Meow Wolf, an art collective centring on creative, immersive interactive installations, confounded expectation by being wildly successful both in terms of appeal, and fiscal acumen. Kadlubek, who has stepped back from his position as CEO of Meow Wolf in order to concentrate on the new endeavour, intends to share the precepts that underpinned Meow Wolf’s ascendency with the commercial business sector.
To do so, he has amassed a team of creative luminaries. Now, three of them, Kae Burke, Fernando Ruiz and Ebony Isis Booth, share their perspective with blooloop.
“When we launched Meow Wolf, and when we launched House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, we really had no idea of the impact, or ripple it would have out in the world,” says Kadlubek.
“We thought that the Burning Man crowd, artists and creative types, would be interested in the project, but we had no idea that families and the general population would be interested in the project.”
Spatial Activations and next-gen anchor spaces
As a result of this success, commercial developers began to see that Meow Wolf was an example of what the future anchor space looks like.
“Anchor spaces for 30 years have been movie theatres,” says Kadlubek. “They’ve been big box stores like Dillard’s and Best Buy. But everybody is aware that that is a trend that was going the way of the dodo bird. Meow Wolf was this example, a shining light of what the view of what the future might look like.”
“That’s where then this idea came from. Spatial Activations is taking the concept of a creative space, an imaginative attraction, and realizing that there’s a lot of people out in the market who are looking for solutions that are similar to Meow Wolf.
“It’s helping developers understand what the world of creative, immersive experiences looks like; what the consumer is now looking for when they leave their house; what’s attracting a family to go anywhere these days. That’s the basis.”
The impact of COVID-19
Some may question the wisdom of setting up this new venture in the midst of a global pandemic. However, Kadlubek says:
“The truth is, we can see beyond the pandemic. Right now, we know that the world is going to open back up, and the state of the commercial world is going to be decimated. It’s going to be even worse off than it was before the pandemic.”
COVID-19 has accelerated several trends and we have witnessed the growth of innovation and the creative exploration of the digital space. While the pandemic has accelerated the death of retail, it has also steepened the rise of retailtainment.
“What people were so attracted to at Meow Wolf and what they continue to be attracted to at Meow Wolf, is the possibility that they might see something that they had never seen before. This idea of the unknown, the unpredictable. That is creativity, that is imagination, that is art.
“That’s what creativity and art and imagination bring to the world, this opportunity for something new, something fresh, something you’ve never seen before.
“I believe strongly that art, creativity and imagination can be brought into a lot of different types of experiences. Not just immersive art experiences like Meow Wolf, but all sorts of experiences: food and beverage; wellness, even retail.
“I even think retail could be brought back to life with the right type of creativity and imagination. That’s where we’re coming from.”
Spatial Activation will bring precepts and strategies from the world of creative, immersive experiences to a business consultancy.
“There’s a gulf, a disconnector, between the commercial real estate world and the world of creativity, art and imagination,” says Kadlubek. “They speak different languages, and they tend to come from different cultures.”
“So, a big part of this is helping bridge the two; getting commercial developers to really understand what Meow Wolf has learned over the last five years, and then also vice versa, helping artists and creatives understand the world of commercial development; what the business side of things really looks like.”
Meow Wolf, characterised by good business practise as well as ground-breaking creative art experiences, is positioned between those poles:
“We fit right in that in-between zone, where I’m trying to connect those dots.”
A flexible approach
Spatial Activations will, Kadlubek feels, provide a certain flexibility:
“It allows us to work with multiple clients and to rapidly address emerging problems. The people involved with the consultancy are all very successful at location-based experiences. We’ve launched and run our own businesses, and have had amazing traction in that in that world.
“But what we’re most interested in is the concept development phase. We’re most interested in being able to support a commercial developer through thinking through the creative or the concept development phase, sharing what we’ve learned from launching our own businesses, so that they can have a better understanding of the landscape, and can start to rethink their properties to better fit the needs of the consumer.”
“That is really at the heart of this here; we are focused entirely on human-centric design, community-centric design.
“The world has shifted where the individual consumer and the individual community have to choose to leave their house. They have to choose to go and do something outside of the house. You can’t just feed them copy-pasted stuff like Applebee’s or Target anymore. That doesn’t work.
“You need to be able to provide things to them that interest them, fulfil their needs, and actually get them out of their house. They’ve got all the entertainment they need, they’ve got all the shopping they need. They’ve got all the things that they need at their house. You have to think about what they want in order to get them to your location.”
The importance of community
Beyond that, you also have to create something so compelling and engaging that they want to leave their house, not just once, but repeatedly.
“To get to that point,” Kadlubek says: “You have to talk to the people on the ground level, you have to talk to the community. You’ve got to understand what the people are actually looking for.
“Honestly, a lot of the work should come from a local community. If you want a food and beverage concept, you should look locally first. If you want a creative, immersive concept, you should consider the local creative community. That’s where it starts. It’s about working directly with the people that you’re trying to serve.”
Connecting the problem and the solution
For the moment, Kadlubek is laying the groundwork, focusing on establishing Spatial Activations. Later, the team will look at scaling the consultancy.
“Right now, we’re just laying the piping, seeing how the plumbing works connecting various creative entrepreneurs with commercial developers.”
We understand the problem, and it’s empty and dead commercial spaces. We understand the solution, which is creative entrepreneurship and experiential concept attractions
“Ultimately, there is a big missing piece here. I feel like we understand the problem, and it’s empty and dead commercial spaces. We understand the solution, which is creative entrepreneurship and experiential concept attractions. But what we’re missing is the bit in the middle, which is the funding.
“What is going to have to happen in order to accelerate this, to connect the plumbing, is for a group of people to get together and back this problem solution, and, basically, create a private equity fund that can connect the problem with the solution in a real way.”
A talented team
Kadlubek has put a talented team together to spearhead this new enterprise.
“It’s amazing,” he says. “They are all people that I’ve met over the course of the last three or four years while I was CEO of Meow Wolf. We have people who are successful in their own right, and in their own field. When we think about activating space, we’re thinking about art and creativity.”
“We have Nova Han. She’s in Los Angeles, probably one of the most brilliant creative directors that I know with regards to immersive spaces.”
“We have Joshua Levine, who is probably the most well-known broker of Burning Man sculptures, which sounds funny. It’s a very niche thing, but he knows the Burning Man community like the back of his hand, and he can help connect that community to where they can place their work.
“We have Kae Burke, who created an incredible viral success in New York called House of Yes. The way she saw the nightclub and turned the nightclub into something for the millennial generation, based on a new set of ideal ideals and a new ethos really is phenomenal. She brings huge experience in how to inhabit community and human-centred design.
“Then we have the Meow Wolf events team. So the group that created Meow Wolf events is now able to work on advising others as consultants on how to program for events at their space.”
Spatial Activations and technology
“Then finally, you can’t talk about Spatial Activation without talking about technology. Because the future is going to be spatial computing. That is how we blend the Internet with getting out to things in person.
“So we brought on a couple of really great people there. We have Leila Amirsadeghi and Aleissia Laidacker. Aleissia is a leader in AR/XR and was Head of Developer Experience at Magic Leap. Leila co-founded and launched LBE Onedome, in San Francisco in 2018, and just recently did the VR Burning Man Project.”
“One other person I really want to highlight is Ebony Isis Booth. Ebony understands community to the core. She understands how easy it sometimes has been for people to ignore the communities that they are speaking. She is diligent in connecting content creators with the communities that they’re trying to reach.”
This promises to be an exciting, new and unique venture – no surprise, given the team’s experience and skills.
The retail world needs to change
The reason nothing has been done until now to bridge the gulf between developers and creative attractions, Kadlubek says, is that, until now, commercial developers haven’t needed to:
“They haven’t had to consider solutions. Because common retail, movie theatres, big box stores, were essentially the same solution for the last 35 years or longer. It didn’t change.
“So now that there is this retail apocalypse happening, they have to learn about what gets people out of their house. The attractions world understands this, because the attractions world, the experience economy, is booming.”
Let me be clear, the solution is artists. The solution is creatives. That’s why Meow Wolf worked. It worked because it was creatives doing what they do best, and understanding what is going to be cool
“We have now started talking about micro attractions where, instead of the big amusement park 30 minutes outside of town, there is a bunch of different micro attractions that are right in your city or in your suburb.”
“So we know the problem, and we know the solution. Now it’s really just about building the case for why people should invest in that solution.”
“Let me be clear, the solution is artists. The solution is creatives. That’s why Meow Wolf worked. It worked because it was creatives doing what they do best, and understanding what is going to be cool. This isn’t about a bunch of suits getting into a boardroom and trying to figure this out. The solution is artists; the solution is the content creators, so that is where we have to direct the funding.”
Kae Burke and Spatial Activations
Co-founder and creative director of House of Yes, Kae Burke, is now part of the Spatial Activations team. She identifies the factors that have made House of Yes, the innovative New York nightclub, creative team, theatre and event space, such a success and discusses how those factors can inform a consultancy:
“My background was in visual art and costume design; that makes up a lot of the DNA of House of Yes,” she explains. “I feel like we’re artists that accidentally started a nightclub. We do all sorts of activations and experience design in other spaces. So, aside from having our own physical location, we are quite a team with a lot of creatives on it.
“I would say what has made House of Yes successful is our ability to collaborate with each other as well as with other creative collectives and organizations.”
House of Yes and Meow Wolf
Meow Wolf was, Burke says, an inspiration, and she was struck by the similarity between the evolution of both companies:
“House of Yes and Meow Wolf have similar origin stories. Even similar timelines of when they started and we started; when they scaled up or went to the next level was the same year that we did.”
She doesn’t regard accessing the corporate space as challenging:
“It’s something that we’ve been doing. I don’t see a conflict. I see the corporate structure as a fascinating one that actually allows for more creativity, in some ways; a supportive structure that has communication flow systems and a clear direction is one where it is easy to work.”
“If you have a genius idea, you still need that sort of grounded, realistic structure and teamwork to make it a reality. Otherwise, it’s just an idea. So us consulting is really taking in a holistic perspective, in that anybody can have an idea; it takes a really special team and collection of people to make it happen.”
Both House of Yes and Meow Wolf contrived to combine creative innovation with financial acumen and clearsightedness, differentiating them from so many creative ventures and collectives. There is no shortage of brilliant ideas. But companies that can bring those skill sets and visions together to turn an idea into something lasting are rare.
Spatial Activations taps into creative potential
Everyone, Burke contends, has a creative potential:
“The most buttoned-up people can have some of the most brilliant ideas. I don’t think it’s just the privilege of the artists of the world to have genius ideas. “
“Consulting is fun in that way because you get to collaborate with people that are coming from a completely different perspective. You can really start to thread the needle into what needs to happen, how we can work together in support of each other’s dreams of making the world a more wonderful place. And there’s a bunch of different ways to do that.”
Reimagining retail with Spatial Activations
As the experience and transformation economies gain ground and retail falls back, Burke feels that we will see the reimagining of retail:
“I don’t think the old model is what we’re trying to save. I would say that a personal connection will be absolutely essential for the next phase in the evolution of whatever new way of engagement, product, experience, retail becomes. It comes down to the core of what people need, and how can you serve and support that need in a positive way. That’s a successful business.”
Working with the Spatial Activations team is, she says, fascinating:
“Our meetings are, of course, on screens. But it’s amazing to have my screen filled with these other brilliant people from different backgrounds and experiences. What is really interesting about this collective is that I wouldn’t call ourselves a traditional agency. It feels like there’s organic collaboration, an invitation to be innovative. Even in this first phase of how we’re working together.
“Just from the first couple of meetings and connections, I’ve been able to bring some people onto projects that were already in the works.”
Chef Fernando Ruiz
Celebrity Chef Fernando Ruiz is one of the kings of Southwestern Mexican-American style cooking. He initially came to fame when he competed against the celebrated chef Bobby Flay on the popular Food Network show BEAT BOBBY FLAY – and won, taking home the top honour with his winning dish, chiles en nogada.
Part of the Spatial Activations team, Ruiz hopes to leverage opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
As famous for his past as for his culinary wizardry, Ruiz has trodden an unconventional path to celebrity.
“My story begins in Arizona, which is next door to New Mexico,” he says. “I grew up in a gang, from the age of thirteen, when I started carrying guns and selling drugs. That turned into me and my crew; about five or six of us. At thirteen, I was selling drugs. I was carrying guns, I was shooting at people, and getting shot at.
“At sixteen, I got shot, and I never went to the doctor. I never went to the hospital for it. We were somewhere we shouldn’t have been, doing something we shouldn’t have been doing. I didn’t want the cops involved, so I just let it heal up on its own; the bullet is still in there.”
A unconventional path to success
“We were bringing people over the border, robbing drug dealers of lots of money and lots of drugs. I was in and out of jail, I probably did nearly four years, altogether. I ended up getting my GED [the official equivalent to a high-school diploma] in jail”
People ask Ruiz whether he regrets his former life:
“The people that we dealt with, or we robbed, or we hurt – they knew the name of the game,” he says. “Everything felt like it was just a game.”
From jail, he went straight to culinary school and is now a successful celebrity chef. He credits his ex-wife Michelle with supplying the necessary support and drive to bring him to his current position.
“I never asked to be a celebrity chef, to be on TV,” he says. “I never asked to go on a cooking show. It just kind of happened through Michelle pushing me. I’m glad I did what I did because I wouldn’t otherwise be here.
“I just opened a restaurant, a month ago, here in Santa Fe. And I am getting ready to open up another restaurant here in the next three months. I have these great people who believe in me, and my cooking.”
A passion for food
Ruiz himself is now dedicated to offering opportunities to others like himself:
“I help out a tonne of other people that have chequered backgrounds. Either criminal or just bad history. I’ve got them working with me in the kitchens, I have ex-gang members that I’ve known for a long time that are now chefs in my kitchen.
“I just want to make the world just a little bit better, now that I can have an impact and help people out, and just have fun with it.”
It was jail that enabled Ruiz to turn his life around, and to capitalise on an innate ability:
“I always knew how to cook, I remember watching my parents do pit cooking. I grew up slaughtering and butchering animals on my Dad’s ranch in Mexico.”
“There was a time when I was sitting in a jail cell, thinking to myself, ‘Is this really how it’s going to be for the rest of my life? This is all I know. But is it really what I want?’ And then I got a job in the jail kitchen; a big, commercial kitchen. We were cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 600to 800 people. And I realised I had a passion for it.”
A career in food
On leaving Arizona, he moved to New Mexico, where he has been for almost 20 years now.
“This is where I’ve made my name; I’ve made my career; I’ve been able to excel. I’m a celebrity chef, without having tried to be. I did one show on Food Network, and it made everybody happy. When I was asked to do another one, I said no for a long time. They wanted me to do the ‘Chopped’ competition.”
When he finally agreed, Ruiz completed his journey to national fame by winning the competition three times.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen this way,” he says. “I should be dead, or doing life in prison for shit that I never got caught doing.”
Fernando Ruiz and Spatial Activations
When Vince contacted him about spatial Activations, Ruiz was keen to be involved:
“It struck me that this was another great opportunity that, technically, I shouldn’t have. So I went ahead and took it.”
To Ruiz, this will be a chance to help people:
“I want to leave a legacy, because of where my life was, and where it is, and where it’s going. If, through Spatial Activations, what I’m doing can make an impact on at least one person, that’s great. Because whatever your background, whatever your circumstances, if you have a dream, you can make it come true.
I want to leave a legacy, because of where my life was, and where it is, and where it’s going. If, through Spatial Activations, what I’m doing can make an impact on at least one person, that’s great.
“It all comes through hard work – it’s not easy, and it’s not going to happen overnight. But it’s possible. I want to put my heart and soul into Spatial Activations, just for that.
“We need to give back to the community. Whether that means building a culinary school or a film school to give other kids a chance to do something they really want to do. It’s about giving something. Giving hope; giving help.”
Ebony Isis Booth
A performance poet and artist, Ebony Isis Booth is the founder of Burque Noir, the African American multimedia showcase, and Honeysuckle Creatives, a consultancy specializing in creative engagement strategies, project management, and event design with people of colour in mind.
She works with organizations and nonprofits, to support them through culture change.
“I help them to shift organizational culture toward equity and inclusion,” she explains: “I’m a diversity practitioner in that regard.
“But that’s not what makes my heart go pitter-patter. As a leadership development coach, it’s really my main objective to be an advocate for women of colour in business who are looking to overcome and break through the barriers; the glass ceilings that are caused by these ‘isms’ that keep women from being able to advance and stand in their power in corporate spaces.
“That work comes along through certain healing modalities. It looks like practical leadership protocols and methods. It looks like somatic healing, informed concepts. Really, it’s just getting into whole self-awareness, so that you can actually be empowered to do whatever you want to do.
“That’s where I thrive in my work.”
For Booth, keeping her cultural and ethnic identity at the centre in her work is important.
“I call myself an organizer for black joy. Community is important, and joy is one of our most effective tools of resistance. I love to create engagement opportunities to bring people together around joyful celebration and collaboration. All those things are alive for me.”
Working with Spatial Activations
Describing how she became involved with Spatial Activations, she says:
“It’s interesting. I hosted a salon series called Burque Noir; one of the things that I started about five years ago now in Albuquerque. It was a multimedia performance and visual arts showcase, designed to centre and amplify black artists in New Mexico.
“During this past year, I needed to curate an event specifically for Burque Noir’s audience, looking to organize around collective celebration of black identities and black joy, but also having to do so in a pandemic, where you can’t bring people together. So I curated an event inside the Albuquerque Museum of Art around an exhibit, 30 Americans.”
30 Americans showcases many of the most important contemporary African American artists from across the United States from the 1970s to the present, and their thematically and aesthetically diverse art.
“The show was on exhibit in Albuquerque during a time where the Gallery visits were by appointment only. What I did was curated an event to bring 30 black women and femmes together in the Gallery space for a private concert performance and private gallery tour, celebrating the importance of protecting, respecting, defending and honouring black women.
“This happened on the heels of the Breonna Taylor case, where the Grand Jury decided to not indict any of the officers who were responsible for and involved in her murder. There was dysfunctional debilitating rage, there was grief, there were tears. There was a great amount of process.”
“There was a desire to isolate, to insulate,” she continues. “I wanted to create this event for black joy. But I also was very deliberate about who it was for, and who it wasn’t for.
“It was for the women who were able to, or felt safe enough, to come out, to wear masks, have their temperatures checked, sign a contract tracing sheet. It was for women to come, to celebrate, see each other and to be seen and it was about having ourselves reflected.”
“2.8% of the population in the state is African American. That means that black women constitute around 1% of the state of New Mexico.
“It was so intimate. It was an invitation to just come and be held by each other. We had a healing circle where we stood in a circle after the performance and just shared our experiences about being so often the only black woman in the room, and to share our reflections on what it meant to be with each other at that time.
“It’s one of the things that I’m most proud of.”
Creative ways of gathering people
This event was what led to a meeting between Booth and Kadlubek.
“One of the producers, Jeremy Jasper, who is another one of the collaborators, owns the production company, Oh Lawd Records. I had engaged them to come out and document the event, do our star reel and photograph the event.
“The very next day, he had a meeting with Vince. He was talking about Spatial Activations, creative ways to engage culture in COVID, and how to use nontraditional spaces to come up with contemporary and creative ways of gathering people in a pandemic world.”
“Jeremy said, ‘Have you met Ebony? Because she literally did this thing just last night.’ So Vincent and I spoke. I told him about myself, and the work that I do. From there, it just seemed like a good fit.
“We talked about how the work that I do around culture and cultural strategies for organizations might be something that’s supportive and necessary for companies like Meow Wolf.”
A voice for culture
“We also had conversations about how there are not a lot of black voices in this particular field in New Mexico. There is a tri-cultural myth. When people say that New Mexico is a majority minority state, they mean that because of the categories of Native American, Hispanic/ Latino, and Caucasian.
“They do not include Asian and Asian Pacific Islander folks. That does not encompass our refugee population, and the benefits of New Mexico being a sanctuary state. And it certainly doesn’t include Afro descended or black-identifying people at all. There are huge swaths of the community that just get completely disregarded.”
Booth is a voice for the culture.
“Black culture is American culture,” she says. “Our creative art forms inform almost everything that mainstream society identifies as being cool. How you gonna throw fly parties if you don’t have the voice of the culture involved in the room?”
Kadlubek was receptive, and invited Booth to join the project. She comments:
“I didn’t realize how huge the stage was that was being set with the other collaborators, a lot of whom I hadn’t met before. But it really struck me as this amazing opportunity to show up as my full, authentic self, and be awesome in whatever ways come available to us.”
Spatial Activations bridges the gap
Spatial Activations an interesting enterprise, in that it is about bringing multi-aspect creativity into a much more conventional space, in the context of a consultancy.
“It’s a big challenge,” says Booth. “It’s huge. But all ships rise with the tide. Everyone benefits from inclusive, diverse and equitable experiences. Even the members of dominant culture and dominant society, or whiteness, if you will.”
Everyone benefits from inclusive, diverse and equitable experiences. Even the members of dominant culture and dominant society
Bridging any gulf that may exist might be a matter of overlooking certain things in order to get to somewhere beneficial.
“I also have a gift for being able to [communicate across barriers] in such a way that provides these frameworks,” she adds. “I think that is a result of my work in cultural strategy and organizational development. It’s not easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.”
Booth has not necessarily, she explains, found her place in the larger Spatial Activations group yet:
“My ‘why’ was the last one of the last things we had a conversation about. For me, my ‘why’ in this work is to remind us in our creative endeavours and planning that we also have a human need. Each of the consultants who are working on these projects, who are also artists and producers in their own right, have an individual human need to be with our people.
“And if ours is not a/ diverse pool of people, we run the risk of unintentionally making events that are inaccessible to other people based off how they engage and operate and move throughout the world.”
“So my ‘why’ is to ensure that we can really imagine a different way to do this. How can we literally engineer a future that is going to give us different outcomes than the ones that we had before COVID?
“We have a unique opportunity to use our creative skillsets to expand our understanding of the audience; to deepen relationships between artists. That intrigues me in such a way that I get super-excited about it. I like to agitate the status quo; to shake it up and make it better.
“The meritocracy is a lie, so let’s not even pretend that’s real. Let’s do some actual cool shit.”
Top image, House of Yes, Brooklyn