Art Review

Wander the Desert in the Shoes of Refugees at Carne y Arena

Carne y Arena
Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Carne y Arena.
Update, November 20: As Denver falls under Level Red COVID-19 restrictions, Carne y Arena has been temporarily shut down starting Saturday, November 21.

Empathy is in short supply these days, and in discussions of refugees migrating to the United States, the personal experiences of the people affected are too often drowned out by bumpersticker-deep political posturing. Conversations take place online at lightning speed in 280 characters or less. Facts, feelings, trauma and lives don’t matter much in the frenzied cycle of breaking news, hot takes and information bubbles that confirm our ideology and leave little room for our perspectives to evolve through actual dialogue, contemplation or emotional connection to real humans.

Even when considering thoughtful documentaries and in-depth journalism, we remain on the outside. The migrants’ stories are framed, contained and separated from us. That distance from the subjects leaves audiences unaccountable for what we witness: Sure, tragedy is happening and those people’s lives are terrible — but what does that have to do with me?

Carne y Arena (Virtually present, Physically invisible), an Academy Award-winning virtual-reality video by Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, was recently turned into an 8,000-square-foot installation at the Hangar at Stanley Marketplace. The film takes a different tack in thinking about immigration, what state violence on the U.S.-Mexico border means, who's actually coming into the country and why, and what they’re experiencing.

“During the making of this project, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing many Mexican and Central American refugees,” Iñárritu explains. “Their life stories haunted me, so I invited some of them to collaborate with me on the project. My intention was to experiment 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.”

The immersive installation uses virtual-reality technology to create a twenty-minute, first-person account of what it’s like to witness — and to some extent experience — a U.S. Border Patrol raid from the perspective of a barefoot refugee wandering through the desert from Mexico into the United States. Tapping into multiple senses, Carne y Arena — translated as "Flesh and Sand" — puts us, as viewers, into this traumatizing crossing, forcing us to empathize every step of the way, then asking us to reflect on what we've lived through.
click to enlarge Alejandro G. Iñárritu on the set of Carne y Arena. - CARNE Y ARENA
Alejandro G. Iñárritu on the set of Carne y Arena.
Carne y Arena
Carne y Arena opens in a room with an artist’s statement. After we’ve read it, we sit in cold, metal-enclosed waiting areas, where we’re forced to surrender our shoes, confused about when the experience will start and how we should behave; there is little to look at besides shoes — abandoned in the desert — lining the walls. Then, after a light flashes and an alarm sounds, we enter a black room with sand on the floor and don a backpack, headphones and a virtual-reality headset.

At first we're taken into a tranquil desert landscape. We see phantoms of migrants walking toward us, crying. These are not professional actors; they're actual immigrants tapping into their memories and their own traumatic experiences of coming to this country. What we are witnessing is a hybrid of reality and fiction, but it feels entirely real.

Then we're blinded by the light of Border Patrol helicopters. Wind brushes against our skin. We're overwhelmed by the sounds of terror — suffering migrants moaning after walking hundreds of miles in hopes of liberation, Border Patrol agents, guns pointed, fingers on the triggers, shouting at these dehydrated people dying in the desert. The agents seem willing to shoot them dead, but also to want to keep them alive. Tensions build as languages collide in screams and pleas; the beauty of the desert is disrupted by the machinery of state violence.

Agents and migrants alike walk toward us. Our urge is to reach out and help, to calm the situation, to save lives, but some part of us remembers that this full-body experience is just an art installation and we cannot help these virtual people.

As the migrants are corralled into armored vehicles, the narrative culminates with an agent pointing his gun at us, demanding that we get on our knees. It is then that we’re really forced to ask: Who are we in this scene? Agent, migrant or witness? And how should we respond?

While this sort of high-drama narrative in a Hollywood film typically gives a sense of catharsis, at this point in Carne y Arena we are feeling helpless, traumatized and desperate to take action. Were this where the installation ended, we’d be left in a state of horror, with no sense of the life stories of the people we'd just encountered.

Instead, we walk into another holding cell, fetch our shoes and wait. Eventually, a light and alarm indicate that it's time for us to go into the next room, a gallery with looping videos receded into the wall. A placard reminds us that the stories we are about to read were told by the migrants who had re-enacted their experiences in the desert.

On each of the videos, people stare us down as we read their stories. Some were fleeing gangs, others abusive partners. One man could not afford to feed his family, so he left for the United States to earn money he could send back home. Some became lawyers or advocates at immigrant-rights nonprofits; one now makes sandwiches at a fast-food restaurant. Most are still struggling, and many wonder how they could be disparaged as criminals and monsters when they’re just people trying to survive.

One man in the videos is not an immigrant; he’s a Border Patrol agent who talks about encountering a group of migrants dying of dehydration. Even he, a man who wielded a gun and likely ruined lives, says he does not want to have anything to do with people who don’t have empathy for immigrants crossing the desert.

These videos could not be more different than the virtual-reality experience; they are flat, text-based, and they force us to think and read as much as witness and feel.

As we read and the refugees stare back at us, they remind us that we are not just witnesses to some detached subjects' trauma: We are also being watched by them. How do we respond to their stories, their suffering, their oppression and trauma at the hands of this government?

Carne y Arena, launched in 2017, is a masterwork that takes immersive art and virtual-reality technology far beyond the psychedelic and sci-fi spectacles that have become popularized. Phones and photography are prohibited, offering viewers the rare experience that isn't an Instagram opportunity. Instead, the production gives immersive technology a higher purpose: generating empathy, breaking down borders between people with radically different experiences, and calling on audiences to dredge up their humanity, so often lost in current political discourse.

Carne y Arena runs from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week through January 30. For tickets and more information about the installation, go to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Off-Center website.