Meow Wolf is an art collective and production company based in Santa Fe, NM. Its first permanent immersive installation, The House of Eternal Return, premiered this spring to national acclaim. The experience invites visitors to explore the home of a Northern California family with mystical powers. As it quickly becomes apparent, there’s more to the property than meets the eye.
FoST spoke to the company’s CEO, Vince Kadlubek, about time and space, George R.R. Martin, and the nature of creativity.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Victoria Spencer: Could you start off by explaining Meow Wolf for those who have never been there before?
Vince Kadlubek: Meow Wolf is an art collective that has evolved into what I would call an arts production company. We've produced art and immersive storytelling experiences that are largely based around visual and interactive art. It's multimedia, it's all over the place—it's video and audio and sculpture, painting, writing, performance, and truly any medium of expression combined into a single space, essentially.
Meow Wolf was first creating these exhibits back in 2008, and we created them for many years out of materials that we had pulled out of dumpsters and whatever else we could do to just fill a space. And we realized that what we liked to do the most was put people inside of environments. Those environments started off as pretty abstracted concepts. Not literal. And then they took a turn towards more literality, at least in some sort of framework, when we got more interested in the narrative or storytelling aspect of our shows. We started to make more environments that could be recognized, like houses, forests, caves—things that actually have names to them. So narrative slowly creeps in. We first fell in love with environment, and then from environment came [questions like] who inhabits this environment? What is this environment? Where did this environment come from? And then those questions led to narrative. They led to setting. And then that seems to evolve now to the point where narrative is a core element of the installation. It is the piece that brings the general population to experience it. So that kind of fast-forwards to the House of Eternal Return.
The House of Eternal Return is definitely the most narrative piece we've ever done. It's pretty literal. You first walk into the front yard of a house, and inside of this house—this eighteen hundred square foot house, two stories—you can explore [its inhabitants’] lives: read their journals, flip through their photo albums, go through their drawers—whatever you want to do. And that is the real hub of storytelling, inside of the house.
Something happened in the house that caused time and space to rip open, and so there are these wormholes attached to the house that lead through to the other dimensions. Those other dimensions are much more abstracted visual art. They don't need to be tethered to narratives that you need within time and space. The house is where the narrative is, and it opens into a world of fragmentation. So that's sort of how we set it up. And the characters, the family that lives in the house, they are a sort of a classic, everyday, middle class white family that lives in Northern California, and they are part of a bloodline that has existed since the beginning of the universe that now shows itself through human form but has existed long before humans have ever existed. We call it the bloodline or we call it the creative force or we call it chaos, and it's this yearning for more. It’s pushing boundaries, it's the breaking of the rule, it's curiosity, it's creativity. It's the thing that creates out of nothing, that has such an agitation within itself to create out of nothing.
We’re all some branch of this, but the family is the most direct bloodline. They all have crazy powers in different forms. The mother, the father, the kid—they all have different sorts of powers, supernatural powers. But they all sort of have some elements of reservation or hesitance about who they are and what their powers are. The mother character is especially protective of herself and her kids messing around with these powers because she's been traumatized by various things in her life to make her think that these powers are evil.
And the opposite force in our story is a force called the charter. The charter is a lot of things. It also existed long before humans existed—since the beginning of the universe. The charter was an agreement really made between the creative force and one myth to say: OK, you can go out and fragment. You can go out and create. You can go out and yearn for more and expand and keep reaching—as long as you play by these rules. The charter was, at first, just an agreement. It was just a thought, but then the charter expanded and now takes human form: it's the NSA, it's the government, it's the police, it's stop signs. It's taken its form in a lot of different structural ways that keep the creative contained.
This is the dance that happened over the history of the universe, where suppression promotes expression, and then suppression captures that expression and keeps it locked down, and then expression forces it back out. It's like this breathing mechanism that has pushed humanity to the brink of the fifth dimension and that's basically where the family is. Ground zero of the transition into the fifth dimension happens inside of our house, and so that's what you get to experience. So that's essentially the story.
VS: How did the narrative come to be?
VK: One person came up with one idea, and then a few other people started adding, and then those [people] became the writing group. But then all the artists built around this idea vaguely. It's all done by collective.
VS: Let’s talk about the venue for a second, which used to be the Silva Lanes bowling alley. What was the process of building this out?
VK: That's like asking me what the last two years have been like in my life.
VS: [Laughs.] When did you see the property and decide that it was the place?
VK: I grew up in Santa Fe, and Silva Lanes was always the place that we'd go when there was a birthday or we wanted to do something fun. We always knew about it, but we thought it was too big for us to take on, so I never really thought about it seriously. We were without a space for a while, and I ended up seeing the bowling alley and just falling in love with it. This was in August of 2014—so, two years ago—longer than two years ago. I saw the bowling alley and was like, Oh my god—we have to try to take this project on. We can really do this. And then that's where it happened.
VS: How many people were you working with at that time?
VS: It was just you? So who did you bring on to help?
VK: Meow Wolf existed since 2008, but at that time we hadn't really been doing much with each other. So I was mostly just by myself. I saw the building by myself, and once I felt good about it, I went back to some of the key people and was like, Hey, we should do this project, and then people got onboard. That was the genesis of it. We had no money, and we didn't really know how we were going to buy this million-dollar building and put another million dollars into it, so it was a long shot. It was a total pipe dream. Nobody thought that it could happen.
So then it was like, OK, who can we talk to? I knew George R.R. Martin, and I was like, "Hey, George, do you want to buy this building?" And he said, "Sure, I'd love to buy that building." OK, awesome, cool, let's do this. He really liked what Meow Wolf was doing, so we went on a six-month period of time where George was in the process of trying to buy the building for this project, and it finally went through, and then it was like, OK, the project is on.
In January of 2015, we started fundraising for the project, we started to hire people, and we started to design the project. It was a bunch of self-starting art collective people who have no business history and no history of large-scale production coming together and just figuring this shit out. It was first a team of six, and then it was a team of 14, and then it went to 40, and then it was 100, and then it was 150 by the time everything was done. That was over the course of a year and a half.
It was kind of chaos for people. It was deeply embedded into our brains, and it was insane the types of places that we went to for this project. It was a combination of chaos and order. It was the bloodline and the charter inside of ourselves at all times trying to figure out this whole project. It's been a lot of hard work, just committing to ideas that were impossible and saying, Nope this is possible. Fundraising was a son of a bitch. Every single day I would wake up and wonder where the next 25,000 dollars would come from. We raised $2.7 million, almost all of which went towards artists and material. We had people on payroll for multiple weeks. It was a crazy, crazy project.
VS: That sounds massive. When I think about House of Eternal Return, I always think about it in terms of these New York immersive theater performances like Sleep No More, or some of the stuff that Third Rail Projects produces. Has this kind of work influenced you at all, or do you think about Meow Wolf as being in a different category?
VK: We're definitely both immersive experiences. I mean, unfortunately many immersive theater performances only service the elite because that's just their model. You have to have a lot of money to get in. And we're the opposite. We want every single person, no matter your socioeconomic background, to have an incredible immersive experience. We love what they do, though.
VS: Open accessibility seems to be one of the major aspects of Meow Wolf. I know that part of your audience also consists of kids. I'm curious how you think their experience changes as a kid versus an adult?
VK: A kid is going to see the entire thing as a wonderland. They view it as a playground. They run around, they just play with it. Adults think about it more as a place to be inquisitive and inspect what's inside of the space and how we made it and what it all means. We build it for both—we build it for play, we build it for sophistication.
VS: What has the response been like from the Santa Fe community?
VK: They love it. Across the board, everyone loves it. It's an insane phenomenon. We have such great supporters in Santa Fe.
VS: Is there anything else next in the books for you guys?
VK: Moving to big cities. We're going to be doing this five times the size of Santa Fe, doing it in larger cities, supporting more artists, making crazier things happen. That's what's on the agenda.