When I was at the Meow Wolf Art Complex about a month ago, it seemed inconceivable that the art collective would be ready to open its doors to the public on March 17, the official date announced for the complex’s grand opening. With a lot of construction still underway, it looked to me like the deadline was wishful thinking. The former bowling alley at 1352 Rufina Circle was purchased by author George R.R. Martin last year for $800,000 on behalf of Meow Wolf, with Martin also donating $2.7 million for the renovations. Meow Wolf is now engaged in building its first permanent interactive exhibit, House of Eternal Return. Little remains of the former bowling establishment, Silva Lanes, save an old sign out front, where it’s impossible to ignore the monumental robot and spider sculptures that now grace the lot. On the inside, the sounds of power tools and hammering were constant. The framework for the Victorian house, a major feature of the exhibit, was up, looking just like any house does when under construction, with no furnishings in place yet. I had to visualize most of what is being planned for the interior from staff descriptions. But just two weeks later, on a follow-up visit, remarkable progress had taken place. “It changes every day,” Meow Wolf’s creative director Caity Kennedy told Pasatiempo. “It’s crazy.”
The entry point for the exhibit is a full-scale replica of a Victorian house with multiple rooms to explore. There are also rooms within rooms — or worlds within worlds — that are accessible via means that seem straight out of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — only instead of a wardrobe, you open a refrigerator door or walk into the massive fireplace and step into another environment.
One major component — the sound — is on track for completion. Around 100 speakers throughout the exhibition pump in the installation’s music. The music has an engaging beat and a cohesive sense about it, though it changes depending on where you are standing in the exhibit — but it’s not ambient sound and background music. “Ambient wouldn’t be the first word I would go to,” said composer Ben Wright. Wright and a team of composers are doing the sound design. “I think it’s a more active sound. The whole exhibition is designed to sound good as a gestalt. The keys and tempos will be related, so the whole exhibition will have a continuity.” Wright and his team met with each artist working on the project and began to compose based on those discussions. “It’s been a continual conversation with the artists to make sure that we’re composing to get the desired effects of the space,” Wright said. “We’re at a point in the project now where we can really start playing the sounds into the space. It’s wonderful to see how the sounds bring the art to life and vice versa; the art can really effect the perception of the sound as well.”
Wright uses the software sequencer Ableton Live as his main platform for composing, but a lot of the sound sources are from field recordings and acoustic instruments, in addition to computer-generated sounds and sounds from keyboard synthesizers and drum machines. Wright played me a sample. “All these forest sounds you’re hearing now,” he said, “there’s a group of gibbons from the Albuquerque zoo who just happened to be really going for it one day while I was down there with my kid. There’s also frogs that my father actually set up field recordings for back East, and cicadas from South Dakota. I’m always looking for sounds, and I always have my recorder on me. I love atmospheric sounds, especially juxtaposed with colder digital sounds.”
Meow Wolf hopes that the dynamism of the exhibit and sound component are diverse enough that return visits will result in different experiences for visitors. “Part of our intention is to have a pulse that sets the frequency for people as they stroll through, and that encourages them to stay longer and take their time,” Wright said.
The combination of the digital and organic is prominent throughout House of Eternal Return and all its technical wonders, such as stalagmites that respond to human touch. The rooms, when complete, will probably not be unlike the living quarters in Meow Wolf’s The Due Return, a massive installation that opened at the Center for Contemporary Arts in 2011. But if you thought The Due Return was something, it’s a mouse next to the mammoth 20,000 square-foot House of Eternal Return, nestled inside the 35,000 square-foot building. Speaking of mammoths, you’ll eventually see something like one — a mastodon being built off-site — at the Meow Wolf Art Complex, which is sure to be among the exhibit’s more memorable features. “I sculpted the mastodon skeleton out of these moldable plastic beads,” said Mat Crimmins, who heads the team that’s designing a cave system, one of the areas that can be accessed from the main house. “You throw the beads in boiling water and take out a golf ball-sized piece and you start to shape it. It’s a larger than life mastodon skeleton. The skull and the tusks will come out over your head as you walk in. I’ve made them hollow so we can put RGB LED lights throughout the whole system. When you walk in there and hit a rib, it will sound like a marimba. We have 22 — 11 on each side — interactive ribs.”
Then there are those stalagmites, designed to provide you with the sense that you are in a cave system without replicating one exactly. “This is a different realm, a wormhole, a vortex thing that’s happening,” Crimmins said. “Given the lights and the glowing mastodon, and the fact that some of the stalagmites are interactive, we’re not going to have real rock. What we’ve really done is play with the LED lights and how they work with different colors.” Four of the stalagmites are interactive, and each has anywhere from 20 to 40 electromagnetic sensors. Like the mastodon ribs, when you put your hand on one of the shapes, it will give a sound response.
The cave system is off to the side of the house and has two levels. The cave walls are built with durable construction. The cave team is using concrete and scratch material to build it. “The scratch is a paper fiber-type sculpting medium,” Crimmins said. “It can react a lot like a clay and you can get it wetter where it’s more like a peanut butter consistency. It spreads nicely and we used that on the ceiling because, per volume, it’s a lot lighter and it’s a lot easier than cement. This stuff sticks like paste.” By contrast, the caves in The Due Return, a temporary exhibit, were made with mud and hay. “I’ve been a sculptor, but I’ve never built an entire cave system before. It’s challenging.”
The cave system and house are just two features of the exhibit. There’s an interactive forest, as well, and a desert trailer home that looks lived-in. The latter is a project headed by Kennedy. “I’m also the project lead for the forest,” she said, “which doesn’t mean I’m controlling every element, but I’m making it cohesive and there are some pretty big elements that are mine: the canopy, the walls, the colors, and coordinating the lighting. I’m working on coordinating the mural for the outside of the building and collecting muralists for the inside of the building. The mural on the outside will slowly change over time. I asked everyone on the team who was interested to send me a shape, related to their project or not, and I’m compiling them into a big abstract design for the mural.”
Kennedy coordinates with all of the artists to ensure their work is stable and safe without sacrificing creativity. “I’m trying to work around code and work within the many, many different codes to make something that’s still the artist’s vision,” she said. “We very intentionally made a structure that can fit practically anything.”
Some of the forest’s tech elements are being designed by Meow Wolf’s Zevin Polzin, the lead interactivity developer. “I’m doing a grove of aspen trees that will have animatronic eyes that follow you through the forest,” he said. “Inside the trees I’ve got a few different motors, a whole assembly with an eyeball at the end of it. The motors will pull the eyeball and aim it at the people. I’m still trying to figure out if I can make eyelids that open and close.” The motion is activated by a thermal imaging camera that picks up body temperatures. “You can see a little blob of heat on the screen when you look at it,” he said. Polzin is doing a lot of the computer programming as well as building custom sensors. “It is a really amazing place to do this kind of immersive installation because we’re not constrained by the format that a lot of new media generally is, whether that’s in a gallery or museum space where you might have a wall and a projector and that’s it. This is completely boundless in terms of what you can imagine.”
The Meow Wolf Art Complex premiere event is a $250 per person V.I.P. gala set for Thursday, March 17, at 5 p.m. Tickets for the opening weekend are $25 for adults and $15 for children from Friday, March 18, through Sunday, March 20. Admission after that is $18, with discounts available. All tickets can be purchased at www.meowwolf.com. “I feel good about the March deadline,” Kennedy said. “I feel like we’re finally to a place where we have a grip on everything and can start working on projects that are less enormous. We could probably keep working on it and adding to it forever.” ◀