Originally written on Dec. 7th 2017. Reposted from the VRG Blog.
Yesterday I had the chance to experience Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s academy-award winning virtual reality installation CARNE y ARENA (Virtually present, Physically invisible) at LACMA (Thank you so much, Kamal Sinclair!) The project beautifully explores the stories of immigrants and refugees from Mexico and Central America who make the dangerous journey across borders, leaving their homes, and risking their lives.
I was surprised by how truly moved I was by this work. It's not that I didn't expect something great from Alejandro G. Iñárritu and the ILMxLab - I just hadn't anticipated just how satisfying it was as an artist to see the magic that happens when VR is given the opportunity to be shared in the best way possible.
I decided to treat this as if it was my first experience entering a virtual world, instead of acting like a skeptic who has seen many VR pieces over the years, I've spent a lot of time in this industry leading others through virtual experiences, explaining what they are about to see, answering questions, and leading them through how to use the headset. This was an opportunity to see VR with fresh eyes. This approach really allowed me to be an explorer, to question where I was, to wander freely through the Virtual environment without expectation.
Here is why the project beautifully merges artistry, documentary, technology, exhibition design, and magical realism into an extremely thoughtful, moving experience, and where I think it could have been pushed even further.
Drama in the lead up to the VR experience:
When I first arrived at the exhibition space, I was greeted by a LACMA attendant who passed me a release form to sign. I’ve experienced hundreds of VR projects, and this is the first time I can remember signing a release. Right off the bat this made me recognize the attention to detail that went into this project. I was in for something different than the VR demos I'm used to.
The attendant than told me that I would enter a room, read a bit about CARNE y ARENA, then enter the first room where I would take off my shoes and socks and put them in a locker. A siren would then ring signalling that it was time to enter the VR space.
Setting the tone:
I entered the first dark room and read about Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s vision for the piece, and how it challenged him as an artist to dig deeper into the experiences of refugees and immigrants entering the USA. I immediately thoughts of a project I had exhibited with Emblematic Group, Use of Force, directed by Nonny de la Peña. Use of Force depicts the 2010 fatal beating of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a Mexican man who lived in San Diego, when he attempted to get back into the USA after his deportation to visit his family. The project was extremely impactful because it was created used eye-witnesses personal accounts of what they saw brought into the viral world, along with a recreation of cellphone footage that had been taken during the events. The audience was invited to record their own video using a cellphone in the Virtual recreation of these events forcing them to become a witness.
I pushed my experiences sharing Use of Force with audiences aside and got ready to experience CARNE y ARENA. I moved into the first room.
...It was freezing. I looked around and saw pairs of extremely worn out shoes of all sizes around the room. I walked around the stark, eerie room with metallic, sterile benches and no windows. I remembered these photographs, and got carried off in my thoughts. A voice interrupted me “put your shoes and socks in the locker.”
I went over to a metallic, fridge like locker and put my belongings inside. I waited.
The siren went off and I proceeded into the next room.
How our feet move on the ground:
The room was dark. Silent. Expansive. There was dirt covering every surface of the ground. I was in awe. This was the most evocative, beautiful space I’d ever seen a VR exhibition in. An orange light illuminated the long tethered headset in the centre of the room. Two LACMA guides called to me from the centre of the room, and I made my way over to them across rocky, dusty dirt. I forgot to take off my socks.
The LACMA guides were serious. A part of me wanted to tell them that I had done this kind of work before! I’d done a museum exhibition of Project Syria at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I know what it was like to do the “alien mating ritual!” (I call walking around with the tethered headset on, "the alien mating ritual." I would often trail people around VR experiences, in a very processional, serious, manner as if it were a tradition on a far off planet). I stopped myself and remembered my plan to experience this project as a beginner. They told me that I could explore the space freely, but if I felt a tug on my backpack, I was going out of range and they would steer me back into the right direction. At this point I felt very glad they were there because I knew I was traveling to a world I would not know.
The headset was on. Suddenly I was in a desert. I was alone. I reminded myself of what I tell new VR users - move around, explore, touch, look up at the sky. It's easy to forget when you are in a new world. I began to walk around and began moving across the desert. I felt the sandy rocks crunch under my feet. I started to get a bit braver, moving further from where I first stood. I heard something and noticed a group of people were approaching me. My first thought was that they must have traveled a long distance to find me here.
They got closer. There were children and older people, each quietly moving forward. They look tired, and it was dark.I got closer to them and listened as they spoke with each other in hushed voices. I wish i knew Spanish so I could have understood what they were saying. I thought about VR subtitles but pushed that thought out of my mind. I joined their group.
Suddenly an intense wind was blasting me in the real world. I looked up and saw the lights of a helicopter illuminating me and the group of people I was now traveling with. What seemed like police cars pulled up in front of us across the dirt. My heart was out of my chest as police officers got out of the car with massive guns, and told us to kneel on the ground.
The people surrounding me began to kneel. I hesitated for a split second before joining them in the dirt. The rocks dug into my knees as the wind continued to blast. The armed men began shouting and making demands of the kneeling group. I touch the sandy dirt with my fingers.
From that point I just kept as quiet as possible, hardly moving, as I watched the police interrogate the people. I felt frozen, but reminded myself “this is just a virtual world, this is just a virtual world. you are not really here. you are not really here.” I got up the courage to stand and kind of half crouch, half crawl over to another area of the desert, where I could watch the officers movements from a safe distance.
I felt guilty for leaving my fellow travellers there, still crouched or lying on the ground.
At a certain point, the world froze and a beautiful long table emerged. I was able to see the travellers sit together as family around it. The table began to shape shift and move, enchanted. A boat began to move through the waves of the wood, full to the brim with tiny people. They traveled across waves of wood, and material, people falling out of the boat as it moved. I remembered my film theory days and the lessons we learned about magical realism and borders. The space between, ‘no man’s land,’ where magical stories that came to life were possible. The magic pulled me further into the experience and stories of the people I was with. The stories and people they were leaving behind. The risks they were taking to take this journey.
This layer of magic is why VR storytelling is so special. It was so seamless with the reality of the experience. This is where art brings realism to life, and makes an even deeper, imaginative connection with the audience. Suddenly we are able to add our own layer of meaning to the piece and remember that we are just observing this life. We are visitors in another person’s real world experience.
Just as suddenly, we are back in the harsh reality of officers pointing guns and shouting. It began to escalate. I find myself standing directly in front of an officer with his gun pointed at me. "Put your hands in the air! Put your hands in the air!" I put them in the air as if he will certainly know if I don’t.
Suddenly it is morning. I am alone again.
The headset is taken off silently, and I walk across the expansive space to the exit.
A VR project like this transports you to another world and experience. This was a full sensory experience - touch, sound, texture, the ability to walk, imagine… you really need the space to reflect and consider what you just experienced. This part of the experience was exceptionally well designed.
You collect your personal belongings from the other side of the locker in a new dark space. You can take some time to recover and wipe your hands clear of the dirt.
You are now in a long hallway, with a series of portals lining the wall. In each portal there is a video portrait of a person in close up. The video moves in and out of focus. Their story is written across their image.
As you read each of stories you begin to realize that they are in fact the people you are traveling with. The creators used their experiences to build the project. They collected their stories crossing into the USA — hiding in the backs of trucks with hundreds of people, getting robbed, seeing people die of heat exhaustion and lack of water, being detained in the icy ‘freezer’ for days at a time. Starting life again in a new country without the familiarity of family and home, many stuck in legal limbo, never fully able to grow roots as citizen.
As you heard their individual stories, my mind went to each of the people I had been traveling across the virtual desert with. I remember hearing one man speaking perfect english and being questioned by the officer how he knew the language so well. I’m a lawyer, he’d responded. So much was happening, I was hardly able to take in the rest of his story. Another man was unable to communicate with the officers, which frustrated them. He did not speak Spanish. Through his story portrait I learn he is from Guatemala, and at the time he spoke a dialect that only he knew.
I'm shocked to hear an interview from a border patrol officer who regrets that he had to act tough while seeing dying, thirsty people. He says, "Anyone who does not have empathy for immigrants and refugees coming to America I do not understand” His professional role was not to show empathy.
Each video and story take a few minutes to digest properly. By the time I leave the exhibition I am so ready to talk to someone about my experience, to share my thoughts, to hear how others felt touching the dirt. Did they too put up their hands in fear? Did this change their perception of Mexican and Central American refugees and immigrants in the USA? How had it moved them?
I exit the exhibition and find myself in an empty hallway with only guestbook illuminated. Pages and pages of notes are there from visitors.
In the reflection space, it felt really nice to focus on the stories and simply listen. When I left the exhibition though, I do wish I could have spoken with someone about the experience I just had. The whole exhibition was extremely thoughtful and well planned, and there must have been at least 4 or 5 people from LACMA running it at a time to make it go so smoothly.
To me, the purpose of experiencing virtual worlds and entering stories in this way is to bring the experience back into your own real world. To have it impact how you share and see the world around you. The personal stories that were shared did an amazing job of bringing this large vr exhibition and intense recreation of events back home to a personal, intimate level.
I think it would have been even more impactful to share the experiences with another person.
I remember when we were sharing Project Syria, another very intense VR journalism experience at the Victoria & Albert in London, people would come out of the headset and need to talk about what they had seen. To look at someone in the eye after the headset comes off, and say holy shit, that was the most intense, most realistic piece of media I’ve ever seen, what did you think? Something about that really brings the virtual experience home. It was also really nice to be able to help the audience see where they could make a difference - for us, that was directing them to support Syrian refugees. In this exhibition the guestbook takes on the role of the listener - you can see people write "impeach Trump" and "Support DACA." Promises to do more to protect undocumented immigrants.
It must have been an intentional choice to make it such a solitary experience. In some ways I wonder if it's to bring home further how isolating it can be to be an undocumented immigrant in the USA without being able to find support you need, how it feels to experience trauma, how it feels when the world seems like it won't engage with you.
CARNE y ARENA showed the power of VR when it is exhibited well, and treated with great respect and attention to detail. The drama of the build up, the experience transporting you to a place you could never see in your regular life, magic, effort to get the true stories and bring eyewitnesses and survivors in to recreate their experiences - this makes the project resonate deeply. The space to reflect, to learn, and to connect with the real people's stories. It is my hope that artists like Nonny de la Peña whose work inspired this project, will someday have the opportunity to share their work on this scale, and move people with the stories they choose to tell.
Thanks for reading,