VR Installation Probes Virtual Reality’s Ethical Limitations


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.

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