A few years ago, Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin bought a bowling alley in Santa Fe. Formerly known as Silva Lanes, it had lain defunct for years, and had in fact been thoroughly gutted by the time of the purchase. But that was fine for Martin, who is not exactly an avid bowler. Rather, the renowned author bought the building so that a young group of experimental Santa Fe artists known as Meow Wolf could transform it into “the House of Eternal Return,” an interactive art exhibit designed like a Victorian house lost in time and space.
In the years since, the House of Eternal Return has become more popular than either Martin or Meow Wolf could have dreamed. Meow Wolf is now preparing to spread beyond Santa Fe and open exhibits in both Denver and Las Vegas by 2020, and is already experimenting with new augmented-reality art installations. A new documentary, Meow Wolf: Origin Story, showcases the highs and lows of the group’s quest to articulate their unique artistic vision.
EW can exclusively reveal the first trailer for Meow Wolf: Origin Story (above), which will release in hundreds of cinemas across the U.S. via Fathom Events for a special one-night event on Nov. 29. We also spoke to Martin about his experience with the group and what attracted him to get involved.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you first encounter Meow Wolf?
GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: It was after I bought the theater. I own a small arthouse theater in Santa Fe, the Jean Cocteau Cinema. It was closed for seven years, then I bought it in 2013, and reopened it in August of that year. So it was probably 2014 when i first heard about Meow Wolf. It wasn’t from anyone connected with Meow Wolf, it was from a woman I was talking with about ways to publicize the Cocteau. Since I’d reopened it, I’d noticed we were drawing a very old demographic: People my age [laughs] and a few years younger. We weren’t getting the high school or college kids; we needed to reach out to a younger group. One of the people I was interviewing said we should do something with Meow Wolf, they’re doing all these cool events and exhibitions, and they draw a young crowd. I didn’t act on it. I was like, “Meow Wolf, what the hell is that?” But then a few months later, I finally followed up on it. I hired [Meow Wolf co-founder] Vince Kadlubek to do social media for the Cocteau, with that same goal in mind: To get younger people to our theater. He worked for me for six months or so, increasing our presence on Facebook, Twitter, and all of these things that I’m not really a part of and don’t completely understand. But he did! That’s how I knew Vince, from working with that.
And then a couple years later he gave me a call when they were looking at buying the bowling alley and said the infamous last words, “Would you like to buy a bowling alley?” Well no, not really, I’m not much a bowler. But they took me down there, him and other Meow Wolf people, and they walked me through the place. Silva Lanes was the name of the bowling alley, it had been defunct for, again, seven years — something bad must have happened in Santa Fe around 2006 or 2007, because all of these things went under like the Cocteau and the bowling alley, and had just been sitting there. Everything had been gutted, but it was this immense space. They told me their vision for the House of Eternal Return, and it pushed all my buttons. I’m a sci-fi/fantasy guy and hey, a Victorian house lost in time and space, where every door opens to another dimension or another planet? Wow, this sounds really cool. They poked me right there.
What was it about Meow Wolf that attracted you to get involved and stay you involved?
I was a little nervous when I first bought the bowling alley, because we were all in virgin territory here. Could this collection of kids really pull this off? And once we opened it, would people show up? There’d been nothing like this before. But I thought okay, I’ll roll the dice, it sounds like something new and different for Santa Fe. Ever since it opened, it’s just been a wild ride. We’ve gone from one success to another. The attendance has been far greater than anyone could have predicted, even the Meow Wolf guys themselves. Now we’re opening in other cities, and there’s the documentary. It’s amazing. They’re an amazing group of people, and their creativity is unbounded, so I’m glad to be a part of it, to the extent that I am.
In the documentary, Meow Wolf members describe how they felt excluded from the Santa Fe culture scene, and wanted to do their own thing. What’s your experience with the Santa Fe cultural scene?
Santa Fe is the third-largest art market in the country after New York and L.A., and we have all these galleries. Each one is different: some are funkier and more willing to take a chance than others, some are dedicated to western art (cowboys at the end of the long dusty trail, that kind of stuff), some are more modern or eclectic, but all of it is traditional art: Stand back, don’t touch it, just appreciate the sculpture or painting from over there. What Meow Wolf was doing is very different: Art you can touch and interact with. I think it’s exciting. There are people in the Santa Fe arts scene who have welcomed that and are open to that. Then there’s a more conservative element, saying, “well that might be fun, but that’s not art.” That makes me bristle a little. I’ve been writing science fiction and fantasy all my life, and there’s an element in the literary world, that I’ve known since I was a kid, that sci-fi/fantasy is not real literature, it’s “genre stuff’ that might be okay for kids but don’t confuse that for “real” literature. Obviously I’ve resented that and bristled about it since I was in junior high school, and it still pisses me off (although things have gotten a little better in recent decades, I’ll admit). So I could sympathize the young artists in Meow Wolf who were going through a similar thing of, “You want to do art? Oh that’s not art.” It is art, just like sci-fi and fantasy is literature. Now, you can make decisions with individual work about whether it’s good art or literature, but don’t throw out entire categories just because it’s not the stuff that’s been done before over and over again.
Since the Meow Wolf exhibits are so interactive, what are we missing about the experience when we watch footage on screen?
You’re only getting two of the five senses. You’re seeing it, though not the same way as someone walking through it, you’re hearing it. It’s totally immersive. When you’re in there, you can totally lose yourself and wander through. Every trip is different, and you can tailor the experience to suit yourself. I see younger kids running through like, “oh wow look at this room” and “what’s in this room?” Then I see people who are visiting for the 19th time, and they’re reading the journals, paying attention to details, trying to unlock the safe, and figure out what the mystery is. Some people like playing the laser harp or the mammoth bones. It’s very much “come in and play here.” It’s a playhouse that children and adults can enjoy. It is art, there’s some amazing art going on in there. You never know, when you open a door or an appliance, what may be on the other side. Everybody has their favorite rooms and their favorite things to do at Meow Wolf, and that’s great.
Is there anything else you want to add about your experience with Meow Wolf?
One thing that should be mentioned is the House of Eternal Return not the only thing Meow Wolf has done. I was also very impressed with the learning center they have, the David Loughridge Learning Center, where they have art classes for kids and younger people. When I was a kid in public schools in New Jersey, we had English and history classes, but I also had art classes and music classes and all of these other things that I think made me a more well-rounded person. They helped me discover where my talents were and were not (in the case of music). But in these more recent times, all across the country — and New Mexico is no exception — art classes are the first to go when the school budget doesn’t balance. Music classes get cut, and kids don’t get that education anymore. I think it’s amazing that Meow Wolf is providing that as well as the House of Eternal Return.