The sand and pebbles ground into my feet but the vastness of the Sonoran Desert in the pre-dawn light was glorious. As I leisurely scanned the distance, I saw a small cluster of travelers walking toward me. A moment later I realized I was in the midst of migrants that had crossed the border – a handful of working-age men, a pregnant woman with a child, someone my age that collapsed on the ground rubbing her foot and crying.
Before I could collect my thoughts, a helicopter flew in from over the horizon with an intense spotlight and then two vans screeched to a halt. Everything changed in an instant. The sound of the helicopter was deafening but there was no mistaking the orders of the border patrol agents as the dogs bared their teeth and growled and the AR 15s were pointed at us. You knew to get on your knees with your hands up (if you weren’t scared into running and hiding behind a shrub bush.) I was shaking. I wasn’t part of this caravan. I’m a citizen.
I’m still unsettled. And it was only a virtual reality (VR) installation. But it was so chaotic, so visceral, so frightening. I’ve primarily seen VR in museums where it is employed by avant-garde artists. This exhibit, Carne y Arena – Flesh and Sand, takes that technology to new levels. It was created by Academy Award®-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. In his words:
During the past five years in which this project has been growing in my mind, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing many Mexican and Central American refugees. Their life stories haunted me, so I invited some of them to collaborate with me in the project, I’ve experimented with VR technology to explore the human condition in an attempt to break the dictatorship of the frame—within which things are just observed—and claim the space to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts. — Alejandro G. Iñárritu
I hesitate to describe it in more detail, since you need to see it for yourself. What you experience is dependent on where you walk and how you engage with the people that you meet and the place where you have been transported.
It is more than just technical wizardry. Each of the three rooms is tailored to open you to embrace the exhibit. The first room is very cold. There are lockers on the wall where you are instructed to place your shoes and socks and sit on narrow metal benches until a jarring alarm goes off. Everything about it removes you from the safe world that you inhabit in your day-to-day life. I later learned that the room mirrored the experience of those caught on our border. The first place they are taken is to rooms like this that are named, las hieleras, the freezers. According to Freedom of Information Act requests, migrants spend nearly two days on average in these forbidding holding rooms.
If the intent is to destabilize you, it worked. As I walked into the darkened and cavernous room with the sandy and rocky floor to start my VR journey, I was on edge. After your time in the desert, you collect your shoes and socks and walk into the third room where mute videos of the people that Iñárritu interviewed are displayed. Portions of their heartbreaking stories scroll across the screens as they stare out at you blinking, swallowing, gazing into your eyes. No matter where you stand on border security and immigration policy, this is the portion of the experience that truly conveys the humanity, the desperation, the hope and the tragedy.
Proponents of virtual reality approach it with an exuberant ardor.
It’s a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected. And ultimately, we become more human. In other words: We don’t need to read someone else’s mind, we can do one better: become them. — Chris Milk, documentary filmmaker in 2015 TED Talk
But the experience leaves me questioning. How do you go beyond an audience composed only of those that are already sympathetic to the subjects or the perspectives you are profiling? Do participants simply affirm pre-existing narratives and positions or do they revisit their beliefs or are they simply exhausted? Does it lead to any action? As I was trying to catch my breath in the post-experience room where you are directed to rest and reflect after leaving the exhibits, there was no engagement on how I might deepen my understanding or contribute or take action.
I’ll be following the growth of VR more intentionally now. What I do know, is that my legs still quivered an hour afterwards and it has filled many conversations (and now a blog post). Perhaps I’ve answered some of my own questions.
Deeper thoughts on VR are available in these articles:
- The Limits of Empathy by Rose Eveleth at Topic
- Can VR Really Make Us Feel Empathy? Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s ‘Carne y Arena’ Proves That’s the Wrong Question Ben Davis, critic at artnet.news