Art

A Border Crossing Simulation Probes Virtual Reality’s Ethical Limitations

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s immersive triptych at LACMA offers visitors the opportunity to experience the treacherous journey across the border between the US and Mexico.

From Carne y Arena installation, design by Neil Kellerhouse (all images courtesy of LACMA)

LOS ANGELES — Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s virtual-reality gesamtkunstwerk, Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible), is an ultra-immersive triptych that aims to give visitors the opportunity to briefly experience the treacherous journey of crossing the Mexico–United States border. Undoubtedly a timely topic, given the president’s campaign to criminalize immigrants and build that wall, Iñárritu’s work explores the human conditions of the tens of thousands of Latin American refugees and immigrants who come to the U.S. each year in search of a better life. The experience is a visceral roller-coaster that blends installation, cinema, and technology into a super-sensorial work. Carne y Arena, which translates to “flesh and sand,” premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, then traveled to the Prada Foundation in Milan, and is now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It will travel to Tlatelolco museum in Mexico City later this fall.

Carne y Arena aims to allow visitors to put themselves in the shoes of a person crossing the border through sight, sound, touch, and virtual reality, leading to an overtly visceral experience. Not only does the film tackle the limits of technology, but, more significantly, it probes the boundaries of VR as an empathy machine and aims to humanize immigrants and refugees who are so often wrongly described as criminals. In collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu spent more than four years working with Mexican and Central American refugees who were willing to share their stories and experiences to create a work that Iñárritu describes as “a semi-fictionalized ethnography” adapted from their journeys.

At LACMA, once you’ve procured your specially timed ticket and signed a release waiver, you enter a room modeled after the holding cells, often called las hieleras, or “freezers,” where migrants are detained when crossing the border. As the work can only be experienced individually, you’ll find yourself alone in a cold room populated with a few metal benches and strewn with shoes, backpacks, and abandoned belongings that the wall texts explains have all been found in the deserts of Arizona near the border. You are instructed to take off your shoes, place your belongings in a locker, and wait for the alarm to sound, signaling your time to enter the next room, where you will experience the VR sequence. It’s impossible not to feel a sense of vulnerability and anxiety after leaving your belongings and waiting barefoot in the freezer, even though you are knowingly in the safe space of the museum.

The next room is dark, with the ground made up of sand and dirt to simulate the desert, and a large industrial fan whooshing overhead to reproduce the sound and feeling of desert winds and the imminent Border Patrol helicopter. Museum staff are present to help you put on the Oculus Rift VR goggles and headset and assure you that the sequence can be stopped at any time, though I was told that few people stopped it. The VR sequence follows a group of migrants walking through Arizona’s Sonoran Desert who are caught by Border Patrol. Visitors all have different reactions to the work: some cry, others back away from the figures, still others —who may be more accustomed to VR — are more adventurous. Nevertheless, the eerie desert, distraught faces, and aggressive Border Patrol induce a quickened heart rate and sense of unease as you anticipate what will unravel before you.

A user experiencing the Carne y Arena installation (photo by Emmanuel Lubezki)

Soon, figures appear, and the unsettling sensation of being able to see the migrants but not be seen sets in. Instinctively you will want to get out of their way, until you realize they do not react to your presence. This sensation is further heightened when the Border Patrol arrive and you are implicated in the scene, despite being merely a bystander. As if you have on an invisibility cloak, all you can do is watch the nightmare that transpires for the next six and a half minutes as the Border Patrol seize the people around, eventually leaving you all alone in the desert among their abandoned belongings.

After the VR sequence, you exit into a narrow hall of individual monitors, each of which introduces you to one of the individuals Iñárritu worked with. These immigrants and refugees make direct eye contact with the viewer while describing their personal border crossing stories — parts of which you may have just experienced.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu directing a baker from El Salvador named Yoni, who is dressed in a motion-capture suit and recreating a harrowing moment on his journey (photo by Chachi Ramirez)

Carne y Arena raises many questions about the ethics of viewing a virtual-reality work that tackles timely political subjects. Having been installed at such high-culture venues where visitors pay $25 to enter, it is questionable whether the work will be able to reach an audience that is not already sympathetic to migrants’ experiences and rights. And if not, then what does the work provide to the viewer beyond cruising others’ emotional turmoil? Iñárritu does undeniably do justice to the harrowing experiences of the refugees he worked with, and he humanizes the refugee experience, which is so often dehumanized. But for someone who is removed from the genuine experience of having to cross the border, the experience is voyeuristic. Watching the emotional trauma unfolding and being implicated in a scene one has no power over is questionable. Is VR technology the appropriate medium to share such an intense and personal reality?

Iñárritu places viewers in the role of observer, so the question becomes: What are we meant to take away from observing a work in the “real space” of the 3-D computer environment? The director describes his intentions as wanting to “break the dictatorship of the frame” in order to “explore the human condition,” allowing visitors “a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet.” Though the experience does seem real, as you feel the dirt beneath your feet and the desert winds blowing, it becomes obvious that the figures are digitized when you approach them and delve further into the uncanny valley. In any case, no matter how real it feels, because you can’t actually do anything, you are constantly reminded that you’re watching a simulation of a traumatic event but are not a participant in it.

This ethical dilemma of the VR — the sense of alienation that is elemental to the medium — can lead to sensationalism or spectacle, but in Carne y Arena, this is supplemented by the face-to-face monitors of the participants who bravely recount their personal histories at the end of the installation. Ultimately, Iñárritu has created a work that tests the boundaries of what VR can do as a political art form during a time in which political action of all kinds are so crucial.

Carne y Arena is now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California).

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