Taos Vortex 2018
Photo: Jess Bernstein/Courtesy of Meow Wolf
Meow Wolf & Taos Vortex Fest Are Shifting Art & Live Music Towards More Interactive, Playful Spaces
How many times have you been to an exhibit where you've crept up close to a breathtaking work of art, only to be yelled out for standing too close? How many times have you been excited to check out a live show, but the performer is barely visible from your spot at the back of the crowd? Enter Meow Wolf, an experimental, experiential art collective making headlines for their trippy avant-garde-art-meets-funhouse-meets-kids-museum space in Santa Fe, N.M.
In 2016, Meow Wolf opened this ultra-exploratory venue featuring art you can touch from rotating collabs with multi-media artists, the House of Eternal Return. It is their first permanent space, thanks to funding from the one and only from George R.R. Martin, the creator of Game of Thrones. Fast forward to two years later, and the growing crew has launched the Taos Vortex music festival, incorporating their love for interactive art and community spaces with their eclectic taste in music.
Now, in 2019, they are preparing for a second year of the fest in Taos, N.M., running from Aug. 16–18, along with getting ready to open new permanent spaces in Las Vegas, Denver and Washington D.C. in the subsequent years. Vince Kadlubek, Co-Founder and CEO, Sofie Cruse, Art Director for Events, and Max Beck-Keller, Events Director, treated the Recording Academy to a phone conversation about what they were most excited about for the second Taos Vortex, why they strongly believe in integrating music and art in interactive spaces (because music is art, right?), what's up next for Meow Wolf and more.
So, the second edition of Taos Vortex is coming up soon. What do you guys most looking forward to about the festival's sophomore year?
Vince Kadlubek: I'm looking forward to the experience as a whole. All of the elements coming together; the music, the art, the performers. And then getting there, being there with all of the people and all of the contribution the Vortex inhabitants are bringing.
Sofie Cruse: I would definitely agree, in that this year it's highly collaborative and having all of these different elements come together and sing together is going to be something that we're all really looking forward to.
Max Beck-Keller: Vortex the vibe, Vortex the harmonic frequency.
Cruse: Completely. It's harmonizing all of the experiences together into something that feels cohesive. And also that you can't even get a snapshot of a moment of it because there's just so much.
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Looking back at last year, we’re beyond thrilled to return to the lovely community of Taos for #TaosVortex this weekend! Taos Vortex is a fun, mind-bending, weird, multi-sensory experience that we get to share with thousands of inhabitants concurrently. It’s a weekend to fully dive into a universe of installed art environments, music, experimental interactions, and adventures. Come vibe with us ~~> taosvortex.com [: @katerussellphoto + @jessbernsteinphoto]
It sounds so all-immersive. And the musical lineup is really top notch, yet super eclectic. What was your main vision going into booking the artists?
Beck-Keller: Meow Wolf is eclectic, it's maximal, it's stacked. New Mexico is eclectic, there's a lot of different people here. It was really important to have a lineup that is as diverse and eclectic and happening as Meow Wolf and the place that we live in.
Kadlubek: I think the artists who are all coming there, they're fun. And we see the best success with artists who come and play our venue when there's this commonality and there's a synergy between us and the artists. I think that's what the programming is all about, trying to create that artistic synergy that Sofie said, trying to create that harmony in the experience.
Cruse: You did a great job.
Can you speak to a specific artist that you feel Meow Wolf is really synergistic with? We're you're like, "we have to work with this person"?
Kadlubek: There's a lot of the artists who are playing this year we have a relationship with, perhaps they've played at Meow Wolf in past years. I think Empress Of is an artist like that. She's playful, there's intensity; there's a certain unexpectedness with what she does. And she's fun. Also, we go back, personally and culturally, with CocoRosie, and aesthetically. Also, from a community perspective, they're someone who not only just represents Meow Wolf, but we actually feel like we're of the same fabric.
Beck-Keller: Totally. CocoRosie has a strong relationship with Taos. Their friends are good friends of ours. Like Vince says, it's that fabric.
Cruse: CocoRosie has been one of my favorite musical groups for forever and seeing the integration of what we're naturally doing and what they do and how those two things shake each other's hand, it's a nice thing to be able to look at.
I love that, all of the universes aligning. Looking at the whole offering of Taos Vortex, in addition to the music, there's a lot of other things to get excited about, to get lost in. What is your biggest hope that an attendee of Taos Vortex might get out of the experience?
Kadlubek: I want people to leave feeling inspired. I think as artists and makers you want to create new worlds. And I think we want people to come to Vortex and see a world that relates to their world and inspires them and makes them want to be creative in their own life.
Cruse: Piggybacking off of that, I think a lot of people go to experiences like this to be transformed, to have something that changes them a little bit. And through what we've been trying to curate and bring together, opportunities and invitations for people to not only come out transformed, but to be supported in that. This is going to be very community-based, world-based.
I think all of you mentioned the collaborative element of the festival this year. Could you speak to that a little bit and the different pieces or maybe the different players that led to it all coming together?
Cruse: Creating an environment that changes your locomotion, in an outdoor setting. The installations that we're providing this year are not only going to encourage movement from people but encourage different movements. I think that by getting people outside of normal party expectations and giving them an environment that has less rules but more to engage with, it's a huge thing. So, the impetus to get people excited and then kind of run with it themselves.
Kadlubek: We do this at the House of Eternal Return, too. We want to provide a really nice environment and want people to feel like they can explore and discover and utilize and create within it, however they want to. It starts with people and the community to dig the vibes of the environment first, then music's the byproduct of that and the art and the sculpture is a byproduct of that. And then food is too. We try to have our festival be something that's anchored by the people in the community and the environment first. Then everything else derives from that, like a really cool park.
Why do you believe it's important to enhance a standard music festival experience and integrate art play and creativity into it?
Beck-Keller: I think art and music has to be an experience. It's not a consumer activity. Meow Wolf doesn't make art that's on a wall in a gallery or in a museum to be looked at and not touched. And I think all art is like that; you want to play with it, you want to experiment.
Cruse: I think it's what people want too, people want to have this experience about the music and the space that they're in, something that's less formulaic in a way. [They want] to be able to interact with it and change, to feel the place and the connectivity.
Beck-Keller: We don't want to create observer moments. We want people to live in their experience.
Kadlubek: Although it's important to bring art, creativity, vibes and community into the centerpiece of the festival experience, I think that's because festivals that are based on music alone, a big crowd and big names, has been done and it's predictable. What's fun about bringing in art, imagination and participation is that it's harder to predict those variables. You're not quite sure what the festival will be, who you might meet, what you might do, how you might contribute to it, what rabbit holes you might go down. And I think that unpredictability is what people really want.
It's the type of thing that Burning Man is the best at. They don't have headliners, they don't have schedules. It's still very much an environment for you to explore, for you to find whoever it is you want to find. It's the best model. So it's just trying to tap into that ethos. I also think an important part of is that festival culture has evolved.
There's new values that need to be brought to the table and new ways of interacting with people. There's new things to consider important and new priorities that need to be brought in to the fold of festival culture, and it takes producers, programmers and event promoters to be the leaders when setting new values for communal experiences. And so that's largely where we are coming from as well. We want to be part of a movement of festivals and music shows and that helps define a new way for people to come to interact with each other.
Cruse: I think that Vortex is giving us the vessel to be able to play with that in a really intense way. To change the model and be able to give people this "show me, don't tell me" experience. The culture is rapidly changing in awareness over how people wish to choose their nighttime when they have it; you want to make sure that it's different and wild and weird.
In my mind there's kind of two camps of thought for the festival experience, with one end being "let's have a completely brand-owned experience."
Kadlubek: Yeah, totally.
And then there's the Burning Man end of it, where everyone there has to participate and contribute to have fun. It's cool to see that happening in a music festival design.
Beck-Keller: Yeah, we're trying to find somewhere in between those, definitely towards the Burning Man side. I think how we're doing it is with our Meow Wolf platform is inspiring experiences that we resonate with. Like DoLaB [who throws Lightning in a Bottle fest] and Symbiosis [a roaming-home festival], Meow Wolf has their own vibe. There are festival promoters out there who are absolutely thinking about how people come together in a way that promotes social change and new ways of communicating. And that is taking off and we're doing it. But I think what Meow Wolf does is that we also add in an element of accessibility and party and just fun. "Fun" is a really important verb for us.
Cruse: I want to throw the kind of parties that I want to go to. We also have put in the homework to decide that there are a lot of different ways to do this but we seem to have found a way that is really appealing to a bunch of different kinds of people, that I think are craving something new and a little weirder.
Kadlubek: And I want Vortex to be a place where people in their sixties want to go and feel comfortable. That's a goal for us. I want Vortex to be something that a family who have 12-year-olds who come into the party during the day and it feels like the House of Eternal Return in that the same sort of feeling of inclusivity for people who normally wouldn't feel comfortable at a festival.
Beck-Keller: Absolutely. Creating art and experiences for people and not having some kind of vibe that people feel alienated as though they're not cool or weird enough that they can't come.
Looking at the House of Eternal Return, as you all mentioned, you've had some pretty amazing acts come through there. Why was important to bring live music into that space?
Beck-Keller: Music has always been part of Meow Wolf, so it make sense to bring it into our program. It also creates another opportunity to explore the space.
Kadlubek: It's funny because 13 years ago when we started, the reason we rented the very first warehouse was to throw music shows at an art exhibition. What turned into our first art exhibition was really the decoration of the venue. So that's our genesis point.
What's amazing about music is that as long as you're booking really great acts, you will always remain relevant. Whereas if you're a fashion or visual brand, you're susceptible to being off trend. Think about a successful festival like a Coachella; they've been around 25 years or so and still is super relevant, super beloved.
That's the thing, music is the beating heart of culture. It drives right into what is relevant today in the world of culture. Not to spend too much time bashing on the fine art world, but that's where you can start to really drift off into some strange abstract, disconnected places. Culturally, it's when you stopped aligning yourself with that beating heart of music.
What has been your favorite show at Meow Wolf so far? I know it's probably impossible to pick.
Kadlubek: Oh my gosh. [Pauses.] I think when we first saw CocoRosie play there.
Cruse: Oh my god.
Kadlubek: Yeah, that was like a holy sh*t moment, that was absolute.
Cruse: That was one of my favorite in the venue. Because of the size of our venue and the amount of hype that there was for CocoRosie's show, it was one of the best, most energetic times I've had at Meow Wolf. Really, really fun. Jonathan Richmond was another one that was just a mind blowing lifetime experience and getting to see it in what is our home, essentially, was very special.
Kadlubek: Justin Martin's played a bunch of times. I went to one of those parties and it was probably the best show that I had been to. It seems like consistently his Meow Wolf residency was just really special for us.
Beck-Keller: Justin Martin is so influential for us. I've been to every single one of his parties but one, when I was out of town. And then shows like Kevin Morby playing on a Sunday night absolutely blew my mind.
This all sounds so fun. What is the capacity for the space as a music venue?
Beck-Keller: It's 400 for live music and 500 for parties because when we have a party we know that people hang out in the exhibit too.
Wow, that's a super intimate space.
Beck-Keller: Yeah, it's our tiny baby.
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As we head into the new year, we look back (via the link in our bio) at mind melting music that graced us this year. Music was, is, and will always be part of our lifeblood at Meow Wolf.⠀ Huge credit to the entire Meow Wolf Events team here in Santa Fe, and to the entire operating staff that maintains this phenomenon. The work that you all put into this venue is LITERALLY changing our city and state for the better. Come out y’all, check the venue, get to a show! Photo Credits: ⠀ 1. Evan & Zane by @katerussellphoto | 2. Shakey Graves by @katerussellphoto | 3. Itchy-O by @katerussellphoto | 4. Tokimonsta by @brandonsoder | 5. Taos Vortex by @jessbernsteinphotography | 6. Dan Deacon by @katerussellphoto | 7. Tinariwen by @katerussellphoto | 8. Mountain Goats by @katerussellphoto | 9. Poppy by @katerussellphoto | 10. Justin Martin by @sidesquash
I was talking to someone recently who told me that shortly after Woodstock, Bill Graham closed both Fillmore East and West [iconic concert halls he ran from 1968-1971 in N.Y.C and S.F.] because he realized he and the artists could make a lot more money with bigger venues. So, the early 70s were a turning point for bigger shows. But there's just something special about seeing your favorite artist in a small space.
Beck-Keller: Totally. I think it goes back to the importance of being part of the experience and not being an observer. An intimate room gives you that, you're right there, up close. Justin Martin always invites people onto the stage to dance right there in the DJ booth with him. We welcome it as a venue. We worked really hard to make sure it's safe for everyone to dance on the stage and on the speakers and all our subwoofers.
Music has a powerful effect on most people, especially when you can either connect with the artists who makes the music that you cry to or just be around other people that are also crying to the same music. I think that's an important thing that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of big venues and events.
Kadlubek: Also, we're coming at it from a perspective of "let's party." Let's party, but let's be safe. Let's have be respectful to ourselves and others. Everybody can party responsibly; we welcome all into this party. That's kind of the message that Meow Wolf has had for a while. That still translates into our venue as they can let loose.
Cruse: Totally. We are not in the business of having a bad time. It is my personal mantra. We want people, when they choose to have a nice time, to choose to have it with us. And we do focus on individuality so much that it's really hard to be embarrassed at our parties, which I think is something that sometimes an outsider-feeling person can have, but it's just not seen as rampantly at our parties.
I think that's so important. Here's another hard question. What is the biggest thing you feel like you've learned so far from working with Meow Wolf?
Cruse: Learning and learning and learning. Max and I say that to each other almost every day.
Beck-Keller: Yeah, I think coming from DIY culture, it really has been about that. We set the bar high for ourselves and teach ourselves how to get there.
Cruse: Being overly ambitious is a good thing for us because it puts us in situations where we have to figure it out. With events there are hard deadlines; you either make it work or pivot. I think that's been a huge thing to learn; we always say that our events team is scrappy because most of the time we are trying to make everything work even if it isn't something that we necessarily know how to do.
What does the future of art and music look like to you?
Kadlubek: I think about this from the production world. Sometimes in putting on shows, you may want to rely on a formula and do something in a rote way because that's what you know and that's what you see. I don't know what the future looks like, but I definitely know that it's about getting outside of the box and not doing things that are rote and opening up new collaborations between venues and artists and event producers and installation artists and really exploring the edge no matter what that edge is.
Beck-Keller: I'm going to sound pretty futurist here, but in the future art and music—and really events—is going to be based on the fact that people will be able to experience each other without being in the same space. So having the ability to think about events, music and art from the vantage point of attendees coming in from anywhere in the world. Coachella's realized this with regards to the live stream; that audience is actually bigger than their in person attendance. There's been some issues with that; how much attention is given to the live stream versus the people who bought tickets to be there. But it goes beyond even just live streaming video.
It's all the way of how do you build venues and experiences that anyone in the world can log into and can feel the community, experience what it's like to be at a Meow Wolf venue. For me, the goal is how do we integrate and build an even larger culture or subculture of like-minded people who want to have fun and be expressive and want to share an imagination with each other without actual physical space being a limitation.
Cruse: I see the world of art and music changing so much, just by the nature of materials that we are using today and how they're continuing to be developed. whether that may be something that is tangible, I think that the non-tangible ways of creating and sharing, what Vince is touching on, is going to be a really interesting way of how we show each other the things that we're trying to say. I think it's what art is, trying to communicate.
What's next for Meow Wolf? I know you have some new cities opening on the horizon.
Beck-Keller: One of the next things that Sofie and I are developing is a new party that follows after the Vortex summertime narrative, and goes into the winter, called Dark Palace. We're going to announce that pretty soon.
Ooh, is it another festival?
Beck-Keller: Yeah, but it's not like a camping thing like at Vortex. It's a cold-weather, indoor thing. For all those freaks that don't like the sun but still want to enjoy music.
And what about the other magical playhouses around the U.S.?
Kadlubek: So we're going to open Vegas, I'll say a year from now. It's going to be about three times the size of the Santa Fe experience and it's a whole new concept. Its part of a really large development called Area 15, which is going to be a really sweet new type of cultural experience.
And then a year after that, we open Denver, so we have two major projects right now that are in production and one project that's in development, which is in Washington, D.C. There's a lot happening for us. Everything that we're doing has music attached to it, with more music venues. We are really trying to expand what has happened in Santa Fe and what people have fallen in love with there and take it to a level that can accommodate big cities and larger populations, but still maintaining the same vibe and character.
When I first heard of the Sin City joint I thought, "Meow Wolf in Vegas, what?" Which quickly shifted to "Wait, this is exactly what is needed there," exactly like you were saying, like a different experience.
Kadlubek: Yeah. So one of our friends and one of our favorite venue operators, event producers in the world is House of Yes [in Brooklyn]. The owners of House of Yes, when we were thinking about Vegas, at first the reaction was, "What? Vegas?" And then they said, "Actually, every time we go to Vegas, we're like, 'Why the f*** are we here? What is there to do here that's even fun?'" That's the exact crowd that we're trying to speak to, all the people who end up in Vegas, wondering sort of like, "Okay, now what?"