Warning: Graphic language and spoilers ahead
Meow Wolf: House of Eternal Return was a fun house. A cacophonous assemblage of wild ideas loosely connected by a soft sci-fi narrative packaged for tidy consumption.
The sheer scale and scope of the “immersive, interactive experiences that transports audiences of all ages into fantastic realms of story and exploration” was remarkable. When we arrived before the 10:00 am opening time last Saturday the line was already forming outside the most attended attraction in New Mexico. After three and a half hours in the converted bowling alley, I can say that I am in awe of the perseverance, planning, and craftsmanship that went into realizing Meow Wolf.
Moreover, the ragtag group of artists who made Meow Wolf have summarily shared their wealth nationally through generous DIY art collective funding and I look forward to the next franchise opening in Denver in 2020. Despite this, I can’t believe it’s not better.
To arbitrate high and low art is not my intention here. I realize it’s all a matter of taste, or so the saying goes. My following criticisms may have more to say about my lofty expectations and prejudices than the intention or talent of Meow Wolf collective’s artists, but I’ll offer them to you in all their imperfections.
The conceit of the 33,000 square foot fun house is that a boy stole his grandfather’s time and space manipulation device and inadvertently invited chaos into his family’s Mendocino home. In the darkened warehouse, warm golden light spills from the three bedroom home with white picket fence, Thomas Kinkadey welcoming. The Victorian house has been quarantined by a shadowy agency and the family vanished. As an explorer at Meow Wolf you can observe the strange anomalies from the house which, as a short video from a Men in Black-style agent explicitly tells you, are the “hopes, dreams, and fears of the members of the family.”
The dining room table vibrates with the inciting machine. Photos on the stairs help you piece together the family line and an inter-generational tale of jealousy and secrets. Several screens show footage of the inventor discussing his theories. Touching notebooks in the little boy’s room provide clues to understanding his motivations for creating a rift in the multiverse. You may open the refrigerator or the dryer and find yourself drawn into one of the cleverly engineered passages to an alternate dimension.
Like a Big Mac, the immersive experience hit all the pleasure points. Its loud, colorful, and out-there Pop Surrealism was turned up to the 11-and-under crowd’s volume. My eighteen-month-old daughter, Imogen, had a blast. She experienced awe, amazement, joy—the kind she vocalizes when the garbage truck barrels by, the smoke alarm goes off, or the flashing lights of an ambulance flicker around her car seat. I found myself jealous of the DMT existence that is babyhood. For those of us who aren’t children, or under the influence of childlike wonder inducing substances, Meow Wolf falls short of expectations in a few ways.
It was made just for people like me: millennial professionals with delusions of the weird, a generation raised on Goosebumps and Goonies, Jumanji and The Last Starfighter before aging into Tim Burton, Hot Topic, and Invader Zim. The girl who put down “A Wrinkle in Time” before grabbing her glow sticks and heading to the roller rink or dodging under the black light in the laser tag arena will feel at home with the aesthetic.
The colors, themes, even the sounds feel so customized to my demographic I could practically read the survey that seemed to have determined the creative direction. The pop culture references, allusions to TV, literature, and film, even the color scheme cradled me in a cocoon of 90s nostalgia where I felt right at home. A reasonable reader would ask, “So why would you hate something made to please you? What’s wrong with precision marketing?” To that, I have no answer other than to say, “I don’t know.” I get pissed off when an online ad is targeted so directly at me it makes me see myself as a data point.
But more than that, I like my art to serve something more than my consumerism or my base desire for familiarity and amusement. If it is made as entertainment for me to passively consume, if it accurately satiates my cravings with comfortable and predictable allusions, if it stays inside my realm of experience, is it really art? I don’t know, but it certainly qualifies as an expertly manufactured “experience.”
Given the artistic DIY origins of Meow Wolf’s makers, I had expected more aesthetically diverse, narratively mysterious, and interactively engaging material. I had hoped to be transported into a state of awe similar to when, as a child, I stuck colorful dots all over a flat white kitchen as a participant in Yayoi Kusama’s installation “The Obliteration Room.” At the Cleveland Institute, my eyes were buzzing with the depth created by the colorful dots, an attempt by the artist to visually depict the constant hallucinations she sees through her “obsessional” art.
Depth played tricks on me as I spun around the previously pure white room filling with dots. I had one experience of wonder at Meow Wolf in a small dome. My daughter, Imogen, and I crawled in and lay on the scratchy faux grass as dozens of multicolored eyeballs painted on basketball-sized glass orbs slowly blinked to the soundtrack of scary night sounds. She lay on my chest and we let the singularly strange room wash over us. For the first time in the entire exhibit, I had time to focus on one vision and to enjoy the thoughts and feelings that my imagination provided.
In Kusama’s “Obliteration Room” not only was I transported by profound emotions, but I was also invited to affect my surrounding. One aspect of immersive art I love most is the idea that individuals aren’t passive to the artwork and environment but contribute to it. Besides a wooly mammoth skeleton and some glowing mushrooms that change color and emit sound when touched, there wasn’t much that my presence or movement affected. Affecting the outcome is a mark of immersive performance that I cherish dearly and its absence at Meow Wolf was felt.
Choosing which performer to follow at “Sleep No More” gave me agency and the feeling that my experience was truly unique. At the Communikey Festival in Boulder a few years back I participated in Lucky Dragon’s “Make a Baby,” an experimental collaborative synth played by every individual in the room touching one another to elicit different tones and rhythms from the computer program emitting the sounds. With simple technology and cooperation, we were able to affect our surroundings aurally and to create community in the process, which leads me to my next disappointment.
I had expected to collaborate with my fellow weekend art lovers to unlock mysteries, open doors, or reach the next level. Not to the extent of an escape room, but something akin. Perhaps naively, I thought there would be more community created with the other thrill-seekers through some kind of common goal but the only thing we had in common was trying not to trip over each other’s kids. It was crowded, by the way, and so much of the surprise of opening the fridge or dryer to discover a portal to another dimension was lost in the mass of bodies who got there first. Lastly, while I realize this is a question of accessibility and safety, I had also hoped the experience was more physical like St. Louis’s City Museum or one of Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam’s textile playgrounds you can climb and jump in. Exerting myself into and around the space would have made me feel more in tune with it, perhaps.
In addition to falling short of my expectations, the atmosphere reminded me most of a laser tag arena: plywood with garish neon pulsed under the pervasive black light. In other words, the craft wasn’t transporting or awe-inspiring in appearance, and I think much of this was in keeping with the gritty and scrappy DIY origin story; however, it rang false in the context of the multimillion-dollar B-Corp. Imagine Henry Darger’s outsider art garishly printed on a backpack or baseball hat. Some rooms evoked a mid-90s roller rink so vividly I could almost smell the WD-40, sweaty palms, and soft pretzels. Again, this brought me back to this comfortable realm of nostalgia that didn’t teach me anything new about myself. It was evocative, familiar, and cozy, and that’s the root of my problem with it.
“We should offer critiques to things like Meow Wolf, not to discourage their creation, but to raise the bar for what we want from art.”
Given the explanation that the wormholes and alternate dimensions stemming from the house are the “hopes, dreams, and fears of the members of the family,” most of the rooms ramble thematically a few degrees from random. Wandering through the seventy rooms of Meow Wolf I was struck by the lack of through-line other than the limp narrative “hopes, dreams, and fears” excuse for the assemblage. At a tourist trap like House on the Rock or the Cabazon Dinosaurs this charming sideshow hodgepodge is earned, but at the art installation in Santa Fe, it feels disorganized and arbitrary, as if each artist fit the story around his or her content and medium rather than creating a piece specific to the show. To be fair, I could have sprung for the Anomaly Tracker App for $4.99 but I wasn’t about to get sucked into small potatoes esoterica and augmented reality on my phone in an immersive art installation. While I was certainly impressed by the planning and permitting required to realize the space, the concept and execution lacked cohesiveness. The meandering disorganization was only exacerbated by the way light would leak and sound would bleed between rooms.
The experience was undeniably diverting, an amusement park for the senses, and I’m glad I went. I will certainly take Imogen back when she’s older. My friend, Meg, who experienced Meow Wolf with me compared it to the Epcot ride “Journey into Imagination with Figment” and I had to agree. Eric Idle’s narration would have been welcome. Unlike a Disney theme park ride, Meow Wolf sells itself up as an artistic experience and therefore I expected more than, what Amanda Hess in her September 2018 New York Times essay “The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience’” calls “Instagram Museums,” a set of loosely collected photo opportunities with flattering lights and a backdrop of requisite oddity and artistry. Hess bemoans that “the idea of “interacting” with the world is made so slickly transactional” in these marketing stunts posing as pop-up happenings that meaning and real experience are undermined and diminished. Likewise, I felt the hollowness of the Santa Fe Meow Wolf. At the cost of comfort, I wanted depth, engagement, mystery, and confusion from my House of Eternal Return experience but instead, I got what I was supposed to want: a consumable nugget of 90s pop culture visual references wrapped in a comic strip.
Meow Wolf is new, the first in a long unraveling of immersive experiences popping up all over the world in dance, theater, art, and film. The scrappy collective paved the way for this kind of work to receive support and they should be saluted for it. It isn’t the best we can do as makers of art or the best was can hope for as lovers of art. We should offer critiques to things like Meow Wolf, not to discourage their creation, but to raise the bar for what we want from art.
During rationing in World War II many Americans ate margarine instead of butter. The synthetic butter substitute looked, smelled, and almost tasted like the real thing. For many it was “close enough.” It did a decent job of aping butter and soon real butter’s flavor was nearly forgotten. After the shortages ceased my grandma continued to eat margarine instead of butter because she said it tasted more like butter to her than real butter. “It just tastes butterier,” my grandma would laugh at her own contradiction when I asked about her preference of margarine in dismay. “But is it the butteriest?” I’d tease back. I wanted Meow Wolf to be the butteriest real butter, I expected it to after all the hype, and it wasn’t. Without sliding down a slippery slope, I want to caution against accepting approximations for the real thing. It can become a habit hard to break. Meow Wolf didn’t move me like it should have and it did not taste like butter, although many attendees thought it was just fine. Given its resources and support, it should have been the butteriest. I hope that their second attempt opening in Denver in 2020 takes more risks, moves outside its demographics’ comfort zone, allows the audience to affect the surroundings, and pushes the envelope more. As art lovers, it is our duty to desire challenging art for the personal growth we stand to gain and to offer criticism when we’re given simulacra manufactured for our comfort instead. As for Santa Fe’s Meow Wolf, I just can’t believe it’s not better.