As the visionary CEO behind Meow Wolf, the immersive art installation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Vince Kadlubek is combatting the mundanity of our everyday world with an alternate reality that surprises and challenges visitors. In this talk, Kadlubek shares his belief that people are hungry for mind-blowing experiences — and it’s up to creatives to deliver them. His pro tips include:
- Why the experience movement is capturing and enrapturing audiences
- How creatives can upend built environments
- And how a mind-blowing experience can start with an average refrigerator
Hello, how is it going? I’m Vince Kadlubek, CEO of Meow Wolf, a creative production company in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I thought a lot about what the name of the talk was going to be, or what is the thesis of my talk? And it jumped around to a lot of different things. I think really where it landed was that doing Meow Wolf in Santa Fe has made me realize that humans want to have mind-blowing experiences.
What’s a mind-blowing experience? A mind-blowing experience has something to do with a transformation or entering into an alternative reality. So, to design mind-blowing experiences, one has to think about how to design transformative experiences. One has to think about how to design for alternative realities. Why do humans want to have mind-blowing experiences? Well, this is your house. You’re just the one down the street to the left. You have an awesome little yard. You ride your Big Wheel.
Then at night, you have nice streets and those street lights that are kind of forked. They have two street lights on them, and there’s the double yellow painted line that separates the street. There’s trees lining the streets, the sidewalks. Or maybe you’re in the city. You have these tall rectangular buildings and these windows, this like amber glow that happens at night. There’s different kinds of street lights. There’s like three bulb ones that are pretty cute, makes it feel like it’s a more valuable space with that special kind of street light.
There’s signs that tell you what to do. And the same streets, nice streets, urban landscapes. This is your partly cloudy day. It’s my partly cloudy day too. What city did you guys grow up in? Like where did you experience your partly cloudy? It doesn’t matter, same partly cloudy day as I had, staring up these clouds, same blue, same sun, same daydreaming thoughts. Our school, hated it. Classroom, which looks strangely like the neighborhood that we grew up in, which is weird.
These lines of rows of things that are monotonous, and repetitive, and so incredibly structured, that it basically bores us to death. Like almost literally bores us to death. We have recess. Recess is fun. We have slides and monkey bars, and play with our kids, and tag. There’s like weird flirtations happening. You don’t exactly know what’s going on. You lose your mind for like 30 minutes, all amped up on Doritos. Come home. Got your kitchen, nice refrigerator, classic little white refrigerator. Maybe bake some Bagel Bites or nachos. These are my memories of growing up. Bagel Bites were big in my life. Open the fridge, grab your snacks, sit on the couch, watch TV. It doesn’t matter where you grew up in the world, you watched TV. This is what we did. We sat on the couch. We ate our food that we grabbed out of our refrigerator, and we watched TV. This is reality. For like literally 70 years, like almost an entire century, we’ve been watching TV. That’s been our pastime.
You want to get out of the house. You want to get out of the monotony of TV, the TV being the escape. So like TV represents the escape from reality. But then you do it so much that it becomes the reality, so then you need to escape that. You then go to Best Buy. Which Best Buy did you guys go to? I went to one in Santa Fe that looks a lot like this one. How about you?
This weird recognition that like all of us basically have had the same experiences. This is reality to us. Maybe we get outside and we go to the park, sit on the grass under a tree. Again, it’s nice, but isn’t it pretty predictable? Don’t we know what it is that we’re getting ourselves into? Add in some marriage maybe, have some kids, alcoholism, opioid addiction, divorce, midlife crisis, some job we hate. Okay, we’ll go to the beach. An amazing, unique, spectacular experience. We go to the beach, we’ll spend $20,000. We’ll take the family to the beach.
We’ll sit under that umbrella, and we’ll look at that ocean, and we’ll have that sunny day, and our cocktail will have a pineapple slice in it. That’s what we’re going to do, predictable. This is reality. This is how we do it. We go to the theater. We go to the movie theater. So fun. This family is having a really fun time by themselves in a theater. That kid on the left is like seriously concerned. I think he’s seriously concerned because I don’t think that that’s his mother. I don’t know where she came from. Not sure where she came from.
Okay, we could play video games. That’s a nice escape, play some FIFA. Go to a sporting event. As reality has become mundane—so you have your natural reality, and then you have your built reality on top of that—as the built reality becomes really monotonous and boring, then companies have like, society has created these experiences that you can go and do to try to escape the monotony of the boring reality of the built reality. Things like sports or bowling have popped up. These are like these great out-of-home experiences that really take us into like a more fun experience, maybe miniature golf.
All these things are attempts to take us out of the norm, out of the reality that we know and into something that is more spontaneous, or something that is more enjoyable, unique. This is the evolution towards the experience economy. In 1998, Pine and Gilmore wrote a book called The Experience Economy. The Experience Economy basically said that we’re going from commodity to good, to service, to experience. That’s the evolution.
They said this in 1998. At the time, experiences were that, like going bowling and miniature golf, theme parks. People really didn’t quite do the experience thing like we are today. A good way to look at this would be kind of thinking about coffee. The commodity itself is the coffee bean. The good is when the coffee bean gets ground and packaged. The service is when the coffee gets brewed and served to you. The experience is Starbucks. That’s kind of what that evolution looks like.
Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, we are part of the experience economy. And we’re some like extreme version of the experience economy. We got here—I think it’s important, when I talk about sort of what our experiences—we got to our experience in a really unorthodox, unnatural, inorganic way. Back in 2008, we were not a business. We were an art collective that was housed in a really dank, shitty warehouse in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
We were a bunch of 20 somethings that were trying to figure out how to engage in the world really, the world and the way that reality was. The like reality of the art world, the reality of the business world, the reality after we got out of college was one that we didn’t feel very aligned with. We tried to do things the normal way. Like we tried to get our artwork into galleries. We tried to talk to museums about the opportunity for a show. Santa Fe is like the third largest art market in the country and we couldn’t break through that barrier.
We said, “Okay, we’re just going to start our own space, instead of like wanting reality to change for us. We’re just going to create our own venue, our own space.” We did that. We called it Meow Wolf, and we started to just like collect weird, recycled, dumpster stuff from the dumpster and started putting it up, basically creating installation art out of it. We were all artists and we realized that we liked to create things that people could walk inside of. That that was a really important aspect of it.
It’s all made out of trash. The significant thing about building something that somebody can walk inside of is that, in the art world, the way that art is presented to the general population and is presented to the world, is on a wall, on a pedestal. It’s really difficult without an education in art to understand how to engage with something that is like hanging on a wall or something that’s on a pedestal in front of you.
Like I don’t have much experience in my life with that sort of specific and esoteric relationship. Kids definitely don’t. They’re supposed to just go up and stare at a thing on the wall. Without art education, the relationship to the way that art is presented is really limited. Doing a massive work, doing work that’s like a painting you walk inside of is familiar. It’s instantly familiar.
Everybody is experienced in immersive spaces. We’re born into an immersive space. We’re born into a really crazy immersive space of like lights and doctors and screaming. When we go to do shopping, we go to the supermarket. The supermarket’s like an incredible immersive space. And so, throughout our entire life, we have experienced walking inside of a room. There’s like an accessibility to the experience when the artwork is something you can walk inside of, because you immediately have a relationship to what it’s like to walk inside of a space.
We built these things. People loved it. Kids really loved it. We did this for many years. A group of us, probably like 20, anywhere between 20 and 100 people per show, to sort of collaboratively getting down on this stuff. And it didn’t make us any money. It was really just a hobby of ours, in the hopes of expressing ourselves, and kind of exploring this new immersive art form that we had discovered. A lot of our work had to do with crawling inside of subspaces.
One of my thoughts about like what I was going to title this, or what my thesis for this talk was going to be, was going to have something to do with like the significance of building forts. Because like forts for some reason just draw out some sense of magic in people. I think this goes back to that mind-blowing, alternative reality concept, which is that if I go inside of a fort, that fort is different than the world that I live in.
This was like a little bit of a clue for us into something, creating experiences that can be radically different than what people are used to. Something else that happens for people in life that ends up creating this immediate sense of shift in reality is when somebody really close to you passes away. In 2014, about six years into Meow Wolf’s existence, my best friend and one of our collaborators, David Loughridge suddenly died.
From that moment forward in my life I’ve been living a total dream. Because, when he died, it was so difficult for me to comprehend its actuality. Somehow, a split happened in my world and anything became possible. Like a few months later, I was looking at this giant old bowling alley in Santa Fe, New Mexico that had been run down for seven years. Then, a month later, I was talking to George R. R. Martin of Game of Thrones. I went to George and I said, “Do you want to buy this bowling alley and help Meow Wolf create something otherworldly?”
He said, “Sure.” It was on. Meow Wolf in 2016 opened up the House of Eternal Return, an immersive storytelling experience that took all the work that we did from the past, and brought it to customers.
Welcome to Meow Wolf. Bienvenidos. It’s nice to have you.
I’ve never seen anything like this before ever. Maybe in dreams.
Maybe if I were the original Alice in Wonderland, and fell through the rabbit hole, maybe that would be something like this.
It’s like a million different dimensions in one building.
It’s like a Salvador Dali painting.
Like a really trippy video game in real life.
Every corner, I’m surprised.
I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience like this in all my time.
There’s just so many things and so many different things to look at, to touch, to just take in.
It’s interactive. It’s a story.
Like I really want to at this point dig into the story, because there’s something else going on there.
There’s like a whole mystery pocket dimension swing.
Murder mystery meets art installation.
This kid’s face just keeps popping up everywhere. It scared me.
It’s really like a big mystery, that you have to like put together these cool clues.
There are different levels of experience depending on your degree of consciousness.
This is like an incredibly unique place.
There’s no words.
I can’t describe it. It’s so cool. I don’t think you could compare it to anything. I think it’s way cooler than anything than I’ve seen.
It’s colorful, it’s playful, it’s for kids, for adults, it’s for everyone.
I don’t really know how to explain it, you’ll have to come here yourself.
This is like the most amazing place I’ve ever been.
I’m so happy that I came, and so blessed that like I’m able to see all these stuff and put all these stuff into my mind and everything.
If you want to energize yourself, if you want to become more creative, it’s like sticking your finger in electrical socket, and becoming alive.
You have to go see it in person. Whatever I say is not going to do it any sort of justice. I could show you pictures. I could show you videos. That’s nothing like being in the experience of actually being there. Just you got to come check it out.
It is a crazy success. We’ve had all sorts of media. It just like totally blew up. You can hear from these people’s reactions that it was like life changing, that it was like becoming alive again, that they haven’t seen anything like it before. It’s no surprise because there’s nothing really unique the world. The world doesn’t supply that many things that are unique for people to experience. We have like lines out the door every day. We went from this little art collective, to now making 12 and a half million dollars a year at this art installation.
So popular, so like crazy popular in Santa Fe, that we’re now expanding to Denver. We’re now expanding to Las Vegas, Nevada. It’s like the thirst, the hunger that people have to experience a Meow-Wolf-type thing is really remarkable and it kind of took us by surprise. We knew that we were doing something that was special, but we didn’t realize how badly humans, like everyday, general population humans want to experience something special and unique.
They don’t need Han Solo. They don’t need Star Wars to do it. We have no recognizable characters in here. It is not about recognizable, predictable IP. It’s about having a genuine and authentic experience. It got me thinking about the experience economy ladder. Pine and Gilmore added a fifth tier to this graph, and it’s called transformation. So, after experience, it’s not that people just want to have experiences. It’s that people want to have transformative experiences. That’s the next evolution. What is our transformative experience? We sell $20 tickets. People walk inside. They’re immediately met with a house. The house is an everyday normal looking house. At this point, there’s no guide, there’s no map, there’s nothing telling the customer what to do. They get to choose free will where they go. They’re going to probably walk into the house, explore this house. It’s a fictional family that lives here. The house is in Mendocino, California, fictionally, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, non-fictionally.
In this house there’s pictures of the family. You kind of walk around the dining room. You start to see that there’s some wonky stuff going on in this house. Then you get to the fridge. That same old fridge that we used to go get our snacks out of, and you open that fridge, and it’s a portal into a whole other world. Or open the dryer. The dryer is a portal into a whole other world. Another name for the talk that I was going to try to come up with was something about how humans desperately want to walk through their household appliances.
There’s like some deep-seated draw. After you go through these portals, you end up just like in another world. It’s 20,000 square feet of collaborative, maximal, interactive, colorful, wild, random, artwork that you can treat like a playground. You can just chill and kind of people watch, interactive mushrooms that you can play that make sounds when you hit them. Really just giving people spaces that are totally unique, totally new, never experienced before. That’s the power of art, that’s the power of creativity.
In that world of mundane, in that world of repetition, the only thing that can save us from that world is creativity. That’s the only thing. As we like go from built world to digital world, let’s make sure that that digital, that tech layer, that that’s not where we stop. That creativity is the layer after that, because humans need it. I’m going to get back to a slide here that I think really speaks directly to the transformational qualities of Meow Wolf. That’s, again, the refrigerator.
This moment is such a powerful moment for people. Something that looks normal, something that looks predictable, something that looks like how it always has been. Then, the moment you open it, you realize this unlike anything that I ever thought it was. In that play between reality and fiction, in that play between understanding and understanding anew, there’s a really powerful, transformative process that happens for people. Because if the fridge is not as it should be, if the fridge is different than it has been, then there’s a possibility that the world can be different than it has been.
This all happens in this single moment for people. If the world can be different than it has been, then I can be different than I’ve been. This is the power, this is the mind-blowing moment, this is the transformative moment for people, is being put in a place where they can be something different. Because for so many people in the world, they are stuck with who they are. They are stuck with who they’ve been, and in this small moment, opening this fridge gives them the sense that they can be something more than they’ve been.
People will walk through the exhibit for two hours or three hours, and then they’ll go outside, and they’ll realize how incredible a tree is. Because you just spent three hours in an art exhibit, and you’re looking at everything, and you’re going up to and you’re examining everything, and who made this and who made that, and what’s this, and oh my gosh, look at that, look at that tree, oh my gosh, look at this. You go outside, and you realize, oh, it’s all an incredible transformative experience. Like trees are amazing.
Getting people back in touch with the incredible nature of nature is something that creativity in immersive environments can do. I’m going to end here just talking about a product that we have called the Experience Tube. The Experience Tube is a nice play between what’s real and what’s fake. I think that as we design for transformation, as we design for mind-blowing experiences, all of us who are creative and designers, are going to want to be thinking about how we blur that line between real and fake to the point where they’re one and the same.
So that, when we create alternative realities for customers, those alternative realities are seamless. It doesn’t take anything to get myself from real to fake. It just is. The Experience Tube is an analog social media device. An analog social media device that helps people communicate with each other without the distraction of cellphones.
What’s wrong with this picture? Everyone loves people, right? These days people are so distracted, it can seem impossible to make a real connection. It’s time for a serious upgrade, introducing the Experience Tube. The fast, easy, safe and colorful way to delight in the company of friends, relatives, complete strangers, or even pets. Simply attach each end of the tube to a couple wacky mugs, and let the experience flow.
No subscription necessary. Our trademarked system collaborates with at least 65% of your whole brain to generate all sorts of experiences. Here indeed, more visual information than could ever come through a little rectangular screen. Since the Experience Tube is made of nothing but soft, durable, washable fabric, there’s nothing to break, or recharge. You can even build your vocabulary by talking all the time. Our trademarked design replaces all peripheral, unnecessary distraction with jersey stripes.
When you’re not inside the tube, it’s a multifunctional fashion accessory. So many hype combinations to discover, and so many colors to choose from. Go ahead, make a real connection by buying one today, for the low price for $24.99. This is not a joke. Buy one now and get not one, but two super cool, unlimited edition friendship bracelets. Log on now to experiencetube.com. Get yours today. Just the tube of us.
Brought to you by Meow Wolf.
It happened. This is the golden moment. This is the money shot right here. Like the fact that this, it happened. It got to Kathie Lee and Hoda. I’m going to have to skip through pretty fast ’cause I’m over time. But I think the next 20 years, alternative realities are going to be the biggest product that customers will be seeking. Those alternative realities put people, put customers in other worlds together. I think that we as creatives, we as designers, we have the opportunity over the next 20 years to start to design and construct.
Like the world has felt fixed, the world has felt limited by previous infrastructure, that we can’t affect. That’s changing. I think everybody in this room, and all the creatives around the world, should start thinking about how together, over the next 20 years, we can create a beautiful and new world for humans, and for people out there that are desperately seeking it. Thank you guys for your time. Appreciate it.