Around 2:30 am, I finally turn off the digital recorder and go inside. I have just spent two hours by a gas fire pit in the courtyard of a Las Cruces condo with seven members of the Santa Fe art collective Meow Wolf, discussing how the group had grown from a grassroots organization throwing parties in an empty storefront to a formal business entity commissioned by New Mexico State University to create art. The artwork, titled Glitteropolis, is the group's 14th immersive art experience—a 3,200-square-foot installation that serves as a fantastical diorama built by anthropologists of the future.
Group members, all in their 20s and 30s, maintain that their mission has been constant—to create fun, interactive experiences through artistic collaboration—but that the increased attention has also amplified pressure to define their work. Critics have said that the group needs to be more community-minded, that its work lacks direction and context, and that its members exhibit the hubris of youth. Drinking beer, smoking cigarettes or rubbing tired eyes around the fire, Wolfers defended their right to remain apolitical, producing art for the pure enjoyment of creation and the pure pleasure of experience, even if some of them did in fact have social commentary in mind.
"I've definitely encountered some generally frustrated people who complain about the members of Meow Wolf—that we aren't doing enough for the community," collective member Caity Kennedy said. She's a pouty blonde, with wild hair and a lip piercing, who becomes animated and garrulous on the topics of her work and the group's mission. "We don't have to be actively saying 'community, community, community,' because we just are community."
Leading up to the debut of Glitteropolis—the pack's first fully funded installation—I drove down to Las Cruces in mid-November in an attempt to comprehend the somewhat enigmatic three-year-old collective that's recently earned the attention of the Santa Fe establishment.
As an art critic, I've written often about a national shift in artistic values from autonomous, self-referential works to art-making as both a spiritual practice and an expression of community. When I arrived in Santa Fe in September, I'd heard within a week about Meow Wolf—a group that exhibits those same virtues, but also inspires some skepticism. At the very least, Meow Wolf began a dialogue between myself and other SFR staff about the definitions and boundaries of art. Naturally, I wanted to find out how that conversation took place within the confines of the pack. Does its work constitute a shift in values? Is it a fully formed movement or a primer for a later movement, like Dada was to surrealism? Finally, are the members of Meow Wolf a bunch of kids screwing around, and, if so, does that lessen or negate the way we interact with their work?
For two days, I lived with a small pack of Wolfers in the condo, spending the days at NMSU's University Art Gallery as Glitteropolis developed. The group woke around 11 am or noon and worked until midnight. Though I found the coffee pot hot and full each afternoon in a tool room on site, I also found it cold and only half empty by the evening. The group's members seemed to run on adrenaline, and they would have stayed much later at the gallery each night had the university allowed them. On the second night, we settled in around the fire to talk about what it all means.
When I arrive in Las Cruces around 1 on a Monday morning, I find Kennedy and her collective cohorts Vince Kadlubek and Chris Miller in the kitchen. Kadlubek eats cereal, and Kennedy leans in a chair against the island, gluing glittery red balls to a block of wood. Miller moves silently around the edges before heading off to bed.
The three-story prefab condo—which costs the group $2,000 for six weeks—looks straight out of Pier 1 Imports and Z Gallerie catalogs, with tan walls and passageways separated by doors lighter than a ream of printer paper. The green AstroTurf lawn outside could easily find a home in the installation. And the only décor in the bedroom they’ve prepared for me (by combining sleeping quarters for themselves, Miller sleeping in an alcove at the top of the stairs) is a row of books belonging to Meow Wolf member John McKissick: the poems of Brecht and Rilke, the aphorisms of Nietzsche, and other serious literature such as Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
The name Meow Wolf arrived exquisite corpse-style, with the founding members choosing words out of a hat in February 2008.
Despite the hour, we talk about the collective and the installation. The name Meow Wolf arrived exquisite corpse-style, with the founding members choosing words out of a hat in February 2008. They ended up with three or four combinations that seemed to make some sense, then voted. None of the members thought the others would also choose Meow Wolf, but the vote was nearly unanimous. That process of selection has remained intact since. The group hands out tasks, but none are weighted in a hierarchical sense. Tall with bookish eyeglasses, a short, clean haircut and the ability to attend to multiple tasks without acting hurried, Kadlubek is often considered the group's de facto leader because he handles much of the media outreach and administrative labor.
“Meow Wolf operates with 25 or so ‘members,’” Kadlubek explains later via email. “Those members all have equal vote, and equal say when it comes to decision-making. We also have another 50 or so ‘contributors.’ To become a member, a contributor just has to show consistent commitment to the group, and get voted in by two-thirds of existing members.”
In the kitchen, Kennedy says new members tend to be "self-selective." "You go because you want to, you know?" she says. "Tons of people come to our meetings, and a certain percentage stick around."
Kadlubek later explains that his motivation to form a new group of artists came from a desire to "bring an edge to Santa Fe, to expand the cultural identity of this city to include emerging art. It's a pride thing. I am born and raised here. I want my hometown to be considered cool and on the frontier."
Known for creating immersive, theatrical installations or experiences, Meow Wolf has also been a music venue, a music promoter, a theater company, an arts educator and a voice of youth culture.
In early November, Meow Wolf launched the Chimera elementary school outreach program with the Center for Contemporary Arts, winning first prize at Recycle Santa Fe Art Festival for the third- to sixth-grade category. On Nov. 26, Meow Wolf hosted a dance party, Super Powered Dance Destroyer, at the VFW, and in addition to Glitteropolis’ Nov. 30 opening, Meow Wolf opens the second Chimera project, a play, titled Unit 113, which runs Dec. 2-4 and 9-11, as well as an exhibition at CCA titled Collective Collected on Dec. 16. The group has a “huge” New Year’s Eve party in the works at El Museo Cultural, Kadlubek says, and in the spring, Meow Wolf plans to present an installation at the Communikey arts and music festival in Boulder, Colo. Kadlubek foresees a more traditional stage performance sometime in the near future, as well as a short video project for Chimera next quarter. Group members are also working on a massive holiday project about which they absolutely forbid me from writing.
“[Meow Wolf] certainly represents a new art movement in Santa Fe, in my view,” Mary-Charlotte Domandi writes via email. The host of Santa Fe Radio Café on Santa Fe Public Radio, she was one of the first media representatives to interview Meow Wolf. “I don’t know if they represent a paradigm shift,” Domandi adds. “They are one group. I don’t see any others with the intensity or brilliance they have.”
On the way to the space with Kadlubek Monday afternoon, I note the paradox of creating an imaginative, glittery city in this particular part of Las Cruces, a treeless expanse of strip malls and suburbs.
Glitteropolis is a diorama pieced together by future anthropologists using mundane clues and artifacts such as a red fire hydrant. These theoretical scientists thought the fire hydrant had been much brighter in its day, mistakenly inferring that, in the past, everything was covered in glitter. Though the story might help viewers interpret or categorize the work, it’s really geared toward helping the artists understand what they’re doing.
The pack maintains that it began with the idea of a glitter city, spinning off a treasure chest full of glittery items in an earlier project, an interdimensional ship called The Due Return that landed at the CCA this summer. The final narrative—an anthropological take on 21st century life—developed only as they began working in the space.
"But that's the piece speaking about itself, rather than us putting that into it," Kadlubek says.
At the gallery, students and university staff enter and leave—some to work, others to observe. Almost everyone moves through the space independently, the beats of a stereo being the only regular chatter.
When Kadlubek isn’t on his iPhone speaking with donors, collaborators at CCA and NMSU, or various heads of other MW projects simultaneously in the works—though the group doesn’t have a formal hierarchy, each project has a lead organizer—he moves between the various elements of Glitteropolis, checking on progress and offering a sounding board. He calls himself a juggler of ideas.
Just two weeks before its opening,
leaves much to the imagination. The white-walled gallery is mostly bare, with two permanent, L-shaped walls in the middle. The group started by encasing those walls in wood, fabric and chicken wire to create various project spaces; individual members then laid out plans for each space.
In the back, a row of long tables bears the materials for various glittering objects. To the left, Fawn works on an ice palace, and Miller builds the walls of a cave with cardboard.
Jovial and often dreamy-eyed, Fawn left New Mexico for California a few years ago because she felt she couldn't identify with the art movement here, but then returned to work with Meow Wolf.
I watch my step so as not to dislodge or break anything. McKissick examines the materials for the "glit-tar" pits, designed to appear as if they fill from the run-off from Golda Blaise Pickett's factories. Blaise Pickett joined Meow Wolf after moving from Louisiana to blow glass at a made-to-order operation in Tesuque. In the center, Kennedy creates a wall of brightly colored plastic flowers, bunches of them still lying on the ground. On the other side of the wall, King pieces together a radioactive forest with branches doused in ultraviolet-light-reactive paint. Though each project area doesn't necessarily connect to the others, Wolfers had begun forming narratives that did, such as the connection between the factories and the glit-tar pits. Later, bright lights and black lights, some moving and spinning, would illuminate the whole room.
The NMSU commission for Glitteropolis represents the first time an outside entity has approached Meow Wolf with a request for work and a budget to pay for it. Simultaneously, Meow Wolf is running a Kickstarter campaign with CCA to fund Chimera, a process that requires the group to clearly define its goals in terms of community benefit—ie explain why anyone should give it money, a demand for self-definition the group has repeatedly rejected.
Previously, Meow Wolf supported its mission through a variety of financial contributions, including grants, donations and ticket sales from its music shows. Members of the collective have also dumped their own money into various projects over the years.
Recently, the pack re-formed as a formal business entity, which required it to designate the difference between members, contributors and collaborators. A combination of individual initiative and collective support, nonetheless, continues to define the organization. Meow Wolf is able to juggle a number of projects at once, Kadlubek says, because its members work autonomously, but with group support. They also enlist the labor of a number of sponsoring organizations, including CCA, the New Mexico School for the Arts, the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and area elementary schools.
Kate Lesta, Communikey's founder, says she sought to collaborate with Meow Wolf because the group reflects her own belief in a cultural shift from autonomous individuals to a communal society.
“The new generation is ready to explore a new way of societal structure,” Lesta says. “These creative collectives are an example of that. People are ready to work together, to share resources, share capacities, share knowledge. We’re moving away from an age and mentality of scarcity, towards abundance.”
Given a national dialogue fixated on economic scarcity—particularly a lack of jobs—that sentiment may seem counterintuitive. But Meow Wolf and similar organizations operate under the understanding that they can go further together than by individual efforts.
The impulse to combine resources might actually be viewed as a product of the economic slough, with audiences, as well as artists, having less disposable income. Shannon Murphy, a founding member of Santa Fe's After Hours Alliance, says Meow Wolf formed in the spirit of AHA and other Santa Fe arts collectives: to bring individual artists and arts groups—Team Everything, High Mayhem and The Process, for example—together to "initiate higher returns." Rather than compete for audiences, these groups would share them. Key to their success, so far, has been the fact that many of the participants get involved out of personal interest rather than vested interest. In other words, the majority of them are volunteers, looking for things to do at night and on weekends, which encourage audience participation and don't necessarily involve alcohol.
The movement has centered around music events, Murphy says, and Meow Wolf continues to be a force in meeting new acts with new audiences. "They are a powerful music promoter," Murphy says. "They defy best
practices and common knowledge. The bands are too cool or too new. [Their success] is a tribute to their critical mass and really good taste."
Despite the collective’s brand of inclusive outreach, of the hundred or so students from the university and associated community colleges—some volunteering out of personal interest and others for class credit—only four fully embraced the opportunity to participate in Glitteropolis, Kadlubek says. Students were told that they could either help Meow Wolf members with their projects or develop one or two of their own. The majority just followed instructions to paint or glitter objects.
"We create space for individuals to participate as far as they want to, hoping they'll take initiative," Kadlubek says.
NMSU art department head Thom Brown says students have gleaned the message of collaboration through self-initiative. He notes that the arts are generally very competitive, especially in "tough economic times," so students need to learn to follow Meow Wolf's example of networking and do-it-yourself project management.
"Meow Wolf members are all fairly young, a generation closer to the students," Brown says, "which helps to make a connection and give an example of what someone else is doing to build a career, and they can actually participate. "
Brown learned about Meow Wolf through contemporary art professor Stephanie Taylor. She’d been impressed by The Due Return, Brown says, so when another installation for the University Art Gallery fell through, she suggested Meow Wolf. According to Brown, though the work Meow Wolf does may be new in New Mexico, it also has context in the art world, specifically in the works of Oliver Herring and Ann Hamilton, and follows a national trend of next-generation artists who want to get out of the studio and work collaboratively with other artists.
"Viewers might scratch their heads and ask what's going on," Brown says, "but that's not a bad situation to go into."
Brown hints at a deeper point, one Murphy also reaches: that Meow Wolf's work is as much about process as outcome. In this context, the collaborative process is a value in itself. Thinking expansively in the manner of Joseph Beuys, one might add that collaboration is Meow Wolf's art form.
When I ask Brown outright, however, if Meow Wolf could be seen as the Dada to a later movement's surrealism, he hesitates and then demurs, saying he'll have to think about it.
Meow Wolf's mission to define or redefine Santa Fe art is the subject of both praise and criticism. According to Murphy, Meow Wolf is "one of the most powerful groups in the community" because it harnesses the zeitgeist of area youths who don't buy into the old Santa Fe culture. SFR's Zane Fischer, one of the Meow Wolf's more vocal critics, suggested in one column [Zane's World, March 28, 2008: "Crying Wolf"] that, upon the city's denial of a music venue business license, Kadlubek and company acted like a bunch of entitled kids.
"If the Meow Wolf crew thinks regulations and zoning are screwed up for all-ages music venues, it should spend some time considering how bad it is for affordable housing, mixed-use infill, artist studios and low-dollar entrepreneurial start-ups," Fischer wrote. "There are some powerful coalitions to bring to a table if one is willing to talk rather than tantrum."
In the same piece, however, he also praised Meow Wolf's "entrepreneurial spirit," calling it "worthy of respect and admiration."
By many measures, Meow Wolf’s turning point was The Due Return, an interdimensional ship that landed at CCA last summer.
Though most attendees understood the backstory—that the ship had arrived in Santa Fe after hopping dimensions for two centuries—some reactions to the work rang as deeply as movie poster quotes: “Awesome”; “I’ve never seen anything like it”; “I went 20 times.” In May, SFR’s former culture desk manager, Rani Molla, wrote, “The Due Return…leave[s] my mind stammering with shameful banalities: ‘It’s so big!’ ‘There’s so much stuff!’ ‘I like it!’” [visual arts, May 10: “Full Sail”].
However, The Due Return also earned Meow Wolf an elevated status among area culturati—even before the pack built it. Murphy says that, when Meow Wolf received a nomination for SITE Sante Fe’s inaugural community-supported and -funded micro-granting initiative, SPREAD, the city’s entire arts community was abuzz. The other nominees, Murphy says, offered “good, but arguably more traditional programs—artworks by individual artists or by hierarchical organizations.” By contrast, Meow Wolf claims to have no hierarchy, creating “meta-themes” or “containers” for multiple contributions. “Until [SPREAD],” Murphy adds, “Meow Wolf was just for young people. They had no recognition from the greater community.”
More than 20,000 people visited The Due Return, CCA representative Sandra Napua says. Many visitors came multiple times, and they ranged from children to octogenarians.
Despite such positive community reactions, skepticism persists about Meow Wolf's sustainability, as well as the efficacy of its business model. No Meow Wolf member collects a full-time salary from his or her work with the collective.
"Whether or not their work is sustainable here remains to be seen," Radio Café's Domandi says. "Presumably, some of them will reproduce and then have to earn family-supporting incomes."
Though the NMSU stipend of $3,000, with an additional $6,000 reimbursement for supplies, doesn't add up to a living for a group of Meow Wolf's size, none of its members are complaining.
"You add that up over a month that we're down here, and it can definitely help pay for stuff when we move back to Santa Fe," member Matt King says. When I meet King on the second night of my visit, he has just returned to Las Cruces from a multiday dog-sitting gig in Santa Fe. The key to his SUV sticks in the ignition, so he jams a Diet Coke can between the key and the dash to keep the battery from draining. "It's so different from where we came from," he says, "when we were working all day at our jobs and all night making art."
Kadlubek hopes the "sub-projects" Meow Wolf supports will produce a revenue stream, in turn supporting administration and project participants.
"If anyone ends up having kids," Kadlubek says, "hopefully they can also create a project/workstream that can make itself money and can carve out a paid position."
Around the fire on the second night of my visit, Kadlubek describes Meow Wolf's process for approving "workstreams"—or project outlines—through an analogy.
"It could be like a nail salon," he says. "One of our members has the power to say, 'I propose that we work on people's nails—toenails and fingernails—and it's going to be a Meow Wolf store, and it's going to cost this much money. Here's my budget and here's my plan.' And then Meow Wolf says, 'This falls under our LLC umbrella; go for it, and we support it, and we will allow this Meow Wolf…nail salon to happen.'"
In this way, he explains in an email later, the Kickstarter campaign for Chimera doesn't represent a collective-wide definition of values, but only the goals for that project.
Kadlubek's choice of a nail salon does not go unnoticed by the group, which then debates whether or not a nail salon could actually be considered a Meow Wolf art project, which further evolves into a discussion on what constitutes art. King ends the conversation by reminding the group that the nail salon, or any other proposal, cannot move forward without of a two-thirds approval by the group. If approved, the nail salon would have the organization's full support, Kadlubek says, but no member is required to participate.
Inside the condo, McKissick, a patient and thoughtful speaker who left earlier during a discussion on politics in art, sits up from the couch, his bed for the night, to tell me that the pack merely provides a platform and the resource for anyone with an idea to pursue a path to realizing it.
“Our future is unwritten,” Kadlubek says. “We have been performing community-based projects, and community is a huge aspect of our personal ethics. But we are open to any project and open to any suggestion from any funder.”
An archivist by trade and a wayfarer by design, McKissick learned about Meow Wolf just before The Due Return set sail. He met Blaise Pickett on Thanksgiving in a small, quiet restaurant, and she told him all about it. “They needed help, and I needed something to do,” he says.
For the other members of the pack, having something to do is the very point. They aren't sure where the collective will go, but they know how they want to proceed.
"Our future is unwritten," Kadlubek says. "We have been performing community-based projects, and community is a huge aspect of our personal ethics. But we are open to any project and open to any suggestion from any funder."
Meow Wolf provides McKissick, a nonartist, with the resources, namely a group of specialized artists and craftspeople, to do something creative that he never could have accomplished on his own. "Meow Wolf has incredible group knowledge," he says.
Collective achievement through combined individual knowledge is the lesson Meow Wolf hopes to impart to participants, installation "users" and the kids involved with Chimera, but the joy of making and experiencing art is also reason enough for each of them to continue.
It is also the reason I traveled down to Las Cruces to live with Meow Wolf for two days: to experience Meow Wolf’s creation story, just as attendees will experience a completed Glitteropolis.
Kennedy says she sees Glitteropolis as a painting people can walk into. She loves the moment when a snobby woman in white pants finally concedes to crawling through a certain entrance. “They come out smiling like children,” she says, “because they just acted like children.” SFR
Additional reporting by Melina Laroza.
Reception: 5 pm Wednesday, November 30th
Through Feb 18, 2012
University Art Gallery
DW Williams Hall
New Mexico State University