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CAITY KENNEDY

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Caity Kennedy is an artist and co-founder of Meow Wolf, an arts and entertainment company known for pushing artistic boundaries with surreal, interactive and immersive art installations that have maximalist aesthetic and logistical principles. Caity’s portfolio spans intricate paintings and sculpture, all of which transport visitors into outsize realms. Inspired by sources including metaphysics, sci-fi, comic books, and art of all kinds, and employing over 1,200 people, Meow Wolf has pioneered the field of immersive art in a time dominated by at-home entertainment; and has inspired many similar organisations, in the US and worldwide.

Interview by Nell WhittakerPortrait courtesy Caity Kennedy

Nell Whittaker How did Meow Wolf begin?

Caity Kennedy It started in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2008. Santa Fe is a smallish mountain town that has attracted artists for many decades. It’s a pretty magical place where it’s easy to focus because there aren’t a ton of distractions, but that meant that there were also few galleries that were showing emerging artists, and very few music venues too. So we started simply as a group of people wanting to rent an affordable space. Pretty much the first artists in that space decided to put on music shows, and two of the group members decided to put their paintings on the wall. They spent two weeks painting and putting goofy assemblages on every surface. Our immersive installation art emerged organically from this first collaboration. For me, that time was happily reminiscent of art school – being with your peers, sharing deadlines and sharing space, but with none of the teachers and no tuition. If you wanted to do something, you showed up and did it. Over the years, as we learned about experience design without even knowing the term, we outgrew our little building, and we pretty quickly outgrew opportunities in Santa Fe, too. We did a lot of travelling. We joked for a while that we closed galleries, because it was often when a gallery was about to close that they would be fine with having a group of kids do an unpredictable, immersive show that wouldn’t sell any art. After a few years of travelling, we were getting into our 30s and none of us were making any money. Most of it didn’t even fund itself – we had to have bake sales and pay out of our service industry jobs. We asked – what if instead of doing this after work, we did this for work? Over the years, we had learned that if you sit at the door and say there’s a suggested donation instead of just having a donation box, you can get most people to give you money. We decided that we could crowdsource our massive immersive installation by charging for tickets to see it while keeping the price reasonable. So we found a bowling alley in Santa Fe. We didn’t have the money to buy it, and we wildly misjudged how much money it would take to renovate and build an exhibit. We thought both would cost about $300,000. Preposterous! But the entire bowling alley was on the market for around $800,000 because it was such a hole in the ground. One of our co-founders had briefly worked for George R.R. Martin at his little sci-fi movie theatre and he emailed him – “Hey, George, do you want to buy a bowling alley?” George said no, but he came and looked at it anyway, because he has a thing for turning the lights back on in cultural institutions. After a lot of running around and finding some initial funding, we got George to buy the building and he’s still our landlord there. It cost him  about $3 million to renovate the building, which is not bad, because it’s a 33,000 square foot building, and it ended up costing $3 million to build the exhibit, raising the money in $25,000 increments. We were told, “You’re wasting the money of people who are willing to donate to the arts in Santa Fe and people aren’t going to trust the arts here  anymore because you’re going to fail.” We had said that we needed to bring in 150,000 people a year and were laughed at because some of the larger arts institutions in town only got a fraction of that. In our first year, we saw around 450,000 people. We thought that in the first couple of weeks, we were doing great, and then the numbers just went up and up and up. At the end of 2016 – not even a full year in – we needed fewer people to staff the exhibit for the slow season, but these were our friends and amazing artists. We looked in a few cities and landed on Denver and Vegas, which we worked on simultaneously. Because we had a big team of people, we had to create projects to justify funding to keep them. We grew faster and faster because of that kind of catch-22. Somehow, we opened two exhibits during the pandemic. We’ve gone through immense upheaval all the time – it’s a hallmark of who we are, honestly. We’ve been changing pretty dramatically every six months to a year since the very beginning. 

NW What is the exhibition in the bowling alley? 

CK We built an entire house – everything but the plumbing. So you walk into the front yard, and there’s a pretty elaborate narrative around the family that lived there – the magical things that happened to them and the very human things that happened to them. You can also bypass the front of the house and go in in other directions, there are some fantastic portals right away – you can go through the fireplace, the refrigerator, the closets, in through the stairs, essentially into a dream realm that the family has disappeared into. That is the structure for a story, but it’s also a structure for us to be able to rationalise making pretty much whatever we want. Some people are going to be interested in creating the illusion of the house and how that connects with other elements, and other people are going to say, “I want to make a pink room with bugs in it,” which we have and is beautiful. We have a structure and a physical network that holds it all together, which creates a platform for lots and lots of different artists.

NW When people were trying to dissuade you from opening, what carried you through? What was the vision?

CK At the time, there was no model at all for what we were trying to do. Now, very happily, we get to be that model. We learned early on that people who were gallery hopping would come to our warehouse and crawl around alongside the neighbour kid and their grandparents. We had one show for which we built a four-foot-tall platform, with structures above and below, so you could squeeze through this little tunnel. One of the rooms was made of dirt, and I have a very strong memory of an older art-scene couple, wearing all white, beaming while crawling around on the floor. People like to dismiss us by accusing us of not being high-minded or intellectual enough because we are trying to make something for everyone. Or not everyone, actually – minimalists won’t be very happy! But we want a young family who has never been to a gallery before to bring their children, and we want high-minded art folk, and teenagers and the artists themselves. It’s essentially a big group show. We’re not trying to please everyone by watering things down, but we are trying to broaden the platform to be inclusive of more voices. We are getting more people to go to an art experience, to find themselves in a weird theoretical space.

NW A word that people might use to describe what you’re doing is “escapist”, but you’re describing a process that’s almost the opposite, in which the viewer is being actively challenged by the environment.

CK The way we have framed all our exhibits so far is starting with something familiar and then breaking into the unknown. We’re starting with a house, with a grocery store, with a transit station, but then it breaks open. It’s getting people into that mental space of thinking,  “I want to see what’s beyond that next doorway”. It’s therapeutic. It takes some of the pressure off of your mind and lengthens your focus.

 

 

We're starting with a house, with a grocery store, with a transit station, but then it breaks open

NW I feel like there is a parallel that presents itself between how you began – people in their early 20s in 2008, at a point where – particularly in America – the story of the house and the car and life as an accumulative economic progression had completely collapsed. Is there a politics to what you’re describing? 

CK  Absolutely – but, in a way I feel lucky to have graduated from art school at a time when there was no money for anything. I went into the world thinking, “I may be carefully sectioning out cans of beans for my whole life.” By coming together to do things we couldn’t do on our own, we were looking for freedom. There were people in the group who had more money than others; some of us couldn’t even help pay rent on our shared warehouse, but it wasn’t a barrier to participation. From the very beginning, there was a sense that we could do something collectively that we couldn’t do otherwise. But really, in the art you can see all of these wonderful ways where our autobiography is present. What we’re trying to do for ourselves, and what we’re trying to do for our viewers, is usually two sides of the same coin. We are trying to create autonomy for ourselves and for the viewer – to trust the viewer with their own story, and trust them as much as possible with our art.  A lot of things in our exhibits are pretty fragile, but there’s a sort of reverence that people have for the delicate when they feel like they’ve discovered it. I guess its politics might lie in creating choice –  if someone can stay in that expansive space psychologically, then when they go back out into the world, they’ll have more questions. That can be very literal, in that it makes them want to explore the spaces around them, but the dream is that it makes them feel like they might have more agency in their lives than they thought, and more choice, even if incrementally. 

NW Why do you think people are so drawn to immersion, or immersive art, right now?

CK In the last century, there’s been a vacillation back and forth between in-home and out-of-home entertainment. When the radio came in, you could sit at home and listen to music instead of going out to wherever the music was playing. That same process happened with TV, VCRs, and then the internet. If you look, you can find a pattern where more people stay home, and then more people get hungry to go out, in these observable waves. With the internet making it so you can pick whatever streaming entertainment you want, there’s a wave of hunger for going back out into the world. There is something spectacular about the level of escapism you can find at home, especially now with VR, but still, you are outside the frame. You’re not engaging all of your senses. Being able to go into the art, into the story, and to touch it and smell it is, as of yet, irreplaceable.  Technology also allows for the building of things,  the sharing and marketing in a way that would have been very different before – not impossible, but different. Experience is not translatable into visual or verbal description. Having embodied experience is essential. ◉