Brain Beans and Suburban Dreams: Meow Wolf’s “The Real Unreal”

by Colette Copeland August 18, 2023
Photo of a lifelike sculpture of the front yard of a home

Installation view of Meow Wolf Grapevine’s “The Real Unreal.” Photo: Jess Gallo, courtesy of Meow Wolf.

Like my Glasstire colleagues Jessica Fuentes and William Sarradet, I too went to Meow Wolf Grapevine during its preview days last month. I’m a big fan of multimedia, immersive installations; for immersive sound and light work, Dark Matter in Berlin was one of my favorites. Conversely, Transfix in Las Vegas was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had. Billed as the new Burning Man, there was a disconnect between the concept and visuals, and the work didn’t achieve the level of spectacle that viewers expect while in Vegas. While in town I also visited Meow Wolf’s Vegas outpost, Omega Mart, to garner a framework for comparison to Grapevine’s The Real Unreal.

In Glasstire’s podcast, both Fuentes and Sarradet described their personal experiences as well as some of their favorite rooms at both the original Santa Fe and the Grapevine locations. Here, I will focus on what makes Meow Wolf stand out from other immersive and interactive experiences, as well as its impact on the local artist economy. I brought two friends to the installation, neither of whom are artists. Neither had heard of Meow Wolf or participated in this type of event before. I wanted to see Meow Wolf both from their newbie perspectives, as well as through my somewhat biased, critical lens. 

Photo of an installation of a laundry room of a home with two portals inside the washer and dryer

Installation view of Meow Wolf Grapevine’s “The Real Unreal.” Photo: Kate Russell, courtesy of Meow Wolf.

Meow Wolf’s commitment to working with local artists significantly impacts the local artist economy, and also expands artists’ reputations beyond their individual cities. Meow Wolf is itself a respected brand, and now 40+ DFW artists have this experience on their resume. These installations are destinations, which draw in tourists from around the country. Grapevine seems like an odd place for a big art installation, not to mention the location — Grapevine Mills Mall is not typically a place one would expect to experience art. I imagine Meow Wolf got a good deal on the space versus the pricey Dallas downtown real estate. I also expect that Meow Wolf will help to revitalize the dying mall’s business.

I spoke to artist Carmen Menza, whose work was commissioned for The Real Unreal, about her experience working with Meow Wolf. She told me, “The relationship with Meow Wolf was really wonderful. I always felt trust and respect for my artistic efforts and intentions, which is so important as an artist. It was super organized with effective communication, support and regular check ins throughout the two-year process. To be able to have your work in a permanent exhibition and bring it to a larger audience [and] to have regional and national eyes on your artistic practice is really what we strive for as artists, and I feel like Meow Wolf really gets that.”

Installation image of a refrigerator door in the middle of a wall in a technicolor room

Installation view of Meow Wolf Grapevine’s “The Real Unreal.” Photo: Paul Torres, courtesy of Meow Wolf.

In addition to commissioning local artists, Meow Wolf offers a unique visitor opportunity by providing a multi-layered, multi-sensorial, immersive and interactive experience that few other companies have achieved. Other companies claim to be interactive and/or immersive, but often miss the mark. It’s also rare for a company to create an environment that appeals to both children and adults.

Las Vegas’ Omega Mart begins in a store with satirical products for sale, like gender fluid sparkling water and plausible deniability laundry detergent for the adults, and steak cakes with chewy eyes to gross out the kids. The real magic happens when one opens the supermarket doors into other worlds/dimensions. The experience is largely self-directed: if a visitor lacks curiosity, they miss the hidden gems behind the refrigerators, doors, closets, and cabinets. For those who have grown up used to the no-touch art museum policy, it is refreshing to be encouraged to engage with everything. 

Installation image of a detergent bottle titled "Plausible Deniability"

“Plausible Deniability. Omega Mart” at Meow Wolf Las Vegas. Photo: Colette Copeland

The Real Unreal begins with a visit into an ordinary-looking 1970’s suburban house. This is where we learn that a child is missing. As we open up closets, drawers, and doors, there are multiple entries into the “unreal” or magical dimension of the experience. Although, I would argue that the 1970’s house was magical in its own right with its attention to small details, such as the records of the jazz musician who lived in the house or the handwritten notes, cards, and journals found in each bedroom. The washer/dryer offered portals into another world, if one was brave or small enough to slide through. 

The “unreal” world includes a magical treehouse garden. I loved the hanging paper flowers and plants throughout the space; they reminded me of creating imaginary worlds as a child. There is a fluorescent black light forest of trees, and a deserted town with a stage, arcade, and stores, reminiscent of a film set — abandoned, but fully preserved. An RV camper was also a highlight, with its desert landscape vibe and strange flora/fauna. Like the town, it was deserted, but intact with remnants of human habitation. 

Installation view of light work by Carmen Menza and wallpaper by Zeke Williams

The circular light work is by artist Carmen Menza. Wallpaper to the right is by Zeke Williams

I agree with Fuentes’ and Sarradet’s warnings about overstimulation. I spent two hours in both Omega Mart and The Real Unreal and didn’t decode either underlying narrative. My visual and auditory senses were bombarded; I succumbed to exploring the environment without understanding the mystery of the missing child (in Grapevine). Multiple visits are required to unpack the complex storyline.

I loved watching my two friends experience the wonder of Meow Wolf. It’s important to approach the encounter with a sense of childlike wonder and play. As such, our greeter told us to look out for brain beans, one of the many interactive components of the adventure. (For reference, a brain bean is a seed that is planted into our mind garden.)

The treasure hunt commenced. We only found seven of the 22 brain beans. Located throughout the space, these symbols have a number to text with a keyword, like “mimic” or “harmonize.” In response, we received instructions, similar to a Fluxus prompt, to complete a gesture with a friend within the space. The theme of gardening and growth permeates all aspects of the installation, from the magical fruits and vegetables in the night garden outside the house, to the alien-looking fluorescent garden, as well as the lush and tropical treehouse garden in the unreal realm. 

Installation view of a flourescent forest

The Florescent Forest. Photo by Colette Copeland

My only criticism is the price tag. $50 a ticket is a steep entry fee, especially for Grapevine and the many socio-economically challenged parts of DFW. However, the price is in line with other immersive experiences, and the parking is free. I did notice on Meow Wolf’s website that they host school field trips, so hopefully children from lower income areas will have the opportunity to experience the space’s magic. 

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