Inside the former Silva Lanes bowling alley, a new house has just been built. It’s a very special house, not only because of its hardwood floors and fancy-cut corbels and balustrades. This is a place of dreams and fantasy, a repository of clues to a profound mystery — What happened to the family that lived here? — and a portal to another dimension. Chadney Everett is one of more than a hundred artists and technicians who have created this installation, House of Eternal Return. “The house has been my project. I worked on the narrative team as well with [Meow Wolf co-founder] Vince Kadlubek and three or four other people, so I have a strong idea of who these people in the family were, because I helped develop them over a period of many, many months.”
Everett, a member of the Eternal Return team since January 2015, took over the project for artists Matt King and Caity Kennedy. Everett comes from a background in key painting for film and in theatrical set design. “The idea was to design the space around the family,” he said during an early March walk-through of the house. “I designed, and we have manufactured in-house, every wall and post and baluster and corbel you see.” The set incorporates what he called “a bit of an homage to our great benefactor, George R.R. Martin,” in some Game of Thrones-referencing griffins on the house’s carved woodwork and the shingles that look like dragon scales.
When visitors enter the old bowling alley, they are confronted with a fence, mailbox, and lawn: the front yard of the house. “It is night and the yard will be lit by light from the windows on the house,” Everett said. “There will be cool light from a full moon, and we also have projectors that create cloud shadows moving across the space. Once you’re in the front yard, there’s no direction. You can duck around at both sides of the house — some people may explore the whole exhibit backwards and come out of the house last — but we believe that most will enter through the front door.”
Inside to the left is the family’s studio, complete with a painting pad and brushes visitors can use; there are hundreds of features of House of Eternal Return that are interactive in some way. On the other side of the foyer is the living room. There is a sofa, an aquarium, and a television. All of the TV shows and commercials were made in-house.
In the dining room, there is a crux — a focal-point of evidence from the event that created the exhibit. Some objects are warped, and the room comes to life when you enter. “Here you start to see clues that something happened, and hopefully it will whet the appetite of the visitor to discover more deeply. This is not our reality; this is a parallel reality. It’s just a bit skewed to put you on edge, so you think things aren’t what they seem to be. The inquisitive visitor’s job is to find out what that event was and what it did. And the story is so deep and rich, there is no one answer. There is no sort of murder-mystery surprise ending.”
Explorers will be tantalized. In the house, they may enter a secret doorway under the stairs. The living-room fireplace has a passageway leading into a cave system. And the refrigerator is much more than it seems.
As visitors head to the stairway, they may notice the finely carved wood on the staircase’s outer stringer, another feature of what Meow Wolf conceived of as a 150-year-old Victorian house. Upstairs is the office of the grandfather, who was “deep into esoterica and exploration of the family’s history,” and there are strange machines that can be examined. One is an antique, wood-cased radio that plays snippets of music and talk. As you turn the tuning dial, you hear the characteristic frequency distortions between channels, but even those sounds were made by the team. Another instance of this completely handmade exhibit is the synthesizer in the father’s sound studio upstairs. “It was made, from scratch, by Charles Tuttle,” Everett said. “He even manufactured his own circuit boards. And here’s an instrument created by Maggie Ann Thornton that generates harmonics by reading the electricity in your hand.”
During the early March visit, artist Thea Egolf was on her back on a bunk bed in the children’s room, doing the daughter’s artwork on the bottom of the upper bunk. There are lots of Legos nearby, awaiting the installation’s younger visitors. In an adjacent bathroom, there is, predictably, a toilet. But it’s really a window. “You’re above the dining room and you peer down through this toilet and you can see all the people there, and superimposed over that is a young boy floating and ghostly images of his family. More clues to what happened.”
Are any of them still alive? Where did they go? “That is discoverable,” Everett promised.
The house and a multitude of colorful objects and environments witnessable through various portals are all enlivened by the story of this family and its possible fates. The narrative takes place on the day of House of Eternal Return’s opening, March 17, 2016. The family has just left. Some of what Meow Wolf has invented here is messy and chaotic, and some is elegant and precise; some of the forms are organic looking, and some are very technological looking; but just about everything is in the realm of the fantastic. There is an overarching theme, but the whole can also be seen as sort of an energized phantasmagoria.
“This is an immersive storytelling experience, but it functions without that as well,” Megan Roniger said. “If the story goes over your head because you’re only five or you’re not interested in that element of it, it totally exists on that level as well. But we think the people in the video-gaming community, people who are really into science-fiction novels and comic books, they might want to start looking for something beneath the surface, and so we put that there through the narrative.”
Roniger started an art collective in New Orleans and invited Meow Wolf to do a show there in the summer of 2014. After that experience, she relocated to Santa Fe and today is an administrator with Meow Wolf and one of its contributing artists. “As you rummage through the house, you discover the artifacts left by the family and you learn about them as individuals. The areas outside that you access through secret passageways are manifestations of the dreams and memories and experiences of our characters.”
Here and there in the installation are video monitors that hold little vignettes of the narrative story. The actors and film crew are all Meow Wolfers. One of the key figures in fashioning the technological wonders for the installation is computer engineer Matthew Fernandez, who moved from Albuquerque to devote himself to this venture. “I’m mostly building the infrastructure and background things you don’t see,” he said, “but I was pretty involved with Matt King’s mastodon skeleton and the mushrooms in the forest.” The visitor can play the ribs of the glowing full-size mastodon like a marimba. When you tap one of the dozens of mushrooms, the action triggers sounds and the “star” lights in the canopy “sort of interact and cascade,” Fernandez said. “These gnome-like forest figures also are interactive. They’re sort of acting up right now, but we’ll fix that. That’s mostly what we do — fix problems.”
The laser harp up in the father’s sound studio was one of his projects. “It’s just a laser coming down on a photosensor and you break the beam and it makes a sound and triggers lights. It’s not a real instrument. We give it all the sounds and we have the ability to turn on and off the lasers, so it will cycle through programs and do animations on its own. All of the things we do are highly modular. We have a network backbone, something I was very involved in, that’s basically plug-and-play. Everything can talk to anything. It’s very simple to change behaviors.”
That means the visitor’s experience will change from visit to visit. “That’s right. We’re using inexpensive single-board computers and even full-blown computers throughout the entire show, and most everything runs in Linux. All of the things that we’re doing are mirrored on the enterprise level. Google has a much grander scheme than what we’re using, but it’s not dissimilar, so we can take their tools because they’re all free and open source, and we can just automate everything.”
Similarly, the videos that play in looping sequences can easily be swapped out. “There are also triggered videos,” Fernandez said. “For instance, the large mirror in the dining room of the house has an ultrasonic sensor, so when you come up to it, it starts playing a video behind the mirror, and you sort of see yourself in the dining room through the mirror. And that’s very easily tweaked and changed. The whole idea is that we can be very dynamic with everything. There’s no reason not to be.
“The hard part is installing everything and getting it to work in the first place.” ◀