Director, producer, and screenwriter Alejandro González Iñárritu waited 10 years for technology to catch up to his creative vision. The Oscar-winning creator of Amores Perros (2000), Biutiful (2010), Birdman (2014), and The Revenant (2015) wanted to create a space where the boundaries of cinema could be dissolved in favor of direct contact, of bare feet on sand. In the virtual reality installation CARNE y ARENA (Virtually present, Physically invisible) (2017), Iñárritu collaborates with Emmanuel Lubezki, producer Mary Parent, and ILMxLAB to bypass the frame altogether, turning the viewer into a visitor who enters, rather than observes, a nexus of stories and real-life experiences.
Iñárritu sought to make CARNE y ARENA (FLESH and SAND) an immersive, “multi-narrative” space where the memories of Mexican and Central American immigrants and refugees could be given “a public face.” Acted out by migrants and refugees who made the journey across the Mexico-U.S. border themselves, CARNE y ARENA invites visitors to “walk alongside the immigrants.” However, Iñárritu holds back from stating any intended outcomes or responses, telling the audience: “You will go on your own terms.”
We also go, apparently, at our own risk. Before entering the exhibit, participants must sign an admittedly intimidating waiver and are warned that some of the images may be frightening or disturbing, including scenes that involve images of firearms. The waiver sets the stage for the anxiety-inducing experience that follows.
Walking through CARNE y ARENA
I step first into a simulated hielera—a recreation of the freezing-cold rooms where migrants are detained after being apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol. Here, I’m instructed to remove my shoes and socks and wait for the flashing light and alarm that will signal me into the next room. The hielera is scattered with actual shoes that were found in the desert between Mexico and the U.S.—relics of the real journeys migrants undertook and, as the text on the wall informs, that at least 10,000 did not survive.
Next, I step barefoot onto the sand-covered floor of a dimly lit room. A docent fits me with a backpack, noise-canceling headphones, and VR goggles. The scene is briefly quite beautiful—a soft sunset with saguaros perforating the desert landscape as far as the eye can see—but a few seconds later it shifts to night, and voices speaking Spanish reach toward me from a group of people walking through the cacti and shrubs.
The group’s journey is quickly interrupted by the arrival of Border Patrol helicopters and SUVs whose lights are disorienting and accompany the aggressive commands of agents wielding large guns. The agents yell at the migrants to get on the ground, put their hands up, and reveal who the coyote is. The chaos is briefly interrupted by a more conceptual scene where several of the characters sit at a table that shapeshifts to depict a capsizing boat. Then the confrontation returns, and once all the migrants are loaded into Border Patrol vehicles, an agent turns to point his gun at me, demanding I put my hands up.
The VR scene concludes with the desert sunrise, punctuated by the calls of migrating birds overhead and the remnants of the night before—abandoned shoes and backpacks strewn across the clearing. The images remind me of photos shared by Border Angels, an organization that leads hikes to the most commonly used migrant paths of the desert to drop water and non-perishable supplies, often finding personal items that get left behind.
The final portion of the installation shares the images and real stories of each person who participated as an actor in the scene, including a former Border Patrol agent. The stories connect details of the VR scene with their experiences—lost or stolen shoes, days spent in hieleras, communication troubles between English, Spanish, and K’iche’. In its entirety, the installation has a poetic quality, bringing together sensory fragments across borders of language, nation, and personal experience.
U.S. / T.H.E.M.
First previewed at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in 2017, the CARNE y ARENA global tour has stopped in Milan, Mexico City, Montreal, and Santiago de Compostela Galicia, Spain. United States stops include Dallas, Texas; Aurora, Colorado; Los Angeles, California; Omaha, Nebraska; and Washington DC. Upon CARNE y ARENA’s release, Iñárritu was awarded a special Oscar® for creating an “exceptional storytelling experience.”
Given the ticket price I paid—$44.20—and the installation’s initial showings in Cannes and Milan, I was curious about CARNE y ARENA’s intended audience. “I invited some [Mexican and Central American immigrants and refugees] to participate in this project so that their personal journeys would not be just a statistic for the rest of us, but would instead be seen, felt, heard and experienced by others,” says Iñárritu. While the artistry of CARNE y ARENA may succeed at going beyond the didactic function of an “empathy machine,” as a New York Times review insists, it seems clear that the intended audience consists of these “others,” “the rest of us,” people with the privilege to never experience such a journey or the dangerous conditions that accompany it.
While it's likely that many of the attendees were part of this crowd of others, it also appears that not all of them were. The tour’s San Francisco Bay Area stop is hosted by the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, a city in the East Bay with a large immigrant and Latin American population. In the installation’s guestbook, one entry said the exhibition helped the visitor understand what their parents and siblings had gone through. A review on the ticketing website reads: “My mom went through this experience and afterwards she said it was deeply moving and incredibly powerful, an experience that resonated with her deeply since she went through the same thing.” For at least a few visitors, rather than an opportunity to take a few steps in another’s shoes, the installation presents a chance to retrace their own.
Technologies of Participation and Passivity
CARNE y ARENA’s use of virtual reality technology and other immersive techniques contributes to and complicates the participatory experience Iñárritu hoped to achieve. “My intention was 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,” explains Iñárritu. While the director comes from a film background, his VR debut is perhaps more akin to certain forms of socially-engaged theater, which have long histories in Latin America.
The participation of people who actually experienced the scenes of violence they are representing is a key feature of Theater of Witness, which was used in recent years by Colombian survivors of sexual violence and displacement during armed conflict. Occupying the central role of protagonist allows actors to represent their own experiences and situate them within a greater context of collective violence, trauma, and healing.
This technique also recalls Theater of the Oppressed (TO), developed by Brazilian dramaturge Augusto Boal. The shift from spectator to participant is one of the core principles of forum theater, a type of TO performance by which audience members go on stage and intervene in scenes of oppression that are acted out by people who experienced them in real life.
Unlike in forum theater, visitors can move through CARNE y ARENA and can even be targeted by it, but they cannot intervene or participate. They are present, but invisible and powerless. And unlike Theater of Witness practiced in (theoretically) post-conflict contexts, CARNE y ARENA addresses violence that continues unresolved, violence that has changed since the exhibition’s opening in 2017 with shifts in administration and policy, but has not gone away.
In addition, CARNE y ARENA does not suggest any particular act of redress or hint towards reconciliation. Instead, it centers the visceral terror of an experience often spoken of abstractly, through statistics or political jargon. If the installation intends to encourage political or social action, it does so through implication only, and only by first subjecting the visitor to an uncomfortable passivity.
Some analyses of CARNE y ARENA point towards a paradoxical effect of Iñárritu’s virtual reality experiment. Francesco Buscemi writes in New Techno Humanities that within the VR portion of the installation, the visitors’ loss of corporeity (your body is invisible on the VR headset) and inability to interact with the people around them end up reproducing the same sense of distance and separation that exists in traditional cinema, as well as in “real life.” In American Quarterly, Rebecca A. Adelman argues that “Carne offers visitors a sensation of proximity to undocumented migrants that does not include any actual contact with them. In this way, it inadvertently replicates what Greg Prieto describes as the founding contradiction of the Mexican immigrant experience in the United States: simultaneous inclusion and exclusion.”
Indeed, in the final section of the installation, the subjects speak directly to the visitor about their experiences attempting to cross the Mexico-U.S. border. But nowhere in the exhibition or in press materials do they speak about their experiences as actors and co-creators. They share testimonies, but no artist statements. I wonder what theirs would say.
Liliana Torpey is a writer from Oakland, California, with experience learning and practicing socially engaged theater in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the Tijuana/San Diego borderland. She is the Development Associate at NACLA and holds a B.A. in International Studies – Literature from the University of California, San Diego.