The last time Meow Wolf was in Las Vegas, it unleashed pillow monsters, slime and a land of ramen on unsuspecting festivalgoers.
Just a year and a half after that temporary Life is Beautiful installation, the Santa Fe-based art collective is creating a permanent experiential space for Area15, the art and tech hub rising just west of the Strip.
“It’s going to be like an open-world video game,” says Corvas Brinkerhoff III, co-founder of Meow Wolf. “Except you’ll explore the world with your body instead of on a screen.”
What started as a ragtag art collective 11 years ago in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has since blossomed into an ambitious art and entertainment production company.
For Life is Beautiful 2017, the group took over the Art Motel, transforming the abandoned motor lodge into 21 disparate rooms that invited visitors to touch, explore and play.
Now Meow Wolf is developing a 50,000-square foot multisensory, transmedia art-filled world that will welcome visitors by the end of the year.
In the beginning
In February 2008, Brinkerhoff and a small group of friends and young artists chipped in on a warehouse in Santa Fe.
By night, they hosted parties and punk shows. By day, they developed their crafts.
“We had all this space and thought, ‘What do we do with it?’ ” Brinkerhoff says.
They settled on collaborating.
“We learned that we all loved making immersive environments together,” he explains. “It worked because writers could do the backstory, painters and sculptors could build it. Musicians made the soundtrack and dancers and performers would live in the world. It was something way cooler than any one of us could do by ourselves.”
From there, the concept snowballed.
“There was no money in it,” Brinkerhoff remembers. “We were just pouring our hearts and souls into the work, continually finding ways to show our work.”
‘House of Eternal Return’
Their first permanent admission-based exhibit, “House of Eternal Return,” opened almost three years ago in a Victorian-style house once inhabited by the Selig family.
Visitors are invited to enter the home and suss out the mystery of why the family no longer lives there. That means turning on the TV in the living room and watching the parents’ home movies. Or poring over the family’s journal entries.
It also means opening the refrigerator door and stumbling upon a portal to another dimension. Looking into the washing machine and the fireplace also carries visitors to other dimensions.
“The family mysteriously disappeared into the multiverse,” Brinkerhoff explains. “The house exists in the same world as we do. The portals take you into other worlds.”
Visitors are encouraged to snoop and uncover the mystery of the Seligs. It’s an ambitious nonlinear form of storytelling where the narrative unfolds through self-guided discovery.
Portals lead to an expanse of rooms with a functional treehouse, corridors of TVs, pulsing walls, technicolor forests and something called a space owl.
“When we built Santa Fe, the premise was that if we could get 100,000 visitors in a year, then that was a successful model,” Brinkerhoff says. “This year, we had 500,000 visitors.”
Inspired to expand, Meow Wolf set their sights on Las Vegas.
In 2017, Las Vegas artist Joel Spencer answered an open call for artists.
“I signed up and proposed an idea for Life is Beautiful to get a room in the Art Motel installation,” Spencer says. “I did a thing called ‘Pink Inside.’ ”
The room was a literal interpretation of the axiom that we’re all “pink inside.”
The gleaming bubblegum-pink room featured squishy surfaces, set to a soundtrack created by Meow Wolf of “stomach and entrail sounds.”
“I saw Meow Wolf in 2015 when they did like a few rooms of the Art Motel,” Spencer recalls. “They were just amazing. For ‘Pink Inside,’ I had the idea to do it and a cool platform and thought they wouldn’t really say no.”
Another Las Vegas artist, Spencer Olsen, was always interested in building immersive spaces. “But that’s usually a pretty ambitious task,” he says.
Olsen met Meow Wolf’s founders at Life is Beautiful 2015, when he designed a mural on the Art Motel mezzanine. In 2017, he was encouraged to submit a design for an Art Motel room.
He collaborated with a handful of other local artists to create a multimedia installation.
Olsen joined Meow Wolf’s creative direction team last year and relocated to Santa Fe. He’s turned his attention toward art direction for the Las Vegas experience. “It’s such a special, life-changing opportunity,” Olsen says. “It’s mind-blowing, getting to be part of this amorphous blob of creativity.”
“We were looking for fertile ground to take this otherworldly experience to,” Brinkerhoff says. “Vegas has a really good community and market for us.”
Meow Wolf was scouting for property when Fisher Brothers, the real estate firm behind Area15, got in contact.
“When we started laying out plans for an anchor tenant, Meow Wolf got what we were doing and appreciated it,” says Winston Fisher, CEO of Area15. “Who doesn’t want to open a refrigerator and find out that it’s a secret tunnel to an ice cave?”
Brinkerhoff is tight-lipped on the story that will be told through the Las Vegas installation. “It will come out in trailers,” he says. “Like for a movie.” But he promises a thematic, immersive experience.
“There is an incredibly rich tapestry of media content, high production value videos, audio recordings, photos, documents and books you can uncover, all stitched together through a digital storytelling platform.”
Visitors will wear an RFID bracelet that tracks their movements and syncs with a mobile app that helps them navigate and uncover the narrative. The space will take three to four hours to explore.
Visual art, audio, video and lighting will combine to create immersive settings and, ultimately, propel the story forward.
“I truly believe this will be a historic moment in storytelling,” Brinkerhoff says. “There’s nothing like this in the world as far as we know.”
Artists from Las Vegas, Santa Fe and abroad are collaborating to complete the project.
“Spencer Olsen is working with 15 Las Vegas artists,” Brinkerhoff says. “We want the local art scene to feel represented. We’re not coming in and dropping something down, but becoming part of the community.”
The aesthetic will feature what Brinkerhoff describes as Meow Wolf’s “gritty” style. And the $40 million budget — a significant increase over the $3 million invested in Santa Fe — will contribute to the exhibit’s video, digital and multichannel sound system.
“In Las Vegas, we’re leaning into the creative, magical high-tech otherworldly environment,” Brinkerhoff says. “This show will be unique in that way.”