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November 11, 2018

Denver Film Festival - Meow Wolf: Origin Story


Jilann Spitzmiller and Morgan Capps - 2018
Meow Wolf Entertainment

In 1970, when I was a freshman film student at New York University, I joined in group of students in the making of a documentary following some of the events that took place that May, the result of student protests that rocked the U.S. At the time, the plan was to not give anyone individual credits but to credit th film to the group. I left New York City for summer vacation. Editing was being done by older students who lived in the city. When I returned in September, I found out that the documentary we worked on would have individual credits after all. What I didn't understand at the time is that my experience was not something confined to the making of this one film, but could easily be transposed to virtually any group of artists who come together initial out of shared ideals.

This memory haunted me while watching Meow Wolf: Origin Story. Essentially, a group of young artists who did not fit into the existing art scene in Santa Fe, New Mexico got together, several of them living together in the same building, creating large, immersive art pieces - artificial environments out of found junk. They caught attention of the established art world and the media, and began creating new pieces in increasingly larger spaces. In between were clashes of egos, members who came and left and in some cases rejoined Meow Wolf, and primarily the conflict of how to manage what was originally a small collective into a much larger group with a benevolent hierarchy. A financial savior was found in writer George R. R. Martin who funded the purchase of a former bowling alley that allowed for an ambitious, and expensive installation. The group of outsider artists has now become a big business with new Meow Wolf installations in other cities.

The documentary ends with a couple of the Meow Wolf members asking themselves what it means to be an artist and still be part of Meow Wolf. History has its share of artists who became commercial entities, most deliberately in the case of Andy Warhol. Meow Wolf is to my knowledge the first group to go from a group of friends getting by on nickels and dimes to a corporation making and spending millions, with a large paid staff.

George R. R. Martin was one of the executive producers here. This is another way of saying this is primarily the members of Meow Wolf telling their own story. The filmmakers have combined talking heads with video footage of previous events, members traveling around Las Vegas and Denver in search of future sites, and lots of animation. I assume the use of the animation and other frenetic visual gimmickry was done with the goal of giving the viewer a taste of the Meow Wolf experience.

What is missing is any serious discussion about art, as if the Meow Wolf installation exist in a vacuum. There is no mention any influences in the realm of interactive installations or performance art. Nor does anyone talk about any of the individual artists known for making art out of junk. As part of Meow Wolf's success is its appeal to people who may not go to galleries or museums, there may be concern of intimidating viewers by the mention of someone like Marcel Duchamp or Nam June Paik.

Better is the look at one of the past Meow Wolf members, David Loughridge. While his art was photography, Loughridge's other talent was knowing what was physically required of actually building the installations. Part of the film documents his own autobiographical installation, a wall composed of photos and excerpts from his journal while undergoing treatment at a psychiatric institution. Loughridge died prematurely at the age of 33. Loughridge's black and white images and the black and white of his handwritten journal pages provide a contrast, and some relief, within a film overly dependent on visual noise.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 11, 2018 09:03 AM