Back to the Future

of Star Trek, MadMax, and Art Collectives

Date April 26, 2009 at 10:00 PM

Categories Performing Arts


Remember the original Star Trek? When sexy Lieutenant Uhura was always batting her long lashes and telling Captain Kirk that some kind of mysterious cloud was approaching? Well, a strange cloud of art and industriousness called Meow Wolf has formed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it appears to be spreading. It is mysterious enough to defy the conventions of ready description.

But then why are we always looking for a way to signify that something is new and exciting by using language that ties it to some old, less exciting thing? The new black; Web 2.0, etcetera, ad nauseum. If I wanted to describe to you that Meow Wolf is the “next generation,” I might as well be talking about a personal computer or an anti-lock braking system. As it happens, Meow Wolf is an ensemble cast of artists, filmmakers, activists, promoters, and pranksters who’d rather be doing than not doing. They’d rather be making stuff than buying stuff. They’d rather be disrupting the equilibrium than calming down and relaxing. I could call Meow Wolf the forefront of a new wave of arts collectives, but then I’d be trying to explain something that would rather just be than be defined. Meow Wolf is indefinably what comes next. Meow Wolf is from the freaking future, but the collective is already here. Ergo, this is the future, captain.

To get a sense of what kind of character casts his lot with Meow Wolf, I spied on lanky painter-animator-editor/goggle fetishist Benji Geary while he was on holiday in the improbable and hostile alkali plains that constitute the now-dry lake bed of prehistoric Lake Lahontan. In his steampunk, analog-future outfit of polished shoes with bows, streamlined knickers, a frilly shirt, a powdered wig, and rouged cheeks, he might have been Matthew Barney’s fantasy of an 18th-century explorer dandy. Except for his high-tech folding recliner and the fact that he was surrounded by the nearly 50,000 other people attending the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Geary was in a moment of enthusiastic repose as he prepared to do one of the more unlikely and intense activities available at Burning Man, an event predicated on unlikely and intense activities: He was about to fight in the Thunderdome.

For those unfamiliar with the Mad Max trilogy that starred Mel Gibson as a disenchanted hero wandering a ferocious and post-apocalyptic future, the Thunderdome is a geodesic dome where grudges are settled by two combatants who are attached to the top by bungee harnesses. Because Burning Man is batshit crazy, a bunch of batshit-crazy people get together every year, build their own Thunderdome, and let people go at it. The weapons are shrouded in foam, but the crowd that eagerly climbs the walls to cheer, jeer, and drool wants blood. Not long before Geary went on, a happy woman in a wedding gown was knocked stone-cold and carried away by medics. Assuming both contestants are still conscious when time runs out, a guy wearing the kind of mashup of a suit of armor and a football uniform that would be welcome at an S and M club for bodybuilders listens to the crowd and then points to the winner with a skull-covered staff.

Much to the chagrin of the barbaric audience, Geary dispatched his opponent with flourish, using stylized fencing maneuvers, managing aerial flips without losing his wig, and generally employing a kind of time- and space- distorting, Victorian kung-fu. He is an artist by trade, but it just makes plain good sense to him to dress up like Oscar Wilde and do some ass-kicking in the near dark future. And Geary is just one, emblematic element of the swirling cloud of energy and chutzpah that goes by the name Meow Wolf.

No wonder the collective pulled its name out of a hat. No wonder it specializes in art shows that anybody and everybody can participate in. No wonder, in addition to art exhibitions and an ambitious roster of live music entertainment, Meow Wolf has used the public space of the Santa Fe Plaza to sponsor battles between werewolves and vampires, and also timed, sudden make-out sessions. No wonder its large summer 2008 installation project, Biome Neuro Norb, was like falling into a rabbit hole where a bunch of outcast animé characters have formed a prison gang with unpublished Jules Verne heroes and random selections from an old, dusty Encyclopaedia Britannica.

It hasn’t all been a sci-fi fairy tale for Meow Wolf—its first collaborative, 24/7 art-production factory in Santa Fe’s casual hepster Triangle district failed to snare city permits to allow live music shows. After banking on other collaborative spaces—like the Humble and the science-oriented Santa Fe Complex—to absorb bookings, Meow Wolf made projects at Warehouse 21 and cranked out a cinema povera masterpiece called Mega City while hunting down new digs. As it happened, the group was able to relocate more or less up the street from its latest pad, into a large, metal building even more suitable to strange experiments with art and, as it used to be called, social distortion.

Some of Meow Wolf’s core membership flirts with the larger scene: Steampunk tattoo artist Quinn Tincher and associates Matt King and Chris Hilson exhibited Polaroid photography at Cruz Gallery, and Tincher also participated with artist-DJ Tim Jag’s annual all-you-can-eat ArtFeast. Geary and frequent partner-in-crime, Emily Montoya, have long been entangled with Santa Fe and its Morlock dens of non-establishment artists who arrange group sculptural throw-downs deep into the night. Vince Kadlubek is often the group’s Clark Kent/Superman (or is it more like Jekyll and Hyde?), with a go-getter public face and an alter-ego, outer-space-sourced energy level that keeps things moving.

There are at least a dozen more names associated with Meow Wolf, but the gang’s future is not the kind where individual names are important. No one is a superstar, and nobody declares the rules of engagement or the parameters of what does and does not constitute meaningful artistic dialogue. To paraphrase Star Trek’s upstart engineer of the Enterprise, “They’re givin’ ‘er all she’s got, but she’ll take a little more.”

Photos by Quinn Tincher