Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s virtual reality experience “Carne y Arena” was always going to be provocative.
Meaning “Flesh and Sand” in Spanish, everything from the piece’s subject matter — immigration — to its presentation intends to make viewers pause and reflect on the plight of thousands trying to flee violence and starvation. To create “Carne y Arena,” Iñárritu interviewed a number of immigrants who made the perilous journey across the border, condensing their experiences into one experiential exhibit.
Since its opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last June and in Washington, D.C., in March, the work has taken on new meaning and urgency in light of today’s headlines about lost children at the border and pop-up tent cities to house captured migrants. For some attendees, this might be the first time they were confronted with how frightening an experience it can be to leave their country for an unknown world. Now, it’s likely gotten more dangerous with recent events, risking your family’s well-being on both sides of the border.
On Saturday, I visited the exhibit in Los Angeles. I showed up before my designated time, waiting on a bench outside the LACMA near a mammoth wall advertising the VR short. Informally, the experience’s isolation begins here, as you’re separated from the curious crowd asking to get in. Not everyone can; only about two people can go through at a time. I’m given three instructions before passing blackout curtains: Read the artist’s statement, go to the next room to store my shoes and belongings, then wait for an alarm to go off. The red flashing light and buzzer sound signaled it was time to see the VR portion.
Pretty jarring for a trip to a museum, right? After reading the statement in a dark room, I moved on to the next space. It’s cold there – cold air, cold benches and cold, white walls. It’s the approximation of a “freezer,” a frosty room in a detention center where migrants are sometimes kept for days. Boldly-lettered instructions (in Spanish and English) remind me to wait for the signal.
There are shoes all around the edges of the room. Another paragraph on the wall explains that the shoes have been collected from the deserts where thousands of people have died. Their former owners could have made it or not. Underneath my seat on a cold bench is a Converse-like sneaker that would have fit a third or fourth grader. To my right lies a toddler’s shoe. It’s bright yellow, with a smiling likeness of Spongebob Squarepants on it. There’s no matching pair.
When the alarm sounds, I walk into a dazzling dark room with one solidarity red light illuminating the gravelly sand and desert pebbles underneath me. Two handlers are with me, making sure I don’t run into any walls. Once equipped with a backpack of gear, headphones and a headset, the experience begins. It’s dark again, a strand of people are snaking out of the desert when suddenly we’re surrounded by cops, lights, barking dogs and shouting.
The migrants are told to get on their knees and put their hands up. I comply with the first part, if only to keep at eye level with the people around me. I bent closest to the virtual child in the group, watching immigration officials yell at his mother. They’re telling her to take the boy’s shoes off. An official asks how old he is. He holds up four fingers. There’s a moment of language confusion, and I had to fight the urge to help translate what’s being said. It wouldn’t have helped.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve felt powerless to do anything about the news. As a journalist, I’m in the role of an observer, fighting the urge to do something, anything to help.
Since “Carne y Arena” first debuted in the United States one year ago, much has changed. Now, the events in the experience seem almost tame. The real troubles would begin at the immigration facilities, where no unauthorized camera has gone in before. These desperate stories feel so much more tragic under new detainment policies, even though record deportations have been underway since the Obama administration.
After the VR experience ends, I walk out of the room to dust the sand and stones off my pant legs. I’m reunited with my belongings, and it feels strangely comforting to hold my old purse again. The next and final room is a dimly lit hallway. Half of it is a chunk of an old border wall made out of scraps of metal used in the Vietnam War. I'm seeing the remnants of an invasive war abroad used to keep out another group of non-white people. The irony is not lost on me.
With my back to the wall, I looked at the other side, where I was face-to-video screen with another person, one of the immigrants who shared their story with Iñárritu and now, with us. There are multiple screens down the hall, each one with its own close-up of a face and its story. They’re harrowing memories of violence, sexual assault and near death. Some offer a happy coda of what life in the United States has given them. Other stories end on anxious notes, fearful of what comes next. So many of the people in these videos are still in danger of deportation and worry about what would happen if they were sent back to their countries to face gangs or starvation. Some would irreparably be separated from their American-born children.
Immigration issues were already in dire shape when “Carne y Arena” made its debut last year. Now that the issues have intensified, both in severity of treatment and in the news coverage, “Carne y Arena” feels like an entirely different experience. It’s a prelude to tent cities and separations, with abuse too monstrous to imagine just out-of-sight; the cries of separated children are not yet audible. While this VR experience seems as if it’s brought many viewers face-to-face with these topics, it also makes us think and reflect on how much of the immigration crisis we’ve yet to see.