Updated February 19, 2021 - 12:08 am
There is something wrong with this grocery store.
While the products that line Omega Mart’s linoleum floors, produce section and deli counter reveal themselves to be peculiar under even mild scrutiny, the store faces a more pressing problem: The customers keep getting misplaced in other worlds.
At Omega Mart, which opened Thursday, the Santa Fe, New Mexico-based art collective Meow Wolf used the setting of a grocery store to create a story that pushes the bounds of space and reason.
The anchor tenant at Area15 is a 50,000-square-foot immersive experience in which visitors are invited to shop at a market that quickly gives way to an experimental art gallery, an indoor theme park, an escape room or some combination of those elements.
While browsing products such as “Camel’s Dream of Mushroom Sop,” “Emergency Clams” and “Who Told You This Was Butter,” customers must be wary not to reach too far into the beverage refrigerator, or sneak past the PVC curtains at the deli counter, or slip between the shelves of the cereal aisles — as they may find themselves in a different dimension.
“We create experiences that allow people to actively explore and discover,” says Corvas Brinkerhoff, executive creative director of Meow Wolf Las Vegas. “There are no maps. You just wander where your curiosity takes you.”
Visitors may choose to ogle the oddball products on the grocery store shelves and meander through the 60 or so rooms in the labyrinthine world beyond.
Other visitors may discern that the founder of parent company Dramcorp has gone missing. And that the company’s experiments with portal technology and a mysterious additive in its products may have something to do with it. Those visitors may choose to dig through the employee’s computers and filing cabinets for evidence, to ask pointed questions to the HR robots and search for clues within the exhibit’s payphones, video transmissions and anomalies.
The premise for Omega Mart originated in Santa Fe in 2009, when Meow Wolf artists pooled money for a DIY version that amounted to little more than cinder-block shelves with bottles of colored water.
“We kept coming back to the idea of the grocery store,” says Emily Montoya, cofounder of Meow Wolf and creative director of the grocery store. “It’s a staple of American life, and it has this reality-warping branding. To have a familiar environment as the jumping-off point gets you thinking about what’s around you.”
Meow Wolf’s flagship attraction, the House of Eternal Return, where a family home leads to a multiverse of musical mastodon skeletons and ultraviolet forests, was drawing 500,000 visitors a year before it was shuttered because of the pandemic.
COVID-19 has necessitated modifications to the Omega Mart experience.
Otherworldly spaces like a desertscape with psychedelically swirling walls and dark corridors that pulse with synchronized light are grounded with hand sanitizer dispensers at either end.
An interactive mirror that uses facial recognition comes with a small paddle imprinted with a nose and mouth, to skirt around a face mask’s obstruction.
COVID-19 protocols have meant some artists, like Carey Thompson, who used light, sound and sculpture to create a walk-through Wurlitzer jukebox, had to trust his exhibit to be installed over Zoom.
“I wanted to build something large and immersive and full of light and color and motion,” Thompson says of his Juke Temple. “They approached me to submit a proposal. And they gave me creative freedom to fuse this futuristic tech with an ancient temple.”
Senior creative producer Marsi Gray says Meow Wolf’s practice is not just to empower artists to create what they want to, but to push them further.
“One artist proposed creating an interactive robot,” Gray says. “We weren’t planning on having any robot before that. I said, “Why don’t you make two?’ ”
Uniquely Las Vegas
In 2017, Las Vegas artist, Spencer Olsen created a two-dimensional wormhole as part of the Meow Wolf-supported Art Motel at the Life is Beautiful festival.
Olsen, now a creative director for Omega Mart, expanded the idea, incorporating the bold design and graphic lighting from the first iteration but replacing the matte black wormhole at the center with a dark tube slide that leads … somewhere.
“A lot of the process is in meeting rooms and playing pretend with friends,” Olsen says. “Now it’s like having my imagination on the outside.”
More than 325 artists, from Las Vegas and abroad, collaborated on Omega Mart.
“In the last four or five months, we brought in all the local artists we knew to do the final stage,” Olsen says. “A lot of the contracted things looked nice — too nice. We wanted texture and artists’ hands on everything.”
A leap forward
Brinkerhoff considers the blend of media within Omega Mart to be a generational leap in storytelling.
“There isn’t just one storyline to uncover,” he says. “ It’s like an open-world video game. This is about exploration.”
Some of the spaces to explore can be accessed only by crawling through a tunnel or scaling a rock facade or sliding headfirst down a portal.
“We found that if we can get people to crawl or climb or get their body into different physical modes, we can open up their minds,” he says.
Brinkerhoff acknowledges the unlikelihood that a group of “artists and weirdos” from Santa Fe would have the opportunity to create something like Omega Mart.
“I hope people walk away feeling like, if we can do this, then you can do anything you might dream of.”