“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” - Carl Sagan
Meow Wolf loves a multiverse. This hypothetical collection of all universes — of the known Everything and its rules — provides an artistic opportunity to showcase different perspectives, styles, and modes of storytelling in a unified space. But what does an artist do when they still find themselves on the outside looking in, when The Everything starts to paint borders around its universe collection? What if their space...doesn’t exist?
Many of Meow Wolf’s collaborating artists are visual artists by training or practice. They paint. They draw. They sculpt. They fabricate. Oren and Skeena, on the other hand, were not experienced fabricators when they pitched their idea for a Meow Wolf installation space. They are musicians, DJs, rappers, poets. And their pitch? A seven-page narrative on a Google doc.
It worked. What the pair lacked in fabrication experience they made up for with a fully-realized world built through a lifetime of storytelling and creative performance.
“Essentially, we have brought to life a moment, if you will, of our narrative inside that space,” Skeena explains. “That's how it began, as a story.”
The finished space is called “How to Survive in the Multiverse,” and it depicts a moment frozen in time: Denver, circa 1992. The protagonist is a daughter returning home to investigate the mysterious disappearances of her mother and father, and the story is told in segments representing an alleyway of Denver’s popular Colfax Ave., a phone booth, and a subterranean laboratory. There are shady sleep studies, conspiracy theories, and for fans of Meow Wolf: portals and multiversal travel.
“We kind of imagined it like a comic book where you could stand in and look at things and read things and hear where you are and get a sense of an environment,” Skeena says.
“We wanted it to be hyper-realistic,” Oren adds. “The hope is that what's on the walls is as compelling as how we feel about the story, and that it really drives people to try and figure out what happened to these characters.”
In addition to providing the experience of living inside a sci-fi mystery story, it was important to both artists that Denver itself was well-represented in “HTSITM”. Oren was born and raised in Denver, specifically the Montbello neighborhood, and took a circuitous path through the military, Florida, and California before coming back home for this project with Meow Wolf. He met Skeena — herself hailing from Northern British Columbia before docking in Denver at 18 — when both worked at the (now closed) Meadowlark Kitchen. However, with Oren bouncing between music projects as an MC and Skeena working as a DJ, the two friends would often find themselves running in the same social circles.
“That's the part that's really special to both of us,” Skeena notes. “Having it be Denver-specific with these little points for people who know and love Denver — and have been in the city a long time — to kind of see it grow and change and evolve into what it is now. There are little nods and winks to historic Denver all over the place.”
When it comes to storytelling, many writers will tell you that starting from scratch — with an endless multiverse of possibilities — is often the most difficult hurdle to overcome. You need a north star, something familiar to orient your direction. For Oren, this has meant revisiting a difficult childhood marked by tragedy, the absence of both parents by age 13, and the teenage misadventures that this particular mix of ingredients often engenders.
“The theme of orphanage is kind of a tie throughout most of the things that I've written,” Oren says. “I found myself constantly writing myself into my stories. I think it was a continuation of an attempt to heal, or maybe find a cathartic moment. And then I kind of got old and I got some real help. Then I was able to sort of see where stories can flourish and become something. My experience definitely plays a lot into why I write the things that I write, but I'm swiftly trying to graduate from that and just pile into the world of new ideas.”
The way Oren speaks about his path feels like a man describing the creation of his own identity. What other option is there, really, when a child’s universe is continually thrown into upheaval? This theme clearly reverberates around our collective world in 2021, an era in which a pandemic has left so many of us grasping for stability. For many performing artists, including DJs like Skeena, it’s like drawing a self-portrait every day without a frame of reference, only to wake up tomorrow to find your progress painted over.
“My world, that world, is very different now,” Skeena says. “So last year was a total reset for me, completely reconfiguring not just my life on the outside, but making me question: ‘Where is my head at? How am I identifying myself? Am I putting too much of my identity into what I do?’ Because all of a sudden the slate is wiped and you're like, ‘Oh. My job doesn't exist anymore. I'm kind of... not irrelevant...but it's crickets out here.’”
Imagine waking up tomorrow to discover that you’re living in a vast, unremarkable forest, like someone copied the same tree over and over, but there’s no one in sight. No food. No water. Now imagine discovering that if you move your body a certain way, you can create whatever you need out of thin air, right where you stand, but each time you need something new the movement has to change and the return gets smaller. Then more people start to appear, and you discover that you can mimic their movements for more food, more water, and they can mimic yours for the same effect. However...every once in a while you stumble upon a movement that no one has attempted — in the entire forest — and with that movement a door to a new world opens...
Perhaps this is the life of an artist in 2021.
When Oren and Skeena think about their futures beyond “How to Survive in the Multiverse”, both artists show great enthusiasm and inspiration, as well as a healthy skepticism that a similar opportunity will just emerge out of nowhere. They celebrate the introduction of a new kind of experience to Denver, but they also realize how quickly the world can change.
“I think it will be something where we have to create our own space,” Oren muses. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime. You know what I mean? And we don't take that lightly.”
“It's a whole world that you step into, a whole moment, a whole experience that's provided,” Skeena adds. “It's really got me thinking. This whole process has really got me thinking in a different way, like: ‘Yeah. Let's do more. Let's create a world for people. Not just music, not just something cool to look at, but all of the elements together, working to tell the story in real time, in real life.’”
At least next time they won’t be starting from scratch.