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Meow Wolf: The Newfangled and Undefinable

Meow Wolf - Pyragraph
Photo courtesy of Meow Wolf.

If by this point you have not heard about Meow Wolf, you have our permission to crawl out from whatever giant robot’s foot you’ve been hiding under. Meow Wolf’s first permanent immersive art installation, The House of Eternal Return, has been in Santa Fe’s sights for about three years and it’s finally due to open there on March 17, 2016.

What is Meow Wolf?

I think I can effectually say what Meow Wolf is.

Well, a group of artists interested in creating large-scale, immersive, story-based, multimedia art experiences got together and did just that. With notches on their belts that include a couple geodesic domes and a 70-foot inter-dimensional ship, they—and by “they” I mean painters, sculptors, writers, videographers, techies, makers and programmers—decided to settle down and build a home for themselves. That home is The House of Eternal Return: 20,000 square feet of art built in the shell of the old Silva Lanes, Santa Fe’s demised bowling alley.

But you knew that already. Everyone should know that by now.

Since they were cannonballed through NM Creative Startups and burned onto my radar, I’ve been observing them from my Albuquerque vantage point 60 miles south, wondering what exactly they were up to, all shrouded in mystery.

I felt a kinship to Tom Waits observing his neighbor in that I kept asking: “What are they building in there?”

But I found a way in. I began assisting my artistic mentor Lance McGoldrick on the room he was brought on to artify (he’s one of over 100 artists working on the project). And I saw what they are building in there. Let me indulge you, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll do so in a single sentence:

The House of Eternal Return, once inhabited by the fictional and bygone Selig Family, has broken the space-time continuum and birthed a lush world of differing, imaginative environments, including a cave system, a forest, a ghost town, a spaceship and more comprehensively, a mastodon skeleton, an upturned bus, an alien travel agency, something called Treenado, a lighthouse, a TV tunnel, an arcade, a stage that will be graced by Amanda Palmer and CocoRosie, and even more accurately, a bunch of rebar, a ton of cold-rolled steel, a plethora of cardboard, a crap-ton of aged wood, a shitload of plaster, a fuckbunch of LEDs, and a record-breaking amount of genius and wiles from the artists involved.

But that isn’t enough to answer the question: What is Meow Wolf?

And here’s why: When it comes to this project, my ever-lingering curiosity is more seriously bent on how a project like this can even exist. That Meow Wolf is bamboozling the notion of traditional art, that they are effectively creating the newest exhibition the art world has seen in an eon and a half, is what makes the inflection on the question “What is Meow Wolf?” rise several octaves.

So to once and for all define this seemingly crazed bunch of game changers, I went directly to four of the crazed bunch of game changers. Via these interviews, I think I can effectually say what Meow Wolf is. In fact, I’ll let you in on it at the end.

Chadney Everett | Lead Designer on The House of Eternal Return

Chadney Everett - Pyragraph
Photo by Lindsey Kennedy.

How’d you get involved with Meow Wolf?

I got to know the Meow Wolf people through some preparative work I’d done at CCA and they invited me to be on this project. Originally it was just to help with fabricating, but I was really interested in taking on the House itself, and so that’s my project: the two-story Victorian house that you first encounter when you come into the space.

How did you come into that role? Did you force your hand?

Matt King and Caity Kennedy, it was originally one of their projects, but they had so many projects and big ambitions, so I offered to help them with the House because it’s something I really know how to do well. Eventually I took over as lead, which is fine for everybody involved because they’re as busy as they could ever want to be right now.

Speak to the art of collaboration that is Meow Wolf and everybody’s willingness to shift and take on more or less in the spirit of the whole thing.

There’s no way that my peers could afford my work, and there’s something not right about that.

Meow Wolf, at its base, is a radically inclusive art community, which means that anybody who wants to be a part of it is. It’s really amorphous, and importantly, the group doesn’t really take credit for anything; the credit goes to Meow Wolf. It’s about the collective. It’s not about the individual artist anymore. So when someone jumps in or drops out, it all still works because it’s not about any one person. The credit thing is unimportant; the important thing is making art.

That sounds like a fairly new philosophy.

I’m not sure how it registers with historical artist communities, but it feels very natural to us, because we’re living the adage that the whole becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. I come from film where everything is compartmentalized. Everybody does a very specific task and you don’t cross those hard edges.

That doesn’t exist here, and it allows for people to flow into spaces to fill gaps so the whole thing rises together with nothing left behind.

Do you feeling like you’re taking on the status quo of the art world? Because it seems to me that credit is perhaps its most important facet.

So many artists seem to be showing their names more than their art. I was a gallery artist for many years, and I’ve been in that world. There’s some satisfaction. I mean, it’s nice to have your art recognized and people appreciating it in a public setting, but there’s no way that my peers could afford my work, and there’s something not right about that.

Meow Wolf is able to do that. It’s the entire point of this.

Golda Blaise | Meow Wolf Co-owner and Detail Queen

Golda Blaise - Pyragraph
Photo by Josh Stuyvesant.

What’s your role in the exhibition?

I am creating the lighthouse in the venue space. It’s a structure that you can go on top of as well as within to watch music shows. The whole venue space is kind of like an artist colony, like a boardwalk scene mixed with rodeo and neon lights. We’re pairing that aged, grey wood with super bright colors, and I’ve been covering the space in tiny details—barnacles and little creatures that are growing on different portions of the facade.

We want people to experience how we experience it when we’re making it.

The entirety of Meow Wolf is breathtakingly huge, the concept is huge, the story, the layers. I’ve heard tell that if you visited Meow Wolf a hundred times, you would still not see and be privy to all the little details that are a part of it. Can you speak about your process and attention to details?

I’m a co-owner in Meow Wolf too, so I try to make sure the entire show is cohesive and things flow into one another smoothly. The last four weeks have been the fun part where you can really start to see artists’ sections coming together. My favorite part is coming between those sections to make small things—making sure everything has enough detail and texture and interactivity.

Why is interactivity in art becoming so prevalent and why is it changing the big-art scene?

It’s become bigger because the history of art is that it sits in a museum and you don’t get within five feet of the art. That’s the seller’s and the museum curator’s way. For artists, that’s not what the art is about. I think the artists really, at least for me, want people to interact.

When artists are in their studio and they’re fabricating these works, that’s not the life that’s normally put into those pieces. We want people to experience how we experience it when we’re making it.

Myself, I didn’t go to college, I didn’t go to art school. I think the critical nature of art school and how the art world is just crushes people and makes them think too much about creating when they should have the freedom to just go for it.

It sounds like Meow Wolf is the newfangled art school.

When you bring so many people together, you start to pick up on those skills and who they are and why they use the techniques they use. You really can educate yourself just by collaborating. We have an open-door policy. If you want to come in and volunteer or learn a skill, we’ll find a place for that to happen, we’ll find a place for you to learn that skill.

Why pay all this money and go to art school when you can collaborate and learn from someone who knows the tricks of the trade? From the skill set to the business side. It’s an interesting model and that’s just the way I did it.

Matt Fernandez | Tech Team Member and Aficionado

Matt Fernandez - Pyragraph
Photo by Josh Stuyvesant.

How is Meow Wolf is pushing the envelope in terms of involving the tech community?

Meow Wolf has embraced the availability of inexpensive electronics and computers, which is really what you need to do the crazy things that artists think about, like when an artist comes to you with an idea called Treenado. The availability of this stuff really makes it viable to take an artist’s vision and surround it with what needs to happen in the physical world.

But the tech community and artists working together in this capacity, it’s almost complicity. Like, who else has made such a point of making an immersive art experience that’s fully reliant on the tech community?

We want to take advantage of every avenue available to immerse people in this world. Tech is just one extension of that. We have beautiful painters and sculptors and who are truly amazing and the tech is more of an accent to that.

After the project was rolling along really strongly, we had tech demos where we previewed those things that we were pretty sure we were going to be able to get in volume, like piezoelectrical sensors—contact microphones that cost around a dollar apiece. You can stick them to anything and it basically becomes a drum. We made a small instrument prototype and we showed it off to the collective of artists, trying to get them to understand what we can do without a whole lot of effort.

From there it was the artists who decided where stuff would go. I say “the artists,” but they’re really smart. We just lowered the barrier to entry; they’re the ones who took it and decided how it was going to be implemented.

Do you consider yourself to be an artist?

Writing code is not unlike writing a book.

What is Meow Wolf?

Meow Wolf is just a group of people with ideas. Nobody’s going to say you can’t do that. They’re going to say, “Well here’s how you make it safe and how you do it for under ten thousand dollars.” It’s all about getting everything to work together. It’s not about what you can’t do and it’s not about an art exhibit with a painting on a wall.

Children will get sheets from their bed and make forts and hideouts. That’s what we’re doing—just on a much grander scale.

Would this whole thing have worked without the tech team?

I don’t know. The artists I’ve worked with come with an ability to get stuff done. They would have been fine without us, but we also showed them things and it would’ve been totally different without us.

Without me, they would’ve been fine, too, but everyone brings something to the table. Everyone who’s worked on this project has definitely spun it one way or another and added their own unique bits and pieces.

At the end of the day, we’re just trying to get stuff to work.

Sarah Dallas | Fabrication Team Member and Badass

Sarah Dallas - Pyragraph
Photo by Josh Stuyvesant.

What was it about Meow Wolf that made you quit your day job and hightail it to Santa Fe to work on the fabrications team full time?

Definitely something that stands out, and you find it after spending just a couple hours here, are the people. Working in such a large community of people with a shared goal and a shared ethos is just exciting. It’s chemistry. It brings a certain amount of excitement to work. To actual work. This is an artist collective working on building a for-profit company. That’s super rare.

That can’t be stressed enough. This is a for-profit company that is shaping up to be a very promising and sustainable one at that. One that is employing artists on a large scale.

I think it’s so common that artists are divorced from the concepts of business, and, while not always, it’s challenging for a lot of artists to bridge that gap. It’s really inspiring to see people getting paid what they’re valued and getting paid to work full time to create an exhibition that is all about creativity and imagination. That to me is really special.

And it’s debunking a lot of myths about what it is to be an artist and what it is to be a “successful artist.” In this case, success is synonymous with the sustainability of it—to be able to continue to pay artists to work in this capacity.

With the creative economy growing, not just in New Mexico but throughout the nation, there’s a lot of potential for exhibitions of this nature to thrive. But you need creative people to commit to educating themselves on how to do it sustainably.

On being committed, was there a big learning curve coming into this huge undertaking? Did you struggle to acclimate in the face of the sheer genius and ambition?

I struggled in the beginning with the scope of my own capabilities. At night, on the pillow, it’s overwhelming and challenging. But every morning when you get here, there’s an immense amount of comfort in these people’s faith in you.

The biggest thing that kept me calm and confident is remembering this is everyone’s first time doing this. This is a first, all around. Nobody’s done this before. Yeah, we all have our niche, forte, or skill set. But you know, I’ve never built a dome baffles. This is such an imaginative world that there’s so much that needs discussing and collaborating and there’s really no stupid questions and if you need help, it’s always there. That’s really all I need as an individual to keep me motivated and feeling positive. Yes, I can do this, because the support, it’s everywhere.

This is what Meow Wolf is:

  • Meow Wolf is a radically inclusive art community.
  • Meow Wolf is a whole bigger than the sum of its parts.
  • Meow Wolf is cohesive storytelling.
  • Meow Wolf is art school.
  • Meow Wolf is the patent owner of Treenado.
  • Meow Wolf is a group of people with ideas.
  • Meow Wolf is a sustainable business.
  • Meow Wolf is a first.
Meow Wolf - Pyragraph
Photo by Lindsey Kennedy.

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