Putting it to­gether


Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Paul Wei­de­man

In­side the for­mer Silva Lanes bowl­ing al­ley, a new house has just been built. It’s a very spe­cial house, not only be­cause of its hard­wood floors and fancy-cut cor­bels and balustrades. This is a place of dreams and fan­tasy, a repos­i­tory of clues to a pro­found mys­tery — What hap­pened to the fam­ily that lived here? — and a por­tal to an­other di­men­sion. Chad­ney Everett is one of more than a hun­dred artists and tech­ni­cians who have cre­ated this in­stal­la­tion, House of Eter­nal Re­turn. “The house has been my pro­ject. I worked on the nar­ra­tive team as well with [Meow Wolf co-founder] Vince Kad­lubek and three or four other peo­ple, so I have a strong idea of who th­ese peo­ple in the fam­ily were, be­cause I helped de­velop them over a pe­riod of many, many months.”

Everett, a mem­ber of the Eter­nal Re­turn team since Jan­uary 2015, took over the pro­ject for artists Matt King and Caity Kennedy. Everett comes from a back­ground in key paint­ing for film and in the­atri­cal set de­sign. “The idea was to de­sign the space around the fam­ily,” he said dur­ing an early March walk-through of the house. “I de­signed, and we have man­u­fac­tured in-house, ev­ery wall and post and balus­ter and cor­bel you see.” The set in­cor­po­rates what he called “a bit of an homage to our great bene­fac­tor, Ge­orge R.R. Martin,” in some Game of Thrones- ref­er­enc­ing griffins on the house’s carved wood­work and the shin­gles that look like dragon scales.

When vis­i­tors en­ter the old bowl­ing al­ley, they are con­fronted with a fence, mail­box, and lawn: the front yard of the house. “It is night and the yard will be lit by light from the win­dows on the house,” Everett said. “There will be cool light from a full moon, and we also have pro­jec­tors that cre­ate cloud shad­ows mov­ing across the space. Once you’re in the front yard, there’s no di­rec­tion. You can duck around at both sides of the house — some peo­ple may ex­plore the whole ex­hibit back­wards and come out of the house last — but we be­lieve that most will en­ter through the front door.”

In­side to the left is the fam­ily’s stu­dio, com­plete with a paint­ing pad and brushes vis­i­tors can use; there are hun­dreds of fea­tures of House of Eter­nal Re­turn that are in­ter­ac­tive in some way. On the other side of the foyer is the liv­ing room. There is a sofa, an aquar­ium, and a tele­vi­sion. All of the TV shows and com­mer­cials were made in-house.

In the din­ing room, there is a crux — a fo­cal-point of ev­i­dence from the event that cre­ated the ex­hibit. Some ob­jects are warped, and the room comes to life when you en­ter. “Here you start to see clues that some­thing hap­pened, and hope­fully it will whet the ap­petite of the vis­i­tor to dis­cover more deeply. This is not our re­al­ity; this is a par­al­lel re­al­ity. It’s just a bit skewed to put you on edge, so you think things aren’t what they seem to be. The in­quis­i­tive vis­i­tor’s job is to find out what that event was and what it did. And the story is so deep and rich, there is no one an­swer. There is no sort of mur­der-mys­tery sur­prise end­ing.”

Ex­plor­ers will be tan­talized. In the house, they may en­ter a se­cret door­way un­der the stairs. The liv­ing-room fire­place has a pas­sage­way lead­ing into a cave sys­tem. And the re­frig­er­a­tor is much more than it seems.

As vis­i­tors head to the stair­way, they may no­tice the finely carved wood on the stair­case’s outer stringer, an­other fea­ture of what Meow Wolf con­ceived of as a 150-year- old Vic­to­rian house. Up­stairs is the of­fice of the grand­fa­ther, who was “deep into es­o­ter­ica and ex­plo­ration of the fam­ily’s his­tory,” and there are strange ma­chines that can be ex­am­ined. One is an an­tique, wood-cased ra­dio that plays snip­pets of mu­sic and talk. As you turn the tun­ing dial, you hear the char­ac­ter­is­tic fre­quency dis­tor­tions be­tween chan­nels, but even those sounds were made by the team. An­other in­stance of this com­pletely hand­made ex­hibit is the syn­the­sizer in the father’s sound stu­dio up­stairs. “It was made, from scratch, by Charles Tut­tle,” Everett said. “He even man­u­fac­tured his own cir­cuit boards. And here’s an in­stru­ment cre­ated by Mag­gie Ann Thorn­ton that gen­er­ates har­mon­ics by read­ing the elec­tric­ity in your hand.”

Dur­ing the early March visit, artist Thea Egolf was on her back on a bunk bed in the chil­dren’s room, do­ing the daugh­ter’s art­work on the bot­tom of the up­per bunk. There are lots of Le­gos nearby, await­ing the in­stal­la­tion’s younger

vis­i­tors. In an ad­ja­cent bath­room, there is, pre­dictably, a toi­let. But it’s re­ally a win­dow. “You’re above the din­ing room and you peer down through this toi­let and you can see all the peo­ple there, annd su­per­im­posed over that is a young boy float­ing andd ghostly im­ages of his fam­ily. More clues to what happ­pened.”

Are any of them still alive? Where did theyt go? “That is dis­cov­er­able,” Everett promised.

The house and a mul­ti­tude of colorful ob­jects and en­vi­ron­ments wit­ness­able through var­i­ous por­tals are all en­livened by the story of thiss fam­ily and its pos­si­ble fates. The nar­ra­tive takes place on the day of House of Eter­nal Re­turn’s open­ing, March 17, 2016. The fam­ily has just left. Some of what Meow Wolf has in­vented here is messy and chaotic, and some is el­e­gant and pre­cise; some of the forms are or­ganic look­ing, and some are very tech­no­log­i­cal look­ing; butt just about ev­ery­thing is in the realm of the fan­tas­tic. There is an over­ar­ch­ing theme, but the whole can also be seen as sort of an en­er­gized phan­tas­mago­ria.

“This is an im­mer­sive sto­ry­telling ex­pe­ri­ence, but it func­tions with­out that as well,” Megan Roniger said. “If the story goes over your head be­cause you’re only five or you’re not in­ter­ested in that el­e­ment of it, it to­tally ex­ists on that level as well. But we think the peo­ple in the video-gam­ing com­mu­nity, peop­ple who are re­ally into sci­ence-fic­tion nov­els anda comic books, they might want to start look­ing for some­thing be­neath the sur­face, and so wew put that there through the nar­ra­tive.”

Roniger started an art col­lec­tive in New Or­leans and in­vited Meow Wolf to do a show therre in the sum­mer of 2014. Af­ter that ex­pe­ri­ence, she re­lo­cated to Santa Fe and to­day is an ad­min­is­tra­tor with Meow Wolf and one of its con­tribut­ing artists. “As youy ru­mage through the house, you dis­cover the ar­ti­facts left by the fam­ily and you learn about them as in­di­vid­u­als. The ar­eas out­side that you ac­cess through se­cret pas­sage­ways are man­i­fes­ta­tions of thee dreams and mem­o­ries and ex­pe­ri­ences of our char­ac­ters.”

Here and there in the in­stal­la­tion are video mon­i­torsm that hold lit­tle vi­gnettes of the nar­ra­tive story. The ac­tors and film crew are all Meow Wolfers. Onne of the key fig­ures in fash­ion­ing the tech­no­log­i­cal won­ders for the in­stal­la­tion is com­puter en­gi­neer Matthew Fer­nan­dez, who moved from Al­bu­querque to de­vote him­self to this ven­ture. “I’m mostly build­ing the in­fra­struc­ture and back­ground things you don’t see,” he said, “but I was pretty in­volved with Matt King’s mastodon skeleton and the mush­rooms in the for­est.” The vis­i­tor can play the ribs of the glow­ing full-size mastodon like a marimba. When you tap one of the dozens of mush­rooms, the ac­tion trig­gers sounds and the “star” lights in the canopy “sort of in­ter­act and cas­cade,” Fer­nan­dez said. “Th­ese gnome-like for­est fig­ures also are in­ter­ac­tive. They’re sort of act­ing up right now, but we’ll fix that. That’s mostly what we do — fix prob­lems.”

The laser harp up in the father’s sound stu­dio was one of his projects. “It’s just a laser com­ing down on a pho­to­sen­sor and you break the beam and it makes a sound and trig­gers lights. It’s not a real in­stru­ment. We give it all the sounds and we have the abil­ity to turn on and off the lasers, so it will cy­cle through pro­grams and do an­i­ma­tions on its own. All of the things we do are highly mod­u­lar. We have a net­work back­bone, some­thing I was very in­volved in, that’s ba­si­cally plug-and-play. Ev­ery­thing can talk to any­thing. It’s very sim­ple to change be­hav­iors.”

That means the vis­i­tor’s ex­pe­ri­ence will change from visit to visit. “That’s right. We’re us­ing in­ex­pen­sive sin­gle-board com­put­ers and even full-blown com­put­ers through­out the en­tire show, and most ev­ery­thing runs in Linux. All of the things that we’re do­ing are mir­rored on the en­ter­prise level. Google has a much grander scheme than what we’re us­ing, but it’s not dis­sim­i­lar, so we can take their tools be­cause they’re all free and open source, and we can just au­to­mate ev­ery­thing.”

Sim­i­larly, the videos that play in loop­ing se­quences can eas­ily be swapped out. “There are also trig­gered videos,” Fer­nan­dez said. “For in­stance, the large mir­ror in the din­ing room of the house has an ul­tra­sonic sen­sor, so when you come up to it, it starts play­ing a video be­hind the mir­ror, and you sort of see your­self in the din­ing room through the mir­ror. And that’s very eas­ily tweaked and changed. The whole idea is that we can be very dy­namic with ev­ery­thing. There’s no rea­son not to be.

“The hard part is in­stalling ev­ery­thing and get­ting it to work in the first place.”

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