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.

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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.)

Enjoying old stuff

Podcast Where Eagles Dare has returned to their loving, detailed coverage of 1980s British kids adventure comic Eagle with the dramatic moment of its merger with the long-lived Tiger. I remember it well from the first time around. I was 9 years old when this landed in NZ, and listening to the podcast describing these stories (and pulling out the issues from a box in the shed) brings me right back. I remember walking to the local newsagents where I had each issue put aside for me, I remember the shocking panels of death and destruction, and I remember the taste of the muesli bars with the little pieces of dried apricot that I’d eat while I flipped the pages.

I’m closing in on 50 now, so I’m the perfect age for nostalgia; indeed, it sometimes seems that the entire entertainment industry is tilted towards monetizing my generation’s hazy-fond memories of a simpler time. (Mostly I find that trend frustrating. The exceptions are, I think, instructive: Doctor Who never stopped (even when it was off TV) and has always operated on a healthy disrespect for its own past; Twin Peaks The Return delighted in thwarting any nostalgic impulse a viewer might have sought, resolving its past in a more profound way; Slayers operated as an act of redemption and penance for the failings of Buffy The Vampire Slayer; the Dungeons & Dragons movie was an honourable return to the deeper themes of the final episode of Freaks & Geeks.) Mostly, I’m not interesting in reboots and reimaginings and returns, but in the original material itself.

So, returning to the Eagle comic, and also enjoying dipping into old Doctor Who episodes, and The Twilight Zone and The Prisoner and classic Star Trek and more.

I suspect that my renewed interest in old stuff is partly due to the age of cultural overload in which we live. There is simply too much content these days. I long ago stopped trying to keep up. (In fact, I stopped trying to keep up in the 90s, I still haven’t seen Star Trek Deep Space Nine or The Sopranos.) But it’s not just that: there’s also something pleasant in the pace of this old material.

Old TV was created to a different plan, serving a different social need. It’s distant enough from the present, and I’m old enough now that I can disentangle it sufficiently from my own direct experience, so that I find part of the pleasure of old stuff is seeing the implied world created by what’s on screen.

When I watch old TV, it almost feels like I get to sit alongside a family gathered around their giant television at teatime, tuning in for the latest episode of a show they like. The old episodes invoke their own perfect audience. I get to experience the past, reflected on the screen.

There’s just so much there there, packed into the cultural products of the past. You can unfold so much from them (TV show as an unfolding text, one might even say). And when I watch or read things of which I have personal memories, like those comics, that historical moment is overlaid with personal sense memory. It’s a rich sensation. There’s an appeal to it, a kind of seeing-clearly, holding the weight of the past in a different way. It makes me more kindly disposed to the past, and to its denizens. They tried, we all tried, and they all just wanted to be scared by the slimy monsters Under The Mountain and laugh when Billy T James showed up for an incoherent cameo.

The golden age of science fiction is 12, and the golden age of music is 17, and there’s no mystery to me why we keep returning to these things as we age, why I go back to them now: we’re not done with them yet. The worlds and emotions and sensations created by art go deep, unfathomably deep. We’ll never touch bottom. I can return forever to Nirvana’s In Utero and Stephen King’s The Long Walk and Jim Cameron’s The Abyss and I’ll never scrape bottom. Other generations have their own touchstones that go just as deep, and I’ve been enjoying watching them, imagining the way they burrowed into the hearts of their era’s audience, but these are mine, and I’ll treasure them.

In Eagle & Tiger there’s a story about an alien who manufactured a plague to destroy humanity and was defeated but escapes death and sets about murdering everyone he meets. There’s also a story about an alien who comes to earth to ride a BMX because BMXs are cool. And that’s just the way it should be.