Maybe it’s the fact that they make you go through the experience alone, or maybe it’s the fact that I had never done anything with virtual reality before; but the morning that I woke up for my Carne y Arena experience my belly was full of butterflies and my hands were clammy with anticipation.
Carne y Arena is a virtual reality installation created by Director Alejandro Iñarritu and you can experience it at LACMA in Los Angeles. After having gone through the installation; I not only feel as if its a beautiful creation but I also feel it to be necessary for everyone to experience.
The cold hits your body as soon as you enter and the steel benches are spread around the room with dirty belongings scattered around the floor. The sign on the wall instructs you to take off your shoes and to place them in the locker by the door; the tense energy is palpable as I scan the dirty children’s shoes and ripped backpacks surrounding me. These items were left behind in the Sonoran Desert by people attempting to cross the Mexican border for a chance at a better life in the United States. An alarm sounds and a red light begins to flash by the door announcing that it’s time to enter the next room.
Now I am in a large open space with sand on the floor, an orange light in the middle of the room which dimly lights the room and two men on the other end holding a contraption that I’ll soon become familiar with. One of the men asks me to walk towards them and I’m immediately aware that I’m barefoot and walking on sand. In a monotone voice one of the men explains that they’ll be placing a backpack on me as well as the virtual reality goggles. He lets me know how I can adjust them and reassures me that I can stop the experience at any time. He asks if I’m ready and with my heart in my throat which in turn causes my voice to shake I say, “Yes”. The goggles are on and suddenly I’m in the desert.
For close to seven minutes you exist in a world where you are walking amongst Immigrants attempting to cross the border. I won’t spoil the plot for you because the power in this piece is within the story but I will say that creating this in a virtual reality setting was an extraordinarily-perfect decision. The first words uttered from my mouth the moment it was over and the goggles came off were, “Shit. That was-” and as I struggled for more words and wiped the tears from my cheeks the men helped me take the backpack off.
The next room is a small room with a bench and access the other side of the locker for your belongings. This is where I took a moment to sit down and cry. An overpowering wave of emotions came over me and I had to pause in order to compose myself. Carne y Arena came into existence at a perfect time; the political climate has brought Immigrants (brown immigrants to be exact) at the forefront of many debates and being a second generation Mexican has never felt more overwhelming. At a time where I find myself struggling to explain the powerful and unwavering hard work that my people are known for; Carne y Arena is vital in the possibility of helping the less-understanding feel a tiny bit of empathy for people you may not completely connect with.
The last part of the installation is a hallway that is lined with video screens each of which play a biographical stories of immigrants that inspired Carne y Arena. Each gripping story is more captivating than the last and suddenly this experience jumps beyond the cinematic history that is incorporating Virtual Reality into a short-film and it becomes a life-changing installation of art.
Carne y Arena is worth every fiber of anxiety that traveled through my body on the day of. It is fascinating in its delivery and personal in its storyline. It forces a reaction out of you and creates a world where you may just be able to empathize with someone even if you don’t completely understand the journey that caused your paths to crossed.