In its earliest incarnation, the Santa Fe, New Mexico-based art collective Meow Wolf was bound by a singular vision: serving the concept of “radical inclusivity.” While Santa Fe is an art-centric town, it’s not one necessarily welcoming to emerging artists and the kinds of expression they favor. Art’s the order of the day, but not the kind that falls outside the tourist-friendly Native American art and landscape paintings in the city’s many galleries. That hasn’t stopped offbeat creatives from flocking to the city, and when this group first banded together in the early aughts, building a business was the furthest thing from their minds. Building a community, however, was.
So sprung Meow Wolf (even they weren’t big fans of their name in the beginning; it seems to have won out during a vote mostly as a joke). Initially a group of like-minded pals who just liked making stuff together, the collective has grown exponentially over the past decade. Meow Wolf added scores of new members, shows, and locations — and new visions, lots of them, enough to cause serious friction. Morgan Capps and Jilann Spitzmiller’s definitive documentary “Meow Wolf: Origin Story” meticulously follows the evolution of the eponymous collective, with a major — and necessary — bent toward parsing the different ideologies that have driven and divided the group over the years.
Rounded out with copious footage from installations, interviews with all the key figures, and clever animation sequences, “Origin Story” continually asks one major question: what’s the difference between chaos and order? And what’s the value of each?
“Origin Story” makes the compelling case that such a question has always been at the heart of Meow Wolf, even when it was just a group of scrappy art nerds united by their shared vision for what art could be — and, more importantly, what art could do. While the collective’s outlook was built on the idea that “we don’t know what we’re doing, and we don’t care,” the film also makes the very real argument that such concepts are fundamentally unsustainable. Tension between chaos and order was clearly at the forefront of Meow Wolf from the start (a first-gen Meow Wolf member remembers when he brought an agenda to a meeting, which another member soon crumpled and threw away) and this becomes the film’s overarching theme.
The group’s brand of wild creativity helped propel seemingly instant growth and popularity in their hometown, and what will eventually scan as relatively small-scale success casts a long shadow over everything that’s to come. Factions — and fractures — emerge early on, but Capps and Spitzmiller keep the interest and energy up, even as the group’s cycles become repetitive. As Meow Wolf grows, first from intimate shows literally built from garbage to massive, traveling immersive experiences, they continue to contend with the same problems. Success cures nothing.
The appeal of Meow Wolf’s most ambitious projects doesn’t totally translate to the big screen, as participation is a vital part of the collective’s work. Still, “Origin Story” includes close examinations of two of their most well-known immersive experiences yet, the Due Return (a Noah’s Ark-style giant “intergalactic spaceship,” built from scratch) and the House of Eternal Return (another “intergalactic” trip housed in a giant warehouse that used to be a bowling alley partially purchased through the patronage of no less than author George R.R. Martin, who also produced the film). The appreciation of its viewers, who step in throughout to offer up giddy commentary, is nearly infectious, and serves as a heartening counterpoint to the trauma endured by its creators.
While the particular brand of art that Meow Wolf crafts isn’t for everyone — audiences uninterested in participatory experiences may very well be turned off by the film’s synopsis alone — the story at the heart of “Origin Story” is universal. As the film slowly builds its momentum into its jam-packed second act before winding down into a languorous finale, its biggest questions still linger. There are no answers, but art helps.
“Meow Wolf: Origin Story” premiered in the Visions section of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.