This place has everything: tattooed chicken, new car flavored seltzer, vegan goat pus, glitchy milk, romantic dinner-in-a-can rose beef. Runoff from toxic waste, a resistance movement, Additive S extractors, a preserved alien corpse. Root beer flavored vape juice flavored root beer.
At first glance, Omega Mart is a regular supermarket. I assumed it was when I walked by despite the long line of people waiting to enter. The bright fluorescent lights, primary colored sale advertisements, and customers examining unassuming boxes seemed banal, but the $45 admission cost insisted that something was happening beyond the inconspicuous façade. Google listed the place as a grocery store, but when I kept scrolling, I found words seldom, if ever, associated with grocery stores: astonishing, mind-bending, immersive, creepy. I paid the $45 and walked inside.
Omega Mart, the interactive art experience located within Las Vegas’s AREA15 entertainment complex, covers 52,000 square feet and contains over sixty rooms. The storyline isn’t immediately clear; the causes and effects branch out infinitely, and the only way to get the gist is to absorb the pieces of information—videos, computer files, notebooks, brochures, holograms—that build into something like a narrative throughout the experience.
Meow Wolf, the art collective-turned-arts-and-entertainment-company that created Omega Mart, now employs over 200 people full-time and collaborates with local and international artists on their projects. Meow Wolf’s first permanent installation, House of Eternal Return, was brought to fruition after they convinced Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin to buy a defunct bowling alley for them to create the immersive exhibition in Santa Fe.
My first impulse when I stepped into Omega Mart was to read every container, sticker, and sign—products often looked like those found on any supermarket shelf, but upon further inspection, the labels revealed strange or impossible creations, many that seemed to comment on consumerism. A small plastic leg labeled “Leg Just Leg” and laundry detergent promising to “keep lies white” went for $19.99 each. An antiperspirant that doubled as an antidepressant was priced at $9.99, and L’Omega sparkling water was offered in the flavors Dispassionfruit, Pine-Apple, New Car, and Colby Jazz.
I passed through the first portal that led out of the market and into another world by walking through a refrigerator. I thought the secret rooms would be scattered throughout the store, but one portal led into another room which led to another portal, and on and on. It felt impossible that so much was contained behind the ordinary supermarket cover. The experience offered something for everyone: vibrant, trippy projections for the stoned kids with their open mouths who sat on fake rocks. The logic-inclined could solve puzzles at computer terminals scattered throughout to uncover the mystery involving Omega Mart’s nefarious parent company Dramcorp. Those there for the art could soak in the vast range of novel, weird pieces that comprise the show for hours, and unfortunately, the influencer-adjacent could exploit the extremely Instagrammable backgrounds for full-blown photoshoots.
I was excited and overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities—I wanted to enter every room, read every word, watch every video, and solve every mystery. I felt like I was missing something, only understanding a small fraction of the story, like I was participating in something bigger than myself. How many artifacts had I merely skimmed; how many had I not noticed at all? I felt like I didn’t have enough time and was making the wrong choices and missing something big. Someone could probably map the place out to keep track of each room, but I’d gone in cold. I kept getting jumbled, circling back and finding myself inside the same employee microbreak room or office or hut again and again. If I had more time, maybe I could see the entire picture. The thing about experiencing Omega Mart is that even if you attempt to be a passive observer, you’re still making a choice. Choice-making has been a particularly intense point of contention for me.
Like Sylvia Plath’s protagonist in The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, I see fat purple fig after fat purple fig dangling in front of me filled with promise; and beyond those lie figs I don’t see, figs I can’t fathom, figs improbable and figs possible. One fig says, “Keep the day job you hate,” another says, “Find a new one that you hate less.” A particularly brash fig says, “Ignore what everyone else says and rely on your art to support you.” Another: “Stick to the original plan and write and teach,” or “become an editor,” and on and on, ad infinitum.
And don’t get me started on the place figs. “New York!” “California!” “Paris!” “Austin!” “London!” “Santa Fe!” I may be able to choose more than one, but I can’t choose them all, and some will be sweeter than others. The longer I wait, the more figs wither and plop to the ground at my feet.
Even if I do nothing, I’m still making a choice.
What could be complicated about a grocery store or a piece of art? What could be complicated about choosing a career or a place to live? Do I boop my card to uncover the mystery of a disappeared teenager? Sit back and watch the psychedelic dragon swoop across a canvas of rock? Translate an alien language into English or read clever cultural commentary on the back of a fake box of laundry detergent? I don’t have time to do all of it. The exhibition shuts down at midnight.
As much as I want to focus solely on reading and writing beautiful sentences, living requires money, and unless you’re born or married into it, having money requires selling your labor. Choosing how to spend my life wouldn’t be such a conundrum, but capitalism is a reality, so the decision remains fraught. I spent a year writing for a career website on weekends and evenings while working a nine-to-five office job on weekdays. Simultaneously accumulating by-lines and financial security was a privilege, but I often felt unfulfilled and too drained to craft work that nurtured my soul. Even when writing for pleasure, the voice of marketability often creeps in, the line between creating art and producing content thinning.
That was in the back of my mind throughout my time experiencing Omega Mart. There’s the joke of it all: who would buy something as ridiculous as an empty container with the word “Confidence” printed on it? We—the participants—would, if only for the irony. Artists of all mediums should be compensated for their work, but how much does the need for money impact the art itself? When Meow Wolf began as a collective, a handful of the founding artists shared a cramped apartment so that they could invest as much of their money into their art as possible; they dumpster dove for many of their materials. The artists created an Omega Mart prototype inside of a warehouse in 2009, then revamped the project three years later as a collaboration with Santa Fe school kids that was staged inside of a strip mall. The AREA15 iteration is the third Omega Mart that Meow Wolf has created. Co-founder Benji Geary acknowledges the irony of a cultural commentary about consumerism that sells merchandise: “‘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!’”
Still, watching people snap selfies or have employees take their photos reminded me of how no matter what your intention for a piece is, once it leaves your hands it’s out of your control, and the pressure to be marketable can direct a project toward a path it wouldn’t organically follow. The experience would have been markedly different if they chose not to allow cameras—visitors could be present in the moment instead of documenting it, but the documentation brings in more people and leads to more revenue. I don’t think that Meow Wolf’s intention was to create another Instagram museum—Instagram didn’t even exist when the collective created the initial iteration—and there are certainly more complexities in the story than that, but I do wonder how the project would change if making objects to be promoted or purchased wasn’t a factor.
I would experience Omega Mart again, and I hope to experience House of Eternal Return. Despite its overwhelming nature, the exhibition lived up to its reviews: astonishing, mind-bending, immersive, creepy. When I exited through the gift shop (which was also the supermarket), I knew I hadn’t scratched the surface of all that was there, but I also felt inspired. If apples can have teeth and a scrappy group of artists can convince a novelist to buy them a bowling alley, the myth of the wrong door could be the real fantasy.