“It was 2009 when we technically did the first Omega Mart, right?” Emily Montoya, creative director of Meow Wolf Las Vegas’ Omega Mart, asks this rhetorical question to Benji Geary, a co-founder of Meow Wolf, Mallplex R@t, and unofficial mascot of the Santa Fe-based art collective. Geary doesn’t answer. Doesn’t have to. They’re on the same page…”99.9% of the time,” Montoya says.
Montoya and Geary met in a Santa Fe high school art class over 20 years ago, a fact that gives them both pause, as if they’d never considered the longevity of their friendship until this very moment.
“I remember Benji was just really good at contour drawing,” Montoya says. “He was held up as the example of like, ‘You should draw like Benji, he's really good.’ And I was like, ‘Who is this Benji? What's his deal?’"
Geary replies, “She was the weirdo in the corner who had the short hair, and I was like, ‘This freak seems cool.’”
The pair’s instant, art-based bond only strengthened with collaborations, including an unfinished cyberpunk movie called Metastasis 2. Sadly, the movie was never finished, “but a lot of weird shit came from it,” Geary says. In fact, the movie birthed the idea for a major piece of Meow Wolf Las Vegas’ rich narrative, a fictional corporation named Dramcorp.
Next came Meow Wolf — whose origins are well-documented — and projects like “Biome Neuro Norb” (2008), where Montoya and Geary’s folie à deux metastasized as a counterpoint to whatever the rest of the art collective was doing. For “Biome Neuro Norb,” Geary says, “Everything was becoming very dark and very chaotic, and we were like, ‘We'll just claim a section and paint it completely white, and do this very weird ooze on the wall that's scientific and orderly.’”
A year later, 2009, the original iteration of Omega Mart was conceptualized while Meow Wolf was cutting its teeth at their famed warehouse on Hopewell Street. When we first broach the topic, a familiar theme to recent times arises: “Final Days.”
Montoya remembers, “At the time, I felt like it was already ramping up toward these sort of apocalyptic, 2012 vibes. I know I was really feeling that, and every time I looked in a grocery store window it was like, ‘End of Days Sale! Final Sale!’”
“Final days,” Geary echoes.
Montoya: “Final Days. I was just loving that kind of weird, almost culty energy that comes out of it and thinking…’Omega...Omega Mart.’ And then just being like, ‘Oh shit! It also says ‘mega art’ if you look at it!”
“Take out the ‘O’ and the ‘M’,” Geary finishes her thought.
Opening on February 18, 2021, Omega Mart is the title and the stage-setter for Meow Wolf’s second permanent installation following Santa Fe’s House of Eternal Return. It’s a result of contributions from over 100 international and local artists — in addition to sub-contractors and Meow Wolf’s internal staff, which has grown significantly since the collective’s “Warehouse on Hopewell” days.
Omega Mart participants are greeted with an extraordinary supermarket featuring surreal products like Tattoo Chicken and Influence in a Bottle. Portals lead to unexpected, art-filled landscapes where immersed shoppers can uncover the narrative behind Omega Mart and its parent company, Dramcorp. And, oh yeah, the grocery story is “sponsored” by Willie Nelson!
Although the newest iteration of this highly-anticipated project will anchor Las Vegas’ entertainment and retail complex AREA15, the original experience of Omega Mart was quite different.
“Initially, yeah, it was kind of a joke,” Geary states. “We'd have these weekly meetings with everybody once we finished a show. It was in one of those meetings, Emily brought it up like, ‘What if we just did a grocery store? That would be so fun!’ And everyone's like, ‘Oh my god, what if we did? That would be really funny. That's something we've never done.’”
Montoya adds, “That first one was really saving our trash, saving our detergent bottles and freezer meals, and then using the home inkjet printer and printing out label designs on paper, and also wrapping existing boxes in paper. It was that level of stuff. It was like taking gallon jugs of milk and filling them with colored paints. It was pretty much a glorified yard sale.”
Geary: “It was just way more of a performance thing, where we were just dumping shit onto the ground and cleaning it up with a mop. Some music over the PA. Trying to take the microphone and make it seem, at all, like a grocery store. It was way more of a, ‘This is not fooling anyone. This is a shitty attempt at the concept of a grocery store.’”
Montoya: Yeah, not many people came to the show, really.
Geary: It's totally funny.
Despite the fact that attendance was low, something about the idea for Omega Mart stuck enough that it came back around in 2012 when co-founder Vince Kadlubek and fellow Meow Wolf-er Nicholas Chiarella were looking for programs to teach art to kids in local schools. The result was Meow Wolf’s Chimera program, which continued in subsequent years to provide art classes on subjects like glow sculptures, origami, and electronic music production.
Montoya says, “It was like, "Oh, we could bring back Omega Mart, and it could be — this time — kind of a media literacy thing where we have kids make their own products, then we actually put them in an art show.
The difference with the second version of Omega Mart, though, was that Meow Wolf would try to convince the public that this was a real grocery store that would be opening. They sent out press releases and contacted local papers to run attack ads against themselves, pretending all the while that Omega Mart was a real grocery store. During installation, people even came by to apply for nonexistent jobs.
As Montoya remembers it, “We would have to tell them, ‘Oh, no. Sorry. This is not really a job. This is an art project. We don't really plan on hiring staff. We can't really pay anyone.’ And they were like, ‘Well, can I leave my resume anyway?’”
The grand opening had artists dressed as employees in aprons, fake protestors, a ribbon cutting, and most importantly, locals came out to see it.
“People were clapping,” Geary recalls.
Montoya: People were showing up. Then they walked into the store and were just like, "Um..."
Some pairings are unavoidable, some duos inevitable. They just make sense. They fit. Puzzle pieces and peanut butter and jelly and whatnot. The same seems to go for Meow Wolf the collective and Omega Mart the concept. Why else would you keep coming back to the same art project for 12 years?
Montoya says, “I think the concept has always resonated with what we're trying to do as Meow Wolf, in terms of just the format of the store. You have this container, then the opportunity for thousands of individual art pieces to exist on the shelves. The idea of ‘space for people to collaborate’ has always been built into it.”
Geary adds, “As art, conceptually, Omega Mart, each iteration — regardless of working with kids, or doing all these things — it was always a tongue-in-cheek project anyway. It was always a cultural commentary. It's still kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing, where it's like, ‘Oh, this is the first iteration of Omega Mart after Meow Wolf became a company instead of just an art collective. Oh my god, did they sell out?’ But it's like, this is the tongue-in-cheek response: ‘Fuck yeah. We'll show you how much we sold out. This is a straight-up grocery store with 99 percent off!’ Culturally, all of it is so weird, and so surreal, and such a joke anyway. It's very funny. It's a funny thing to do.”
Montoya: “I have to remind myself constantly that we're not really opening a grocery store. This is art. This is not a real grocery store. I get so sucked into that world.”
Funny. Surreal. Confusing. The ways Montoya and Geary describe their experience creating Omega Mart is the best description of the result itself. Yet, in 2021, the way Americans are experiencing grocery stores is changing.
Geary says, “Even if you're in Los Angeles or New York, your main outing, at least for the last year, has been the grocery store. That's been your outlet, your release, your cultural observance. It's been your nonvirtual experience. ‘The store, I'm going to the store. That's the thing I'm doing today.’
Montoya: “I also realized how large of a role grocery stores have in shaping the stories we tell ourselves about our own identities. Just seeing the efforts to make the products more and more niche for people. Just like, ‘This is really for you. This is catered to you and your identity.’ The feeling of comfort. ‘There's something out there for a person like me.’ But then it's like, ‘Oh, actually it's really creepy that my identity is being co-opted and sold back to me to try to reinforce my own conception of who I am, in this weird ouroboros kind of situation.’ That is always endlessly fascinating: what stories we tell to ourselves, culturally, being reflected on the shelves in so many different ways.”
Geary: “It's always shepherding it into this mid-ground of ambiguously embracing and denouncing, simultaneously, because that's culture's relationship with a good grocery store.”
When Montoya and Geary look at their own reflections after creating the third version of Omega Mart, they’ll no longer see trash-collecting artists. With the growth and success of Meow Wolf, both co-founders are now in positions of leadership amongst their peers. They maintain ownership and the spiritual responsibility of seeing Meow Wolf’s collective vision through, but it seems that for the first time since they came up with the concept...they’re ready to let it go.
“It belongs to Vegas. It belongs to the planet now, you know?” says Geary. “It's like, ‘Okay, well, here's this thing.’ We're trying to get the bias as close as possible, just like any other art piece, but still, it takes on its own life and becomes part of the place where it lives.”
Like proud supermarket deli parents sending their alien meat baby out into the real world, Montoya and Geary are now left with only each other. Yet, despite 12 years of Omega Mart, 20 years of friendship, and many other creative collaborations, they have accomplished a task much more difficult than opening an art project grocery store: They’re remained friends.
Montoya says, “There's no greater test to a relationship than to collaborate creatively on something. We've been tested a lot, that's for sure. It's great to be coming from a place where we have a similar vision of what we want to see, and it's 99.9% the same, but then there's that 0.1% of, ‘Oh, we don't see that the same way.’
Montoya: “‘Why don't you see that? Aren't we like the same person at this point?’ That dissonance is what helps propel things forward. That little bit of, ‘No, we are still individuals who have disagreements.’ Those moments where we can have those and still manage to be like, ‘Okay, but we're working on this thing together. What are we going to do?’”
Geary: “And therein lies the collaboration. We know—”
Montoya finishes Geary’s sentence…”That's where we're stronger.”