Just Do A Meow Wolf

Photo of Meow Wolf Las Vegas by Kate Russell, taken from this article

Simon Arcus, chief executive of Wellington Chamber and Business Central, thinks the city could do with some new attractions, such as the previously pitched World of WearableArt (WOW) museum or the interactive and immersible creative installations of Meow Wolf, a Sante Fe arts collective.

Cruising the Capital: Why the ‘Must Do’ list needs a shake-up

This paragraph deep into a newspaper article about Wellington’s limited offer to tourists caught my eye, or more correctly, it made both my eyes roll right back into my head while I laughed incredulously. The city’s big business guy throwing down Meow Wolf as a new attraction possibility, even as an aspirational example of original thinking (or however you might generously frame it), lands with a massive clang, the clang of failing to really understand what you’re talking about.

Short version: Arts is hard, business guy.

Meow Wolf is an arts project (originally a collective, they incorporated somewhere in the last decade-half) that specialises in huge, immersive experiences featuring the work of large numbers of artists. Based in Santa Fe, they have also opened permanent exhibition locations in several other US cities. The vibe is like Disneyland meets Philip K. Dick, at least that’s as I understand it from far away, i haven’t been lucky enough to visit a Meow Wolf. They do cool stuff.

Wellington, of course, has a bunch of stuff that directly overlaps with what Meow Wolf do: we have lots of artists here. We have a busy games/tech sector. We have a huge engine for creating fantastic worlds in the Wētā studio system. We have smart creative people. Can’t you just see a Meow Wolf-type thing working in Wellington? I can! It seems to fit right in!

Here’s why the idea clangs: to get a Meow Wolf you need a lot more on your side than ambition.

Most obviously, a Wellington Meow Wolf has a size problem. It has to be big, not just to copy what worked overseas, but because if you’re doing an immersive attraction, it needs to have some breadth to it, or folks are going to wander through in ten minutes. And it also needs some depth to it, or it isn’t delivering on the ‘immersive’ side. So you’re right away looking at a large (not huge, but large) installation, and the investment needed to fit it out to a high standard and keep it refreshed and engagement-ready. Embedding the work of artists, and paying them properly, too. None of this is cheap but that’s fine because we’re going to get an audience of cruise ship passengers and return visit locals and out of towners and…

Not so fast. Scale is the devil for immersive; the economies of scale don’t kick in like they do on other projects. Even when you don’t have performers, as is normal for the Meow Wolf model, you still need to hand-feed every experience to a certain extent, and the more people you include, the more uncertainties dilute the reliability of the experience and make it impossible to actually do what you want to do.

A local Meow Wolf is devilishly hard. We’d need some big installation spaces, and a lot of customers willing to pay significantly to offset the rents and ongoing labour involved, as well as covering off the heavy investment of setup costs. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard.

But this is actually the wrong end of the conversation. Because all this assumes that you are doing a Meow Wolf by taking an overseas success story and just copying it here.

The truth is, you don’t get a Meow Wolf that works without growing it at home. It’s artwork, and artwork has to cook from local ingredients or it’s going to leave a bad taste.

And here’s where the real clang comes from, for me. Because to get a Meow Wolf, you need to cultivate and support a community of artists over many years. You need a city that gives them space to live affordably, and allows them to mix and develop. You need to put money, real money, on the table for artists to try things and explore and do stuff. A lot of those things will fail as commercial attractions.

Put it this way: the road to a local Meow Wolf is through dozens of failed local Meow Wolfs.

So my eyes rolled back when I read Mr. Business Guy tossing out Meow Wolf as a thing we would love to have. Because where is the support for artists in this city? Where are the business leaders advocating for the kinds of conditions that would allow artists to survive? Where are the businesses putting money for emerging artists to make the city more interesting? Where are the business notables lobbying local and central government for the kind of support that would make art viable here? Where are the rich business folk putting money on the table for art collectives to try weird stuff?

It’s easy to say we should have a nice thing. Harder to recognize that the nice thing is the output of years of effort and risk and support. Even harder to say “if we want Wellington to be a good destination we need to invest in our artists”. Ultimate difficulty level to say all that and add “And I’m demanding our government make changes that would help this situation.”

Because that’s it, right? Unless you engage with the politics, it’s all just smoke, You want a better Wellington, business guy, well the National government you love so much isn’t gonna get you there. Be honest about it.

(I’ve been involved in a couple of attempts to develop some kind of immersive something for Wellington. Both of them ran out of steam early on because the difficulties are substantial. But I do think – no, I feel – there’s going to be some clever hack to circumvent all those logistical limits and set something up that could work here in a sustainable way. I haven’t found it yet myself, but, you know, I’m thinking.)

For f**k’s sake please vote in the local elections

(Asterisks included above for the sake of content filters on work computers. Is that still a thing? It used to be a thing.)

The sun is out, the buds are on the trees, and every main road is suddenly lined with signs showing unfamiliar faces saying VOTE FOR ME! You know what that means: it’s local election time!

Soon an envelope will arrive and you will put it on the stack of things you will definitely get to, and then SMASH CUT to like two months later and you find the envelope again and you never even opened it, and you have a little chuckle at yourself because, hey! It’s only local government, right?

Well I have something to say: NOT THIS YEAR, BUDDY-O! Heck no! This year you’re gonna open that envelope and vote! Because this year your local government elections are the front line of a crucial fight!

Your local elections vote has never had as much riding on it!

You will of course have noticed that things have gone a bit… weird in the last few years. Like, David Bowie died in January 2016 and it all kind of went wrong from there? Of course things were quietly going wrong a long time before that, but in 2016 the wrongness got hold of a vuvuzela and now it’s Blaring Loud Wrongness, Keeping You Up At Night.

And all that wrongness is going to smash right into your local government. Unless you stop it.

Here are two urgent, crucial problems that show why voting matters extra bigly this time.

Problem 1: The allies of fascism are infiltrating government

That description reads like hyperbole, the kind of overheated claims you’d find in the weird corners of Indymedia in 2001. It is honestly a bit hard to accept that this is where we are now.

But we are. If you haven’t already, take the time to review the Stuff Circuit investigation by Paula Penfold & colleagues, Fire and Fury: Disinformation in New Zealand. The hourlong documentary is an intense and sobering watch.

Image from Fire & Fury (Stuff)

A very active set of agitators are busy every day spreading disinformation, fomenting hatred, putting violence on the table. They are chewing on the table legs of our society.

Standing for local election was an idea that circulated widely through these networks, with the explicit aim of making the country ungovernable. As a result, many candidates aligned with conspiratorial views, or worse, have entered local election races. Most of these have kept their affiliations secret.

If elected, they will haul water for this country’s rising ring of fascist agitators. They will disrupt government and provide a platform for fascist recruitment and organising.

We have to vote to keep them out.

(Again, I can hardly believe that I am typing this as a fair description of what is taking place in this country, but that’s where we are. The long 2016 is a deeply weird time to be alive.)

Problem 2: Climate change is local now

Climate change has been a challenge for a long time (I’ve been writing about it on this blog since it was an email newsletter, way back when email newsletters were a thing, oh hey they are a thing again) but we are in a new phase now. Unprecedented weather disasters are finally dragging top-level political actors to the table – heck, even the USA has successfully passed a major climate action bill!

The new urgency is this: dealing with climate change at street level. All those slips around the Hutt and Wellington are a portent of things to come, unexpected trouble all over. We need to build resilience! Our councils need people who are prepared to be prepared.

Image from this Stuff article, Why are there so many slips in Wellington?

But that’s just a side issue compared to the real challenge ahead: massive community transformation!

We need to redesign our towns and cities into new forms. For example, we need a completely new approach to transport. Public transport and active transport have to become the easiest and best ways to get around our communities!

Local and regional government will be forced to make some very big calls, soon. (In fact they are already doing this!) Over the next five years, decisions made by your local body will decide the future shape of your community.

These will be some of the most consequential and far-reaching decisions ever made by local government! Your council needs people who are prepared to be brave.

We have to vote for them.

Heck yeah I’m gonna do the thing, except how??

You’re gonna do the thing! You’re going to vote! So… what now?

  • START A TEAM-UP! You probably have a few trusted friends who live in the same electoral area as you? Ask if they want to team up on figuring out who to vote for. Many hands make light the work, and more fun the work too. Small group action: this is the way.
  • IDENTIFY THE ROCKING GOOD CANDIDATES! You can’t downvote the infiltrators, so you have to help the super-sweet candidates to out-compete them! This election guide covering all candidates is essential: plug in your address and it tells you who is standing for what in your area.
  • TELL YOUR NETWORKS! Personal recommendations are THE most powerful thing in local body elections. People will generally pay attention to what they hear from friends and neighbours, much more than from any other source. So don’t do the hard work of figuring out who to vote for, only to keep it all to yourself! Instead, get the word out!


Karen ‘Kaz’ Yung – photo from the election guide website

Here’s who I am backing in the Hutt City Council elections: Karen Yung, a.k.a. Kaz.

Kaz is standing for council in the city-wide field, not tied to any specific ward. So she’s going to be on the ballot paper for everyone here, all across Hutt City.

I’m going to give her a tick because I am impressed by her commitment to ground-level community engagement, and because I like her focus on addressing the challenges of climate change.

I voted for her last elections too. She almost got into council then and I am confident her reputation has only increased since. I have followed her on Facebook over the last few years, while she has continued to be very active in the community and has served on the Petone Community Board. She’s just a really good candidate and will be an exciting new voice on council.

Check out Kaz’s entry in the election guide mentioned above.

And you can see what she’s up to and where to meet her on her Facebook campaign page.

If you’re in the Hutt, make sure you consider Karen Yung at voting time!

Hobbit Premiere Day

My city is going bananas today. There’s a frenzy of excitement around the premiere of the first Hobbit movie, with the red carpet TV coverage due to begin in an hour or so. There’s also a frenzy of grump as long-simmering negativity finally boils up around such issues as the cultural worth of the movie, the government’s priorities, our tourism branding and sense of identity, and Peter Jackson’s reputation as a nice guy.

There’s also a lot of people who aren’t fussed either way, but you don’t hear much from them.

Me, I’m happy to sit with the positives. I have time for many of the grumpy-type issues (apparently there’s gonna be a book on the Hobbit labour dispute? would be good to read that and try and figure out if I had it right or if I was a victim of an effective spin machine) – but when I think about the Hobbit, mostly I think about the people I know who worked on it. There’s a lot of them. It’s a rare Wellingtonian who doesn’t know any, in fact, and that’s exactly the point. This is a creative cultural product that’s come out of our local film setup, drawing on the expertise of many friends and countless friends-of-friends. I like it when my friends and my community do cool stuff.

So bring it on. I’ll have the telly on for the coverage. I’ll be particularly looking forward to Sylvester McCoy’s jaunt down the red carpet, and Barry Humphries. And I’ll raise a glass in respect to my friends who’ve put love and labour into this project. Nice work, folks. I look forward to seeing the result.

James Hansen talk – Wgtn tonight

Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s most prominent and influential climate scientists, is in New Zealand to deliver his lecture “Climate Change: a scientific, moral and legal issue”. Tonight – in Wgtn.

Mon 16th May: Wellington
5.45pm public lecture Rutherford House, welcomed by Mayor Celia Wade-Brown

Worth seeing. No question. More info.

The Examiner

W-town’s got some new independent media: The Examiner launched yesterday. The mission is to “look deeper and think harder” which, in an era of frankly embarrassing daily newspapers, sounds worthwhile to me. It’s “peer-edited” and they’re encouraging participation from anyone nearby.

Sounds like a great Wgtn-focused companion to Scoop’s lively Werewolf monthly. Also, another good example of traditional media channels being challenged from the grassroots. Help it find its audience and take a look!

(Of course, this being W-town, two of the three launch articles interview friends of mine, and I know half of the listed contributors as well. Wellington isn’t small exactly, but it sure is densely interconnected.)

Hobbit Trouble

@publicaddress: TrendsMap over Wellington tonight

So the word from those in the biz is that filming on The Hobbit has already been lost to NZ. The decision has been made to take it elsewhere – 3News said Ireland. This afternoon and evening the local film industry types, summonsed to a meeting by Richard Taylor himself, decided to get their voice heard about the risk to the NZ film industry.

The source of the trouble is an NZ actor’s union dispute. It is, to be frank, too complex for me to understand, let alone summarize. (Theatreview has a big set of links tracking the whole thing, and Steve Hickey tries to make sense of it all.) In fact, my impression is that the actor/union side of the dispute is incoherent. I haven’t seen a concise statement of the problem anywhere. There are claims that it’s an Aussie union, perhaps backed by a US union, trying to get NZ on to the same playing field.

But it’s safe to say that losing The Hobbit wasn’t the goal of the actors who came in on the union side. Especially because if that goes, then it’s hard to see any other major shooting jobs coming here in future. NZs film industry would wither, fast, reduced to digital effects and post-production work.

So what the heck has gone wrong? This has got much bigger, with much more at stake, than anyone expected. My take, for whatever it’s worth, is that the entire NZ scene has become pawns in a bigger game. The actors (who I’m sure have real concerns) have been pulled into a unionisation debate by overseas agencies which have clear incentives to bring NZ into line with their approach, regardless of the outcome for NZ. This dispute has then fed opposition within the studio to filming in NZ as opposed to other, cheaper locations – it is a pretext for running the numbers again and forcing a move elsewhere. The big players are international. The NZ scene is almost a sideshow in its own story.

This is a bit of a harsh critique in that it denies real agency to the local actors. Am I really justified in seeing the actors’ demands as problematic because they haven’t issued a clear public statement of their goals? If so, it doesn’t speak well of the capacity of actors to manage their own affairs.

That said, I think it’s undeniable that the actors have demonstrated no strategic leadership throughout this affair. The lack of public communication is one aspect, but even simply making a clear case has been a challenge.

And I should also emphasize that I’m sympathetic to the aims of a union. Unions are important tools for social equity – that’s clearcut.

My concern is that this union dispute, at this time, on this issue, is surely having consequences that those caught up in it did not intend. Sitting back and saying the decision to go to Ireland was driven by WB wanting to save money and not by the actors’ demands – well, it might make you feel better, but it doesn’t change the fact that the industry’s gone. The truth is, obviously, that the film industry globally is a haven for exploitative practices. There are good reasons why contracting is the default here in Wgtn and wider NZ, and yes that contracting will sometimes lead to exploitation, but the situation is complex enough that simplistic “workers need a union” claims won’t necessarily turn out to be appropriate. These complex reasons need to be addressed. This would be suggested by pragmatism, and also by awareness of the large interrelated nature of the film industry – if part of it goes, it all goes.

There are many other aspects of this sad tale that could be addressed – the dearth of leadership from the Beehive, for example. But I’m going to go to sleep instead, for I am tired and my eyes are droopy. Here’s hoping that the film can get tied down in this country after all.

EDITED TO ADD: a big post from industry worker Dan on this stuff.

ALSO: Radio NZ interviews with Fran Walsh, Pip Boyens, Helen Kelly, Dave Brown

Robyn Malcolm interview audio in the sidebar on the Stuff story

Russell Brown pulls the threads together: Anatomy of a Shambles

EDITED 5.50pm: Helen Kelly comments on Russell’s post, and Russell replies with exactly the right question.

Dan, of that link just above, was interviewed on bFM midday or so. I thought he did very well indeed. His post has been generating lots of discussion and comment.

(I wrote this post just after midnight last night. I think it stands up pretty well after a long day of charged conversation and reportage. Still no idea what’s going to happen to “Wellywood”…)

EDITED 9pm: via Jack of TallPoppy, some people who were there claim the “Robyn Malcolm abused/police escort needed” story is a fabrication

Our Former Mayor is a dunce

[edited to add “former” to the title. She’s gone, baby, gone! And for the record I vote for the Hutt mayor, but still feel Wgtn mayor’s power…]

Kerry really doesn’t like our single transferable vote system.
“At this stage, Celia [Wade-Brown] can’t beat me, but STV can. I don’t think members of the public have really understood the system. Some do, but the majority don’t understand.”

What an imbecilic comment. Of course people understand what they need to: you order the candidates into a list showing your preference. It just takes a while to work out which name appears highest on the most lists. I mean Kerry, you’ve been at the front end of local government for a long time, surely you understand –

“As they drop off, if you support one of the losing candidates, you get a second vote, whereas my supporters only got one vote.”

– or maybe not. As the kids say these days: FAIL.

This is Kaibosh

My friends George and Robyn have been hard at work the last few years on starting a charity. I think it’s pretty amazing. They are behind Kaibosh, and what they do is collect surplus food from retailers (so it doesn’t get chucked into landfill) and deliver it to charities working with people who could do with a bonus meal.

That’s pretty much the whole deal – there is leftover food at place A, and hungry peeps at place B, so they make the connection. Simple premise, but (as always) a complex mission in the real world.

George sez:

We wrangled a few friends to become members of our board of trustees and have spent the last 18-months trying to raise funding to increase the scale of our efforts. Our main support has come from Wellington City Council and the Lotteries Commission. With their help we’ve leased an office on Holland Street and hired a part-time Operations Manager. We’re now able to step up our operations (to date we only pick up food from Simply Paris and Wishbone) and hopefully expand our volunteer base (currently sits at six non-trustees).

That is how you walk the walk in this world. I give this whole enterprise one mighty double-rainbow-all-the-way thumbs up. Kaibosh is having a launch party at their HQ tonight at 6pm – come along if you’re in W-town, and eat some of the food, which is of course donated from local businesses.

Kaibosh website
Kaibosh on Facebook

Pecha Kucha Diamond Necklace

Monday night at Downstage Theatre in Welly: my dear friend Eric is part of the Pecha Kucha lineup, talking about the show wot I wrote, Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

A Pecha Kucha night is an event format in which presenters show a slideshow of 20 images, each of which is shown for 20 seconds. Pecha Kucha Wgtn details here. Door sales only, $9 cash – Downstage Theatre, doors open: 6.30pm, start 7.30pm.

Be great to see people there. I won’t be online again until Tuesday I think, so don’t bother emailing to co-ordinate – just show up if you’re keen.

(Move went well. House chaos steadily improving to livable. Yay.)
(Hope the 48 hr film fest was fun for all my friends who took part this year!)