Michael Abatemarco checks on the progress of Meow Wolf’s new per­ma­nent ex­hibit, House of Eter­nal Re­turn

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

When I was at the Meow Wolf Art Com­plex about a month ago, it seemed in­con­ceiv­able that the art col­lec­tive would be ready to open its doors to the pub­lic on March 17, the of­fi­cial date an­nounced for the com­plex’s grand open­ing. With a lot of con­struc­tion still un­der­way, it looked to me like the dead­line was wish­ful think­ing. The for­mer bowl­ing al­ley at 1352 Ru­fina Cir­cle was pur­chased by au­thor Ge­orge R.R. Martin last year for $800,000 on be­half of Meow Wolf, with Martin also do­nat­ing $2.7 mil­lion for the ren­o­va­tions. Meow Wolf is now en­gaged in build­ing its first per­ma­nent in­ter­ac­tive ex­hibit,

House of Eter­nal Re­turn. Lit­tle re­mains of the for­mer bowl­ing es­tab­lish­ment, Silva Lanes, save an old sign out front, where it’s im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore the mon­u­men­tal robot and spi­der sculp­tures that now grace the lot. On the in­side, the sounds of power tools and ham­mer­ing were con­stant. The frame­work for the Vic­to­rian house, a ma­jor fea­ture of the ex­hibit, was up, look­ing just like any house does when un­der con­struc­tion, with no fur­nish­ings in place yet. I had to vi­su­al­ize most of what is be­ing planned for the in­te­rior from staff de­scrip­tions. But just two weeks later, on a fol­low-up visit, re­mark­able progress had taken place. “It changes ev­ery day,” Meow Wolf’s cre­ative di­rec­tor Caity Kennedy told Pasatiempo. “It’s crazy.”

The en­try point for the ex­hibit is a full-scale replica of a Vic­to­rian house with mul­ti­ple rooms to ex­plore. There are also rooms within rooms — or worlds within worlds — that are ac­ces­si­ble via means that seem straight out of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — only in­stead of a wardrobe, you open a re­frig­er­a­tor door or walk into the mas­sive fire­place and step into an­other en­vi­ron­ment.

One ma­jor com­po­nent — the sound — is on track for com­ple­tion. Around 100 speak­ers through­out the ex­hi­bi­tion pump in the in­stal­la­tion’s mu­sic. The mu­sic has an en­gag­ing beat and a co­he­sive sense about it, though it changes de­pend­ing on where you are stand­ing in the ex­hibit — but it’s not am­bi­ent

The en­try point for the ex­hibit is a full-scale replica of a Vic­to­rian house with mul­ti­ple rooms to ex­plore. There are also rooms within rooms — or worlds within worlds.

sound and back­ground mu­sic. “Am­bi­ent wouldn’t be the first word I would go to,” said com­poser Ben Wright. Wright and a team of com­posers are do­ing the sound de­sign. “I think it’s a more ac­tive sound. The whole ex­hi­bi­tion is de­signed to sound good as a gestalt. The keys and tem­pos will be re­lated, so the whole ex­hi­bi­tion will have a con­ti­nu­ity.” Wright and his team met with each artist work­ing on the project and be­gan to com­pose based on those dis­cus­sions. “It’s been a con­tin­ual con­ver­sa­tion with the artists to make sure that we’re com­pos­ing to get the de­sired ef­fects of the space,” Wright said. “We’re at a point in the project now where we can really start play­ing the sounds into the space. It’s won­der­ful to see how the sounds bring the art to life and vice versa; the art can really ef­fect the per­cep­tion of the sound as well.”

Wright uses the soft­ware se­quencer Able­ton Live as his main plat­form for com­pos­ing, but a lot of the sound sources are from field record­ings and acous­tic in­stru­ments, in ad­di­tion to com­puter-gen­er­ated sounds and sounds from key­board syn­the­siz­ers and drum ma­chines. Wright played me a sam­ple. “All th­ese for­est sounds you’re hear­ing now,” he said, “there’s a group of gib­bons from the Al­bu­querque zoo who just hap­pened to be really go­ing for it one day while I was down there with my kid. There’s also frogs that my fa­ther ac­tu­ally set up field record­ings for back East, and ci­cadas from South Dakota. I’m al­ways look­ing for sounds, and I al­ways have my recorder on me. I love at­mo­spheric sounds, es­pe­cially jux­ta­posed with colder dig­i­tal sounds.”

Meow Wolf hopes that the dy­namism of the ex­hibit and sound com­po­nent are di­verse enough that re­turn vis­its will re­sult in dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences for visi­tors. “Part of our in­ten­tion is to have a pulse that sets the fre­quency for peo­ple as they stroll through, and that en­cour­ages them to stay longer and take their time,” Wright said.

The com­bi­na­tion of the dig­i­tal and or­ganic is prom­i­nent through­out House of Eter­nal Re­turn and all its tech­ni­cal won­ders, such as sta­lag­mites that re­spond to hu­man touch. The rooms, when com­plete, will prob­a­bly not be un­like the liv­ing quar­ters in Meow Wolf’s The Due Re­turn, a mas­sive in­stal­la­tion that opened at the Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts in 2011. But if you thought The Due Re­turn was some­thing, it’s a mouse next to the mam­moth 20,000 square­foot House of Eter­nal Re­turn, nes­tled in­side the 35,000 square-foot build­ing. Speak­ing of mam­moths, you’ll even­tu­ally see some­thing like one — a mastodon be­ing built off-site — at the Meow Wolf Art Com­plex, which is sure to be among the ex­hibit’s more mem­o­rable fea­tures. “I sculpted the mastodon skele­ton out of th­ese mold­able plas­tic beads,” said Mat Crim­mins, who heads the team that’s de­sign­ing a cave sys­tem, one of the ar­eas that can be ac­cessed from the main house. “You throw the beads in boil­ing wa­ter and take out a golf ball-sized piece and you start to shape it. It’s a larger than life mastodon skele­ton. The skull and the tusks will come out over your head as you walk in. I’ve made them hol­low so we can put RGB LED lights through­out the whole sys­tem. When you walk in there and hit a rib, it will sound like a marimba. We have 22 — 11 on each side — in­ter­ac­tive ribs.”

Then there are those sta­lag­mites, de­signed to pro­vide you with the sense that you are in a cave sys­tem with­out repli­cat­ing one ex­actly. “This is a dif­fer­ent realm, a worm­hole, a vor­tex thing that’s hap­pen­ing,” Crim­mins said. “Given the lights and the glow­ing mastodon, and the fact that some of the sta­lag­mites are in­ter­ac­tive, we’re not go­ing to have real rock. What we’ve really done is play with the LED lights and how they work with dif­fer­ent colors.” Four of the sta­lag­mites are in­ter­ac­tive, and each has any­where from 20 to 40 elec­tro­mag­netic sen­sors. Like the mastodon ribs, when you put your hand on one of the shapes, it will give a sound re­sponse.

The cave sys­tem is off to the side of the house and has two lev­els. The cave walls are built with durable con­struc­tion. The cave team is us­ing con­crete and scratch ma­te­rial to build it. “The scratch is a pa­per fiber-type sculpt­ing medium,” Crim­mins said. “It can re­act a lot like a clay and you can get it wet­ter where it’s more like a peanut but­ter con­sis­tency. It spreads nicely and we used that on the ceil­ing be­cause, per vol­ume, it’s a lot lighter and it’s a lot eas­ier than ce­ment. This stuff sticks like paste.” By con­trast, the caves in The Due Re­turn, a tem­po­rary ex­hibit, were

made with mud and hay. “I’ve been a sculp­tor, but I’ve never built an en­tire cave sys­tem be­fore. It’s chal­leng­ing.”

The cave sys­tem and house are just two fea­tures of the ex­hibit. There’s an in­ter­ac­tive for­est, as well, and a desert trailer home that looks lived-in. The lat­ter is a project headed by Kennedy. “I’m also the project lead for the for­est,” she said, “which doesn’t mean I’m controlling ev­ery el­e­ment, but I’m making it co­he­sive and there are some pretty big el­e­ments that are mine: the canopy, the walls, the colors, and co­or­di­nat­ing the light­ing. I’m work­ing on co­or­di­nat­ing the mu­ral for the out­side of the build­ing and col­lect­ing mu­ral­ists for the in­side of the build­ing. The mu­ral on the out­side will slowly change over time. I asked ev­ery­one on the team who was in­ter­ested to send me a shape, re­lated to their project or not, and I’m com­pil­ing them into a big ab­stract de­sign for the mu­ral.”

Kennedy co­or­di­nates with all of the artists to en­sure their work is stable and safe with­out sac­ri­fic­ing cre­ativ­ity. “I’m try­ing to work around code and work within the many, many dif­fer­ent codes to make some­thing that’s still the artist’s vi­sion,” she said. “We very in­ten­tion­ally made a struc­ture that can fit prac­ti­cally any­thing.”

Some of the for­est’s tech el­e­ments are be­ing de­signed by Meow Wolf’s Zevin Polzin, the lead in­ter­ac­tiv­ity de­vel­oper. “I’m do­ing a grove of aspen trees that will have an­i­ma­tronic eyes that fol­low you through the for­est,” he said. “In­side the trees I’ve got a few dif­fer­ent mo­tors, a whole as­sem­bly with an eye­ball at the end of it. The mo­tors will pull the eye­ball and aim it at the peo­ple. I’m still try­ing to fig­ure out if I can make eye­lids that open and close.” The mo­tion is ac­ti­vated by a ther­mal imag­ing cam­era that picks up body tem­per­a­tures. “You can see a lit­tle blob of heat on the screen when you look at it,” he said. Polzin is do­ing a lot of the com­puter pro­gram­ming as well as build­ing cus­tom sen­sors. “It is a really amaz­ing place to do this kind of im­mer­sive in­stal­la­tion be­cause we’re not con­strained by the for­mat that a lot of new me­dia gen­er­ally is, whether that’s in a gallery or mu­seum space where you might have a wall and a pro­jec­tor and that’s it. This is com­pletely bound­less in terms of what you can imag­ine.”

The Meow Wolf Art Com­plex pre­miere event is a $250 per per­son V.I.P. gala set for Thurs­day, March 17, at 5 p.m. Tick­ets for the open­ing week­end are $25 for adults and $15 for chil­dren from Fri­day, March 18, through Sun­day, March 20. Ad­mis­sion af­ter that is $18, with dis­counts avail­able. All tick­ets can be pur­chased at www.me­ow­wolf.com. “I feel good about the March dead­line,” Kennedy said. “I feel like we’re fi­nally to a place where we have a grip on ev­ery­thing and can start work­ing on projects that are less enor­mous. We could prob­a­bly keep work­ing on it and adding to it for­ever.”

LED-lit sta­lag­mite; top, artist Leo Brown works in a pre­fab­ri­ca­tion space Op­po­site page, top left, lantern by Dave McPher­son; top right, Matt King and Jake Snider play the laser harp; bot­tom left, sound and tech team ma­te­ri­als; bot­tom right, Chris­tian Ristrow’s Be­com­ing Hu­man, a 30-foot-tall robot sculp­ture

Mag­gie Thorn­ton, Emily Mark­wiese, and Betsy Leonard of the tech team

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