Creative Fires

From the Burning Man festival to a parking lot near you, LaserVida's Gypsy Carnival is turning up the heat on the Las Vegas arts underground

by Lee Abraham

Satan is smug in his tan leisure suit. Hair slicked back, eyes hidden behind thick, gold rimmed sunglasses, the nattily attired lord of darkness sucks a long, thin cigar. Walking through a Dante-esque carnival of fleshy decadence and mind-altered debauchery, the social director of the cruise ship to hell smiles approvingly. Flames leap madly from a dangerously tall bonfire as loud techno-jazz-tronica thumps the hot and sweaty night air.  People are everywhere. Walking, dancing, making merriment while gawking at each other and everything around them.

From out of nowhere, a robed and hooded wild-eyed lunatic appears. Ranting the ugly venom of a Jack Daniels swilling fire-and-brimstone evangelist, he corners an unsuspecting victim; a befuddled art lover who thought he was attending an exhibition of paintings and sculpture. No longer an observer, the innocent bystander has been cast without consent as an unwitting character in the can-this-really-be-happening Fellini film unfolding before his eyes. Suddenly the robed Mr. loony-tunes is thrown to the ground by three clowns with brightly painted faces.

Carrying the now unconscious robed figure behind a thin hospital curtain situated on a makeshift stage, the shadowy clown silhouettes lay the body on a table. All eyes are now on the curtain. Even the devil is captivated by the black and white drama behind the screen. The clowns are performing some butcher knife and barehanded surgery, pulling small appliances and computer parts out of the madman's body.       

Challenging Awareness

"It's psychological terrorism in one aspect," says Christophe Ritenour, one of the founding members of LaserVida, a non-profit -Arts Collective-. "But really it's a multi-media performance. We'll have an event and we'll dress up and we'll be doing things, but people aren't sure whether it's part of the show or not." A loose collection of artists, performers and other colorful characters, LaserVida has been challenging peoples' senses, as well as their perception of reality for almost five years. Hosting wild art parties in their homes and traveling as a roving performance troop that transform neighborhood parking lots into theaters of the absurd are a couple of their regular activities.

Drawn together by the limitations of the Las Vegas infra-culture, these art-for-the-sake-of-art creative types find strength in numbers. Ritenour, now in his mid twenties, was born in Las Vegas. For him, the -void- of artistic awareness in this peculiar neon city of ours is what keeps him here. "In places like Seattle or Portland you tell people that you are an artist and they understand," says Ritenour. "In Vegas, you tell someone that you're an artist and it's like, 'So what do you do, commercial art? Photo finishing?'"

Micha Grainger understands. He's also fascinated with overcoming the uniquely steep curve of ignorance and snobbery in Las Vegas toward their brand of ultra low budget, experimental and experiential art. Although not quite a native, Grainger was born in California and moved to Las Vegas at age three. Graduating from high school, "not having any idea of what I wanted to do in life," he enrolled at UNLV. Starting as an -undecided-, Grainger changed majors from business to psychology and finally wound up studying photography in the art department.

Although he liked photography, the classroom regimentation and requisite critiquing exercises weren't a good fit. "It started to really irritate me," says Grainger. "I started to question the whole idea of art at an institutional level." Around that same time, he met Ritenour. "Christophe was involving himself with his art without anyone's help," recalls Grainger. The two fed off each other's energy. Sharing an avante-garde bent, they bonded through their -gorilla art- philosophy. Soon they were searching for a place to show Ritenour's work, at the time an interactive video called "Doom Compression" and a variety of performance concepts. 

-Lower Oakey-, the "Headgrow" and beyond

After coming up empty on the gallery hunt, the enterprising artists co-conspired on a variety of projects at local cafes. "Cancer Free TV" at Café Copioh was their first major public event. Their former house, forever etched in LaserVida lore as -Lower Oakey- after the name of its street in the downtown Huntridge area, became the hottest underground gallery in town. Art-parties at -Lower Oakey- were the rage among the young and creative set. That action peaked during "Headgrow," a three-day New Years blowout in '95. Not just a party, "Headgrow" was a themed multi-media, multiple-day-marathon experience for the entire local art community.

An experiment in sensory overload, "Headgrow" stuffed -Lower Oakey- with paintings, sculptures and collages, as well as movies, poets, "in-character" performance artists and live music. A high voltage mix that set the groundwork for the LaserVida vision. "If we want to do something as a generation, as a culture, we're going to have to, start with our houses," says Grainger. "It's basically a reaction to the lack of funds, and at the time, a lack of venues."

The following summer Ritenour and Grainger met the third founding member of Laser Vida, Joe Cartino. Cartino was running -Main Studio-, a former rifle shooting range that had been converted into an art gallery. "It was very loose and open to whatever anyone wanted to do in there," recalls Grainger. "If someone had an idea, they could go ahead and do it, and we liked that."

The decision to invest time and energy into -building- an art scene locally, rather than relocate to a city with an established arts community, came after both Ritenour and Grainger living in Portland for awhile, although at different times. "As we started to travel and look around we'd see these things in other towns that are totally missing in Las Vegas," says Grainger. "As the fastest growing city or whatever it is, and being -from- Las Vegas, we started to feel this responsibility to make something happen here. I guess we've tried to creating something for disenfranchised local artists to rally behind." That rally is showing some pep.

After evolving into a non-profit arts organization, LaserVida became incorporated in July of '96. The group was recently awarded a development grant from the Nevada Arts Council, and that money is earmarked to complete a few projects that are already underway. From Ritenour's series of -Samizdat- videos to LaserVida records and all the performance art in between, there is always a project in the works that could use a few bucks. Funded or not, the creative fires are burning.

"We create this stuff in our homes and then we network," says Grainger. That network includes a branch of LaserVida in Portland that has a weekly show on the local cable access TV channel. The group also has contacts in Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, Miami, New York, and San Diego. "The idea is to have people in these places so that we can all go to each others place and put on a show," says Ritenour.

Putting the show on the road

-Putting on a show- takes more than art and music. From building stages and engineering sound systems to handing out flyers and making costumes, LaserVida is truly a collective effort. There are currently forty or so artists, crafts people and others that just lend a helping hand in the LaserVida family. Even back in the days of -Lower Oakey-, there was a lot of work to do. Grainger's sister, Heidi, flew in from her home in Portland "just to help out" with the preparations for the "Headgrow" extravaganza.

"I quit my job and was going to come down for a while to help and then ended up staying," she laughs. "I try to help people get their projects realized. Coordinating, helping people set up. That kind of stuff." In part due to her management skills, Heidi was appointed to LaserVida's board of directors. "Heidi has mastered the art of making parties happen," jokes Ritenour. "It's challenging and it's more exciting here," says Heidi. "When I lived in Portland it's like everybody you met was in a band. There isn't that brotherhood feeling here and people are not as receptive. Although it seems that lately, especially in the past year, we've been meeting more and more people that -are- doing the same kinds of things."

Many of those people will be at -Zinecon-, LaserVida's next scheduled art party. Slated for May 15th at the clandestine local underground venue known only as the -Warehouse-, Zinecon will celebrate the world of homemade art, particularly the local "Zine" scene. "The 'Zine' is on the bottom of the publishing rung," explains Micha. "It's something that you can make at home."

Music is another art form that can be made at home. As members of -Broken Machine-, Ritenour (keyboards, Moog), Micha (guitar) and Heidi (drums), step out from the private shadows of their living room rehearsal spaces and into the spotlight's onstage glare. Combining music with all the other art forms in a simultaneous explosion of creative exuberance is the LaserVida formula. Experimenting with that chemistry on the road is the next project.

"The 'Gypsy Carnival,' will roll in August," says Ritenour. "We're packing up two bands and some performance artists and hitting the West Coast through Portland and then ending up at Burning Man." In addition to -Broken Machine-, which also includes Emma Rhodes on drums and Jake Noricks on bass,  -Los Trios de Nada- will make the tour. Micha plays bass in LTD, and that group is rounded out by Doug Frye (drums) and J.W. "J-Dub" Hogue (guitar/vocals).

"We don't want a tour where it's just two bands playing in bars," explains Heidi. "We want to make an event out of it." In addition to the music, the Gypsy Carnival will include a mobile gallery of multi-media displays, game booths of the twisted variety (look for the "ass-kissing" tent), and of course, reality bending performance art. They're also bringing a generator to power spontaneous musical combustion wherever it may ignite.

Regardless of what happens enroute, flames will be blazing at the tour's grand finale, a conceptual Las Vegas camp at the upcoming Burning Man festival. The plan is to create a Vegas themed community effort for locals attending the annual dress-up or get naked art themed freak out. Whether they're on the road or in a home near you, LaserVida is challenging awareness while at the same time trying to rally creative forces locally. Says Micha, "Vegas doesn't have a lot of the things you find in most places, which is sad, but at the same time it's inspiring because it's wide open."