Price Check on Aisle Multiverse: A Fresh Look at the Creation of Omega Mart
May 27th, 2021 - In February, Las Vegas got just a little bit weirder (in the best possible way) with the long-awaited arrival of Omega Mart, the 25,000 square foot celebration of surrealist art that serves as the latest entry into the burgeoning universe of Meow Wolf.
Regarded as one of the “anchor experiences” of the recently opened AREA15, an immersive entertainment and events complex near the Vegas strip, Omega Mart appears as an unassuming, albeit odd, grocery store, its shelves full of offbeat, satirical, and even otherworldly products (many of which are actually available to purchase). But, true to form, the market’s aisles disguise a host of hidden portals just waiting to be discovered, transporting guests to surreal dimensions full of psychedelic interactive art to explore.
Mike Ostendorf, Co-Founder and CEO at AOA, has been hands-on with the project since the beginning. “We’ve been working with Meow Wolf for just over two years to assist them in delivering their Las Vegas venue,” says Mike. “AOA is proud to have partnered with Meow Wolf from concept to completion on this project, along with some other new projects they have in the works.” He especially commends the bravery and dedication of Meow Wolf’s leadership, including Co-CEOs Ali Rubinstein, Carl Christensen, and Jim Ward, in developing and executing a project of this visionary scope and scale, given the challenges of the past year.
In order to realize such an extraordinary and unusual vision, the team at AOA stepped in to provide support in project management, design, and installation. Art Zargaryan, Project Director, points to one defining moment early on in the process which he called the “summit walk.” All involved walked together through the mostly empty space and agreed that a commitment to teamwork was the only path forward. From there, everyone bought in on this idea of real-time collaboration, removing the silos often found in a typical project process. Art described this day as a “momentum shift” on the project. “Building a working relationship based on trust allowed us to share a common language of collaboration. From there, we were able to find the balance of upholding creative intent while staying within the rails of a business model, and ultimately we didn’t have to make many concessions.”
David Kucinski, Senior Production Designer, lauded the team atmosphere that sustained throughout the project. As he supervised the installation, he noted that “everyone wanted to see it come together. Every electrician, carpenter, and carver were among the best tradesmen I’ve ever worked with. No one ever said ‘no, we can’t, no way.’” He attributes that dedication as a big part of why the project was able to finish and open on-time. Production Designer Alexandra Campbell especially noted the crucial role the team played in bridging the gap between the general contractors and the artists and creative minds at Meow Wolf. “Understanding the end goal in the minds of the artists was just as important as knowing how to actually build it,” explains Alexandra.
That understanding began with visualizing the creative intent of the artists in 3D. Rachel Blake, Show Set Design Lead, worked with AOA’s show set team to develop creative designs from nascent ideas to detailed set drawings, incorporating not only the multi-dimensional art exhibits but also the technical components. During the planning process, designs from the Meow Wolf artists for the exhibits ranged from loose ideas sketched on napkins to super-detailed drawings. “The Meow Wolf artists have some insane ideas, so it’s fun to help them try to figure out how to bring them to life,” reflects Rachel. “We are helping Meow Wolf design and build something that’s never been done before. It’s by far the most unique thing I’ve worked on.” Rachel recalls that, while looking at the various scope lists, she would often see the strange names of the exhibits and bemusedly wonder, “what have I gotten myself into?”
“Happy Greebles", led by artist Olivia Brown, is just one of those oddly named exhibits, and one the project management team considers a favorite. Another favorite among the crew was “Pulse", a spectacle of illuminated painted glass panels by Claudia Bueno. Senior Superintendent Steve DeMichele said he was often entranced by the way the light shines through the glass panels, making the designs seem to move and come to life. As part of his work on Omega Mart Las Vegas, Steve oversaw the installation of infrastructure like electrical, lighting, and sound components that service the myriad of tech-heavy installations throughout the project. Miles of speaker and AV cable run throughout the walls of the experience like a nervous system, connecting all of the exhibits back to a huge data room that runs the entire experience. Steve notes, however, that the people involved are the ones who truly bring the exhibits to life. “I really liked working directly with the artists and developing relationships with them,” says Steve, “because you get a close, personal perspective of the nature of these exhibits and how these artists work.”
David Kucinski shares another personal favorite story of one of the exhibits, Juke Temple by Carey Thompson and Brian Pinkham. In this installation, guests encounter a room filled with almost extraterrestrial mechanical shapes, each made up of multiple layers of materials and LED lights. As the lights cycle through patterns and colors, the room is activated with a mesmerizing display. Because of travel restrictions due to COVID, Carey was unable to travel to the site from his home in Costa Rica. Instead, a controllable webcam was set up in the room so that Carey could work with Brian, David, and the rest of the install team as they collaborated on the complex installation and programming of the exhibit. The team proceeded in this way for eight to ten hours a day for six days to ensure its completion, a testament to the incredible commitment of everyone involved. Over 50 artists contributed to over 60 distinctly devised environments, meaning that managing and facilitating the work of all those collaborating creatives was no small task.
Adam Lentz, Associate Project Manager, was one of many AOA team members who relocated to Las Vegas to wrap up the project. “Meow Wolf pushes the creative limits to produce an experience unlike any other,” says Adam. “Being a part of the team that brought those ideas to life was special.” As a design firm with creativity at its core, the AOA team delighted in the opportunity to flex their creative muscles alongside the artists. Adam welcomed the challenge of creating such unique and unusual installations, noting that, “the artists of Meow Wolf have a way of approaching things that was unlike anything I’d ever seen. While that provides the opportunity to create things that have never been done before, it is also quite challenging from a construction standpoint. I think AOA learned a lot from these artists and, on that same token, the artists learned some things from AOA as well.”
In a year so defined by the challenges of the pandemic, the team in Las Vegas worked through obstacles and came up with creative solutions to keep the project on track. “We had to come together as a team and find the best way to keep pushing the job forward to meet our production schedules,” says Steve DeMichele. “We worked a lot of extra hours to make up for any hold-up on materials or manpower.” To ensure safe working conditions at the job site, AOA and Meow Wolf observed strict operational protocols. These included standard measures like temperature checks and social distancing. The team also managed a bit of creative scheduling, sometimes bringing in contractors during the day and having the artists come in to work in the evening. This cut down on crowding at the site while still keeping the project moving.
The successful completion and opening of any project is a time for celebration and reflection, but Omega Mart Las Vegas seems to stand out for a lot of the team. “This place is so hard to describe. When you’re in it, you can feel the labor of love,” reminisces Alexandra Campbell. The team agrees that when they step back and finally get to see people enjoy the project they worked so hard on, it makes the whole process worth it.
Fans of Meow Wolf have come to expect the unexpected, and Omega Mart Las Vegas certainly doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Founded in 2008 as an art collective based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Meow Wolf gained national attention in 2016 with their first permanent location, the Themed Entertainment Association Award (Thea) winning House of Eternal Return. This installation (housed in a former bowling alley and funded in part by George R.R. Martin!) features a mysterious storyline about a disappearing family and the surreal, interdimensional exploration for which Meow Wolf has become known. Other major Meow Wolf installations include Kaleidoscape, a dark ride at Elitch Gardens in Denver, and another upcoming permanent installation (with which AOA is involved), also in Denver, Colorado.
The origins of Omega Mart date back to more humble beginnings in 2012, when Meow Wolf, with the help of students from the local Santa Fe area, created the first version of the bizarre market, deceptively situated in an actual strip mall.
Meow Wolf continues to engage with students in its hometown of Santa Fe, providing mentorship programs that afford opportunities and resources for arts education to kids of all ages. Sharing a core value of social responsibility, AOA applauds Meow Wolf’s continuing efforts to prioritize community engagement and support local artists and non-profits in every city they call home.
“As AOA continues to build new experiences with Meow Wolf and expand this imaginative brand into the future, we also look forward to continuing to build our great working relationship,” affirms Mike Ostendorf.
Much of AOA’s Omega Mart team has shifted to continue work on Meow Wolf’s upcoming project in Denver. This installation, which promises to be the largest yet, is slated to open later this year. Stay tuned for more information and updates on Meow Wolf Denver!
Those mentioned in this piece represent just a small portion of the amazing team that helped realize Omega Mart. Special acknowledgments go out to Director of Themed Entertainment Oksana Wall, Principal Design Architect Dave Acomb, Senior Project Manager Heather Witt, Senior Project Manager Daniel Sandefur, Senior Project Manager Mike Smarrito, Senior Superintendent AJ Campbell, Superintendent Joe Meoak, Senior Project Controller Erin Woodman, Show Set Designer Laura Camp, and Project Coordinator Jake Larsen for their contributions, along with the many others who contributed to this exceptional experience.