“You should view the world as a conspiracy run by a very closely-knit group of nearly omnipotent people, and you should think of those people as yourself and your friends.”
-Robert Anton Wilson
Like everyone else in Santa Fe, I had a preconceived notion of what the Meow Wolf art collective was about. They had been publicly dormant since I returned to my hometown several years ago, but I’d heard stories of their rise to local fame and national acclaim in the time I’d been gone. The giant ship. The exhibitions in places like New York and Chicago. The weird, cult-like exclusivity. These were, as a friend once joked to me, “the poster children for hipsterism in Santa Fe.” A bunch of gutter punks, hippies, and anarchists who made trash art so cool for a few years, it started to seem passé again. Then they got the Game of Thrones guy to buy them the old bowling alley that had lain fallow for years on the edge of the town’s industrial district. “I heard he paid like a million dollars for it,” rattled off everyone you spoke to, quoting no one in particular. It was all over Facebook. Everyone had an opinion about Meow Wolf. But nobody knew anything about what they were up to. Something about a House.
It was mid-summer when Cole Wilson invited me to check out what was going on at “Big Pink,” the group’s large prefabrication warehouse. Like much of what’s unofficially referred to as the “Lower Siler District,” this building had housed various tenants since industry left town, decades ago. Referring to the area as Santa Fe’s “industrial district” is now more a reflection of zoning than practice. These days, among the mechanics, brake shops, junkyards, and empty warehouses is a growing concentration of young, largely disenfranchised creative folk. From Ghost, Santa Fe’s most prolific alternative music venue, and Radical Abacus, the underground art gallery/residential venue with its neighboring metal venue, The Dave Cave – to the dozens of other small practice spaces and studios dotting the square mile surrounding Siler Road, the “LSD” is the heart and home of Santa Fe’s cultural underground.
I was early showing up, and wandered in an open garage door. I passed a long row of arcade games, some gutted, some seemingly operational. Beyond them were several tables covered in myriads of plastic shapes, surrounding a circle of couches. Every surface was covered in sculpted knick-knacks, sketches, and bizarre little creations. Beyond the tables the warehouse went on, empty for 150 feet, except for a large frame holding up what appeared to be the legs of a huge animal skeleton. As I passed the bank of games, I approached the frame of a hexagonal hut, 10 feet across, suspended several feet off the ground in a metal mangrove tree. Between it and the towering skeletal legs, was another “treehouse” built around an implied but absent tree trunk, with a ladder leading up into a hole in the bottom. Turning the other way, I found a large, ornate Asian archway leaning against a wall, and beyond it a stack of about 80 televisions.
I wandered around, mouth agape for several minutes, trying to come up with a context in which all these things could coexist, conceptually. I also noticed, peripherally, that everyone walking around, drilling holes, driving screws, painting surfaces, sketching out plans and staring at diagrams looked familiar. I knew all these faces, though I had names for few. I’d seen them all around town, at concerts, bars, and parties. For every time I had asked, “Where are all the young people in this town?” in frustration, I now had an answer.
As I finished my lap around the warehouse, Wilson showed up, riding his bike in under the garage door where I had entered. He showed me around again, introducing me to various people working on different projects as we passed, and overloading me with concepts and connections, trying to explain how it all fit together. He threw out names of areas like Portals Bermuda, The Forest, and The Caves, like a fanboy trying to explain to me the backstory of 4 seasons of Battlestar Gallactica during a commercial break.
By the time I found myself sitting on the circle-couch with Mat Crimmins (whom I would spend the next several weeks helping build a full scale plastic mastodon skeleton, for the Caves), looking at diagrams of how all the different sections of the exhibit flowed, I knew I had stumbled into something much larger than I could address directly. I spent the next four months talking to the ever-multiplying members of Meow Wolf, helping with prefabrication when I had the time, learning the stories that brought them together. Over beers with some of the owners and longest involved members, I pieced together the oral history of a group that had never really been asked about its origins – and at a point in their evolution where reflecting on their past could very directly shape their future.
The truth of the matter is that the physical artifact that is The House of Eternal Return – the two-story Victorian building, the family that lives within it, the dreamscape beyond, and the warehouse that contains that universe – is nothing more than the House’s physical manifestation in our world. It’s an art exhibit. It’s a tourist attraction. But what the House actually is goes beyond any simple reality of installation art or commercial endeavor. The House of Eternal Return is a work of magic. It’s a living idea that has been growing of its own accord since its conception, and infects the minds of anyone that allows it to slip into their awareness.
The House is like no work of art that has ever existed before it. It has created a totally experiential medium; a new paradigm of presentation, where suspension of disbelief requires less effort than the retention of one’s self. It is a place where the unreal becomes real, and the ideas of people have changed the physical nature of reality. It is magic.
And it can only be explained from the beginning. Which starts – like so many world-shattering creative movements – with a bunch of bored teenagers looking for something to do.
1. RAISED BY WOLVES
I first encountered Meow Wolf as a music venue. In the spring of 2008, my band played a show with Wilson’s band in a small room that had previously been a barber shop, and before that a tiny Catholic church. The walls depicted a miniature, pastel-colored cityscape – the backdrop for a monster movie that had been shot in the room days before. Broken chunks of mirror hung at odd angles on the walls above, and every surface from floor to ceiling was coated in layers of paint. This was the original Meow Wolf space.
“I would say that Meow Wolf was [at first] the name of the venue, and not the group,” explains Vince Kadlubek, the public face of the group. He continues, “The space always came first.”
Part of the original Meow Wolf core group was made up of local teens who had gathered around Santa Fe’s only youth-oriented arts center, Warehouse 21. Warehouse was a bastion for kids with an interest in punk rock, art, DIY, and anything else out of the mainstream. Many used the space to organize concerts, as it was the only all-ages venue in town, and developed relationships with touring metal, punk, and underground hip-hop acts. Among them were Kadlubek, Chris Hilson, Emily Montoya, and Benji Geary. In the mid-2000s, the non-profit that ran Warehouse received funding from the city to build a new building, and resolved to tear down the old shack these kids had called home. With the closure of the old Warehouse 21, these newly-minted grown-ups, freshly moved out of their parents’ houses, with no plans for college, living paycheck to paycheck on service industry jobs, began thinking about how to fill the expressive void in their lives.
Around the same time, a loose group of friends – comprised of Warehouse kids, some college transplants and other acquaintances – began moving into four small houses surrounding a rectangular parking lot, and formed a small self-supporting community. They called it the Quadroplex.
“The type of environment that we tried to create back then,” Hilson, a former resident of the Quadroplex, explains, “We were all pretty young, and we were trying to work from a place of community sustainability. Just taking care of each other, a real group mentality. We wanted to be creative and have creative people around us. Everyone was a writer, painter, musician… I think that’s where the collective mentality started.” A small bohemian tribe was born.
It was a utopian time for many. Corvas Brinkerhoff – another early Meow Wolfer – moved to Santa Fe in the summer of 2006, and crashed for a while with a friend living in the Quadroplex. He elaborates, “The momentum from that summer and that group just sort of snowballed into a bunch of house shows and parties. Making music together and all kinds of inappropriate public nudity – it was like a microcosmic Summer of Love for about 30 people.”
The biggest of the four, “Meg’s House,” briefly became an epicenter of shows that would previously have been thrown at Warehouse 21. The Santa Fe scene quickly latched on. Soon, the police were being called regularly to shows where giant crowds attempted to pack into the tiny basement. They needed another space.
Kadlubek recalls a morning in late 2007, having just lost his job at Warehouse 21, which was reaching the end of its transitional period, “I remember sitting in my car, breaking down crying.” It would prove to be one of those life-altering rock bottom moments. He continues, “I looked up, and there was this building for lease – an old barber shop called, ‘In Your Dreams.’ So I called and asked how much it would cost, and she told me $900 per month. I thought, I can definitely get 12 people to all pitch $75, so I just started calling people.”
The makeshift family that had formed around the Quadroplex sprung on the idea with unanimous enthusiasm. Early on, there was less of an emphasis on visual art. As Matt King, who joined the group in this stage through a mutual friend, Quinn Tincher, recalls, “Vince wanted to start an arts and – primarily music space, in his mind.” Several of those present, who were involved early on and helped pay some of the first rents were people with more interest in putting on music shows, and simply having a place to hang out.
Meetings were organized every Thursday, and took the form of egalitarian salons. At the first one, the group decided on its name using the Exquisite Corpse method. Individual monosyllabic words were written on pieces of paper and chosen and arranged at random. The best results were voted on, and after some heated discussion (“I CAN’T INVITE MY FRIENDS TO A SHOW AT MEOWZORZ!!”), the group settled on Meow Wolf. This approach would set the tone for much of their future work. “[That] is what Meow Wolf shows [now] are anyway,” Geary explains retrospectively, “Because it doesn’t compromise the esthetic integrity or intent or concept, but finds a way to merge it all into some kind of cohesive deal…”
“[The early meetings] were just us trying to figure out, as a bunch of 20-somethings, how did we want to use the space, and how did we want to represent ourselves?” Kadlubek recounts. “The contrasts at the time were two things,” he explains, “There was the AD Collective, and the art world in general. The AD Collective, both I and Benji had had interactions with, where we were very much shut out of their processes and we were scrutinized and not allowed to be a part. We wanted to do the opposite of that, and welcome anyone who walked through the door. And the art world itself also has that exclusivity, and we wanted to combat that.”
“The goal was for it to be radically inclusive,” Geary confirms, “Where anyone who wants to come – if anyone’s chipping in a few dollars for rent – they can make something.”
The first show, Meowzorz, was largely produced by King and Tincher. “The two of us had a bunch of paintings,” says King. At the time, he didn’t know anyone else in the group. He and Tincher had met by chance months earlier and begun collaborating, “We wanted to have a show to sell paintings. We had already told a guy we had a show. That was a lie. So we had to get a show.”
The two innovated a process that would over the next several years come to define the Meow Wolf esthetic. “They seeded the idea of immersive, site-specific, temporary artwork.” Brinkerhoff explains, “Their work came off the wall, and became sculptural and environmental. It was just this ‘Aha!’ moment, setting up a prototype for how to think about ‘making’ that has room for all kinds of different creative practices.”
“Like all of Meow Wolf, it’s nothing that we thought of beforehand,” King admits, “We pretty much had all the work that we wanted to do, but we had 2 weeks, and we had this space – no one was telling us what to do – so we brought in a bunch of paint and started muraling this building. And it was only 900 square feet, and we did it pretty quickly, and we still had time, so we were on a roll… Sculptures just began building out of the walls, and it just kept going from there. Even though we were the ones doing it, we were watching it unfold as much as anyone else. It wanted to be built, and it just ended up being the right time and place.”
Magic began seeping in around the edges of the project. “First time I ever saw magic was the first Meow Wolf show,” King remembers, “In one of the corners we had built this tree, and I really wanted the roots, which were just going into the floor, to be going into grass. I wanted some sort of grass to fill in between. And we went over to Quinn’s mom’s house, to smoke some pot, a block away. We went over, and she just happens to say – she worked at [a local thrift store] – ‘This thing showed up at work today, and I grabbed it because I thought you might want it?’ And she pulled out the perfect size green shag rug. I was like, ‘That is the only thing I would want from you right now! That is the top thing in my mind!’ I took it back and it fit perfectly. And I consciously noticed that I had asked a question in my mind, and that object had showed up.”
Eager to build on the new approach, the group launched forward. Over the next several months, they created their first collaborative installation, Bio-Neuro-Norb, also known as Biome. The objective was to totally fill the small space with art made out of whatever materials were available. The room was turned into a set of environments, all loosely referencing and blending into one another, each curated by a different person, and filled with their strange creations.
Geary remembers it fondly, with a burst of earnest emotion, “Still one of the best shows we ever did! And it was one of the first things where you felt that the magic actually started happening – in the sense that after it was built and you started spending time in there, you started getting transported to a different world.”
“That esthetic was something I was really interested in,” says Hilson, “Kind of an assemblage idea. A lot of that came from the simple fact that none of us had any money. There’s an art to being crafty. And when you come from a spot where everyone that you know is pretty broke, and you want to do something and you want it to be big and you want it to be crazy, you find ways to take what you have and turn it into what you need.”
Friends and members of the community brought piles of sundry debris to the little building, as the members of Meow Wolf experimented with their new form of collective expression. “It wasn’t about structural integrity,” Geary points out, “It was all free – free or acquired by nefarious means. It was all trash and the shit that we could make out of it.”
“It was like Christmas for us,” Montoya adds, “When somebody showed up with this dumpster full of broken electronics.”
The entire time Biome was being built, parties were being thrown at least weekly. Despite the fact that regular concerts were already driving the neighbors crazy, when the exhibit opened in May of 2008, Meow Wolf was still totally unknown outside the small underground circles of students, punks, hipsters, and other freaks that attended. Much like the DIY spaces in the LSD today, it belonged to and existed for only the people who were involved. It was supported entirely by them and in turn fed their souls. On the day Biome opened, Montoya and Geary were out on the corner of 2nd Street and Cerrillos in hazmat suits, waving at traffic, attracting attention to what was not yet the most exciting thing to happen to the Santa Fe art scene in years.
2. EVERYONE ONLY
Bio-Neuro-Norb ran for several weeks. “It was very popular,” Kadlubek recalls, “We got write-ups in the [Santa Fe] Reporter; people thought it was pretty significant. We trashed the building, though. Because we didn’t know how to install properly.” Between the damage from the installations and the concerts, Meow Wolf had worn out their welcome, “We damaged the walls, we damaged the floor… The landlord was not very happy. Kicked us out. We luckily found another space very quickly; the Hopewell space.”
As Meow Wolf prepared to clear out of their first space, they painted all the walls solid white. “Biome was our reaction to gallery shows,” Montoya explains, “And Everyone Only was our take on what a gallery show would be if we did one.” Hosted in the empty, suddenly blank room, the premise of the Everyone Only show was that anyone who wanted to hang work would be allowed to. Total inclusivity.
In the late summer of 2008, Meow Wolf moved into the space on Hopewell St that would be their home for the next 2 years. It was a large, open warehouse with no insulation. “[It] was a run-down, disgusting…” King trails off, “When we first went to look at it, you could literally taste the cat urine in your mouth. Half the building was divided into these weird little rooms where the drywall in the ceiling was sagging down, and above that there was about 1000 square feet of open fiberglass insulation. And as far as you could see it [had been] a feral cat litterbox for about 20 years.” Undaunted, they took the cat piss and made lemonade, “We knew that the next installation we were going to do [would be around] Halloween, so we decided to make a Halloween show because we had all these scary materials. So we tore down half of this building for the nasty-ass materials, and then took it all apart and moved it to the other side of the building and made [the next show, Horror] out of it.”
“When you’re trying to figure out what you want to do,” Hilson explains, “And you’re not going to school for art, you’re not being exposed to different techniques, you’re figuring it out on your own… I don’t think there’s much of a difference between what’s normally thought of as outsider art, and [early Meow Wolf shows]. We all came to the table with a certain kind of skill set, and then using each other’s skills, we taught each other a lot of things.”
He continues, “That ideal really comes out of the communal thing. For a long time, we didn’t even have to talk about [whose work it is]. We decided that we weren’t going to put our names next to our pieces if it was an installation show. We felt that detracted from the impact of the world we were trying to create. It helps to remove the ego, and it helps to remove certain problems associated with ownership.”
“We sort of came out of left field,” Montoya says, “And for a long time it was just weird kids doing weird stuff.” It was a new idea to many; a freeform collective whose creative direction was totally controlled by an ever-expanding group of anyone that showed interest. Drawn in by the first few shows and the open invite of Everyone Only, people began joining.
One person who joined at that time was Caity Kennedy. In another typical Meow Wolf happenstance, she ran into Brinkerhoff, with whom she had gone to high school in Kansas nearly half a decade prior. They had both come to Santa Fe separately and ended up in a mutual friend’s living room, each trying to figure out why the other looked so familiar. Brinkerhoff invited her to a meeting, and she was immediately hooked.
“Finding Meow Wolf was like finding my people,” Kennedy says, “I had gone to an art school, which I adored. And I had all these wonderful art friends that I missed dearly… And I really liked my friends [here] a lot, but they weren’t makers, in the way I was used to surrounding myself with people who were obsessed with making things. For me [Meow Wolf] was like grad school. And I know for a lot of people it was [a substitute for] college.”
“There was a lot of fallout from trashing that previous building,” Kadlubek says, “And a lot of it fell on me. So I kind of left the group, and I think it was a good thing, because it allowed for other people to take on more leadership roles, and it became much more of a clubhouse collective.”
The creative direction of the group shifted based on the interests of the people who were showing up. While concerts and parties still abounded, the overall focus began to lean more toward visual art. As Hilson explains, “The whole idea of how to choose shows and how to choose subjects was something that we approached very organically in the beginning, much like every decision was approached. We would just have meetings and talk about it. It was very loose, there was no structure – nobody had more power than anyone else.”
“Initially, it wasn’t very lofty,” Brinkerhoff recounts, “But there are a lot of people in the group who are sort of creative visionaries. Even if we did something tiny, we’d sort of project that forward, like, ‘Well, how big can this go? What would it look like if it kept going?’” The projects grew by exponential leaps, born out of casual conversation between one or two people and expanded on by anyone who cared to join in. Even aspects of exhibits that were almost entirely created by individuals were contextually influenced by the work being done around them.
“They were all experiments on how to arrange physically working together,” Kennedy explains, “Horror was very elaborate, with lots of little rooms. The next show, we left it really open. It was called Indoor Winter Activities because we couldn’t come up with a name other than we were inside, and it was so cold, making stuff. It was colder in there than it was outside, and there was just one little heater heating the space right in front of it.”
Ironically, this freeform mass inclusion ended up being what alienated many people from the group early on. As Montoya explains, “It takes a certain level of tenacity for people to become part of the group. Some people want more structure. They want to be told what to do and how to become a member, and some people just show up and start doing stuff. Those are the people who tend to actually continue with the group and stick with it for a while. In a way it’s like natural selection.”
Kadlubek elaborates, “We don’t really invite people. We don’t really welcome people; there’s not the sense of holding someone’s hand through the process. It’s very up to the individual.”
But according to Geary, it’s mostly a matter of becoming a part of the group – almost by osmosis – before one can really function as part of the group. “You could be part of this, too – if you wanted to – and if you took the time to learn how things naturally happen. The people who are moving things, or really into it, or joking around, or smoking cigarettes behind the building… the more you exist in everyone’s periphery, the more you start getting sucked in.”
“We weren’t there to start a business or make money,” explains Brinkerhoff, “It was about getting a bunch of people together and having a really good time making these insane pieces of artwork that none of us could even conceive of, much less deliver on our own.”
Over the next two years, Meow Wolf put up a huge number of shows, attracting the attention of not only the general public, but both the local media and some members of the art establishment. “We were turning over new work every 3 to 6 months,” Brinkerhoff recalls, “We built a pretty big audience very rapidly with that – just tear down and chew up and regurgitate a new exhibition.”
Santa Fe’s response to the fresh new creative pallet was immediate. Much of the town’s international reputation as a destination art city is based in the exclusive commercial worlds of the kitschy downtown tourist market and the contemporary pretentions of Canyon Road. Meow Wolf was something different. With their reputation for throwing rock shows and electronic dance parties, even their art shows felt more like social than cultural events. “It’s not catered to anybody,” Geary explains, “It’s inherently the antithesis of Canyon Road. It’s made for everyone who normally wouldn’t [go to a gallery], to actually have an epiphany or have a weird art experience.”
Initially, none of the work had much cohesive vision. Everyone was working together, but without a common purpose. After Autowolf, a show in which a donated Volkswagen Golf was disassembled and reconfigured into various pieces, a few in the group started pushing to change that. “We learned a lot from that show,” King recalls, “More on the side of what doesn’t work as far as including everyone’s ideas, and how to try and have a bigger conversation about why you’re doing something, or how it’s going to work with something else.”
“That was our last open format show, too,” Kennedy adds, “Everything we’ve done since then has been compartmentalized – to allow for really different work that would look terrible next to one another to be separated visually, while being physically on either side of a very thin barrier.”
“We’re a lot more proficient at having meetings that produce results than we used to be,” Brinkerhoff recalls. The meetings, which had been held weekly since Meow Wolf’s inception, were by default casual gatherings, held in a cloud of smoke, over beers, and with no particular outlined objective.
“I had a really strong impulse early on to organize,” he continues, “That’s sort of my nature.” But there was resistance to change, “The first time I brought an agenda to a meeting, more than half the group scoffed and said, ‘We don’t do agendas.’ The first planning meeting I was at, I said, ‘Let’s make a floor plan.’ And I’ll never forget the response, because it’s so funny looking back now: ‘We don’t really work like that…’ And now we have these 12-page documents [for every aspect of the project, from structure to light and sound]… Yeah… We plan now. It took a long time for us to adopt that. For someone with my kind of OCD impulse to organize and build those structures, it was infuriating – just madness. We’d open a show and just two weeks later, it would be in total disarray, and people would have their paints and tools out in the middle of the show… It was hard, but it also speaks to the raw creativity that was going on there.”
A major catalyst toward greater organization was the production of Meow Wolf’s play, The Moon is to Live On. “When you’re creating and experience where you have a captive audience,” Brinkerhoff explains, “You have a responsibility to those people. When you have an audience that can come and go as they please – like much of our work – you have less of a responsibility, because they can kind of dictate their own experience. But when you have people who bought tickets, sitting there for two and a half hours, you have a responsibility to do that well. And that requires roles and structure. You can’t expect the lighting cues to all go off like clockwork if it’s being done by five different people.”
The show was a multifaceted collage of music, performance art, visual art, and anything else that could be woven around the loose plot structure that ran through it. To call it a play was simply a matter of convenience, as, in typical Meow Wolf style, it was an amalgam of different ideas and forms, and defied simple classification.
“That project was the genesis of the organization as it is today,” Brinkerhoff says, “What we realized was that we had so much more creative power as a group when we elected roles. And that same approach and strategy became the structure for the Due Return.”
The other key element that facilitated the group’s breakout piece was the growing interest from Santa Fe’s art establishment. Erika Wanenmacher, a local sculptor, and longtime friend and mentor of several members, was one of the earliest supporters. She brought Linda Durham, the owner of the gallery that represented her work, to see the first Geodecadent show in spring of 2010. Based on an idea Geary and Montoya developed from a Japanese video game called Katamari, the group had built a geodesic dome, covered – inside and out – with as many objects as they could lay their hands on. King recalls, “Because it was so big, and we needed so much stuff, and we didn’t have any money, we said, ‘Anything that looks good, we’re gonna use.’ We emptied our houses of all of our furniture, all of our possessions…”
“Geodecadent was the polar opposite [of what came before] in that it was a singular object and a singular idea,” Kennedy explains, “Our reaction to Autowolf was to do something singular together, and that was also the last time that we made one thing together – where we didn’t have opportunities for people to do their own stuff.”
“[Linda Durham Contemporary Art] had been around in the Santa Fe gallery scene for 40-plus years,” Geary explains, “In the beginning there were art galleries, but no contemporary art galleries.” Durham was among the most respected local gallery owners, in terms of artist relations, her representation of local artists over the decades being renowned for its integrity and honesty. In fall of 2010, she offered Meow Wolf the opportunity to do what was to be the final installation in her gallery’s main space, which was closing the following spring.
“Geodecadent II was the same as the first one, but better,” King explains, “It’s one of my favorite shows that I’ve done, because it allowed for a lot. Although you could walk inside of it and be completely immersed, you could also step outside of it and it was within a white room. It was equally immersive and… the opposite of that.”
King was the point-person in charge of the project. He decided to try something that went directly against what had until then been a fundamental tenet of the group, “It got more refined because we didn’t allow just anyone to come and make it.” King took it upon himself to hand-select the group of Meow Wolfers that would represent the group in this show, “Putting as much time and money and everything into Meow Wolf as I had for so long, this was a particular show – because it was in a gallery, not in our own space – where I wanted the art to be the best that it could. I didn’t feel that good about it. It was a hard decision for me to make, with myself – to exclude people…” But the strategy worked. Geodecadent II was a clear sign to the “straight” art world that Meow Wolf was serious about their craft.
For those involved, the show was as much validation from the art establishment as they could ever want or expect. But it paled in comparison to the public reaction to Habitats, which had been developed concurrently with Geodecadent II, and opened the same night, across the street, in the Hopewell space. “Habitats was the first time we got together as a group and drew up a concrete plan of what we were going to try to make,” Hilson explains, “It was still an expression of ‘do what you want,’ but within a certain parameter of space. Until that time it was more of a ‘whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want’ thing. Everyone Only kind of summed that up.”
Habitats contained elements that had been explored before, in Horror and Biome, but taken to new extremes. It was the show that embedded Meow Wolf in the consciousness of the community at large, as a group that was creating something new and interesting that you just had to see to understand. It was this type of deeply immersive experience that paved the way for their breakout piece – the “crashed spaceship” known as The Due Return, the spiritual predecessor to The House of Eternal Return. “We realized that when you’re doing immersive installation art, the word ‘immersive’ is the most important part,” says Hilson. The objective became to make people forget they were looking at an art exhibit. Meow Wolf transitioned from making works of art to creating worlds. “Those experiences where you get to pull yourself away from the day to day world,” he continues, “Even as a kid, to me those experiences were incredibly important. Getting the opportunity to be in a situation or environment that is completely removed from your day to day reality, and just being able to have fun with it – it forces you to create a suspension of disbelief. It forces you to play.”
It was the blueprint for everything that was to come. Meow Wolf had found their medium; the creation of immersive environments, which could be interpreted and explored by visitors on their own terms. It was the overarching sense of “play” the public connected with. The group was until then often dismissed as “hipsters making trash art,” but the vast majority of those who saw Habitats were overwhelmed by the scope and originality of the presentation. They were able to suspend their cynicism and see the potential in this collective imagination.
3. DUE RETURN
Around the time of Habitats, as projects became more structurally complex, more “outside” contributors began getting involved. People of all backgrounds and age-groups began attending the meetings, which swelled to their largest size yet – just as it became more important than ever for those meetings to be productive and objective-oriented. In an effort to reconcile the need to rein in the social dynamic of the meetings with the decidedly anti-authoritarian personality of the group, several Meow Wolfers began to ask Benji Geary to open the meetings.
“If Meow Wolf was a person,” Brinkerhoff jokes, “That person would be Benji.” This is a consensus among the group, newcomers and old-timers alike. Geary himself describes his role more as, “The liaison pope between whatever cosmic deity beast the ‘Meow Wolf’ is and the rest of us.”
“I was Erika Wanenmacher’s assistant,” he recalls, explaining the origins of the chant that still starts meetings today, “Not only with sculpture stuff, but I was also her witch apprentice for a while. She’s like our occult mom… Everybody started asking, ‘Would you start this meeting – do like this ritualistic beginning?’” He did so in the only way he knew, in a perfect expression of the group’s shamanistic, cultish spirit. “I don’t think about it until 4 seconds before,” he explains, “It’s different every time. But it always has the same chant:
“Hey everybody, it’s time to start!”
The crowd calls back, “Start what?”
He yells back in rhythm, “Start the meeting!”
Once again, they reply, “Start what!?”
“Start this meeting…”
It usually comes at the end of an improvised cacophony of imagery spouted off the cuff by Geary. He’ll go on for about a minute, riffing freely. It’s a sight that can’t be ignored, this lanky, 7-foot tall wild man flailing and contorting as he spews forth something between an evangelical preacher’s speech, a freestyle rap, and an anarchist manifesto. It gets everyone’s attention, and every peripheral discussion, no matter how entrenched, dies away. “It’s a good way to keep everyone in the mindset of, ‘Hey we’re still doing magic, we’re still doing weird shit, we’re still friends – even though there’s all this business shit we’ve never dealt with before.’”
Montoya agrees, “We’ve had some serious meetings. There was a point where people were pretty burned out on meetings, so it was important to have a moment of levity.”
That point began to come about in the winter of 2010, following the twin success of Geodecadent II and Habitats, when Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts offered Meow Wolf an opportunity that would produce their breakthrough work. As always, the space came first. The 3,000 square foot Muñoz-Waxman Gallery was over three times the size of any room the group had previously tried to fill.
“We wanted it to be something that could stand alone,” King recalls, “That you could step back from and see all of it, like Geodecadent. We wanted you to be able to walk all the way around it, but we wanted you to be able to go inside of it, and we wanted that to be compartmentalized so that we could each do whatever we wanted.” The origins of the ship idea are unclear, but what is clear is that during this time, the collective development of ideas was at its peak. King explains, “It’s not just sitting in meetings. I live with Caity, and we talk about stuff. And then we go and hang out with Benji and Emily, and we talk about stuff. And I might be quoting an idea that Caity had earlier and then it changes. It’s not that important where it comes from.”
These discussions sprouted the concept of a large, dimension-traversing spaceship called the Due Return, that had intersected with our reality, bringing with it artifacts of all the strange places it had previously been. “So many meetings,” Montoya remembers, “So many discussions. Originally it was going to have insect appendages, and wings, and legs, and it was not going to be any kind of recognizable ship.”
As ideas and concepts began to spiral out, the group had to reel in its natural tendency to try to do everything at once, and focus on what needed to happen to make a cohesive piece. “It was intimidating,” Montoya says, “Because it was a huge space and there was no way to Bio-Neuro-Norb it. It was too much, and we didn’t have the time or the money.”
“But we still had the will in the beginning!” Geary chimes in, “So there were plans for murals along the whole side, but then we thought, ‘What will people focus on and what will they ignore?’ and that was a good point of editing.”
The group suddenly began to resemble, in some ways, the very art establishment they had come together in reaction to. Members were asked to present their ideas before a panel, which included representatives from CCA, as well as fellow Wolfers. Over the course of the prefabrication and 2 month install, Meow Wolf’s numbers would swell to over 100, and as volunteers kept pouring in, and the concept became more expansive, the only way to continue moving forward was to embrace this structural change.
An integral figure in the process was Sean Di Ianni. Regarded by many of his fellows as the most level-headed and practical Meow Wolfer, Di Ianni was a major force behind the structural design of the Due Return (as well as Habitats and Horror before it). Having experience building barns in his youth, he applied much of that architectural knowledge designing the façade of the ship, and dividing the spaces within. He continues this role to this day, organizing logistics, and working closely with the contractors and architects of the House.
The finished Due Return was 75 feet long, 14 feet high, and 25 feet wide at its widest point. It contained many different interactive spaces, from a bridge, captain’s quarters, and engine room, to a full cash bar that would double as a music venue over the next several months, and a number of bunks curated by different members. Distributed around the exhibit were scannable QR codes that through a smart phone app would give you the backstory of different areas and details. The narrative department created a full novel-length “Archive” that told the story of the ship’s origin and journey, tying together much of the bizarre detail strewn about the exhibit.
“We had the option,” Hilson explains, “To credit one person, or six, or twelve. Most art shows, that’s how it would be done, regardless of how many people actually worked on something. We chose to put up 120 names.” By Meow Wolf’s credo, no one’s contribution was too small, too insignificant, or too tangential. It was a silent acknowledgement that no one person – regardless of how many hours they put in, or how many of their ideas ended up in the final piece – was capable of producing this kind of work without the contribution and influence of the rest of the group. The project was Meow Wolf’s defining moment, but it would also lead to a crisis of identity that has still not been completely resolved, and which will likely determine the future of the group.
“We were working on it for so long, that the magic was totally lost on us,” Kadlubek recalls, laughing, “By the time we got to opening [in May of 2011], we were just like, ‘Fuck this. What are we even doing? Is this art?’ It seemed so masturbatory. People are just going to say, ‘Oh great, they built a boat…’”
No one was prepared for what came next. “We were finishing on opening day,” he continues, “Literally sweeping about a half hour before opening the doors… And I looked outside and there was already a line of like 500 people.” Santa Fe had been paying attention. Having slipped into the subconscious minds of even the most virulent doubters with Habitats, everyone in town was curious how Meow Wolf would follow it up. The Due Return was an instant success beyond anyone’s wildest expectation. Kadlubek recalls, “After the first weekend we had like 15 grand, which was crazy for us. If we had made $300 in a night before that, we were so psyched. And this was like $15,000 the first weekend, and then $10,000 the next weekend, and then the next.”
With the sudden and unexpected influx of money, a whole Pandora’s Box of ethical questions burst open. “There was a sense of, ‘Oh God, is this illegal? We don’t know what we’re doing!’” Kadlubek explains, “There was no entity. There was no business. The question was, ‘Whose money is this? And how do we make sure [its use is determined] ethically, and in keeping with our own group’s ethos?’”
But the answer to that would prove more elusive than simply asking the question. There was a sudden splintering of trust, breaking the group into factions. Meow Wolf had always functioned based on consensus, but now, with over 100 people involved – all of whom wanted a say in how the sudden financial windfall would be allocated – meetings had become unwieldy propositions. There were several main points of contention. One major issue was that there was no legal or financial entity representing the Meow Wolf art collective. If any one member “received” the money, they would then be tax liable. Another point of contention was what happened to the cash in the meantime. According to several Wolfers, during this period of indecisive limbo, the entire massive sum of cash generated by the Due Return sat in a box under Kadlubek’s bed. There were those in the group that were not comfortable with that arrangement, and political alliances began to form. As Kadlubek puts it, “It became kind of just a giant game of Survivor, like ‘Who’s going to get voted off the island,’ or more, ‘How are we going to go forward with this.’ There were various energies, and various different personalities were trying to take control.”
He was the first to bring up the notion of paying people for the work they had done, a notion that was initially met with wide resistance. As Geary says, “A lot of people were just like, ‘… No. That’s never the way we’ve done things. Everything will be corrupted and destroyed.’”
Montoya elaborates, “We had always done sliding scale for everything. ‘If you can pay, cool, if you can’t, go on in.’ I think there’s also this tendency for artists – or, some of us – to undervalue what we do, ‘I couldn’t justify charging you for what I do, because I can’t put a value on what I do.’”
“Just the words ‘hourly rate,’ just seemed like such a joke,” adds Geary, “Everyone was working other jobs. To talk about that, the way we had run so far, it would only be in a joking manner. It would be a parody of what you thought shitty artists said. And we were actually starting to say those things, and there were a lot of adverse reactions.” There were those in the group that suggested simply making a pile out of the money and publicly burning it, as a defiant artistic statement. “It was a beautiful yin and yang of terror,” he remembers.
Through a long series of deliberations, and over the course of many all-night meetings, cooler heads prevailed (or, according to others, ground out a consensus), and the group moved forward. A number of members left in angry protest, but a majority agreed that investing the money into the longevity of the collective was the best course of action. They realized, as Geary points out, “We [could] actually turn this into a sustainable thing where we don’t have to scrape and pick to pay rent for a space every month in order to sustain this kind of lifestyle that we love.”
A sound system was bought, and utilized throughout the run of the Due Return, converting it into a concert venue on weekends. Some of the money went into cameras, lights, and other infrastructural investments in future projects. The rest of the money was set aside and used to fund the subsequent shows, helping with travel costs, materials, and paying for accommodations. With the unprecedented success of the Due Return came offers from every direction. “It was a weird time,” Geary recalls, “Because it was so exciting, and everyone was so into Meow Wolf. Even people who had never been into it.”
“We really saw this advantage in being a multi-limbed entity,” Kadlubek says, “Where anyone could do anything that they wanted, as long as they proposed it.”
“We said yes to a lot of things,” Montoya explains, “That’s been our characteristic thing, ‘If we get an offer, we’re going to do it.’” But the approach was a double-edged sword. She continues, “The establishment started saying, ‘Oh, it’s young people! What can they do for us?’ So there were some semi-questionable things, where [people implied], ‘We want to project the appearance that we like young people and we’re cool.’ And we said yes to everything. It got to the point where people started thinking, ‘Oh they’ll work for peanuts!’ …And we did!”
Between 2011 and 2013, the group traveled around the country to do projects in whatever spaces they were offered. “The only variable was how much time we had to do the piece.” Geary says, “‘What can we do to make this the craziest thing in 3 weeks, or 48 hours, or whatever…’ Everyone was always really pleased, the turnout was always really good, except we were getting paid nothing. In fact, we paid for the materials.” Despite falling victim to the “economy of exposure” that plagues so many creative industries, in this time, Meow Wolf was responsible for a vast quantity of large scale work.
The first touring exhibition was in Las Cruces, New Mexico, at a gallery on the New Mexico State University campus. Glitteropolis was a diorama of modern life as imagined by futuristic archaeologists. “It was so much fun,” remembers Kennedy, “It was the first time that was all we were doing. We weren’t working on our jobs.”
Every few months, representatives of the group would travel to another place and build another installation. They did several pieces for the Communikey Electronic Music Festival in Boulder, and traveled to New York for one-day installations. In 2013, they did a largely light and sound-based installation called Nimbus at the Luminaria Festival in San Antonio.
The largest, and most popular show the group would produce in Santa Fe during this time was in 2012. It also brought them in direct contact with their most unexpected but essential audience. Immediately after the Due Return, Meow Wolf developed an educational outreach program through CCA, called Chimera, in which members of the collective went into 25 of Santa Fe’s schools and engaged with local children on a creative level. Over the course of the next year, 1000 students were tasked with coming up with imaginary products – from concepts to slogans and packaging – which would be used to stock a fictional grocery store called Omega Mart.
The program was based on the idea that Meow Wolf’s creative modus of exploration and play is something children inherently understand. Whatever worry some initially had that the ideas they were asking the kids to work on would go over their heads quickly vanished. “All kids have amazing ideas,” Montoya continues, “When we were asking them to create fake products, they all got it from day one. They got the sarcasm. Everyone already has this jaded approach to being marketed to.”
Omega Mart was a reinterpretation of an earlier show in the Hopewell space that had been neither elaborate nor convincing enough for many members of the group, and this was an opportunity to do it right. Installed in an vacant grocery store, filled with products born in the imaginations of Santa Fe’s children, and staffed by members of Meow Wolf (who, perhaps not incidentally, tend to fit the exact demographic descriptions of most retail employees), until one looked closely, Omega Mart was completely indistinguishable from a real grocery store. Montoya recalls the confusion, “That was the first time people walked into one of our shows and didn’t even know it was a show. We went to Lowe’s across the street to see if they could donate any shelves to us, and they thought we were a real store. They were so relieved to find out it was just an art show, ‘We thought you guys were going to put us out of business!’” But the competition weren’t the only ones fooled, “We had people walking up to us as we were installing the show, asking to fill out applications. We’d tell them it wasn’t a real grocery store, and just an art project, and they’d reply, ‘Can I still give you my resume?’ It was kind of a sad statement on the state of the economy.”
As early as Nimbus, members were also throwing around ideas for the highly anticipated “Chicago Show.” “Thomas Robertello originally wanted to find us a warehouse and it didn’t really happen,” King recalls, “He saw the Due Return, and had a gallery in Chicago and wanted us to come be in [it], but he was totally booked until 2013. So we had like 2 years to plan. He wanted it to be bigger than the Due Return. So that’s when we started meeting and pretty much came up with a lot of things that [became the House of Eternal Return]. And a lot of stuff that didn’t make it into this show. Crazy things.”
“It was really frustrating being part of those meetings,” Kennedy admits, “Because the ideas were based on nothing. It wasn’t ideas about something we could all make and fit together, the way [the House turned out], it was just… ideas… like, all ideas. There were just layers and layers…” The space had always come first. Every project Meow Wolf had done up until then, they would enter the space and work off that. Without a space, the ideas had no anchor in reality.
The promised warehouse never materialized. Despite the eventual Chicago Show being one of the most critically acclaimed Meow Wolf shows, it was not nearly on the scale they had expected. Nucleotide was a series of psychedelic caves with interactive light-up gems jutting from the walls, and itself seeded the idea for several sections of the House. But the complete vision was not to be realized so easily.
Money was still a major issue. Throughout this period of traveling to create their work and reach a wider audience, the group got by on bare bones. Fundraising was constant and sometimes desperate. Before going to Chicago, Kennedy, King, and several friends held a half-block-wide yard sale, raising over $2000. The people who were most involved in Meow Wolf at the time were the ones who could afford to leave their day to day lives behind on a semi-regular basis for months at a time. It was an unsustainable proposition for many, and even for those who participated, living and work conditions were often less than ideal. They rarely speak of much beyond the joy and pride of creating these elaborate and spontaneous works – the raw creative energy that surrounded and sustained them throughout those years – but, ultimately, that lifestyle could not be maintained indefinitely.
“It started getting really tiring, doing these shows that didn’t make money. There was no business model behind it.” Kadlubek recounts, “We all had to work jobs. Meow Wolf continued to be this hobby, and we didn’t want it to be a hobby, we wanted it to be our lives. And the only way forward I could see was, either we sell work – we learn how to make work that can sell – or we create an attraction. Like, we do the Due Return, and we do it bigger, and we charge money at the door to see it. And we make it permanent.”
He and Brinkerhoff began developing a business plan around the idea of a permanent installation. “The financial part of it is why it has to be permanent,” Brinkerhoff explains, “It’s not that we want to stop doing temporary work, it’s that it’s not sustainable.”
But with no venue available and no seed money, the idea of a permanent installation was merely a pipe dream. “It was harder to gather the gusto and magic that Meow Wolf had always had,” Geary says, “We still had it, but it was being abused and spread too thin. We weren’t all in on the same thing. We were all doing 3 things at once, and everything suffered.”
“Things were splintering,” Kennedy recalls, “Personalities were clashing so hard, and there were a lot of us that were just sick of it. There was enough psychic dissonance… People with vastly different points of view on how things should work, even if the reality of [the differing opinions] was the same, just the terminology being different was enough to make some of the mid-meeting fights really vicious.”
Meow Wolf had apparently run out of steam. While the products of their collective minds still reached far beyond any of their individual creative or logistical capabilities, those involved had to consider the practical aspects of survival, and began pursuing individual opportunities. It seemed for a moment as though the magic was over. And then tragedy struck.
4. ETERNAL RETURN
David Loughridge had been involved with Meow Wolf since 2009. He was already a fairly established photographer in his own right, but when he learned about the group, he was quickly drawn in by their ambition and collective spirit. “He changed the way that we worked,” Kadlubek remembers, “He wanted to see better work, he wanted to see bigger work, more ambition. We wouldn’t have been able to do the Due Return or the play without him. He was the kind of guy that if you needed something to get done, he would say, ‘Fuck it, let’s go get it done right now.’” He was an integral part of the Due Return and every project after it. To many in Meow Wolf, he was a personal mentor, and was passionately devoted to the collective ideals of the group.
On January 19th, 2014, Loughridge died suddenly. His passing was a shock to everyone who knew him, particularly the members of Meow Wolf, who had come to view him as family. In the week following his death, many in the group flocked to the home of his former roommates, Kennedy and King, coming together, as if by instinct, to comfort one another and grieve in the company of those who understood what they were going through.
“Everyone was at our house, all day every day,” Kennedy recalls, “It was a week-long wake, the way they’re supposed to be done. Our house is kind of big, in a weird way. There were people making food, people making tea, people being by themselves, but not alone, people talking and laughing, people crying… Anything anyone needed to do, but together.”
Some of those who found themselves in the same room with one another hadn’t spoken since the days of the Due Return. Bad blood that hadn’t been addressed in years was put – if only for the moment – in the past. Old friends reminisced on the dreams they had brought to life together, and for the first time in months, some casually discussed the future of the group.
The event was a catalyst. As King says, “This project – in my mind – we wouldn’t be doing it now if David hadn’t passed away.”
Kadlubek, motivated by the memory of the friend they had all lost, threw himself behind the idea of bringing to fruition the plans he and Brinkerhoff had begun laying out years before: a permanent installation that would serve as a perfect realization of Meow Wolf’s creative aesthetic, and a testament to Loughridge’s memory. This permanent exhibit would act as a home base, propelling them onto a national stage and financing future work in larger markets.
“I don’t know how Vince convinces people to do this stuff,” Kennedy says, “He has these quasi-demonic powers of persuasion. I’m glad he’s using his powers for good; this wouldn’t exist otherwise. I think part of what has also made this project possible and made some of the interpersonal stuff better [within the dynamic of the group], is that he’s realizing this is something he has that other people don’t. He’s less and less expressed frustration with the rest of us being unable to just ask someone for 40 grand. We can ask, it doesn’t mean they’ll give us anything. But he has magical powers to… not only make people give us stuff like that, but take times where things have almost fallen through, and convince people to stay with it.”
At the time, Kadlubek was working for the Jean Cocteau Cinema in downtown Santa Fe, a local cultural institution, which had recently been bought, renovated, and reopened by famed fantasy author and local celebrity recluse, George R.R. Martin. In the press that surrounded the reopening, Martin repeatedly expressed his interest in “turning the lights back on” in shuttered cultural spaces around town, and Kadlubek decided to pitch an old idea to him. Kennedy remembers, bemusedly, “David and Vince had talked for years about the bowling alley, and how funny it would be to contact George out of the blue.” Kadlubek did just that.
He contacted Martin through the operators of the Jean Cocteau, and pitched him the idea of a permanent Meow Wolf art complex in the abandoned bowling alley in the Lower Siler District. After several tense weeks of negotiation, satisfying a list of requirements set forth by Martin – not least of which was securing several million dollars in additional funding through grants, a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, and several large donations (among others, from Loughridge’s parents, who were personally touched by the community that came together around their son’s passing, of which they had been previously unaware) – Meow Wolf secured its principle investor, and Martin bought them the building that would come to contain the House of Eternal Return. The finally had a space.
Upon entry to the House of Eternal Return, visitors will be presented with a two story Victorian house. It appears to be totally normal. It’s inhabited by a family of four, and contains evidence and artifacts of their day to day lives throughout. Playing off the lessons of Omega Mart, this intentionally ordinary façade hides behind it something that is anything but. King explains, “That’s why a house came out of this idea, because it’s something everyone knows – people live in houses. People are really used to, say, going in a kitchen – that’s really commonplace – and then you take something like opening a refrigerator, which everyone does every single day, but then that experience is suddenly really different. It’s just altered a little bit, but it’s totally world-shattering.”
“Because if you do it right,” Wilson adds, “Every time someone goes home and opens a refrigerator, they think about that time they opened a refrigerator and there was a portal to another world in it.”
Through several of these portals, hidden throughout the house, and only discoverable through deliberate exploration, one enters a series of fantasy lands. Beyond one passage is a hexagonal, futuristic room called Portals Bermuda, an interdimensional travel agency with interactive panels that help you select your destination through one of several pneumatic doors. Beyond that is a magical forest, and an alien cave system with touch-sensitive glowing stalagmites. There is a section called “Art City,” in which every room showcases a different local artist. There is a room of refurbished and garishly decorated free-to-play arcade games, another that feels like the inside of an aquarium, and a fully wired music performance stage disguised as a dried-up lake bed. All of these sections are connected by even more small installations and passageways. Everything is organized in order to keep visitors wondering if they’ve actually explored the whole space, or if there’s still more to be found.
Building on the experiences from the Chimera program, in addition to the main exhibition, there will be a whole section of the building devoted to arts education, hosting workshops in many of the techniques used in building different aspects of the House. There will be a Make Space, where local artists and students can become members and be trained to use specialized equipment – from power tools to computer controlled routers – for their own projects.
The House of Eternal Return is a massive logistical undertaking. In addition to the contractors and subcontractors that gutted the old bowling alley and built the framing and structures for the House and the world beyond it, over a hundred volunteers and prefabrication staff have worked full time since last summer constructing thousands of artifacts, decorations, and set-pieces for the sprawling immersive experience. Many of the obstacles the group has faced were unique to the project. Most of the contractors working on the structural end have never been asked to do anything like what they’re doing here. The unorthodox fire-suppression installation alone delayed the project by a month or more. The group has met all these challenges in stride, and accomplished a more complex logistical and organizational feat than many critics gave them credit for being capable of. Now what remains to be seen is how the public will react to what they’ve created.
“We’ve made a huge effort to ask not just what we would want to see, but what a family with kids would want to see,” Montoya explains, “Or a single retiree would want to see, so that anyone could come in and have a fulfilling experience – no matter what that means to them – in our space. I don’t think that people need to get it the way that I get it. If anyone comes in and has just one moment that takes them out of their head and lets them see another possibility or think about something a little bit differently, then I think we’ve done our job.”
In response to doubts about the financial viability of the complex, Kadlubek replies, “It’s really going to be explained by experiencing it. And that’s the key here. We want to create something that words can’t describe, where conversations go, ‘You just have to see it…’ I think that what we’re doing is touching on a human need for escape and to be immersed in unpredictability, and to discover, and explore, and play,” he continues, “Kids are really the main demographic we’re producing this for. What we saw with the Due Return, is that this is something that kids inherently want. It’s basically forts. Forts on steroids and LSD. By themselves, [an adult] might not be interested, but with their kids, yes.”
And this is the crux of the whole business model (and perhaps name) of the House of Eternal Return. You keep coming back. “When you talk about admissions-based markets,” Kadlubek explains, “Kids drive it. Movies, museums… We want general population. [Art people] will come, but they’re not the target. We’re not trying to sell $20,000 paintings or cultivate multi-million dollar donors to foot us. Our model is based on $5 and $10 admissions. And [the educational element, the Make Space] captures the audience that’s already interested in what you’re doing. So if you have a kid who wants to learn how to make a touch-reactive, LED plastic mushroom, we can show them how to do that. The perspective out there is that we’re just doing a big art project. It’s kind of a new medium.”
“I feel like we’re on this path that is sort of inevitable,” King says, “This wants to be built. And if we can keep the interactions between ourselves and the rest of the world positive, we can be the ones to build it. We are the group of people that happens to be here right now doing it. It’s a very complicated thing to build, and it’s mainly the human interaction – which can get really messy – that could make this fall apart.”
With the opportunity comes the question of how Meow Wolf will move forward. In many ways, that is the elephant in the room: the question of how the paradigm shift from the group’s past as a free-form collective of committed artists and friends to a for-profit business will affect its creative process. In my time volunteering on the prefabrication of the Caves and interviewing owners, staff, and volunteers, everyone I spoke to was enthusiastically obsessed with the project itself. Be they founding members, veterans of the Due Return, or newcomers, the thing that attracted them all, and keeps them all involved is the group creative process. One of the first days I showed up, a fellow volunteer made a random judgment call that ended up dramatically changing the entire esthetic direction of the Caves. Over the next few months, she became a paid staff member, directing much of the volunteer effort in that section of the exhibit. The magic through which Meow Wolf has always operated, thrived, and developed ideas is still very much in practice on this level.
But there seems to be some degree of uncertainty in terms of what will follow when this project is over. Jobs are guaranteed only to core members of the group. There was initially a disparity between the compensation of those involved in the logistical organization and planning of the project and those actually creating the objects in the exhibition. A few of those who were integrally involved in the prefabrication and tech teams early on have taken a back seat, citing a need to take better care of personal affairs, and an inability to make ends meet on the wages Meow Wolf was offering. It has been pointed out that the budget for this show would have to be at least three times its current size to make such a project feasible anywhere outside Santa Fe, where the group has a large pool of friends and supporters who will work for far less than industry standard wages.
And there are other concerns in regards to the group’s identity moving forward, as well. “So many times I read things about Meow Wolf,” King says, “That people do interviews, and they’re not looking for the whole story. They are getting the truth, but… it’s a very complex story. There are a lot of people involved. A lot of things have happened in everyone’s individual minds – and collectively – along the way.” There has been debate recently about whether Meow Wolf is still an art collective or not. Meetings are less discussions now, and more updates on goings on that only certain parts of the group have direct dealings with. An effort is made to keep everyone informed, but not everyone any longer gets a say on every issue, or, perhaps more importantly, on which issues are to be decided by whom.
There now exist two entities. Meow Wolf, the art collective, and Meow Wolf LLC, the business. The company is owned by six long-time Meow Wolfers: Corvas Brinkerhoff, Sean Di Ianni, Vince Kadlubek, Caity Kennedy, Matt King, and Emily Montoya. They all hold different positions within the operational structure of the collective, but as far as the business is concerned, they are the final decision-makers. When the House of Eternal Return opens, on March 17, the proceeds will go to Meow Wolf LLC, and depending on what follows, this group of six people will decide what happens next for the collective. While having this type of established financial entity at its core is indispensably important – critical to the sustainability of the group – it leaves Meow Wolf faced with the same crisis of identity that has loomed over them since their initial success with the Due Return. Once this much money is involved, how do you preserve your soul?
Perhaps the only comparable creative industry to this, in terms of logistical scale, is film-making. Much like how Meow Wolf divided their efforts for The Moon is to Live On, a film is made possible by giving people complementary but entirely discrete tasks, all of which support one another, but none of which could possibly perform the duties of the others. The biggest disasters on movie sets occur when a person with one job tries to do someone else’s; if the director or an actor tries to decide how a scene should be lit, or how a special effect should be triggered. Or if the producers – those responsible for ensuring the finances and logistics of the project – try to control the creative process.
Similarly, the only way Meow Wolf will continue to grow and produce more incredible and immersive works of art is if the creative process of the group is left to those doing the creating, and allowed to develop as it always has. The financial structure that supports that is integral, and necessary, but it cannot be allowed to dominate the direction of the group, or it will eat itself alive.
Though, even that would not be a total disaster. Even if the House of Eternal Return turns out to be Meow Wolf’s peak (and I sincerely doubt that will be the case), the collective has brought into this world a concept and an experience that cannot be compared to anything before it. It’s a new paradigm in story-telling and education. It is a model that can be utilized by groups all over the world, some of which will only come about as a result of this inspiration. As Geary so perfectly puts it, “It is transmutation of thought into actual physical matter by use of force, but also by will. That is magic.”
And this magic is the key. The space always comes first. And the magic contained within the House of Eternal Return – the potential imaginative energy waiting to be unlocked, largely by the children of Santa Fe – is akin to the force of an atomic explosion. “Things like money and power and prowess,” Wilson points out, “Are absolutely insignificant when you think about the number of children who are going to have a spiritual or artistic awakening in this space.”
It’s not about how successful the House is as an attraction, or what Meow Wolf does next, or if or where they build the next one. The House of Eternal Return has entered our world. It will soon be a part of the consciousness of thousands of children of all ages, including some that are technically adults. And the magic it awakens in those minds will change the world in ways no one can possibly predict.