Emerging in the mid 20th century (when Disneyland opened its doors in 1955), the theme park created the ultimate in trompe l’oeil effects by extending the fictional world of Disney animation into the social sphere. In doing so, Disney produced a networked environment that conjured wondrous spaces that both performed for the audience and which were for performing within. Over the last two decades, Las Vegas has adopted and extended this theme park logic into the urban sphere. Travelling briefly back to the era of the movie palace, this paper will consider contemporary Las Vegas as a neo-baroque mediascape that extends the theme park’s delight in performativity, theatricality and sensorial engagement into the wider social realm. Drawing on Umberto Eco’s concept of ‘pansemiotics’, it will be argued that spectacle cities like Las Vegas operate according to the logic of a giant wunderkammer—relying on an emblematic understanding of the meaning of objects and the interrelationship between them. In particular, this paper will analyse how this city-as-monument to entertainment and leisure culture has appropriated tropes and modes of engagement taken from pre-20th Century high culture traditions of the Church and aristocracy. But whereas palaces, theatrical spectacles, churches, and piazzas stood as monuments to the grandeur of their aristocratic patrons, in our current time, these new entertainment environments stand as monuments to corporate conglomerates and the masses who inhabit these worlds.
Angela Ndalianis is currently associate professor in cinema and cultural studies at the University of Melbourne.