Editor’s Note: One should consider visiting the installation before reading this review; not knowing what to anticipate will make the multimedia experience more powerful. (Spoilers follow)
Carne y Arena, flesh and sand, a title that evokes the feeling of sand touching flesh; the pleasurable and possibly liberating feeling of sand beneath one’s feet, or perhaps more likely, the stinging pain of burning sand touching an exposed wound. The words also carry a religious connotation in sounding similar to “la carne y la sangre” (flesh and blood) which occur in a well-known, admonishing biblical verse referring to the Resurrection and corruption. The title serves as an anchor to a virtual reality installation by the award-winning film director, producer, and screenwriter, Alejandro González Iñárritu. The work is on view at a former church near the eastern end of the H Street NE corridor in Washington, DC.
The installation is experienced in stages. The viewer must enter alone. He is first removed from ordinary reality by being shown into a dark room. There, the viewer will read the artist’s statement that appears in white, lit, letters on the wall. After this prologue, he steps into the next room.
The first stage of the installation further displaces the viewer. She enters a cold room in which there are stainless steel benches and a concrete floor. Text on the wall instructs the viewer to place any extraneous belongings like shoes, socks, jackets, bags, and backpacks, into a stainless steel locker. The viewer must remain in the room until a red alarm in the far-left corner goes off. A black camera in the corner of the ceiling surveils the room. The room is lit by sterile, ringing, fluorescent lights. The waiting period forces one to confront the worn and ragged shoes, scarves, and other belongings that lay about on the floor. These items were found in the desert and belonged to people who made an attempt to enter the US illegally. The high-pitched ringing of the fluorescent lights, which seems to grow louder with every second, and the cold air which seems to get colder, leaves one feeling as if she were in a clinical setting, waiting for surgery or waiting to be processed, all of it approximating the experience of immigrant holding cells. Alone, cold, barefoot, stripped of her belongings, and at the mercy of an unknown entity, the visitor is made to sit and marinate in a mix of emotions: anxiety, distress, solitude, or even a kind of detachment.
Finally, the alarm sounds and emits a flashing red light, alerting the viewer to proceed through a door in the corner. The next room is dark, lit only by a red rectangular light that curves across the horizon. Sand on the ground is the first thing to greet the viewer and her bare feet. It is clear that one should walk toward the center to meet the two people holding a black backpack. On the way, every bump in the sand is felt, a few soft rocks poke at the feet, generating sensations that are at once refreshing, discomforting and exposing. Once in the center, the two strangers instruct the viewer on how to wear and fasten the backpack and virtual reality headset.
The virtual experience begins with the view of a desert at sunset. It is at first quiet, except for the sound of the wind. It gets darker, and a group of immigrants comes into view. The scene is the product of interviews with or reenactments by people who lived through the experience of crossing the border through the desert. They reenacted some of the things they said and experienced when they crossed the desert. Some of them even wore the same clothing.
The characters enter the scene showing distress and fatigue. They stop to take a break when suddenly three border patrol trucks appear. Border agents rush out of their cars. Their dogs are barking. They yell and command everyone to get down on the ground while pointing their guns at the group. The entire building shakes as a helicopter in the virtual environment approaches and hovers overhead. A few of the travelers try to hide behind the bushes, others are unable to move their worn bodies, and some follow orders and get on the ground. The border agents begin to question the group in an attempt to determine the identity of their guide or coyote. The entire scene centers around the viewer who is only an invisible spectator and is able to move freely in the environment, but eventually, a border agent turns his attention to the viewer and commands him to get on his knees, and suddenly the scene reaches its end. The entire virtual experience lasts for six and a half minutes.
The assistants remove the headset and direct the viewer toward another, much smaller and darker room. The viewer is able to grab his belongings from the locker, but is, again, made to wait for an alarm to proceed.
The final stage of the installation, and perhaps the most emotional, is a dark hallway showcasing high-resolution, video portraits of people who acted or were interviewed for the virtual reality story. White text is intermittently displayed over the portraits, telling each of their stories. Their faces are serious. Looking into their eyes reveals the gaze of individuals who have experienced immense hardships, but also betrays a surprising, lingering hope for a better future. The stories make clear that their journeys continue—getting into the US was only their first stop. Their heartbreaking stories communicate one of the main messages of the overall installation: that immigrants, whether documented or not, are human.
Many of those portrayed in this exhibition were desperate for change and for a better life. It is easy to forget that often the only reason one would suffer through the horrendous journey north to this country is because the alternatives are worse. The artist’s aim is to make the viewer more empathetic toward undocumented immigrants, reminding us that our government’s policies affect real people.
Although the artist is using “state-of-the-art technology” the resolution of the virtual experience is still at video-game quality, producing an environment that did not feel completely real. Iñárritu was fully aware of the limitations of the technology and embraced them. To make the quality of the image seem more purposeful, he set the scene at night in the desert. The flashing lights, sand particles in the air, and the darkness help convince one of the disorienting and obstructed scenery. Embracing the “lie” or conceit of the scene, Iñárritu also added a surreal moment in the middle of the scene to add a poetic quality to the work. But in its attempts to trick us, the virtual component of the installation felt more like entertainment. For a few minutes I was completely entranced, though always aware of the artificiality. Other visitors have described being so immersed that they knelt down and answered the border agent when requested to do so. Thus, the lack of realism in the virtual environment did not hinder its ability to convey an experience that could induce empathy in the viewer.
In a talk hosted by The Phillips Collection, Iñárritu spoke about being reminded of the Mexican muralists when he was endeavoring to capture the visual texture of being in the desert at sunset. However, the allusion to the Mexican muralists more interestingly highlights the notion that art need not always be realistic or seamless—as is often the aspiration for virtual reality—for it to inspire and move. The Mexican muralists were never preoccupied with portraying realistic people. Rather, their goals were often political, and they sometimes attempted to inspire action, raise awareness of a cause, and convey the dramatic through purposefully disjointed imagery displayed at an immersive scale. Iñárritu’s virtual scene was also derived from separate bits of information, from the interviews and reenactments, to form a cohesive narrative. The conglomerated narratives and visuals in Mexican murals serve as an apt visual analogy to the similarly discrete aspects of the computationally cohered virtual scene and the partitioned elements that constitute the installation as a whole. The relationships that can be drawn between the work of the Mexican muralists and Carne y Arena indicate a lineage from the former to the latter.
The installation also has strong notes of processing. The viewer is pushed through different stages in the installation, able only to proceed under the order of an anonymous and distant authority. Fluorescent lights, alarms, stainless steel benches, lack of human contact, and electronics make much of the environment feel cold, detached, artificial, and mechanical. The word carne can also mean meat and the processing one undergoes in this installation almost makes one feel like a bag of meat, tossed from room to room and between emotional highs and lows.
I am still processing my own experience as traces of it are ingrained in my memory. Carne y Arena is a necessary work in the current climate in which the dehumanization of undocumented immigrants and anti-immigrant rhetoric seems to have reached a new height. The installation is also reflective of the flood of conversations surrounding immigration that have preoccupied the mainstream media as of late. Despite the installation having already been shown in various cities across the globe, my only disappointment is that the work is not reaching more people.
 The verse is as follows: “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.”1 Cor. 15:50, KJV.
 The Phillips Collection, “Carne y Arena: Art and Technology,” Posted [June 2018], at 38:55.
 Ibid, at 21:38.
 Other analogies between the discrete visuals in modern art and those produced by computational means have been thoroughly discussed in: Meredith Hoy, From Point to Pixel: A Genealogy of Digital Aesthetics, 2017.
Carne y Arena is on view through the summer at 1611 Benning Road NE, Washington, D.C. 20002. Tickets are required and released every two weeks. More information can be found here: carneyarenadc.com
This article was funded in part by a grant from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation. Visit their website at www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.com