Ed note: Meow Wolf is an artistic production company that bills itself as “Creating immersive art experiences that transport audiences to fantastic realms.” Its first massive permanent installation in Santa Fe, New Mexico is titled House of Eternal Return. It is enormously popular. Glasstire’s Christina Rees and Neil Fauerso visited House of Eternal Return, separately, during the summers of 2017 and 2018 (respectively). When discussing ‘Meow Wolf’ they are generally referring in short-hand to the Santa Fe experience, the production company, or both.
Neil Fauerso: I went into Meow Wolf with an open mind, unjaded. After all, Meow Wolf, located in a drab stretch of Santa Fe filled with chain stores and consignment shops, exemplifies the repurposing of urban sprawl for imaginative purposes that I greatly advocate. Given the massive amount of hideous, rapidly emptying-out retail space across the country, using such husks for whimsical DIY installations seems like a good idea.
And Meow Wolf gives a significant amount of money each year to DIY groups and charities, and pays its employees a decent wage (supposedly, at least). One thing I found striking was how incredibly popular it is. It was packed on a Monday; it must make an absolute fortune. (It costs $25 to get in, which is Louvre/Met/Chinati money.) I don’t think it’s a stretch to consider Meow Wolf the most influential development for the proliferation of immersive art exhibits in museums over the last couple years. It seems like every museum is Meow-Wolfing. The McNay just had their show Immersed that was aggressively interactive; the MFAH had the bamboo piece by Doug and Mike Starn; everywhere you go, art museums are subtly becoming more like science or children’s museums.
I don’t think interactivity and immersion are necessarily bad, but it is interesting to me that thus far the aesthetic is relatively homogeneous. Meow Wolf is some combination of the following: a party in Bushwick circa 2012 that’s turned into an amusement park; the monsters’ world in the Fred Savage movie Little Monsters, and looking at breakfast cereal marshmallows while you’re tripping. This DIY aesthetic is remarkably universal, similar to the way that all head shops are the same. What do you think? What were your thoughts of Meow Wolf?
Christina Rees: Either you’re not as cynical as I am, or you’re not as critical of that developing “aesthetic” as I am. Despite going to Meow Wolf without any nieces or other kids in tow, I’m glad I experienced it. I went one morning last summer, and my friend and I still probably spent a good four-plus hours there.
While I do believe that the individual artists who came together to make this happen were earnest in their intentions and really went to town with this opportunity to fill this space, I also feel like the entire enterprise really is just a theme park, for kids, and maybe Burning Man-loving adults, made by a lot of very clever and imaginative designers and craftsmen. Not artists, or in this case, not artists getting to be fully self-actualized artists. That’s okay. It’s like a new Disney. It totally does what it’s meant to do, which is immerse its audience and provide entertainment for hours at a time.
And the aspect that allows grownups to appreciate it is that hallucinogenic factor; a lot of adults will recognize and probably be amused by the H.R. Pufnstuf/Sid and Marty Croft, trippy subtext — whether they’re high while they’re there or not. In this way, I’m not in the least surprised that the first Meow Wolf is in the Southwest, land of music festivals, drug trips, new-age ideas, obsessions with Area 51. While I don’t think that art with a capital A is incapable of engaging viewers for long stretches, I think the whole point of Meow Wolf is entertainment, which art is way too unpredictable and spiky to guarantee a consistent experience, and generally isn’t interested in impressing children (even if it sometimes incidentally does).
So I guess I’m trying to say: It’s fine. It works. It’s not art. Please take your kids before they hit puberty. They’ll LOVE it.
NF: I am definitely less critical of the Meow Wolf aesthetic than you — after all I have multiple kokopelli objects in my house. However, I generally agree with your assessment. I wanted to start things out charitably before the knives came out.
Your response raises several interesting questions/points. The first is the creeping infantilization of culture. If Meow Wolf was advertised and treated as an “interactive children’s museum” or something, it would be essentially beyond reproach, a triumph of imagination for children. But it’s not. There were almost no children there when I visited; it was all adults, oftentimes shrieking with glee. This extends to all areas of culture now. The books a shocking number of adults seem to reference almost constantly as a moral calculus are The Lord of the Rings series and Harry Potter. Superhero and Star Wars movies are taken extremely seriously as modern myths of sorts. This is the problem. It’s not that adults enjoy media that’s incontrovertibly aimed towards kids; it’s that they’re extremely serious about it. Ethan Hawke in a recent interview casually remarked that the Wolverine movie Logan was okay for a superhero movie, but it wasn’t Bresson or Bergman. This prompted a hysterical response that Hawke was an elitist snob.
It’s not enough for infantile media to completely dominate the culture; it has to be respected. It’s interesting to me that this seems to be a fairly recent and specific response to current times. Obviously times are bad, but the ’80s were similarly dispiriting and cruel, and Basquiat, David Lynch, and The Slits were cultural touchstones. What is the impetus for this infantilization? Is it that an overwhelming hopelessness leads to a desire for escape and nostalgia? Is it that the growing acceptance of weed leads to a more stereotypically bonged culture?
The second is your assertion that Meow Wolf is not “Art” but entertainment. I elementally agree with this, but why? I imagine most of the Meow Wolf designers and artists would consider their work “art.” What makes it more of an amusement park experience/entertainment? Is it simply the weeded-out/Southwestern/burner aesthetic? I could imagine a far more twisted and upsetting Meow Wolf that used similar aesthetics but was, in your words, more spiky and unpredictable. I think Meow Wolf’s use of pastiche and reference for essentially comfort and nostalgia is what makes it primarily entertainment. It’s “FUN” in the same way scavenger hunts, flash mobs and cosplay is escape for escape’s sake. What do you think?
Finally, when I was wandering through Meow Wolf, I found myself thinking about would happen if a space like that was committed to “Art,” and not entertainment. What would it be like? I thought of the Tarkovsky movie Stalker, and in it “The Room,” which is inside “The Zone,” which is simultaneously perilous and deeply mysterious and can fulfill one’s innermost desires. The idea of a “Zone” Meow Wolf is extremely appealing to me, although it wouldn’t mint money like Meow Wolf does. What would you do with a large strip-mall-like space and the directive to create an “immersive” experience?
CR: That’s just it. Historically, places for art (for grownups) are museums, and galleries, and private collections in houses, and public works in public settings. Largely, this is still true. (Though as you point out, museums are caving.)
These places and the art in them are not prescriptive; they don’t tell you how to think or feel about the art. They trust that the adult (or even a teenager) can figure that out on their own (and want to figure it out on their own). A Meow Wolf that is actually art is so different from what Meow Wolf is that it’s hard to imagine what it would be, but I don’t think comparisons to David Lynch, Dada, Burden, Rist, Acconci, Sontag, Kara Walker, political violence, and even some porn would be so far off. Actually, great video artists like Ed Atkins, Jon Rafman, Ryan Trecartin and Hito Steyerl come to mind. Possibilities for environments that aren’t “entertainment” appropriate for children, but are certainly art and certainly pose a lot of interesting questions about morality and humanity.
Let’s put it this way: Morality would be very gray and very slippery in a grown-up, art version of Meow Wolf. People would stumble out looking pale, exhausted, 10 IQ points smarter, more perceptive, less sure of themselves, and they’d be thinking about it and talking about it for years. And I’m not talking about some Banksy-led, dreary non-Disney Disney. That was a one-liner. Good art is usually far, far more than a one-liner. Real art’s complexity is what makes so many people — I mean unhappy, tired, depressed, overwhelmed people weighed down by real life — so uncomfortable with it. They don’t want to deal. Making art, or “art,” so accessible to everyone all the time — including kids, and people who are just interested in taking selfies, and grownups who’ve never shown the least interest in visiting a museum — is a real danger to the very integrity of art’s purpose. Is seriously watered-down art still art? I don’t think so. But it is accessible!
And here’s the bad news: Not enough people would want to make an art Meow Wolf happen, no one would feel comfortable investing in it, and it would probably be seen as very un- PC. It couldn’t be realized today. (Also, more importantly, what would be the point? We already have, globally, stunning museums and galleries.) Meow Wolf, and by extension a lot of Burning Man and festival art, is really just an extension of “adult” play. It’s about validating a course of action (“we want to play now, entertain us”) and a predictable, easy aesthetic and aesthetic choice. Though, I can give people a pass up to a point. We’re living in some dark times, and I think arguably quite a bit darker than the ’80s.
As for the endless Star Wars franchise, and Harry Potter, and the Marvel Universe: These pop-culture things are all swell, up to a point. I enjoy aspects of them, too. And mythology, one might argue, really is just the stories we tell ourselves. But those stories are escapist fantasy front-loaded with too much black-and-white “morality”, and there’s a reason children glom on to them. They are simple, easy to “get”. They’ve gotten more grim and grown up, sure: see Logan. But I was really into Wolverine when I was 11 (I was big into X-Men comics as a kid). I truly outgrew superhero comics. I mean, I’m with Alan Moore on this subject (that adults’ interest in superheroes is potentially “culturally catastrophic”). But it hasn’t always been this way: Greek mythology is brutal. The Old Testament is brutal. Rated R and NC 17, for sure.
NF: What you seem to be saying is that ART intrinsically will be unsettling, discomfiting, even twisted. Otherwise, it is entertainment, or crafts. I think this is implicitly true, with the major exception of art that’s so beautiful and transporting as to achieve a state of transcendence, such as Donald Judd’s aluminum boxes and Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. This definition would stand in opposition to a conservative ideal of art (expressed by Jordan Peterson or Harold Bloom) that it should provide beauty and exaltation, like the Sistine Chapel or the movie The Mission (an all-time conservative banger). Our definition, I think, is the mainstream of most museums’ curatorial philosophy to varying degrees, but there a lot of people, especially older ones, who identify with the latter ideal. The younger generations (say, people under the age of 50), being less religious, find exaltation in pop cultural pastiche such as Meow Wolf. This is who you mean when you say, “They don’t want to deal.”
The Banksy Disneyworld is basically just a “twisted” (but not truly twisted) Meow Wolf. All these immersive installations raise the question to me: Is interactivity inherently cheesy, or at least extremely fraught? I think of this a lot, because the evidence seems to point to “yes” — immersive, interactive exhibits and installations usually seem fairly corny across platforms and reduce themselves on some level to what you describe as “play.” There was an “art” restaurant in Shanghai I always wanted to go to when I lived in China. It operated at an enormous loss. It was the passion project of the restaurant’s owner, who owned several normal high-end restaurants in skyscrapers around Asia. The “art” restaurant was one twelve-person table inside a cube of HD LCD screens and surround-sound speakers. The idea was you would eat, and they would play video and sound to heighten the experience. Unsurprisingly, according to friends who went, it was incredibly stupid. For example, you would get a course that was, say, a deconstructed fish and chips, and the screens would show Big Ben and the Union Jack flying, and the British national anthem would blare in surround sound. I think the pre-fixe meal cost $500 and it was always booked, and somehow still lost a fortune.
I like knowing and going to places like this and Meow Wolf, because even if it’s kind of stupid, it makes me wonder if such a premise that is usually extremely elaborate, expensive, and technical could be salvaged by ART. What could Ryan Trecartin or Peter Greenaway do with that restaurant in Shanghai? One of the best-curated shows I’ve ever seen was John Waters’ Troublemaker at the Walker Art Museum a few years ago. It was quasi-immersive. I first heard the K-Rob and Rammellzee song Beat Bop in it, and there was a great video of McDonald’s getting flooded by the Scandinavian collective superflex. What would happen if John Waters took over Meow Wolf for a year, or for that matter trickster friend of Glasstire, Heyd Fontenot?
You say no one would want to invest in an ART Meow Wolf, but maybe they could be tricked? They’ve certainly done that in the movies. The British director Alex Cox, flush from the success commercially and critically of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy convinced a studio to give him tens of millions of dollars to make Walker, the biopic of William Walker, an American Southerner who tried to take over Nicaragua in the 1850s hoping to establish a slave empire there. I guess maybe the studio thought it would be sort of a rockn’roll, socially conscious period piece. That was not what Cox did. Walker, starring Ed Harris with a soundtrack by Joe Strummer, is extremely surreal, hyper-violent, scabrously radical and anti-American empire. It connects Walker’s rapacious conquest of Nicaragua with Reagan’s intervention there against the Sandinistas in the late ’80s. Helicopters and modern rifles appear in the 1850s, as if it was all just one loop. The film was a huge financial disaster and Cox was completely blacklisted from Hollywood and never made another studio film. But it was kind of worth it.
CR: So I need to watch Walker!
I don’t think any serious artist (or “serious” artist) would be very happy to take on an amusement park/immersive project that has to make a big profit in order to please investors or to survive. Because by definition that park or project would have to appeal to the maximum number of people, and that means that the art is watered down and therefore, gasp, populist.
It would be depressing for an artist to start on a project like that, in good faith, and have the project’s producers continually move the goal posts and tweak the concept until it’s no longer recognizable to the artist who signed on. This kind of harm does happen with filmmaking, and public art projects of course, and in some other industries. Artists get kicked around when they have to answer to a committee or a set of producers, even if the committee originally approached that artist in the name of their project’s street cred or whatever. There are exceptions. Kara Walker’s Sugar Baby wasn’t compromised (it didn’t feel compromised to me, anyway), and Creative Time may have been one of the only “steering committees” in the world that could let her execute that work in a way she envisioned. I’m sure there were tweaks along that way having to do with engineering, production, etc, but not a watering down of the art itself, or its message.
Museums are playing this game now, though. The immersive art is about pleasing and entertaining the most people they can get through the door. I have a hard time feeling angry about it, at least in these early stages, because I think museums should be doing what they can to draw new and bigger audiences. I believe that some of the people who came to take selfies in a Kusama room may well stay and look at other things in the museum, and they realize they’re welcome, and maybe they’ll want to return, with more family, with kids, with friends. I know that if my own mom hadn’t taken me to museums as a kid, I would have been reliant on friends’ parents to take me to one, and nowadays the prime driver for that introduction may be an immersive installation.
But Meow Wolf is a closed environment of only Meow Wolf. Somehow I don’t believe that because someone enjoyed Meow Wolf, they’re going to get in their car and head straight to the New Mexico Museum of Art to look at a once-in-a-lifetime drawing show.
NF: I think you’re right that most people going to Meow Wolf aren’t going to other museums (say Santa Fe’s incredible Museum of International Folk Art, which has one of the greatest rooms I’ve ever been in: the Girard Collection). Putting immersive installations like Kusama in a museum is a sweetener for visitors, and despite infantilizing the museum experience, makes sense from an attendance perspective.
Meow Wolf is a simulacrum of an art experience in the same way that much of “prestige” TV is a simulacrum of “taste” by using the shorthand of explicit sex and violence, brooding protagonists, and a molasses pace and easy nihilism to simulate profundity. Meow Wolf also made me think of the phrase “self care” and what it has come to mean. It used to be that self care was something recommended to, say, social workers who worked with schizophrenic patients, to avoid burnout and distress. Now it suggests a generally amorphous idea of comfort and “treating oneself.” Art has become wrapped up in the nexus of “self care,” and thus has been imbued with the characteristics of comfort: ease and nostalgia.
I am a firm believer that true art is good for oneself, and may be difficult. Recently a friend mentioned that he didn’t want to see anymore Tarkovsky movies because they were so difficult. I replied that they required training. This is a key thing for me. Great art may be difficult and require practice to “get,” in the same way proper weightlifting or hot yoga does. It’s hard, but it betters oneself, and ultimately you do feel better. Meow Wolf correlates to a sort of binge-watch-and-order-takeout activity that may be comfortable, but is essentially empty.
CR: We’ve been emailing about this over the last week. Turns out today [while this conversation was ongoing – ed.], this article came out in the New York Times, and it speaks to this whole subject, and of course it’s incredibly depressing. It’s titled “The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience.'”
So what I want to add about museums (or commercial galleries, or private art collections, even) getting in on this immersive trend is this: Be careful what you wish for, and be mindful that you may be contributing to what Hess here is calling “the total erosion of meaning itself.” More artists (cynical artist, or unimaginative artists who should never have made it out of art school) have been making work specifically for art fairs — work to stand out and be instantly “gettable” and clever and photographable at art fairs — for a long time now, and that’s why we have a whole category of trendy, sellable, shallow, quasi-Pop Art we actually call Art Fair Art. It’s a pejorative. (It’s also damning to the dealers who cynically hawk it.) And now, more artists will be making immersive work in a copycat of Kusama, or even Burning Man or Meow Wolf or whoever, in the same cynical way. Because it’s popular. And artists want to make a living, understandably.
But then we’re back to looking to the traditional gatekeepers of taste, which includes “elitist” art critics and curators and scholars, and certainly other artists, and some collectors, to try to keep things honest and legit and to try to keep the art meaningful, and to try to make sure audiences are having a meaningful experience with art. Only now the real art, which is usually quiet and as you point out, takes time to appreciate, has to compete for people’s shortened attention spans and constricted schedules with this swelling flood of quasi-art (or not-art) immersive entertainment. What a battle.
All I’m really writing here is that it’s a slippery slope. It’s a slippery slope, and while I can’t blame Meow Wolf for it — and I have no doubt the creators of Meow Wolf had no intention of helping create a problem — Meow Wolf nonetheless has, directly or indirectly, contributed to a growing problem. To many, however, there is no problem. There’s no slippery slope because “it’s all good.”
NF: Right, this is the great flattening, and there’ll be no slope to slide down because it’s all the same. This circles back to people getting enraged at Ethan Hawke for calling superhero movies not Bergman or Bresson. This is the event horizon of anti-snobbery and poptimism — it all just becomes a ball pit at McDonald’s. And this is one reason why I find this particular hellish dystopic timeline we live in particularly dispiriting. We have wage inequality like the Gilded Age of robber barons, but those barons at least built some nice opera houses and libraries, whereas most construction now is some hideous stack of Pontiac Aztecs for a mixed-used development called something like “The Sagebrush.”
Cynical dipshit people liked to say, before the 2016 election: “Well, at least we’ll get good art if Trump wins,” in reference to Reagan and the art of ’80s. But instead the direction seems to be, as Amanda Hess writes in that horrifying piece, the “total erosion of meaning” — a kind of Brave New World-like superficial tranquility, and its purpose is to remove oneself from the horror all around us.
I’m not really sure what the solution is, or if one is even feasible. I just know I feel grateful to be engaged in interesting art and performance that does exist, like the piece in the church I saw in Austin last Saturday. There’s a lot of great work going on, but it’s not an easy sell. It’s prickly, difficult, and hard to convince your friends to go with you to see it, but still, it’s worth it. If you find yourself waiting in line for hours to go to some pop-up called The Museum of Rosé or something, instead rethink this and go to a local gallery, or a noise show, or just go home and watch Andrei Rublev.
That’s actually my advice for everyone right now. Go watch Andrei Rublev.