A user walks through "Carne y Arena," Alejandro G. Inarritu's groundbreaking virtual-reality experience of crossing the border. (WASHINGTON POST /EMMANUEL LUBEZKI)
It takes only six minutes of immigration-themed experience Carne y Arena to be persuaded of the form’s potential.
WASHINGTON—When it is over, you are cold and alone, wondering who those people were, why they were treated so brutally and what can be done to make the world right.
Until it closes sometime late this summer, the hottest ticket in Washington, D.C. is likely to be for Carne y Arena, a virtual-reality experience created by the Academy Award-winning director Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman, The Revenant). Installed in a converted church, Carne y Arena uses architecture and virtual reality to immerse participants in a terrifying and topical vignette of modern life, the experience of fleeing violence, crossing borders and confronting the full fury of state power.
After interviewing refugees from Mexico and Central America, Inarritu has distilled their experience into a six-minute virtual-reality drama that places the spectator directly in the moment when exhausted and brutalized migrants are captured by American border agents, guns drawn, dogs barking and helicopters thundering overhead. It is a shattering experience.
Carne y Arena, which roughly translates as Flesh and Sand, premiered last year at Cannes as the festival’s first virtual-reality Official Selection, and has been seen in Mexico City, Milan and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It arrives in Washington as President Donald Trump’s border wall and the new, ardent nationalism of his supporters threaten to erase this country’s self-image as a haven for the oppressed. But Inarritu, who includes in his woven stories the perspective of a U.S. Border Patrol agent haunted by his encounters with dehydrated and dying migrants, says his goal is to transcend political debate: “Once we intellectualize it and politics gets into it, everything is reduced and everything goes to vulgarity,” he said in an interview.
“I try to keep myself away from judgment and not take sides,” said the director, whose credits include Babel, Birdman and The Revenant.
The experience begins with a brief introduction to the work before you enter a deliberately cold, sterile, cement-floored room with crude metal benches and two lockers for shoes, socks, bags and backpacks. This room mimics the holding cells for detained migrants, who speak of inhumanely cold temperatures and lack of privacy. The virtual-reality component, experienced in bare feet on sand, includes goggles, headphones and a backpack, and lets the visitor move freely through an illusionistic space that gives an uncanny sense of being alone in a vast and breathtaking Southwestern U.S. desert.
The medium of virtual reality is developing at an extraordinary pace. Inarritu says, “I don’t think the technology is yet there and there is still a lot to really get better.” But it was sufficiently developed that he felt he could use it now, even if that meant mustering all his directorial savvy to “hide all the limitations of the medium.” The experience he produced breaks free from traditional Hollywood narrative, dispensing with back story and character development to focus on what would be, in a traditional film, the climax of the story.
Inarritu’s work offers one answer to a powerful question raised by another virtual-reality experience at last year’s Whitney Biennial. Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence focused all the power of the technology on a single, brutal scene of violence, in which a young man is beaten and stomped bloody and senseless, on a beautiful, sunny day in New York. It seemed to ask: Which way will this medium drive us, toward voyeurism or empathy? Inarritu’s Carne y Arenaanswers: If used right, empathy is possible.
But what to do with that empathy? Americans have a tendency to think of immigration as a quintessentially American problem, when it is in fact a global issue and one of the defining issues of our age. Neither the United States nor the European Union quite comprehend the corrosive power of militarizing the border against refugees, and how the dehumanizing effects of encounters such as the one depicted in Carne y Arena may destroy the very ideals we believe we’re protecting.
So in Inarritu’s work, the invitation to think beyond borders has both a political and esthetic dimension. We see a nascent technology of fully immersive illusionism, which shatters the traditional frame of the camera, used to depict an episode of terror that should shatter any illusion we have that walls, guns, dogs or armed men brutalizing defenceless people are going to solve the global problem of migration.
“This technology can be used very badly, scarily badly,” Inarritu says. Until the technology is affordable, the development of this medium will probably fall to corporate actors and those who can attract substantial institutional support, which means it may not be a genuinely democratic art form for years to come. And the potential for political manipulation is indeed terrifying.
But this effort, which may in five years be regarded as being as primitive as the old flickering fantasies of the Lumière brothers, shows the potential of the medium’s capacity for utopian epiphanies.