By Diane Carru
It’s been more than a year now since I participated in the sensory ethnography of the Montreal Casino. Yet, when I read over my field notes, I can still vividly remember this moment. It’s hard to forget this place, entirely designed to impress the visitor, to overwhelm their eyes and ears, to overload their senses to the point of losing control. My field notes capture this sensational state well. They are scattered in the notes of my old smartphone. The short and very descriptive sentences, taken on the spot, sometimes flow into each other without much meaning. From these field notes, I tried to reconstruct my strange trip at the casino.
We arrive in a small group, one late afternoon in January. Entering the casino that evening is already a sensory shock in itself. From the blank outside world, numbed by the thick snow showers, we move on to the noisy and glittery universe of the casino. One of the most captivating elements as we enter the building is the architecture of the central hall. It consists of crisscrossing escalators that climb as far as the eye can see, opening onto floors filled with machines, bars, rooms and gaming tables. The configuration of this space gives the impression that one can always go higher. In fact, the escalators go up, but not down. It is even difficult to find the discreet stairs that allow you to return to the lower levels, encouraging visitors to get lost on the higher floors. The architecture of this space reflects the popular representations of gambling, with the symbolism of the “high” that one wants to make last. The marketers of this experience focus on the emotional “highs” rather than the “lows”. We are sold the hope that when we leave the casino, we will be “higher” than when we arrived (in terms of winnings). The come down, being low, is a depression against which the casino architecture tries to fight.
The vast majority of sounds perceived in the casino come from the slot machines. In some of the rooms reserved for their use, the chaotic mix of jingles, ringing and tinkling of coins breaks like a wave that saturates my hearing. Unlike the rest of the casino, the ceilings in these rooms are low, and there is little light. The opacity of this atmosphere is pierced by the screens of the machines, whose brightly colored images scroll at full speed. This intense sensory stimulation causes occasional adrenaline rushes. My inner level of excitement seems to be out of step with the detached and nonchalant attitude of the initiates. The players around me are totally absorbed in their game, almost completely immobile. In these rooms, the movement is digital, concentrated on the screen of the machines. The sensations are internal and chemical, diffused in droplets with each renewed bet at the touch of a button.
I emerge from the heavy atmosphere of the slot machines to go and watch the table games, where the ambiance is more theatrical. Roulette, craps, baccarat, blackjack, wheel of fortune… these social games bring together small groups from which escape exclamations, laughter and perfumes. This space contrasts with the mechanical atmosphere of the slot machine rooms. The movement is constant and fluid: dealers skillfully distribute their cards, the roulette wheel spins swiftly, people come and go at different tables. Here, the noises are subtle: the roll of a pair of dice, the clicking sound of the wheel of fortune, the rattling of the chips dragged across the green velvet. The excitement is light and dizzying, like a fizzy glass of champagne. These rooms are made to have fun and to show that you are having fun (whether you are winning or not). I am quickly overwhelmed by the games whose rules I am unfamiliar with and the huge amounts of money that disappear before my eyes. Yet I feel the urge to participate, to bet. There’s something frustrating about watching these scenes from the outside. It’s a Wednesday afternoon in January, and according to my field notes, I am wondering what the atmosphere would be like on a Saturday evening in July.
I was only able to take one picture inside the Montreal Casino: the escalator leading to the poker room. It is embedded in a dark tunnel striped with red neon that gives the impression of being propelled upwards. One more come up. I go from one world to another: it’s a space apart in the casino, literally and figuratively. The atmosphere there is sober and serious. No laughter, no applause, no exclamation. Players try to minimize their sensory contact with the outside world: caps, sunglasses, headphones—everything is done to hide what they feel, to prevent others from “sensing” their hand. Movement surrounds the players, but they remain stoic. Waiters emerge from the bar on the side and constantly circulate between the tables. Behind a barrier of people watching the games and talking to each other. Raised screens continuously broadcast different sports. The players, however, limit their movements and words to the game, through the cards and chips: bet, call, check, fold.
Around ten o’clock, I go back down to the lobby, where several members of the group are already waiting near the coat check. Time went by quickly, and except for timing my field notes, I did not often think to check my watch during our expedition. I am quite relieved to leave this dizzying maze and find the outside world covered with fresh snow. As I get into the cab, I tell myself it is curious to think that this place will not close tonight. Like a hospital or an airport, the casino remains open 24 hours a day (this fieldwork was done before the pandemic, which forced the casino to close its doors). As we drive away from the building, inside, the slot machines continue to ring and chime, another poker game is starting, the wheels keep spinning, and so on, like an endless show of which we were the momentary spectators.