The Due Return: a time & space traveling, inter-dimensional vessel

I am always interested in the way narrative is built up and developed, particularly when it is constructed by multiple parties. It happens every day in a number of ways: events and thoughts are interpreted, communicated and reflected upon. People working together will create a common story. It manifests through mission statements, gossip and even more subtle forms of identification. I’m interested in those instances where narrative is consciously fabricated. In this instance I found out about an exhibit in Santa Fe when an old friend emailed to ask what I might say to trees, given the chance. She went on to describe how the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) was hosting a massive interactive exhibit where, upon entry, you could download an iPhone app that would allow you to communicate with the sculptures (“trees”). A collaborative group, Meow Wolf, didn’t just build trees; they built an entire habitat including a ship that visitors can walk around, on and in. The Due Return is a massive collaborative endeavor with multimedia facets that range from a large fabricated digital archives to live performances to sculpture. This group brought a multi-dimensional ship to the desert mountains. I spent some time talking to Sean Di lanni, a Meow Wolf representative, about the exhibit and the collaboration.
Caroline Picard: Could you paint a picture of this project? From what I gather, you all built an interactive, inter-dimensional ship. Can you describe more about how that works?

Sean Di lanni: The Due Return is a massive, immersive, interactive installation which is fully navigable by visitors. Its namesake and central element is a 75 foot long, by 15 foot high, by 20 foot wide dimension hopping, time traveling ship. The ship has traveled through 31 different “eras” (or TD’s) and now resides in an alien landscape on a foreign planet. The ship and it’s current environment, which we call TD+31 is available for visitors to explore inside of The Center for Contemporary Art’s 6000 Sq. Ft. Munoz Waxman Gallery here in Santa Fe through August 21st.   It was collaboratively produced by over 100 Artists and volunteers, both local and international.

Upon entering the Munoz Waxman Gallery, visitors are directed through a cave-like entryway and immediately confronted by the 15 ft. prow of the ship, upon which is mounted the figurehead, a fantastical winged mer-leopard named Freyja.  The cave-like entryway is part of a system of cliffs made primarily from mud, which occupy the front wall and corner of the space.  They contain rooms and tunnels filled with bizarre life-forms and provide the setting for some of the many theatrical performances that will take place throughout the run of the show.

The environment transitions as you move to the stern of the ship and becomes a forest of “glow trees” which are “speaking” to each other in a language of colored light.  Each tree actually produces colors that communicate with neighboring “trees” which in turn approximate those colors in their own vocabulary and pass them on to their neighbors

 The lounge on the deck of The Due Return

The ship itself contains  2500 Sq. Ft. split between a  lower deck and an upper deck.  The lower deck holds the Engine Room and Lab, 12 bunk spaces, Archive, and Garden.  The upper deck supports a Victorian style Lounge (with a piano!), a Control Room inside of a geodesic dome and a Spanish galleon style Captain’s Quarters.  The aesthetic of these spaces, and the wooden hull of the ship itself, reflect it’s non-linear voyage through time and space.

Each room of the ship is fully structural and can be explored by walking, climbing and crawling.  Navigating the architecture itself provides the most basic level of interactivity in the show,  but visitors are encouraged to engage in a variety of digital and narrative elements as well. The Control Room, for instance, features the NOMAD, or “Novelty Oriented Manual Automation Desk.”   From here visitors can affect video interfaces which monitor bizarre “levels” of activity within the ship and environment, including the activity of the light forest, emotional health indices, vortexial activity and so on.  NOMAD is also one of many places where visitors can actually control lights and sound in the ship and environment.  For instance, one interface contains a map of an extensive system of LED lights installed in the ceiling called “The Stahphield.”   By clicking on quadrants of the map visitors can affect the way the lights fade and twinkle in the Stahphield.

While NOMAD acts as the center of digital interactivity for the show, we’ve set up a number of alternative interfaces for this as well.  One of my favorites are these small “control boxes” set up around the environment and in the Captain’s Quarters that affect the activity of the Glow Forest. They allow visitors to actually dial in a specific color, which is displayed back to them through a cool frosted acrylic surface. When you find a color you like, you “send” it to the trees, interrupting their conversation and interjecting your color into the forest.  Over the course of the show, these interjections are added to the color vocabulary of the forest.

We’ve also created an iPhone App called Elixir,  which provides another platform for these interactive elements.  Elixir contains programs that can  interject colors into the Light Forest and affect the Stahphield. It also serves as an access point to The Loci, the ships archive.  In addition to it’s physical manifestation inside the ship, The Loci is a vast digital archive of the ships history told in passages from journals, audio recordings, images and entries by the fictional archivist, Teddy Hubbel ( Some of the material in the archive is also linked to QR Codes, which are scattered throughout the ship and can be accessed by most QR Code readers including the one in Elixir.

The narratives contained in the Archive are also made accessible to visitors through a series of “seemingly spontaneous” theatrical performances that happen on select weekend nights through the run of the show. On performance nights visitors are given schedules of key performances at the door.  In addition to these publicized performances, smaller vignettes occur in the form of crew interactions throughout the installation.

Performers as crew members conducting a thought experiment in the Lab

CP: You’ve used a vast array of materials in this project. While looking at the website, I even I noticed some computer architectural programs. Can you talk about how you were able to include so many material dimensions?

SDL: Most of the magic that happens in a Meow Wolf project happens as a result of the projects being as inclusive to as many forms of expression and materials as possible. Usually, the results of this inclusion surprise the people involved in the project as much as they surprise audiences. Including different types of artists and processes allows us to reach a  broader audience, simply because of the huge variety of stuff that any one project can contain. But “more stuff” is made much more interesting when it’s combined under a semi-cohesive theme, idea, or at least space. That stuff starts conversing with itself. Every one of our projects deals with issues of cohesion and structure in different ways, and they all seem to be experiments in bringing together diverse people and materials to achieve something where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

So, for The Due Return, we set up a fair amount of structure and organization because we felt that we needed these things to achieve our very high ambitions. At the same time, we were  careful to keep in mind that whatever structure we created was intended to make space for expression and not to contain ambitions, or curtail visions. As I see it, these structures were set up to facilitate opportunities for artistic collaboration and experimentation.

With this in mind we broke the The Due Return down into sub-projects. There was a lot of interaction between sub-projects but each had internal organization and one, two or three point people, so that a system of communication was set up. These groups were as follows:  Ship, Archive, Tech, Environment and Performance.

At first we met as one large group, until we had a solid idea of what we were trying to do. Then the sub-groups really got going and started generating all kinds of plans and bringing in all kinds of people with different interests to work on the project. We’d meet up again as a whole group to get on the same page periodically. We set up deadlines for conceptual design and worked our way towards details, logistics, budgets and so on. Eventually these massive group meetings became less necessary and communication between groups just happened as needed. What was very helpful in all of this was the dedication of individuals. Some folks were involved in multiple aspects of the project, so they would be at meetings about Ship Design and also meetings about the Archive and so forth.

I was one of the point people for the Ship Design Group, and my role was to take everyone’s ideas and form them into  workable architectural plans that had real structure and could be used to generate specific lists, budgets and schedules. We used all kinds of methods to get to this point, most of which were typical to any architectural design process. What was different was that none of us are professional architects, or designers really. We did consult with an architect to make sure we had all our structural calculations figured out, but I think the architecture and the project as a whole stands as an amazing testament to the power of dedicated amateurs.

Engines and propellers stick off the back of The Due Return into a momentarily blue Glow Forrest

In the Ship Group we made lots of hand drawings and culled images to move our process along.  Once we had the basics I drew up the project in Google Sketchup, a very basic, intuitive 3-D modeling program. From there we actually made some 3-D physical models out of clay and paper so we could feel the thing in our hands. Eventually I decided we needed a more advanced 3-D digital modeling program to really hash out the curves of the ship and get specific about structural needs. So I began learning Rhinoceros 3-D. After a couple of weeks, I was lucky enough to find someone here who knew Rhino better than I did and she volunteered to take on the actual drafting.  The program helped immensely with figuring out the curve of the hull. It allowed us to prefabricate sections before we had access to the gallery. We were even able to have the ribs for the bow of the ship cut by a CNC router using our CAD files. This saved us hours of tedious jigsawing and was a pretty magical process.

That’s just a few examples of the types of digital and physical tools we used to complete the process from the Ship Design perspective. There was also a ton of amazing computer programming that went into the archive, lighting, sound and other technical aspects of the show.  The programming for the trees, for example, was done using Max MSP and a whole bunch of Arduino microcontrollers. The Stahphield also utilized Arduinos, along with some amazing curcuitry that we custom printed and hand assembled. I joked a lot about how we were making “fair trade, local, organic circuitry” for the project while we soldered away LED’s for days on end in March.

As for the “stuff” we used to build The Due Return– dang!- there’s such a variety of materials involved. The trees were made from this incredible biodegradable plastic called InstaMorph which you heat to mold into forms. The cliffs were made with a wooden framework, then wire mesh, and then tons of dirt mixed with straw and water to form cob. That process was incredibly labor intensive, and involved countless hours from scores of artists and volunteers. People were always doing “mud.”  Some of the creatures we made were cast from rubbers and resins with little built in LED lights. The ship itself was made from a combination of scrap lumber from previous projects and new lumber (which we will re-use or pass on for re-use). We used a ton of stuff from dumpsters and random treasures from artists homes. The Black Hole in Los Alamos, an incredible second hand store for used lab equipment (mostly from LANL) donated and gave us great deals on a plethora of bizarre science equipment and weird plastics. Most of NOMAD and the lab was sourced from the Black Hole. We rented a bunch of beautiful 19th century furniture from the Santa Fe Opera (who were also incredibly generous) for the lounge. So, there’s a combination of old and new materials. Where it was possible, we recycled things, but we also bought a fair amount of new stuff, all of which will be used again when we disassemble to show.

Windows and trees

CP: Maybe following up on that last question, too, how did you go about constructing this narrative?

SDL: I passed this question along to Nicholas Chiarella, who headed up the Archive group, because i felt he could answer it best.

Nicholas Chiarella: The narrative of The Due Return was conceived at its start as an archive, a collection of information and artifacts that would have been gathered by the crew members of the ship over the course of its history—physical objects, written text, audio recordings, video clips, found items, created pieces. Meow Wolf has involvement from a number of writers, and having a narrative component allowed us to bring in a few more. We wanted to engage the audience in story and give them a chance to interact at a slow-paced, intimate level—to test out the way story can unfold within an art installation. We also wanted to enhance the sense that the ship had existed for a long time, that it had a lifespan of its own. A group of a dozen or so writers and artists sat down together with the initial concept of an interdimensional ship travelling time and space, and then they began to play with the idea of where the ship had previously gone, who the crew members were, what their interests were. Everyone in the archive group had a different approach, at first, some telling stories through letters or journal fragments, and others working through objects: maps, artifacts, photographs. The archive group met weekly in order to exchange ideas and weave stories together. From the start, the group knew it wanted a physical space on the ship to house and display the collection and a digital interface for sharing information at the show and off-site as well. The digital interface ended up being called the Loci (Latin for “places”) in order to reflect the organization of the ship’s history, which in part is structured by the places and times that the ship has visited.

The narrative is a strong backdrop, too, for the performances that happen on the ship. …

Portholes into a flower filled bunk

CP: Will you talk a little bit about Meow Wolf? When did the collective get started? I was looking through your flikr page and it looks like you’ve made habitats before, in addition to making music.

SDL: Meow Wolf was created in February of 2008 by a group of young residents hoping to supply Santa Fe with an alternative arts and music venue. The group has evolved into a central hub of cultural growth for a community that was previously without an outlet; using art installations and music shows as opportunities to form relationships, welcome newcomers to Santa Fe, and provide individuals with an open space to be expressive.

Bringing music to Santa Fe and supporting local music has been part of the goal with Meow Wolf from the start.  The installations arose out of an early art show that was primarily produced by two artists. It was called Meowzors and was kind of a painting installation in which every surface of the space was covered with imagery and objects. I think people got really excited about covering space and creating immersive environments from that show and we started on this now three-year tradition of doing installations as a central part of our process. The ideas for these shows are usually generated through a combination of single individuals ideas and a collaborative process of discussion. For whatever reason they often feature bizarre living spaces. The installation we did before The Due Return was a show called Habitats and the theme was living spaces.

I think, though, we are open to any kind of production. For instance, last winter we did this huge multimedia theater production called The Moon is to Live On which brought together more time-based and performing arts (like music and acting) with the creation of physical space. We also instigate a big public “performance” event called Monster Battle on the Santa Fe Plaza every summer.

CP: How do you think about sculpture and landscape? What is the role of the viewer in your environments?

SDL: That’s a really interesting question to me.  Maybe “sculpture and landscape” is a more specific version of “sculpture and context,”  or, even more broadly “object and space?”  I, personally, am very excited by experiences that confuse and reorient our assumptions about what is an “object” (like furniture or sculpture) and what is “space” (like architecture and landscape). I love when an object suddenly becomes inhabitable (either physically or psychically) and a space suddenly becomes an object-like mass (like a boat sitting in a gallery).

I think installation or “environmental” art champions the interactions that happen between objects and people in a space. An installation is able to engage this wide range of sensory experience in the same way that walking into a building or tromping through a forest can. So, in a weird way, an installation can be accessible to a wider audience because it engages these basic spatial senses that we all take for granted on a daily basis.  It then has the power to subvert our spatial assumptions. I love when an art experience is simultaneously disorienting and familiar in this way.

With The Due Return visitors walk inside a gallery and are suddenly outside of a ship, and in a landscape.  Then they can go inside of that ship.  In that very basic way it breaks expectations. There’s a line in one of the scripts for the performances in which a crew member of The Due Return is describing the process of walking out of the show into the real world of the CCA grounds. He says its like “outside of outside.” I love that.

With The Due Return the whole thing is highly produced and kind of controlled, I guess. I think it interacts with visitors like architecture does in that they are navigating it however they like, and it has a big impact on that navigation. But it then plays with how one can navigate literature and theater in a spatial way. So it ultimately gives power to the audience because of how many physical/psycholigical entry points there are.

A view of the ship from inside one of the caves, with glowing cave creatures

CP: What is your background and how did you find yourself in Santa Fe? How would you compare your background to other members of Meow Wolf?

I grew up in New Jersey and went to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design for sculpture.  I moved to Santa Fe after school almost 4 years ago because i had some family in New Mexico.

I’d say that maybe less than half of the people who worked on The Due Return have a similar background. Meow Wolf was started by folks who didn’t go to college at all and who grew up in Santa Fe. For this project we worked with Dads, little kids, professionals, hobbyists, amateurs and students alike. Most of the people involved in Meow Wolf on a consistent basis hover around 20 something in age, but we are a diverse group and have no boundaries in terms of age, or educational background or anything like that. People have all kinds of different day jobs or lack thereof. So much of the value of this group comes from putting a huge amount of trust in people just because they are excited about doing stuff. I think we have a lot of faith in people.

CP: Can you talk about some of the programs that are going on during The Due Return?

SDL: The programming was conceived as an alternative to the talks, lectures and panels that happen around lots of other exhibitions. We wanted programming to be more geared toward building a youthful culture in Santa Fe and we wanted to have parties. So we booked a bunch of great music shows and have had DJ’s and Dance Parties in the installation. The last dance party  was attended by a really diverse crowd. It was fully all ages, which was great. The installation itself has plenty of conceptual wiggle room, so it can become an awesome music venue and that just adds to the experience.

In addition to the music shows we’re doing some more theatrical performances in the first two weekends in July. We’ll also be doing an archive presentation this Saturday  which presents a fictional history of The Due Return. And, on Saturday, June 25th we’re having a panel discussion with CCA and 516 Arts from Albuquerque, where we recently completed a satellite installation as part of their exhibition Worlds Outside This One.

So there’s some of everything, but I think the programming reflects a larger statement about producing culture “on our terms,”  reflecting the diverse interests of both the artists involved and the visitors who come to the show.

The Due Return is open to visitors until August 21st. For more information and to see a list of public programs, please visit their website.

A view of the ship from inside one of the caves, with glowing cave creatures

Caroline Picard