPhone to measure, collect, and play with the hidden qualities of your surroundings—radioactive particles, electromagnetic fields, humidity, and nitrates left behind in raw produce.” Working in the interstices of conceptual and commercial visual culture, K-HOLE has been developing Lapka’s brand story, and they followed the Russian team to Nevada both to participate in the convention and shoot some earthy promotional stills of the device in action.

“Lapka anticipates a more curious future,” added Fong. “It’s not augmented reality; it’s reality!” So, one might argue, is CES, where a telecommunication CEO’s keynote dissolved into a goofy role-play of Gen Y consumer archetypes dissolved into a Big Bird cameo dissolved into an impromptu acoustic concert by Maroon 5. Where else but the casino?

Kevin McGarry