‘Carne y Arena’ virtual-reality exhibition offers an unsettling look at the migrant experience

Over the last 20 years, virtual reality has been heralded as the future. Its uses range across medicine, education, military training and endless commercial sectors. One of its more complicated applications, and one that is at the heart of “Carne y Arena,” an art exhibition open since January in Fair Park, is in “empathy building.” In this case, audiences are asked to walk, quite literally, in the footsteps of migrants crossing the border from Mexico into Texas.

“Carne y Arena: (Virtually present, Physically invisible)” is a big-deal art experience. It was created in 2017 by acclaimed Hollywood director Alejandro Iñárritu, it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and it won a special Academy Award for its innovative techniques. Since its debut, it has had runs in Los Angeles, Mexico City, Montreal and Washington, DC Thanks to a partnership with the Nasher Sculpture Center and George W. Bush Presidential Center, it has made its first stop in Texas. It recently extended its run through May 8.

It’s a big deal, yes, but it is by no means a typical art experience. When you enter the Fair Park building that houses this exhibit, you find a dark and quiet room. You check in next to a replica of the border wall. Then, one at a time, you enter a very cold waiting room, meant to resemble a holding cell, and are told by a sign on the wall to remove your shoes and place them in a cubby. On the floor around you are discarded shoes collected from the Texas-Mexico border, as part of the long-term artistic practice of Valarie James and Antonia Gallegos. You wait a very long three minutes for an alarm to sound that directs you to the main space of the exhibit, where you walk through rough, gravelly sand and don the VR equipment.

It’s in that first room that discomfort, or some kind of emotional response, starts to sink in. But you’ll also be faced with the dissociative duality of this experience. This room, this isolation, you’re being led to imagine, is what it feels like to be vulnerable in an unfamiliar place. Those shoes scattered around you are the shoes of someone desperate enough to make a long treacherous trek from one country to another. The people who once wore them are very real and might have been held in cells like this one — known as helleras, or iceboxes—for two days, on average. And you are someone who paid at least $35 to have an experience that will be over in less than 15 minutes.

A comment written in Spanish reads “Where is your home when you are left without a country?” in a notepad where visitors can share their experience of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s virtual reality experience.(Ben Torres/Special Contributor)

When the sun comes up in the Oculus Rift headset, visitors are dropped into a scene in which migrants are desperate for water, stumbling through the Sonoran Desert. Over the course of six minutes or so, you will encounter several loud, scary interactions between Border Patrol agents and migrants. And though you can move around the space, you are meant to be seeing it from the perspective of a migrant. The Border Patrol agents are pointing their flashlights and their guns at you, too.

If you’ve never participated in VR before, this is a wild, eye-opening experience. To have a 360-degree view of the desert and look up into the sky and feel the wind off the blades of a helicopter is unlike anything that can take place in a movie theater.

In interviews, Iñárritu, who won the best director Oscar for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and the Revenant, said he had wanted to experiment with VR for a decade before he created “Carne y Arena.” As a Mexican American, he has long been interested in stories of treacherous border crossings, even including a scene of one in the 2006 film babel. He teamed up with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and used the stories and experiences of real refugees. They even had these real people act out the scenes based on their experiences in a state-of-the-art stop-motion studio. For the people whose avatars you will see in the film, this virtual reality was their reality.

Real-life experiences

As visitors exit the experience, they encounter the most poignant aspect of the entire exhibit: a series of portraits of those people overlaid with narrative: a Border Patrol officer who talks of watching someone die from heat exhaustion, a woman who traveled in a van with hundreds of other people, a woman who feels her kids ahead of her. Unlike the rest of the visit, these stories aren’t part of the guided experience — they are easy to walk right past. I wonder what might happen if the experiences were reversed: first, the real people, then the holding cell and the VR. Perhaps the experience would feel less like a theme park ride.

In the VR experience, I found myself instinctively wringing my hands and politely moving out of the avatars’ way. If I had explored the space more, I might’ve moved through one of the ciphers like a ghost, only to have a fleshy, beating heart appear in my goggles. This same heart would be found in the migrants and the Border Patrol. It’s a metaphor, sure, but an abstract one. Are we really meant to leave this experience thinking all actors in this story are equal? That there are good people on both sides, and that’s the extent of it?

Leaving “Carne y Arena” can be disconcerting. I’m not a particular fan of prescriptive art. I don’t like to be emotionally manipulated or told how to feel. But I found Iñárritu’s work to be doing both and neither at the same time. Here, we were put into a harrowing experience — one that left me a bit exhausted — and sent out into the night without much context.

An exterior banner for the exhibit flies outside the Food and Fiber Pavilion in Fair Park on...
An exterior banner for the exhibit flies outside the Food and Fiber Pavilion in Fair Park on March 29.(Ben Torres/Special Contributor)

It’s been five years since this was made and roughly a decade since many of the stories we witnessed played out; I couldn’t help but wonder: Where are these refugees now? They are the centerpiece of the show. They are the inspiration, the writers, the actors. If developing empathy for these people, or other people in their situation, is a goal of the piece, why not shed light on how their lives played out? Are they American citizens now? Are they OK?

I also wonder: Who is this experience for? Roughly 67% of the immigrants who call Dallas home are from Mexico; is it for them? Is it for the unauthorized immigrants who might see themselves in this story? If it really is realistic, would they find themselves traumatized yet again? Or, is it trying to teach a lesson to residents who have never considered fleeing their home, certainly not on foot?

A pricey ticket

After the exhibition finished a three-museum tour, one of the original producers and funders, Emerson Collective, partnered with PHI Studio and Legendary Entertainment to launch what they hope is a five-year tour. Emerson is a philanthropy group founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, which creates and funds projects tied to education, immigration, health care and journalism. According to The New York TimesEmerson Collective has put most of its efforts into shaping the future of storytelling through this project and investments in media outlets including ProPublica, The Marshall Project and the Texas Observe. Emerson acquired majority ownership of The Atlantic in 2017. But its for-profit status exempts it from much financial scrutiny.

In 2018, when Emerson opened “Carne y Arena” in Washington, DC, tickets were free. But in the past few years, that ended. In DC, getting a reservation was nearly impossible; in Dallas, most tickets remain available. Here, a weekend ticket will cost you $55. Emerson representatives said proceeds allow the project to be self-sustaining. The ticket cost covers travel, staff and its recent expansion to a three-room experience, which allows more than one person to attend at once. But the price tag makes this a cost-prohibitive experience, suggesting most visitors have on some level already bought into the inclusivity it purports to inspire. It’s hard enough to change someone’s mind; it’s even less likely they’ll pay to have it done.

But researchers don’t believe the “walk a mile in another’s shoes” technique always, or even usually, works. Empathetic concern, which we develop by listening to or reading someone’s story, is useful, ethicists at the Northwestern Kellogg School of Management say, but actually attempting to experience another person’s pain or trauma can lead to “disengagement.” When we ask people to take on someone else’s pain or trauma, they can end up numb to it. And, of course, in virtual reality experiences, we aren’t really experiencing the things in front of us, though we are being encouraged to have a reaction, especially an emotional one, to them.

I saw “Carne y Arena” twice — something the friendly man who signed me in the second time told me is common. In fact, he said, people who have seen it in other cities have traveled to Dallas to see it again.

On the second viewing, I was still wringing my hands, uncomfortable, but I walked around the space a little more and even bumped into a wall before the handler could stop me. It felt more like a game—it felt safer.

Details

“Carne y Arena: (Virtually present, Physically invisible)” runs through May 8 at the Food & Fiber Pavilion at Fair Park, at Gate 3. $35 to $55. Open Thursday and Friday from 11 am to 8 pm and Saturday and Sunday from 11 am to 9 pm Visitors must be 13 or older to enter, and children ages 13 to 15 must be accompanied by a legal guardian. For more information, call 214-242-5173 or visit carne-y-arena.com.

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