Cancun, a neo-kitsch orgy by the sea

Sunset over Cancun from alan grabinsky on Vimeo.

Cancun is a decadent place, a Disneyland for adults, framed by the beautiful crystal clear waters of the Caribbean. Known for its spring break tourism, the places is a plastic, surreal, paradise. In the clubs of Cancun one can engage in sexual intercourse while a drunk Robocop and an equally drunk Homer Simpson entertain the crowd. It is a place where one can eat luxurious shrimp platters in fake Mayan settings. A place where historic settings are copied in order to frame consumption and television culture blends with an Ibiza-style nightlife.

Like Las Vegas, the only tourist area in Cancun is the strip. But unlike Las Vegas, the strip is set along agorgeous piece of land resting between a lagoon and the sea. Naturally shaped like a tongue, this piece of land is cut in half by a four lane highway connecting the various shopping malls and resorts to each other. The tip of the tongue is a series of shopping complexes and the sides are all hotels looking towards the beach. The town where the locals live is far away from the hotel area, and the people who work for the tourist industries take regular buses into town.

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Hotel OMNI renditions of egyptian/mayan pyramids as seen from Cancun’s main road

During the first night of our arrival we visited La Isla (The Island), a massive shopping complex with pedestrian streets and neoclassic facades. Like The Venetian Hotel, the mall has internal water channels with peaceful gondolas that take tourists for a ride. But, unlike The Venetian, the gondolas of The Island are driven by staff dressed as the pirates of the Caribbean.

The Island has been successful in providing this alternate public realm and has been copied in tourist destinations where public space is diminishing, like Acapulco. The success lies on the provision of consumer products for all social classes and the framing of consumption under the most fantastic neo-kitsch settings. One is enthralled by so much spectacle that consumption becomes a secondary thing. It is a perfect example of the experience economy gone tacky.

The next night we visited the legendary Senior Frogs, a place I hadn’t visited since my senior trip in High School and of which I don’t remember much (don’t ask me why). The party atmosphere resembled that of a frat house, complemented by Hooter-style waitresses showing skin to get american tourists to drink and spend money. The bass of the music thumped as DJs span the greatest hits from the dance-floor, from ” I feel so close to you right now” to “Gangam Style”.

There was a series of shows between the dances, each more surreal than the next. It started with a typical Brazilian drum circle, and then gave way to a neon colored fire dancer that seemed taken out of a Daft Punk show. At the end, a massive robocop with a gun appeared and shot smoke to the crowd. During the party a fourty-year- old man practically having sex with a college girl next to us at the bar. Then there were people taking off their clothes and running to a fire-escape stairs to use the built-in water-slide. They dropped into the lagoon and resumed dancing.

The next night I visited Carlos and Charlies, a restaurant-bar where waiters go up to the dance floor and get the tourists all railed up. There is a sense of surprise and wonder for foreigners as the waiters cut out their roles and dance for the tourists, but as a Mexican I knew this was part of their daily routine. Waiters in these chains have specific hours in which they have to dance.

Then came the creme de la creme, the mecca of the Cancun nightlife, Coco Bongo club. This cathedral of clubbing is a stadium-shaped club where everyone is facing gigantic screens in the front stage and, ironically, there is almost no dancing going on. The club is a space of hyper-visibility, with cameras pointing at women and with huge screens projecting images of the dancers onto the screen. Everyone is looking towards the screens that hovered in a wall, like in a movie theaters.

For the dancers, the allure of having fifteen minutes of fame is irresistible, this causes fierce competition between women trying to out-dance each other. But it is a self-reflexive dance, made entirerly to arrouse visually in a manner resembling fmusic videos. Climbing onto a pedestal above the crowd meant that your image is going to be projected on the one of the two humongous screens while the other one plays the song’s music videos. Dancers become participants of the music videos, trying to fit their moves with the moves on the screen for the captive audience. The women become objects of desire by their own will.

Coco Bongo, like most of Cancun’s thrills, privileges a type of visual culture that stems out from movies and television. The show is the ultimate blending of pop culture symbols. It is like the experience of switching channels in cable television, since it flattens the differences between different types of narratives.

When I walked in the club there was a projection on the screen of the movies Troy, Gladiator and The Passion of Christ. After this introduction, a passage of John 3;16 was projected on the wall, while acrobats in crucifix position hovered like gods above the crowd (picture bellow) . This is not the only moments of religious or mythical fervor,shows based on movies like Spider-man and Tron also depict the fight of Good versus Evil. Good always wins, and then its time to dance.

The show arises the feeling of the sublime every half an hour or so, the public led towards the experience of touching greatness through Christ, Michael Jackson or Madonna. No song plays in its entirety as a whole because the experience of shock and surprise is constantly privileged. Visual stimuli are more important than sonic rhythms, this doesn’t allow the fluidity and continuity needed to maintain a dance .

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Christ hangs above the dancing crowd at the Coco Bongo Club

The crowd of Coco Bongo is not searching for authenticity but for the most amount of visual stimuli at once. The incredible imitations of Beyonce, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Usher, Queen, Christina Aguilera, etc. are done while the “real” video clips are projected in the background and the crowd is projected on-screen. The show is designed to mix reality with fiction, copies with original. The whole experience is so over the top it is wasteful. The crowd is drenched in confetti and smoke every half an hour. The debris from these hourly chaos is so big that staff has to clean the confetti while the show is still going on. I saw at least 4 persons taking out humongous bags of trash every day. I felt like the whole experienced worked me over, and it took almost a day of sun to understand what exactly had happened.

The dancing platform is a wholly pedestal in Cancun’s nightlife, a ritual object enhanced by the neo-kitsch fantasies of TV culture . By the time I had reached the overcrowded airport to head home, I was sick of the swarms of tourists everywhere boarding the plane to head to their snow-covered home-towns. Given the amount of stimuli that I had experienced, I had to wonder if any of the tourists felt relaxed enough to go back to their daily life. It seemed that most of them would need a vacation from this vacation, the stimuli of Cancun being too much to handle for the tired mind.

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