My brother and I weren’t sure what we were in line for. It was a Sunday morning in mid-October and we stood outside a former bowling alley, miles from the art galleries along Santa Fe’s Canyon Road.
The sun was hot, and the line moved slowly. Above us, in yellow, pink, blue, and green, the sign read ‘MEOW WOLF.’ What that meant—and what we were doing here—was still a mystery.
According to Caity Kennedy, one of Meow Wolf’s several art directors and co-founders, we were in an enviable position. She prefers people not know what they’re walking into. Early on, people would come up to Kennedy and say, “My friend told me to come here, but I have no idea what it is.” She would reply: “Well, you’re here, so how about I not tell you? Because I won’t be able to explain it anyway, and the less you know, the better.”
If she’s pressed—by me, for instance—she’ll say that Meow Wolf is a Santa Fe-based collective of more than 70 artists that creates “‘massive, immersive, multimedia installations.” Since that doesn’t help most people, she’ll often start listing things the installations are sort of like: “‘A haunted house... choose your own adventure... dreamscape... playground…’ the list sort of morphs depending on who I’m talking to.”
The group’s latest work, The House of Eternal Return, similarly defies description. Vince Kadlubek, another of Meow Wolf’s co-founders, has called it a work of “immersive storytelling,” a “psychedelic indoor park,” and “Myst meets Peewee’s Playhouse.”
Though none of these descriptions quite captures the artwork’s hallucinatory weirdness, each contains a trace of truth. Massive? Check: The installation spans 39,000 square feet, all of it built inside the former Silva Lanes bowling alley, purchased in 2015 by Game of Thrones author and Santa Fe resident George R. R. Martin. (Martin paid for basic tenant improvements, then turned the building over to Meow Wolf, charging a well-below-market rent.)
Immersive? Completely. Once visitors get past the ticket counter (admission is $20, $14 for kids), they walk through a door and find themselves standing before a giant Victorian house, built to scale and fully furnished: bowls in the cupboard, blankets on the beds, and, throughout the house, the ephemera of the fictional family who owns it, the Seligs.
It doesn’t take long to realize something is amiss. A note from one of the children’s teachers notes odd behavior; one of the kids’ journals describes how certain sounds make their brother feel better. Slowly, you piece together a storyline about other dimensions and discover secret passageways—through the fireplace, the dryer, the bedroom closet—that lead to otherworldly rooms.
In one are the crystallized remains of a giant wooly mammoth, whose bones you can play like a prehistoric marimba. In another, a maze of psychedelic trees, whose trunks have sprouted musical conks. It is both whimsical and sinister—and completely beguiling.
More surprising—yes more surprising than all that—is that visitors are encouraged to explore: to touch whatever they want, to rifle through papers, look in the fridge, find the combination to the safe and see what’s inside. (I won’t spoil what’s in either.) The entire exhibition is at your fingertips. There are no time limits, no queues, no set order in which you must see the rooms. Once inside, you’re free to play. And everyone does.
It’s a stark contrast to other recent “experiences,” like San Francisco’s Color Factory or the Museum of Ice Cream, the latter of which Curbed’s architecture critic, Alexandra Lange, described as “a playground...with a seriously twisted idea of fun,” far more pernicious than “just another millennial photo op.”
The absence of constraints in Meow Wolf’s constructed world was thrust into further relief when, just days later, I went to see the Yayoi Kusama exhibit at the Broad in LA. As in Santa Fe, the experience began with a long, hot wait on the sidewalk beneath Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s white concrete veil.
But unlike at Meow Wolf, where eventually the wait ended and the proverbial shackles came off, here the line just led to more lines. We crept through the galleries in single-file, the line infinite and the rooms anything but. (A sharp rap at the door let me know my 30 seconds were up.)
I noticed most visitors interacted with the Infinity Mirrored Rooms solely through their phones, which the docents encouraged by suggesting we have them out and ready. By contrast, in the two hours my brother spent at Meow Wolf, I didn’t see a single person take a selfie. It was as if everyone had forgotten about their phones—and their followers.
I asked Kennedy about achieving this sort of immersion, whether or not they had made choices to actively discourage the use of phones. “No, we don’t try to make things one way or the other,” she said. The artists just want to make the most detailed, most delirious exhibits they can. “If people can take photos of that, cool for them, and it’s obviously good for us for marketing, but it’s not the goal.”
When I mentioned that putting a hashtag on the wall seemed somewhat antithetical to the enterprise, she said it had been considered. “It was floated,” she said, “putting up a sign that says, ‘Selfie Moment.’ But we were like, ‘fuck no’.”
Ironically, a lot of people seem to think Meow Wolf is simply a sci-fi version of the Museum of Ice Cream (where visitors pay $38 for 45 minutes of photo-taking). One article described The House of Eternal Return as a “selfie palace.”
“We’ve been called out as a place where people go to just take pictures for Instagram,” Kennedy said, but these pieces are “exclusively written by people who are only looking at Instagram. By the very nature of it, they’re unable to see the other 80 percent of what’s in the space that is un-photographable, that’s un-Instagrammable.”
Indeed, Meow Wolf’s work is as difficult to document as it is describe. If the Museum of Ice Cream is engineered, in Lange’s words, to facilitate “obsessive documentation,” the House of Eternal Return is the opposite, designed for the present, not a #latergram. Of the 60,962 Instagram posts tagged #meowwolf (as of this writing), I have yet to see one that comes close to capturing the diversity of experiences contained within it. Most photos are of a single detail—that allée of psychedelic trees, that drowsy-eyed space creature—and a good portion are taken outside (presumably while waiting in line).
As counterintuitive as it may seem, its undocumentable nature is “central to why people like being in our space,” Kennedy told me, and a big part of Meow Wolf’s success. (The exhibition drew 400,000 visitors its first year and is set to top that in its second.)
There is a lesson here for designers. As museums and restaurants tailor their environments to Instagram users, often complete with hashtags, some have worried that our cities are becoming little more than “Instagram playgrounds.”
Some of the concern is likely overwrought—the most Instagrammed places in many states remain national parks and other wild areas—but we should keep our eye out for a proliferation of spaces designed for social media and little else. As Kennedy put it, “People might go somewhere for a photograph, but they don’t stay there for a photograph.”
If Meow Wolf has something to teach us, it is that, even in 2018, a destination’s value exceeds its currency on social media. It is a reminder that our cities do not need more clever marketing campaigns, but instead benefit from spaces and experiences that are so immersive, so sensorial that they cannot be documented: spaces designed to be experienced in real life, in real time.
Of course, The House of Eternal Return is not a public park. But Meow Wolf has spent a significant amount of money investing in both Santa Fe and the art community at large. Aside from its sprawling installation, the former bowling alley houses a separate art space for kids, programmed by Meow Wolf’s nonprofit arts education initiative, Chimera, in partnership with Santa Fe Public Schools. In December 2016, following the deadly fire at GhostShip, a DIY art space in Oakland, Meow Wolf announced an annual fund of $100,000 that will help similar collectives make improvements to their spaces.
If Meow Wolf shares anything with Maryellis Bunn’s Ice Cream empire, it is ambition. Just last month, Meow Wolf announced two new permanent locations, in Denver and Las Vegas, and plans to announce two more this year. Right now, the artists are working on the Denver experience, which is scheduled to open in 2020. It will be different than Santa Fe, Kennedy said, with multiple storylines and three times the amount of exhibition space. But it will be equally immersive, and therefore equally undocumentable.
It’s part of the magic, she said. It’s not that the artists have anything against social media, or even institutions’ efforts to make themselves more visually appealing. “But that is a marketing decision,” she said. “We’re dreamers who just want to experience these crazy things ourselves.”