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.
I think displaying art and making a profit is great. Art museums are not holy sites that cannot be disturbed with so called low brow art and tricks to attract people. Do attract people; it’s great. Provide a vehicle to give an art 101 class to adults and especially children. If there is interest they can delve deeper and appreciate art with the many paths we have available these days.
It does not surprise me that art-goers experiences are moving toward these immersive selfie-adventures. It’s partly the advancement of how we engage with early technology and partly due to the disconnect with what art has become.
When university students are learning how to defend a concept rather than how to use materials and basic methods of creation, visually boring and emotionally detached artwork is the result. When shows that have a rich depth, art historical context – yet relevant today, complete with well-made visual content is ignored by art reviewers in favor of nepotism or visually boring art, viewers are generally bored.
This immersive-art “problem” is self-generated by years of lacking narrative-based art and compelling, well-made visuals. It’s also a result of art writers who stay in their comfort zones and news editors who prefer to write about flash over content. The root of the problem comes from within the art world itself as it eats it’s own tail and neglects entire groups of artists creating engaging representational art.
Side note: I recommend not touching the ball chain curtains on the 2nd floor, European section at the MFAH. I’ve seen what visitors do with them and they’re a playground for bacteria.
wow! this piece did not make me happy or anything, we all disagree on what art is or is not, so i think art will eventually just kinda die out, since so little is holding it together? and many artists that want to make something pretty, while same time kinda making something arty, are basically f*cked. the inequality in our society is somehow magnified now and way worse in the art world. ideally we’d be working to make sure all artists are in it together , we have each others backs but instead we get pitted against each other, and somehow that seems normalized right now. but yeah i dont wanna see meow wolf or any of the art films listed that i am supposed to see, i’d rather look at a tree i think
Really liked your article and honest crit on Meow-Meow.s I see it as an evolutionary phase. A consequence of our new technology and commercial worlds, attainable franchises. “Look what I can make using all these gadgets.” And since new gadgets are providing quick & fantasticle experiences, Meow Wolf is one Such. Just like all the knickknacks helped decorate working class homes. You could have your own DIY museum, right at home! More entertainment was provided by B&B circus or such ventures, the illusionists, in adapted spaces or big tents. Environments. So the show must go on!
At various points in this conversation, I see the old argument: “photography is not art or film is not art or videogames are not art.” All are now collected by important cultural institutions. Tastes and attitudes change. Art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. The interactivity and immersion of the House of Eternal Return has craft, aesthetical, narrative, architectural, technical, gaming, and social layers in its construction. It is not okay for me to say that Marc Chagall does not make art because I dismiss his aesthetics or his content. Art has functions beyond the frameworks of the literati and it should function in everyday life. HOER is popular because many visitors and fans view their work as art. This is art and entertainment that speaks to an audience and the collective is responding to shifts and vacuums in culture and human behaviors brought on by decades of neoliberal agendas and disruption by way of “technical innovation.”
Not to mention that as a B-Corp, Meow Wolf puts its credibility and profitability to its investors on the line for its artist-employees well-being, its community, and its long-term view of global sustainability. I have spoken with over five dozen of the currently 350 employees of Meow Wolf. For 95% of those people that I spoke with, this is their first time with health insurance. For a majority, this is their first full-time job and they are making art in that job. Starting salary ranges on their current job board are all much higher than the New Mexico’s per capita income of $25,146. They get paid sick time. They are encouraged to take vacations and when they get back from vacation they share their travels with their colleagues. They educate one another and there are opportunities to learn new skills and crafts. Their factory is full of tools and they are working day over day making creative work with their hands, minds, and hearts. They are artists and craftspeople.
I have easily spent 80 hours within HOER and I see plenty of mature themes in its content. I agree with Alan Moore too, heroic tales do not age well (especially in this age) but neither does the myth of the art genius working tortured in the studio. The MW collective works together to ideate and implement their ideas. Some give an idea to many hands, some have their ideas shelved, and some just want to help others but they compromise and negotiate their differences for the collective’s success. This seems an important model in an age of political gridlock, a great cultural war, and a labor market where each new robot introduced to the labor force eliminates six jobs. The ideology of stewardship and collectivity is being largely ignored in these remarks. I have never witnessed a more multidisciplinary team than when I observed Meow Wolf for six weeks in their factory during last summer.
I heard dozens of kids and adults declare during my time in HOER: “I want to learn how to make things like this. I want to make my Meow Wolf.” They say it with joy and wonder. The real promise of Meow Wolf’s immersion is that the general audience will bring that wonder and curiosity that they experience within the installation into a world beyond that is rife with serious cultural and political issues and see an opportunity for a redesign with their neighbors.
^ All this. Also… It’s funny how much the Capital-A Art World thinks it is championing the under-represented by selling Works about Something Important to incredibly wealthy people, who buy it as a commodity to appreciate over time and not be taxed like their money in the bank. This elitist puritanical anti-fun Capital-A-Art self-righteousness, that somehow All Art Must Be Political Or It Is Spectacle And Therefore Evil… it’s a farce. Guess who’s actually materially in bed with the Super Rich? The capital-A Art World, that’s who.
Thank you for this comment- exactly the response I wish I could so eloquently give to an article that, frankly, comes off as gate keeping the art world.
I took my family to Meow Wolf, and we all had a great time- ages 10 to late 30s- for different reasons. But, perhaps the most notable result of the experience was that when I took the kids to a museum with a large modern/pop art exhibit, they connected with it in a completely new way. All of a sudden, they could see art in a new way. And not just others art- they have gotten far more comfortable in their own artistic endeavors and trying new things they never would have thought was “allowed”.
The idea that only capital A- Art is “true art”, or that art must require some effort or study to qualify as true art, is ridiculously offputting and, as I said already- gatekeeping for the world of art.
I am glad to see I was not the only one disappointed in the ultimate message here.
I haven’t been to Meow Wolf, but I would be interested to hear from the artists who created it. When I first heard about it, I didn’t’ think of it as the artists’ work necessarily, but as a self-empowered way to use their skills from art school to make a living, kind of like an audience-friendly ceramics line that allows you the space and autonomy to set your own schedule and hopefully have time to make your own (possibly more challenging) work as well. There aren’t that many ways to make a living as an artist, I like the idea of widening the net.
I would like to hear from the artists as well. I’ve heard a lot of people’s ipinions on art, not art, etc. My question is are the artists getting profit sharing since it’s their ideas and concepts or does MW own everything? What if MW becomes the next Disney? Are the artists ideas and concepts protected or are they now the property of the MW? Is an hourly wage an appropriate compensation for something MW may be profiting off of for decades to come? I would proceed with caution. Artists, please let me know your thoughts.
Heyo Glasstire! Thanks for this conversation. I am not the audience for Meow Wolf however, I’m going to echo the comment I posted on your 2016 piece about MW wherein the area was dubbed “weird old New Mexico.” Similar generalizations in this new conversation add to the neutralizing of complicated economic, social, and cultural issues at play in the project and the region. I would like to see how this conversation/critique changes if it involved a participating MW artist and someone who lives/works in Santa Fe, especially an indigenous artist. We cannot responsibly talk about MW without also talking about colonialism.
I am so glad you guys wrote about Meow Wolf. It is an interesting topic and I’ve wanted to visit for a long time.
I’d actually argue one of the pioneers of this idea was Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe. They created Hello Meth Lab in the Sun for Marfa Ballroom in 2008. You had to sign a release to walk into the exhibition and for good reason. I was stepping on glass and walking through small areas. I remember the piece had a burned out meth lab early on and had us walking through some fairly mind bending environments. I was on edge and uncomfortable but they were clearly making some smart observations about the art world in the process. For example, there was a cut out piece of an disaster environment removed from that environment and in the next room over it was on display under plexiglass on a pedestal in a gaudy museum-like space with chair railings that were way too high. I was off balance but felt probed to think about the work for long after I was done.
Just three years later the immersive play “Sleep No More” opened in NY and disrupted the idea of theater and how we should experience it. You must wear a mask but you are free to wander several floors of the Chelsea warehouse space and rifle through the various environments. Actors run through spaces and act out scenes with modern dance and without words, all loosely based on MacBeth. It is definitely only for adults. I have seen the show twice – the first time I was breathless. The second time the patina had worn off a little and it seemed gratitudiously sexual and vapid. But that initial disruption of what a theater experience should be was thrilling.
It seems the initial disruptions in art (and theater) are so exciting and give us a new way of seeing. But we are always contending with market forces, especially in an environment in which there seems to be less and less support for provocative artists. I found the NYT article about the immersive projects incredibly depressing – the description of these places seem to be more about backdrops for social media that feed into a selfie and self obsessed time period that ever before where the only thing that seems to matter is the images you post of yourself looking beautiful, let alone some interesting idea or an actual experience you can engage with (instead of simple document with a phone).
Thanks for the discussion!
“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.”
Banksy’s bemusement park “DismalLand” is not a one-liner; after it closed materials were used “create emergency shelters, community buildings and play areas for those in need” in the Calais Jungle. See reference below. I would wager to guess those living there are “unhappy, tired, depressed, overwhelmed people weighed down by real life.”
Perhaps the new arena for impactful art is real life.
Jess Denham, “Banksy in Calais jungle: Steve Jobs graffiti reminds people Apple founder was son of Syrian migrants,” Independent
Ironic, “unhappy, tired, depressed, overwhelmed people weighed down by real life” went to Meow Wolf because it excites and inspires them. I know because I”m one of them
Just an observation here… Over the past several months Glasstire has published articles complaining about galleries being out-dated, museums pandering and being out-dated, dislike for public art on the painted electric boxes and now, complaints on immersive art installations. I haven’t heard the reviews on the Contemporary Art Fair, but I’m almost certain I can guess what it’s going to be about. It appears that Glasstire simply doesn’t like art.
Instead of bashing, complaining and putting down so many avenues of how we consume art and content, which sounds a bit bitter, privleged and “so cool”, why not try reviewing better shows, make your own art, or share with your readers what exact combination of aesthetics and venue would please you?
Maybe the problem isn’t so much that it’s not art, or bad art, or something like that. The art world today is a massively inflated institutional theater. Meow Wolf is just at the “populist” end of the scale. The Venice Biennale is at the other end. Caroline Jones wrote an entire book on the history and theory of the “aesthetic of experience”; she’s also curated an exhibition titled “Sensorium”. (I’ve reviewed Jones’ “The Global Work of Art’ for a forthcoming issue of the UK journal, Art History. It’s not a warm embrace by any means!)
Truly, immersive art and the aesthetic ideal of a total experience — not just a visual experience — has been around for decades: Stan Vanderbeek, Allan Kaprow, Lygia Clark, . . . the list goes on and on into the 21st century, with Carsten Hoeller, Thomas Hirschhorn, Kara Walker, and so many others. The “problem” is one that artists need to address: do they want to live and work in an inflated institutional theater or can they imagine some other way to fashion a life worth living, creative work worth doing. Meow Wolf, as I said, is on one end of the spectrum; I imagine that their charitable work supporting artists, the community, etc., places them on the margins of the universe of more egregious enterprises. But even that charitable work is being conducted under the sign of a disturbing version of neo-liberalism. Don’t cringe, there’s ideology everywhere. Sometimes it has a pretty face.
I am puzzled that the writers want to disqualify the Meow Wolf collective from being artists. I know artists who are part of it. They don’t consider their part of the installation to be important in their portfolios, though some others might. Artists work for movie studios and theaters, too. Most artists cannot earn a living by their work. So a waiter is still an artist in your view but an artist getting paid to make entertainment is not an artist. I think your article goes off the rails when you extend the crusade from “Meow Wolf is not art” to “The misguided people who created Meow Wolf are not artists.” As for what is art, I guess by your standards all art up until the 20th century is not art, since madonnas and haystacks do not leave us riven and mystified. Of course I always regarded Graceland as close to being a giant work of art so I admit, I am part of the problem. (But a little Meow Wolf goes a long way with me)
When you refer to Burning Man, I think you’re forgetting that there’s some really good and serious art out there, not just superficial immersive experiences. Of course you’ll get stuff like that in a radically inclusive environment where all art is welcome; in 2018 there were 400 installations from all over the planet; work was shipped from Indonesia, Mongolia, France, Spain, Mexico, Australia any beyond. Burning Man’s art grant program is radical in that they dont’ require exhibition histories, letters of support or proof of a body of work; simply a great idea and the ability to carry it out. What’s so interesting about the art is that it’s not very marketable, largely because of its immense scale; hence the art world looks down their nose at it – they cannot commodify it. Please don’t put it in the same category as these pop-up experiences; it’s way more diverse and much of it is accomplished and quite good. For examples, see work by Leo Villareal, Zachary Coffin, Kate Raudenbush, Bryan Tedrick, MIchael Christian, Mark Lottor, and the Flaming Lotus Girls – world class art by any standards.
I feel like you have a very depressing, narrow, and cliqueish view of what art is. And while I agree with you that installations like the Rose Museum are trash, the increasingly prevalent type of interactive exhibits like Meow Wolf are equally art, in that they are expressions of joy, possibility, and creation. What is the point of critical art if it offers no alternative. Meow Wolf skips the critique and goes straight to the alternative: that we are free, able, and should replace the old with new. The art of Meow Wolf is not the experience, but rather its existence – that any sufficiently motivated group of people can forge their own reality.
Wow, what a ridiculously serious article. MW is whatever your experience of it is, without all the overwhelming analysis. I grew up in Santa Fe, am an artist in Albuquerque, and i’ve never seen anything like it in Santa Fe, known as a pretty but uninspired city with a focus on art. I don’t love all of MW aesthetically, it’s hit or miss, but there’s interesting underlying story, and physically, that’s what you get with a collective of many people given free range, so to speak. Knowing some of the artists personally, they are professionals, talented, and have great heart for what they created.
Palais de Tokyo is proof that the multi-floor immersion into art installations can be done well.
“…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.”
Guffaw! As an artist that works at Meow Wolf I can say this is a totally bonkers assumption. I have to ask the author of this article “what do you consider to be an artist?” Many of the artists at Meow Wolf maintain a studio practice outside of work hours. I myself have been cranking in the studio since high school, received my BFA from Pratt Institute and my MFA from DAAP. If we are not artists, then who is?? I do agree with much of what the author has said, so maybe on this point it would be more accurate to say MW is an incredible job for artists. Sure, there are designers and craftsmen there who would openly identify as such, but to say no one there is an artist…. get outta town!
I’m glad the dialogue is still going on. It is a dialogue isn’t it? https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-duchamps-urinal-changed-art-forever
This review actually offends me. It’s so petty, small, and immature. I think it’s interesting that one of the main criticisms is that Meow Wolf’s aesthetic is for children or burning man fans, but the appeal is far wider
It smacks of “I didn’t enjoy it because other people did”
Think a little bit about your critique before you put it out there