What’s With all the Multiverse Stories? An Introduction to New Surrealism
“Welcome to Soup!” A staff member greeted me as I walked onto the elevator at Meow Wolf in Denver, Colorado. A sign welcomed me to the Quantum Department of Transportation. The same staff member said the elevator transported people to a “convergence,” where four realities collided.
The elevator doors rolled open…
Meow Wolf is an “immersive and interactive” art museum, whatever that means. I expected to see art. Galleries. Exhibits. Maybe some hands-on activities. What I saw was… Well, “soup” came to mind. I couldn’t think of a better analogy for the chaotic mixture of color, image, and sound. I’d say it was everything but the kitchen sink, except they actually threw in the sink.
I stepped off the elevator and found myself in a cyberpunk streetscape. I walked past a movie theater staffed by a robot, a noodle bar straight out of an anime, and a sign warning me of “memory storms.” A truck lay in two pieces in front of me. I walked between them and found the door to a storage room for lost memories. Through another door and into a diorama of animatronic farm animals. Cows lowed and grazed all around me. A mechanical gopher popped up a foot from my face, and I screamed.
Welcome to Soup. And welcome to New Surrealism.
What is surrealism?
In 1936, French artist Meret Oppenheim unveiled her “Object” — a teacup and saucer covered in sable fur. A woman fainted from shock at the sight of it. How could such a revolting thing be called art? The fuzzy teacup still fascinates ninety years later, a famous work of surrealist art.
Surrealism refers to an early twentieth-century artistic movement. Inspired by the works of Sigmund Freud and other psychoanalysts, artists, writers, and intellectuals wanted to tap into the power of the subconscious. Surrealist art is strange, dreamlike, and impossible. Our rational brains struggle to make sense of Oppenheim’s teacup or Salvador Dali’s lobster phone. Even the biggest, filthiest factories could never produce such things. Industry could not hold a candle to Wonderland. These were images from our dreams.
Over the last few years, surrealism slowly floated back up to the surface of our collective consciousness. We see surrealism in Meow Wolf’s fever dreams and our summer blockbusters. Movies like Everything, Everywhere, All At Once and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness explore the self in a limitless universe.
What is “new” about New Surrealism? What makes it different from what came before? The original surrealism stood at the crossroads of art and dreams. New Surrealism adds a new dimension: science.
As we’ll see, technology and theoretical physics appear over and over in New Surrealist works. 20th-century surrealism explored the world within. 21st-century surrealism explores the universe within and without. Dreams and consciousness still matter, but so do distant stars and alternate dimensions.
How we got here
A moment in art is a moment in time. It has a past and a future; it didn’t spring from nowhere.
New Surrealism grew out of postmodernism and the grimdark popcorn movies of the last two decades. Postmodernism rejects the notion of universal truth and objective meaning. Everything is relative, language shapes reality (not the other way around), and rationality is a lie we tell ourselves. Grimdark is a watered-down, “darker and edgier” version of this stance.
“A great deal of postmodernist theory depends on the maintenance of a sceptical attitude…”
- Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction
Bleak and meaningless stories arise from this philosophy. The Walking Dead showed us our lives were fleeting and our humanity fragile, while The Witcher taught us there are no heroes. There’s no point, and that’s the point. Literary novels like Topics of Conversation feature irredeemable, “realistic” characters, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People ends with nothing resolved because that’s just how life is.
These stories hold no hope, no heroes, no higher ideals. Just dreary life in a cynical world, ruled by a dead God. Everything is relative, and no one’s experience is the same. Characters traverse the shifting moral landscape and struggle to do the right thing.
Stories like these can be beautiful, moving, and relatable, but they’re also depressing. “Is this all life is?” you might ask along with your favorite anti-hero. “Yes,” the story replies.
Despair wasn’t limited to the art world. Scientists learned more about the universe and how it extends into limitless complexity. And each new discovery made us smaller and less significant in the grand scheme of things. Once again, we didn’t matter.
- Joy, Everything, Everywhere, All At Once
But we humans are optimistic. We crave meaning. Postmodernism’s messages couldn’t satisfy us for long. We are finally starting to push back against this philosophy and look for other answers.
There’s no universal truth. Fine. What about universe-spanning truth? Subjective truth? Your truth isn’t my truth, but that means we both have a truth. Maybe we really are alone in this reality, but what about other realities? Maybe one dimension over, another you thinks and feels the same way you do. None of us needs to be alone.
New Surrealism accepts the tenets of postmodernism without despair. Instead, it encourages us to open up to deeper truths and new possibilities.
As I wandered around Meow Wolf’s Convergence Station, trying to get my bearings, I noticed candy-colored tablets tucked between rows of flashing lights and paper-mache masks. I scanned a card I’d picked up at the welcome desk, and a message appeared on the screen: “You found a mem!”
That made as much sense as anything else, but it seemed important. So I scanned every tablet I found. Eventually, I triggered a trippy animation of a bus driver’s route unraveling around her — a “memory” of the convergence. A video message popped up on the screen, from a mysterious woman with an amazing afro. She encouraged me to look for more memories and to “hurry!”
I wandered through the dreamscape, collecting mems for hours. Slowly, the museum’s story came together. When four dimensions collided, the people closest to the convergence point got erased. These “forgotten four” disappeared from any and all reality — or did they?
My mysterious messenger finally confessed: she was the forgotten four! When their worlds collided, those missing souls merged to create her. She was all of them and none of them. Something bigger. New.
Not everyone can visit Meow Wolf, but most of us mask up for nights at the movies. Some of the year’s most popular films are mind-bending, to say the least.
Everything, Everywhere, All At Once is a two-and-a-half-hour sensory overload. Laundromat-owner Evelyn wants to file her taxes and connect with her teenage daughter, Joy, when she gets sucked into multi-dimensional mayhem. With help from an alternate version of her husband and a universe-scanning headset, Evelyn taps into the experiences of her other selves so she can save the universes from someone who wants to destroy them. (The villain’s evil scheme involves sucking everything into an “everything bagel” of doom, the best analogy for grimdark I’ve ever seen.)
I wish I could say, “Just watch it and it’ll make sense,” but that’s about as straightforward as it gets. The bright colors and fast cuts assault the senses as the film flashes from one universe to another. Evelyn and Joy are pinatas in one timeline. In another, they’re rocks with googly eyes. I didn’t see a universe where they called each other on lobster phones, but it wouldn’t have been out of place.
Multiverse of Madness is weirdly similar (except for being a completely different genre, of course). Dr. Strange meets America, a girl hunted across space and time for her unique ability to travel between universes. Strange vows to defend her and her abilities from a powerful witch who uses a soul-devouring spellbook, the Darkhold, to stalk America from afar.
Strange and America smash through one bizarre dimension after another. In one universe, they’re blobs of paint. In another, reality itself has collapsed. No goofy, googly-eyed rocks here. Much of the imagery is downright nightmarish: zombies, eyes bursting out of foreheads, a man whose mouth gets erased — you know, stuff you’d expect from a Marvel movie!
But it gets weirder. Strange encounters versions of himself in each universe (some Stranger than others). Regardless of their differences, they ultimately make the same choice: to use the Darkhold’s corrupting magic. Despite dire warnings across the multiverse, all the Stranges believe they (and they alone) must use the Darkhold to stop the witch. Strange’s arrogance and heroism intertwine, selfishness with sacrifice. He chooses the Darkhold and pays the price. Over and over again.
The similarities between Meow Wolf, Multiverse of Madness, and Everything, Everywhere start out obvious. All three stories explore the multiverse. Anything you can imagine is fair game, for better or worse. Anything can happen in such an expansive view of the universe. This is postmodernism at its best: once you let go of the need for a single Truth, infinite possibilities emerge.
Art, science, and art about science
Art plays a crucial role in the modern world: translating scientific discoveries into a meaningful, human experience. What does it mean to live in an expanding universe? How should we feel about these emerging possibilities? Meow Wolf, Multiverse of Madness, and Everything, Everywhere blend art and science to give us answers.
“Science owns the warrant to explore everything deemed factual and possible, but the humanities, borne aloft by both fact and fantasy, have the power of everything not only possible but also conceivable.”
- Edward O. Wilson, The Origins of Creativity
Science plays a role in all three stories. Theoretical physics is a common theme. The multiverse model is controversial among physicists, but the more we know about reality on the quantum level, the less concrete and certain reality feels. It’s no coincidence that Meow Wolf’s convergence happens along a Quantum Department of Transportation route.
Dr. Strange may be a wizard, but even his mystical hand-waving might be rooted in science, not magic. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Marvel’s magician is also a neurosurgeon. Dr. Strange’s character is all about the mind.
Physics and neuroscience aren’t the only STEM disciplines represented here. Technology matters too. Weird machines crammed Meow Wolf’s galleries, including cyberpunk rat rock-em-sock-em robots and a two-story purple mech that could control the stars. Superhero and alien tech clutter the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man is basically a sci-fi protagonist set in our own time.
In Everything, Everywhere All At Once, a futuristic headset allows Evelyn to connect to her alternate selves. In other words, she plugs into the multiverse with the help of a cool gadget. When you think about our growing interest in AR, VR, and even the Metaverse (though “interest” might be too generous for that last one), this doesn’t seem so crazy. When you don a fancy, clicky headset, what else might be possible?
Technology and science go hand-in-hand for a reason. Technology often demonstrates what we understand and our means to understand it. Just look at the possibilities the new James Webb telescope reveals!
Science and technology are important parts of this artistic movement. New Surrealist works blend STEM with storytelling to transform facts into fiction we can all understand. These stories don’t just tell us that we live in a quantum universe; they tell us how to fee l about it.
The search for self
So how do we feel about it? Let’s move from the objective to the subjective, from the quantitative to the qualitative, from science to dreams.
There’s something Jungian about these stories. Characters meet alternate versions of themselves, with different lives and personalities. It reminds me of Jung’s archetypes.
“The contents of the collective unconscious are called archetypes.”
- Calvin S. Hall and Vernon J. Nordby, A Primer of Jungian Psychology
Archetypes are different parts of our consciousness — different selves, so to speak. They can be positive or negative, healthy or harmful. Jung describes an “integration” process, whereby lost or wounded selves are discovered and brought back into the whole. This heals a broken psyche; it makes a person complete.
“The first step toward integration is… individuation of all aspects of personality. The second stage is controlled by what Jung calls the transcendent function. This function is endowed with the capability of uniting all opposing trends in personality and of working toward the goal of wholeness.”
- Calvin S. Hall and Vernon J. Nordby, A Primer of Jungian Psychology
Evelyn and Stephen Strange both meet radically different selves. Evelyn meets martial artist-selves, movie star-selves, and even a sex worker-self. Dr. Strange meets a sinister version of himself, filled with horrifying self-hatred. The audience also sees another version of Strange, a protective type with ponytail.
Meow Wolf’s Forgotten Four live on as aspects of one woman, even though they couldn’t be more different. They include a librarian, a priestess, a bus driver, and a scientist, some human, and some aliens.
Characters learn, grow, and heal from interacting with these archetypal figures. Evelyn learns that in every universe, “even a stupid universe where we have hot dogs for hands,” she is always Joy’s mom. She is a mother, Joy is a daughter, and these identities transcend the craziness.
Stephen Strange also sees what all the versions of himself have in common. Some aspect of his identity is immutable, the part that makes Strange, well, Strange. Like Evelyn, he finds clarity and purpose in this transcendent view of himself. He suddenly knows who he is, good and bad, and what he must do.
Transcendence is an important theme at Meow Wolf too. The Forgotten Four come together to create a new being, a woman who is greater than the sum of her parts. Her story gives meaning to the meaningless jumble of color and sound I explored. Memory is important too. What’s forgotten still matters, even if you can no longer say why. (Watch out for those memory storms!)
These are all stories of integration. Characters understand, remember, and accept the lost, forgotten, and unknown parts of themselves.
This transcendent understanding of Self seems almost spiritual. Instead of postmodernism’s pointless, godless universe, characters in these stories find meaning in the madness. They discover the truth of who they are, an immortal, ineffable quality — almost like a soul.
We’ll never forget you!
Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, Multiverse of Madness, and Meow Wolf aren’t the only examples of New Surrealism (think about the last couple of Spiderman movies you’ve seen). New Surrealism is an emerging movement that blends art and science to discover a new kind of truth. The universe is vaster than we ever imagined. Now, what does that mean? And if we can be anything, then who are we really?
Maybe Truth isn’t dead, just way bigger and more personal than we thought.
I wandered Meow Wolf for three more hours until my brain was completely scrambled. “What is life without consciousness?” A recorded voice echoed through one gallery. Crystal columns lined another, plants and fish and bones frozen within. A sign read “Ossuary”: memories were buried here, within the crystal graveyard. Nothing would be forgotten. Monitors displayed footage of me exploring galleries I’d visited minutes or hours earlier.
I finally left without finishing the story. Not knowing how it ended bothered me (and still does). Everything I’d seen felt absurd and meaningless, yet so meaningful. I felt like I mattered. I had the eerie, impossible feeling that I’d left an impression on the place, just as it had on me.
“Goodbye, we’ll never forget you!” displayed on a screen as I passed. Maybe my image was still flickering on one of those monitors somewhere. Then I walked out the door. Back to a reality that seemed bigger than before.
Originally published at http://annadallara.wordpress.com on August 6, 2022.