Stephen Smyth is a VCS graduate currently residing in Palm Springs, CA. Along with fellow alum Eleanor LeBeau, Stephen is the co-founder and editor of Naked Circus, an online journal of Visual Culture that premiers February 14, 2012. Stephen and Eleanor’s collaboration springs from a shared social imperative to liberate the discourse on Visual Culture from the exclusive purview of the Academy in order to engage multiple publics.
Stephen holds degrees in architecture and Visual and Critical Studies, both from CCA. Stephen has worked as a freelance design consultant for several prominent Bay Area firms including Peter Pfau Architects, Gensler, SOM, as well as for designers Gary Hutton, Ted Boerner, and Robert Noble, among others.
Stephen’s scholarly work focuses on American mythologies, emphasizing the roles of visual spectacle and escapist fantasies in shaping our shared identities. His master’s thesis, Economy of Dreams, explored the intersections between UFO folklore, Nationalism, Frontierism, and Commerce. He is currently developing a project on the History of the Las Vegas Strip and the Myth of Capitalism.
Stephen is a member of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and the Architecture and Design Counsel of the Palm Springs Art Museum.
About Stephen Smyth’s Thesis Project
Economy of Dreams
In 1989 the nuclear physicist Bob Lazar appeared on Las Vegas television claiming he had participated in reverse-engineering projects on recovered alien spacecrafts at a secret Nevada military base called Area 51. Lazar’s story and Area 51’s reputation quickly spread, attracting UFO researchers, conspiracy theorists, and other hopeful sightseers. Those who went near the base were kept at bay by high-tech security equipment and personnel authorized to use deadly force. Even as the base grew in notoriety and infamy, the United States government denied its existence. Many wondered why it needed such extreme security and secrecy, especially after the end of the cold war. Some interpreted official denials as proof of alien conspiracies. Others saw them as evidence of unchecked and abusive government power.At roughly the same time, the town of Rachel, a neighbor of Area 51, began displaying images of flying saucers and extraterrestrials on buildings and signs. Hoping to cash in on Area 51’s image, the local tavern owners renamed their establishment the Little A’Le’Inn. Travelers to the area converged there to eat, drink, and talk about UFOs, and the inn sold them T-shirts, ashtrays, and alien action figures (which were manufactured for the most part in China).By the mid-1990s Area 51 and Rachel had been the subjects of several X-Files television episodes as well as the film Independence Day. Highway 375, the only route to Rachel, was renamed the Extraterrestrial Highway, which legitimized Rachel’s claims to authenticity within the UFO and alien folklore. Over time, while Area 51 remained inaccessible, Rachel—with its easily digestible alien images—became a substitute destination for those in search of the Area 51 mystique.
This project argues that the relationship between Area 51 and Rachel represents a cycle of absence, desire, substitution, and reappropriation that operates on a model of continual scarcity or lack. In this cycle, the desired object is denied and supplanted by other, equally unattainable objects. Images of aliens in Rachel, for example, which appeared in order to assuage the inaccessibility of Area 51, create a demand for other inaccessible objects: actual aliens. This demand drives the production and distribution of yet more images, stories, and objects in an endless effort to bring presence to that which is absent. These cultural manifestations proliferate, eventually leading to even more representations of Area 51 in films, television, books, and video games, all engendering the persistent desire to see the hidden site. And, as this can never be, the cycle begins anew.