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All Aboard

SANTA FE, N.M. — If you go to “THE DUE RETURN” — an elaborately detailed theatrical stage set that fills the converted warehouse space at the Center for Contemporary Arts — you might want to come equipped with a flashlight or head lamp. Before you enter the darkened space, you will be asked to sign a waiver releasing CCA and the artists’ collaborative Meow Wolf from any injury to your person. It’s meant to be a fully immersive environment. You can certainly wile away many hours, even days in this collective pseudo-science fiction fantasy.

The meta-narrative — a ship aground in an unknown land — is classic myth-making in the history of adventuresome human cultures that developed on a round planet covered with oceans and adrift in the cosmos. The ship is at rest in an alien world where — Surprise! — they have adobe grottoes on one side — the earthy side with caves — that are catty corner from a spoofin’ good black hole, whose interior is illuminated by the fuzzy electronic field of early black-and-white TVs. The hole is in a genre of science fiction stories that combine elements of comedy, satire, and romance. One of the main objectives, as stated on the website is interactivity, in this case, for a nation where the average citizen lets TV technology suck more than five hours per day out of their life.

“THE DUE RETURN” is the name of a solidly built and boardable structure in the shape of a ship that is 725 feet long, 25 feet wide and 14-feet-tall with 10 rooms split between two decks, including a garden room in the bow with grow lights, an engine room, sleeping cubbies, laboratory, captain’s quarters, archive, control room and lounge. The mélange is a result of an enormous amount of labor and is sprung from literary roots. It has the overall feel of a 3-D life-sized homage to 19th-century pioneer science fiction author Jules Verne, who wrote about space, air and underwater travel before they were invented. Like Verne’s novels, Meow Wolf invents a complex narrative of a ship from Verne’s era “traveling for 200 years through 30 different times/spaces.”

If you go
WHERE: Center for Contemporary Arts, 1050 Old Pecos Trail
WHEN: Through July 10. From 1-8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 1-10 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday.
COST: $10 suggested donation.
CONTACT: 505 982.1338 or

It is a pretty fully realized or adequate “real faux” invention for viewers who want to suspend their disbelief and invest their time in its inventiveness, ambitions, gags and sense of fun. There are many knobs to turn, drawers of fake documents to peruse, curiosity cabinets, old books and nooks for curling up to read them. But you might also want to bring a snack if you are planning an extended visit as this ship has no galley and no mess, which would be a kitchen and eating place to land-dwellers.

For those of us over 30, the tone and textures of “THE DUE RETURN” look like a legacy from the 1984 cult film “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.” There is a similarity to the fully imagined treatment of Banzai’s multitalented extended network as well as the wacky hodge-podge mash-up of props from different eras along with campy latex biological alien life forms, both wafting and clinging.

Jules Verne and Buckaroo Banzai are all precedents predating the post-modernist death of the author, and each relied on a hero to propel their narrative. Dr. Banzai was a particle physicist, top neurosurgeon and rock musician whose band the Hong Kong Cavaliers were also multidisciplinary scientific experts in a variety of fields. Together they saved the world from a race of alien reptiles. In contrast, “THE DUE RETURN” is a fantasy where the audience or willing participants are the authors of their own experience in a scenario where the fictional characters are merely trying to get by, to “harvest resources from the alien planet,” i.e., to survive.

The Meow Wolf organization has grown from a small core group who hammered, stapled, and glued their first horror vacuui installation together in February 2008, with the mission “to positively alter Santa Fe’s current cultural climate.” Depending on the sources you consult “THE DUE RETURN” is Meow Wolf’s most massive installation to date with either 50 or 100 collaborators. Meow Wolf bills itself as an inclusive endeavor “open for newcomers.” Obviously, there are many out-of-work people with time and skills on their hands to voluntarily construct a fantasy world. Northern New Mexico is, of course, home to all manner of elaborate fantasy industries that support myriad hands-on crafts needed to produce first class operas, Hollywood movies and nuclear weapons. It reminded me that more than three decades ago the salesman for the then-latest version of the Cray supercomputer said his only customers at the time were “Star Wars” a la Los Alamos and “Star Wars” a la George Lucas. Today, equivalent digital power fits into an affordable laptop and there is a custom-made iPhone and Android app specific to “THE DUE RETURN” project.

From the evidence on view during my visit, many parents are bringing their kids and both kids and parents are having a blast. It could easily be misconstrued as a successful satellite of the nearby Santa Fe Children’s Museum.

The last time I signed a waiver to enter the same gallery (when it was Plan B Evolving Arts) was a 1997 variation of Santa Fe’s miraculous stairway “Rise Overrun” built from salvaged wood by SIMPARCH, a two-artist team both of whom were then working as carpenters in Las Cruces. Since then, artists Steven Badgett and Matt Lynch (now respectively living in Chicago and Cincinnati) have been commissioned to create astute large-scale installations at Documenta, Venice, and the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and Marfa. Like Meow Wolf they make use of the tsunami of stuff discarded by a consumer-driven society, but unlike the multitrack proliferation of Meow Wolf, each of SIMPARCH’s constructions has a clear, overriding trajectory. These works represent two poles of satisfying art, in this case made from cast-offs — a kind of over-the-top, pedal-to-the-metal, cover-every-surface barrage and a singular ascending staircase that culminated at the gallery’s warehouse skylight.

Meow Wolf is currently recruiting and are on the roster for an upcoming “Worlds Outside This One” exhibition scheduled to open June 4 at Albuquerque’s 516Arts. This is one of the coordinated exhibitions that are part of “unCommon Ground,” a summer series of multiple artists’ programs exploring “self-sufficiency, community and visions of utopia.” Other collaboratives will be featured, among them a favorite called “Swimming Cities,” builders of barges from a bunch of junk in Slovenia that sailed across the Mediterranean to crash the Venice Biennale.

Throughout “THE DUE RETURN” runs until July 10, the schedule is overflowing with improvisational and planned theater performances, music groups, DJs, and a variety show.

Cutline – “THE DUE RETURN,” a dimension-hopping ship created by Meow Wolf collective, is now settled on the landscape of a foreign world, otherwise known as the Muñoz Waxman Gallery at the Center for Contemporary Arts.



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