Sound and Vision: The Meow Wolf/Spatial Connection

Did SXSW give a preview of the technology behind the next portal?

Photo by John Anderson

Tick tock, tick tock. Somewhere in space-time, there's a countdown: at 4:20pm on April 20 (4:20 4/20), Meow Wolf will be announcing ... something.

The cosmic clock is over at, with an ominous one-eyed psychedelic cowboy boot blinking into eternity. Speculation and prognostication points to the possibility that the revelation will be of a Texas location for the Santa Fe-based art collective and their interactive mega-installations. Where would that site be? A filing with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation uncovered by busy Redditors shows that Meow Wolf is planning a $2 million investment at Grapevine Mills Mall in the DFW Metroplex. That would be a shift in plan, since the creators of the world-famous House of Eternal Return did tell the Chronicle back in 2018 that they were working with developers in the ATX to find a suitable location. Plus, they have a long history here, having debuted their documentary Meow Wolf: Origin Story at SXSW that same year, and collaborated with Austin's own Rooster Teeth on a series, The Weird Place.

That Austin presence continued during the most recent SXSW with a site-specific work that melded Meow Wolf's unique pop experimentalism with software firm Spatial's auditory architecture. Now, Spatial CEO and cofounder Calin Pacurariu admits that they're not the only company working on creating sonic environments - what he called "immersive audio, in-real-world spaces" - but what's different about them is their ability to let creators craft a very specific virtual environment, and then the software generates the sound from that pattern. The result is a more immersive aural environment than ever, and the firm's Spatial Holodeck (basically a large white box) proved its efficacy, simulating not simply the sound of different weather conditions but the subtle changes between how rain sounds on a high or low roof and how your brain constructs its environment from sound (beat that, Daredevil!).

The software is being developed with a host of purposes in mind, from turning the beeps and boops of an unsettling hospital room into a comforting wood cabin, or creating real-time room-wide noise cancellation for a busy office. But what if you needed it to create the rippling crack of a dragon's wings as it flew overhead?

That's the kind of component that intrigued Meow Wolf, and that was folded into their popup installation at SXSW. The evolution of the collaboration was organic, Pacurariu said, and that it started off as a way for the company to get feedback on its software. Spatial had been planning a SXSW activation even before the 2020 cancelation, and with the return of the in-person festival this year, they looked to Meow Wolf. He compared what they do to "what great thematic designers did 30, 40 years ago when they build whole theme parks in three to four years. ... We couldn't think of a better partner for coming here. Their team said, 'Sounds perfect.'"

Ali Rubinstein, Meow Wolf's Chief Creative Officer, said that the technology helps them in their goal of creating "really deeply immersive moments in space and time. ... With the kind of software integration that we're working with with our partners at Spatial, you can be in this open room and stand in a spot and have an experience, and ten feet away you can stand in a different spot and have a completely different audio experience."

"There's no other sound technology that allows you to do that," Pacurariu said. As a result, he added, "You can focus on the storytelling properly, as opposed to, 'Oh, here's some audio feed that goes through a specific audio channel,' or some patches that go through some tool. It's just a fundamentally different approach to storytelling in audio."

Sound is often an underestimated element of creating such immersions. There's the famous story of how, when Disney first created the "It's a Small World" ride, the plan was to have each room with the national anthem of that nation: unfortunately, the first time the imagineers tried it, it turned out to be a complete cacophony. That's why every room now has the infamous ear worm "It's a Small World," just in different languages, playing in synch throughout.

It's a particular problem for Meow Wolf, Rubinstein said, "Because we tend to deal with large spaces that we're moving through," and it's the manner of movement that's the issue. On a ride, "you're moving linearly, but what we do a lot is that we don't move linearly. We're non-directional, we're choose-your-own-adventure, go through a portal, come to a place. So how to support that, that physical sense of spaciousness with audio as well is a really amazing nut that we're cracking here."

It's an invisible art, and Pacurariu said he's happy with that. "People going through natural spaces, they don't realize they're being influenced by sound if you're doing it right, but they feel different."

That's important to Meow Wolf, said Rubinstein, who called sound "part of the layering of all the things that come together to make the Meow Wolf experience."

The idea of a cumulative effect is deep in the philosophy of Meow Wolf's growth, much as each of their installations is part of a greater whole. Each table-sized container at the SXSW installation was unique but synchronistic, like each room at Santa Fe's House of Eternal Return reflects the individual artist or subset of the collective, and how Santa Fe interlinks with their other sites in Denver, Las Vegas, and whatever lurks behind that countdown clock. Sandra Wang, senior creative director for Meow Wolf said, "We have this a macro-story that's happening with this show fits with the narratives that our happening with our other exhibits. One seeps into the other."

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