SANTA FE, NM—The Meow Wolf art complex looks like a strip mall from another dimension. Located in downtown Santa Fe, its massive main building—a former bowling alley—is covered in zig-zagging lines of explosive color. The parking lot is dominated by towering metal sculptures of a spider and a robot. Its landlord is George RR Martin, author of the Game of Thrones series, and its tenants are a high-tech artist collective called Meow Wolf, known previously for building a full-scale spaceship that visitors could explore.
On March 17, after nearly two years of construction, the Meow Wolf art complex opened its riotously painted doors and invited the public into its first permanent exhibit, called The House of Eternal Return. Think of it as a walk-in science fiction novel built with milling machines, thermoplastic, and Arduinos. Or maybe it's a cross between Disneyland and a massive, multiplayer, IRL game. Built by 135 artists and makers, the result is a 20,000-square-foot dreamworld where your goal is to figure out why an old Victorian house in Mendocino, California, has become ground zero for a rupture in space-time that's allowing other dimensions to leak into ours.
I took a tour of the Meow Wolf art complex in the final few days before it opened, when dozens of artists and fabricators were working around the clock to finish building what I can only describe as something I never imagined could exist. My tour guides were artist Lauren Oliver, whose magnificent space owl can be found in the dreamscape of Eternal Return, and technology project lead Corvas Brinkerhoff. They fitted me with a hard hat and took me into a building that was once a bowling alley. Now it's another world.
But Meow Wolf isn't just an amusement park. It's a place where people can create their own version of Eternal Return, too. The group has dedicated 13,000 square feet in its lobby area to Santa Fe's first makerspace, as well as an educational center where kids can learn high-tech art and fabrication. Before you're immersed in the magic, you'll see the machines that created it.
Once you pay admission and pass through the doors into Eternal Return, however, the rules of reality are suspended. There are just a few simple guidelines. Touch everything. Go anywhere, especially places that seem weird. Be nice. Try not to break anything. And whatever you do, don't pee in the toilet. Don't worry; there are restrooms. But seriously, there's a toilet that's very important to the story and you won't want to mess it up.
A giant robot looms over the Meow Wolf parking lot.
A giant metal spider creeps up on a jeep in the Meow Wolf parking lot.
Lauren Oliver and Corvas Brinkerhoff take me inside.
The exterior of the House of Eternal Return. This full-size, two-story house was built from the ground up, and the details on its exterior are incredible. To begin your journey, just walk up the front porch and open the door.
The trees and house against what seems to be a nighttime sky.
The tech team works on making the RFID-activated VCR work in the living room.
A Star Trek-like hallway leads to many portals. Each door can be opened just like a door on the Enterprise, with a hand to a sensor. Then a panel slides back to reveal your destination.
One of many unexpected objects in Eternal Return: a real-life trailer that has been converted to an interdimensional object. Climb inside and find out how it fits into the story.
The first thing visitors see as they enter Eternal Return is a full-scale, two-story Victorian house owned by the Selig family. Chadney Everett, Meow Wolf's lead designer, worked with a team to plan and fabricate every single piece of the two-story structure, with its elaborate awnings and decorations. I stood outside, awestruck at seeing an entire house built indoors. Beyond its porches and spires, the soaring dark walls and ceiling of the cavernous Meow Wolf space made it seem like we were approaching at night. What should I do?
"Just go inside," said Brinkerhoff. So I did, right through the front door, into a living room that looked like it had been decorated in the 1970s. Between the comfy sofas and battered wooden coffee tables, people were painting, hammering, and bug testing. One group from Brinkerhoff's tech team was hacking on an old VCR that's part of the family room's entertainment system. Visitors can play videos owned by the Seligs, to gather clues about what happened in the house. Of course, no analog technology is actually involved. Each "videocassette" is fitted with an RFID; the "VCR" has a reader inside that signals the Meow Wolf servers to send the right video to the "television set."
From there, we wandered into the dining room where the interdimensional incident took place. Every wall and corner was warped, the wood rippled like water. Something had torn through here, distorting every solid surface. What happened to this seemingly normal family over dinner? There are a million choices if I want to answer that question. I could explore every room in the house, including a mad scientist's workshop and the aforementioned toilet whose position directly over the dining room disaster gives it a special vantage point.
Or I could enter another dimension by wiggling under the stairs, walking inside the refrigerator, wandering out a window on the upper floor, or exiting the house through other unexpected portals. Apparently, when the event warped the dining room, it blasted open entrances to an ice cave, an enchanted forest, a Star Trek-like spaceship, and a lot of places too strange to put into words.
On my journey through Eternal Return, I managed to piece together a rough understanding of what happened in the house. Without giving away any spoilers, I can say a few things about what to expect.