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Stripping Vegas: MFA Exhibit in Jameson Gallery

A dozen Duke MFA students spent 48 hours documenting Las Vegas

An image from MFA student Laurenn McCubbin's
An image from MFA student Laurenn McCubbin's "48 Hours" in Las Vegas" project.

The task: document Las Vegas in 48 hours. The twist: stay off the Strip.

The Strip, home to dozens of casinos and all manner of debauchery, is only one side of Las Vegas -- one that 12 students in Duke's Master of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts program consciously ignored while creating "48 Hours in Las Vegas." The exhibit, on display in the Friedl Building on East Campus until Feb. 17, contains photographs and video content captured in March 2012.

Second-year MFA student Laurenn McCubbin lived in the city for four years while obtaining her first MFA. While there, she experienced Las Vegas as a city of two million severely hit by the recession and far removed from the glitz and glamour of the Strip.

"As experimental documentarians, we wanted to create stories about Las Vegas that weren't about the Strip, which is all you ever see," McCubbin said.

McCubbin’'s vision was realized when paid for McCubbin and 11 other MFA students to go to Vegas last March, part of the Las Vegas-based shoe company's efforts to fund arts initiatives in its home city. Supplemented by funds from the MFA program and the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts, the students split up to document the city's people, history and culture.

From photographing the Pinball Hall of Fame to interviewing taxi drivers, "48 Hours" is a testament to the diverse character of a city often primarily noted for its casinos.

Prior to leaving for Las Vegas, second-year MFA student Talena Sanders learned the city's original inhabitants were Mormons. Discovering that the "Old Mormon Fort," the city's oldest structure, was still standing, Sanders spent two days filming Civil War battle reenactments there.

"It seemed really strange to reenact the Civil War in Las Vegas, where they saw no combat," Sanders said. "It turns out the [reenactors] in the fort were transplants from the South. Directing [the reenactors] while also managing a 16mm camera and sound was a new experience."

MFA Program Director Tom Rankin said the success of "48 Hours" has led the program to consider making such projects part of the first-year curriculum.

"I am considering institutionalizing [the '48 Hours' concept] for all first-year MFA students," Rankin said. "The point is to go somewhere and respond [to that place] through art."

Second-year MFA student Lisa McCarty photographed eight "one-night-stand" motel rooms around Vegas, which forced out of her artistic comfort zone.

"It gave me a lot more faith in how I can operate when I'm feeling disoriented or uncomfortable," McCarty said. "Sometimes it takes putting yourself in a place you're not sure about to get the images you feel strongly about."