House of passages
On Friday, I visited Meow Wolf, which is a statement that seems destined to elicit either a knowing smile or a puzzled look, the proportions of which probably change the farther you get from New Mexico. I didn’t really know what it was before I went, which was a good thing, and I’m not sure how to describe it even now, which is even better. It’s housed in a huge building in downtown Santa Fe that used to be a bowling alley and is now owned by local hero George R.R. Martin, who spent millions of dollars in renovations to allow Meow Wolf, an artistic collective with its own long history, to enable its wildest dreams. After buying a ticket, you walk down a darkened hallway into what looks like a crumbling Victorian house, built from scratch down to the last shingle. You can explore every room, look inside every drawer, and even open the fridge, which contains a startling surprise of its own. As you wander, you gradually start to piece together a larger narrative, and you realize that everything you see is a clue. All of the obvious anomalies, from the distorted floor of the upstairs bathroom to the portal in the fireplace, reflect a coherent story about a peculiar family, a missing child, two rival secret societies, and a hub connecting the house to a vast multiverse, tantalizing portions of which are accessible to visitors. (I managed to figure out very little of this for myself, and if you want more information, there’s a much better writeup by Annalee Newitz over at Ars Technica.)
And you come away feeling deeply impressed, even if you leave with most of the mystery intact. I went in knowing almost nothing about it, aside from the notion that it was some sort of interactive exhibit and art installation, and I went from bracing myself for the worst possible version of the experience—I was dreading a kind of kid’s show with insistent actors and cheap set dressings—to the realization that it was probably the best. It’s been compared to an online RPG, and it has to solve many of the same narrative problems, in three dimensions and with a live audience, which obliges it to deal with the challenges of a theme park attraction or a haunted house. There are many small touches of wayfinding that keep you exactly as disoriented as the designers want you to be, but no more, along with subtly incorporated cast members who can give you a nudge in the right direction or indicate a feature that you might have overlooked. And like many of the best video games, it’s accessible both to casuals and to obsessive players. My three-year-old daughter, who is a natural busybody, had a great time simply poking around the house, in which she was granted complete freedom to indulge in her nosiness to her heart’s content. Most of the rooms have both a connection to the overall narrative and elements of self-contained diversion, like the glowing mastodon ribcage that can be played like a xylophone. You can be exactly as engaged with the deeper story as you like, and the fact that local high schoolers seem to treat it as an ideal place to make out probably delights its creators.
But if you’re really serious about drilling down to the underlying mystery, there’s a wealth of material at your disposal, much of it remarkably dense: a fake newspaper casually left on a kitchen table, a corkboard with sinister correspondence from the neighborhood middle school, a fat binder of notes about the multiverse, a desktop computer crammed with files. And although the comparisons to video games or theme parks suggest themselves naturally, the best parallel is to Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves. (The formal name of the exhibit is “House of Eternal Return,” which may be a play on words between the act of leaving and the act of returning.) They share the same mingled sense of dread and discovery, and like the novel, the art complex rewards both casual browsing and deep exploration, with much of its charm lying in the implication that it can never be fully exhausted. It was the result of six months of brainstorming and world-building, and the big sensory effects that it creates can’t be separated from its attention to detail on the most granular level. It’s impossible to resist doing a few spot checks, and once you’ve verified that the dresser has clothes in it and that the notebook on the desk is full of real writing, the credibility of the whole enterprise rises enormously. As Douglas R. Hofstadter once wrote of an ingenious word puzzle: “It strikes me as weird (and wonderful) how, in certain situations, the verification of a tiny percentage of a theory can serve to powerfully strengthen your belief in the full theory.” That’s certainly true here, and it would clearly reward repeated visits.
Of course, to see it in the first place, you have to go to Santa Fe, which points both to its appeal and to the inherent obstacles it faces. Thanks to the financial support and creative freedom that Martin has provided, this is likely to be the best possible incarnation of this kind of endeavor that will ever exist, and it’s difficult to envision many other cases in which such a benefactor would be willing or able to take on a similar risk. Meow Wolf estimates that it needs about a hundred thousand visitors every year to break even, which seems like a high bar to clear—even if it represents just one percent of what Game of Thrones pulls in on a good week. Given its nature as a localized interactive experience, it seems destined to be both a labor of love and an irreproducible outlier. (To be honest, I’m not entirely sorry about this: I’m not sure that I want to see a version of this experience that was done with anything less than the resources and the attentiveness that we see here, and a bad knockoff of it would be unbearable.) Yet I have the feeling that its real legacy will be as a crucible of talent, or a hub to an artistic multiverse of its own, with other projects or careers reverberating away from it like ripples in spacetime. To conceive, plan, and above all execute this story in a tangible form, with all of the specific problems that would have presented themselves along the way, must have been an education in itself, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the participants went on to do fascinating things with the skills they acquired in the process. It’s a house that leads into many rooms, and the most interesting ones may not even exist yet.