Meow Wolf is coming.
Yes, the international art sensation that's based in Santa Fe, N.M. The relentless and many-peopled collective that, with a little funding (read: millions of dollars) from Game of Thrones' George R.R. Martin, turned an abandoned bowling alley into an immersive, multileveled, insanely detailed exhibition called The House of Eternal Return. The creative powerhouse that's blown hundreds of thousands of minds and raked in megabuck profits and has already expanded its maximalist perturbations of reality to Denver and Las Vegas, is coming to Austin.
First, it's coming to SXSW – via the documentary film Meow Wolf: Origin Story, and the virtual reality experience The Atrium. And then, much later – if things work out – the Wolf will have a physical permanence in this city. We'll tell you about that possible thing at the end, here; but first, the festival:
Meow Wolf: Origin Story, directed by Morgan Capps and Jilann Spitzmiller, has its world premiere at SXSW. If you want to see how the group's well-orchestrated madness began, if you want to grok a few of the ways in which time and trials have tempered Meow Wolf into the cohort of cultural magnificence it's still becoming, then you want to see this film. The very look and sound of Origin Story provides a vivid sample, reeking delightfully of its many-textured subject. Which was intentional.
"That was unavoidable, really," said Capps. "How could you make a quiet, bland movie about Meow Wolf? We had to push the envelope cinematically as much as the group pushed it aesthetically."
"We were going for capturing the DIY nature of the group," said Spitzmiller, "just bringing together all of these pieces and, like, scrapping them together in a cool kind of parallel."
Spitzmiller's been working in the documentary field for 30 years: The acclaimed Shakespeare Behind Bars is one of her features; Still Dreaming, coming to PBS in April, is another. Capps was at North Carolina's Center for Documentary Studies before going to Santa Fe to work on a film – and remaining once that project wrapped.
"I started with Meow Wolf as a volunteer in The House of Eternal Return," said Capps, "helping build the exhibit and doing some behind-the-scenes shooting, and I was there when they were approached about a documentary. They decided to have some of the people who'd been with them tell the story instead, and I ended up becoming the director – this is my first feature film. And Jilann was brought on, and she was an incredible teacher and mentor to me. And the project evolved as we went along, it got bigger and bigger, and she carried so much of the film on her shoulders that, when we came to the end of it and we were figuring out what we were calling everybody – because we'd been working all-forces-together – I insisted that Jilann share a director credit with me."
"And I cried," said Spitzmiller.
Watching the collective's pitfall-challenged trajectory evoked in a dynamic quilt of behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, animation, music, and public response, you may find yourself crying – because you're not among the artists living and working as part of Meow Wolf. But if you'd be willing to settle for the audience experience of The House of Eternal Return, but can't make it to New Mexico right now? That's where the virtual reality of The Atrium comes in handy.
Much like Santa Fe's real-world House, the virtual Atrium lets you investigate how and why the Selig family disappeared from their otherworldly abode – by snooping through what they left behind. Which, if you've ever played classic video games, might sound ... a bit familiar?
"Oh yeah," said Atrium director Brian Solomon, "video games like Myst, stories like The Dark Crystal – those were very much what the original founders of Meow Wolf went for when we were designing spatial, interactive narratives, so that's right on the money. The Atrium does kind of feel like that, but with a twist in the perspective, a change that we think people are really gonna like."
But – why VR at all?
"It began as a research project," said Solomon. "We got our hands on all the equipment we could, and all the team members we could, and tried to find out where Meow Wolf could fit in the context of that industry. It was really me and Leo Brown, our lead designer, and for The Atrium he designed our giant haptic platform – a root-scale, base-transducer platform that floats on air bags. We decided, 'Hey, let's do something weird.' And fortunately we have a really supportive company, so that's what we've been doing for the last year or two."
So there's one haptic platform, and –
"Not only one, but two main haptic rigs," said Solomon, "two 13-foot platforms, for SXSW's Virtual Cinema. And, in an effort to get rid of the, you know, The Person Who Tells You What to Do for 10 Minutes Before You Put on a Headset, we created the story with an external component – like a preface to your character in the world."
"Brian came up with a cool way to make it less of a phase-shift when you're going in," said Atrium producer Kara Kittel, "so you have a more intuitive grasp of who you are and what you're supposed to do in that world."
"Meow Wolf wants people to always find new portals, new ways into a kind of dream place," said Solomon. "And we can do that with a 3-D interactive component, with generative art: find ways to make a space feel alive."
Alive is what Meow Wolf will be in Austin, literally, years after this SXSW has come and gone – if the group's leaders and local man-on-the-ground Michael Feferman have anything to say about it.
"We've been working on it for over a year, trying to find the right location and partners," said Feferman. "We're still working on it – and it's looking very promising. We have several conversations going with developers who have interesting things coming down the pipe. But one of the things we've learned is that development, especially the permitting process, takes longer in Austin than in most cities. And so the original timeline we were shooting for – which was late 2019 – that's just not feasible to hit with a new development. We had to look further down the line, into 2021 or 2022."
And this thing won't be just an offshoot of the Santa Fe exhibit, right? It won't be, like, House of Eternal Return II – but maybe it'll be around the size of that original site?
"Even bigger," said Feferman.
"Look," said Feferman, "this is an unbelievably ambitious group. Nobody in Meow Wolf is into the idea of doing the same thing again. They constantly want to evolve, and every creative effort is different – especially these permanent installations. It would be its own unique endeavor, a collaboration between the core team in Santa Fe and the creative community here in Austin."
So: In one way or another, immediately to SXSW and eventually to Austin itself – you can mark our words, citizen – Meow Wolf is coming.
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