When Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu premiered his new virtual reality installation piece Carne y Arena at the Cannes Film Festival this year, it was celebrated as a new high-water mark for the medium. Created in collaboration with Industrial Light & Magic xLab, the project drops participants inside a harrowing run across the US-Mexico border — highlighting both the horrifying steps those seeking a better life for their families are willing to take, as well as the terror and inhumane treatment that can follow if they’re caught.
It’s a mesmerizing, heartbreaking piece, and while the experience of Carne y Arena undeniably delivers on VR’s endlessly-discussed potential as an “empathy machine,” it’s actually the physical, real-world bookends that set-up and conclude the piece that lend it context and emotional depth. Its triumph isn’t one of virtual reality, expertly executed — though it is that — but rather of the tremendous power that different types of immersive experiences can have when they’re woven together, creating bracing new ways to make audiences think and feel.
I recently had the opportunity to experience Carne y Arena at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it recently opened (it’s also currently showing at Fondazione Prada in Milan). Visitors go in alone, and after reading some text from Iñárritu about why he created the piece in the first place — his intention was to “allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts” — my first stop was a holding room nicknamed a “freezer.”
A physical experience as much as a virtual one
It was a cold, sterile space, with a series of uncomfortable metal benches lined up against the walls. Scattered across the floor were battered shoes and a dusty backpack. As some text on the wall explained, the pieces of clothing had been recovered from the desert near the border between Mexico and Arizona; left behind by people that had tried to make their way to US soil, only to be snatched up by the US Border Patrol, or disappeared by the very individuals they’d paid to help them cross in the first place.
As instructed, I sat down to remove my socks and shoes, and placed them in a nearby locker. And then… I waited. The room was unnervingly cold, even with the sweatshirt I was wearing, and that was precisely the point. Freezers are where Border Patrol tosses those rounded up in sweeps, leaving refugees and immigrants to shiver in the holding rooms for days at a time. As the minutes stretched on, I realized I had no idea how long I was going to be in the room, or even when the overall experience would end. I was just stuck there, cold and isolated — the first time I realized Iñárritu had creating a physical experience as much as he had a virtual one.
Abruptly, an alarm bell sounded, red lights flashing: my cue to leave the room. And like the piece of cattle I’d been made to feel like, I headed dutifully through the next door. Beyond it was a massive room, dimly lit by a glowing orange light that ran horizontally along one wall. As my eyes adjusted, I made out two people silhouetted in the darkness. I stepped towards them — my feet crunching in the sand that was suddenly underfoot.
The two attendants helped me slip on a backpack and Oculus Rift headset, but it was perhaps the least technology-focused VR experience I’ve ever taken part in. There were no controllers to fiddle with or visible sensors in the room, and no one asked me if I’d tried other headsets before. It was simply a matter of slipping the Rift on, and being informed that I’d be gently guided by a human hand if I started getting too close to a wall. Then, without fanfare, I was simply in the middle of the desert.
While the characters in Carne y Arena are computer-generated, the landscape itself was captured traditionally, and it’s clear almost immediately that both a world-class filmmaker and cinematographer (Iñárritu’s long-time collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki) are at work. The desert at dawn is breathtaking, even with the gritty resolution of a modern headset, and the feel of sand beneath my feet grounded me almost instantly. I watched as a group of immigrants approached, exhausted from their travels. I walked around to each of them, noting that they varied in age — ranging from a young man to a grandmother. Getting too close to their faces revealed the plastic, uncanny valley issues that still afflict most CG characters in this kind of environment, but their body movements were nuanced and subtle, a step up from what I’d come to expect.
My instinct was to run — but Border Patrol agents had already blocked my escape
Behind me, I detected the distant beat of helicopter blades. I craned my neck and spotted the vehicle approaching in the slowly brightening sky. Before I knew it, the helicopter was upon us, wind blasting down on me (an incredibly effective bit of sensory tie-in). My instinct was to run, so I turned back around — only to see a Border Patrol vehicle and officers swoop in to block my escape, guns drawn.
As a VR experience unto itself, Carne y Arena can be considered a cousin to the kind of journalistic work pioneered by Nonny de la Peña. Iñárritu talked to many immigrants that had made the journey across the border, and it’s both their individual stories and their motion-captured avatars that populate the piece. But he’s clearly not just interested in a literal representation of their experiences. Over its nearly seven minute running time, Carne y Arena also delves into the dreamlike — at one point, a wooden table appears in the middle of the fray, with children on either side watching a tiny boat filled with refugees overturn and sink into its surface — and the abstract. Abrupt cuts and context shifts, traditionally problematic in VR, are used to great effect, putting the viewer in the same mindset of disorientation and fear that the immigrants themselves are facing as they’re zip-tied in the desert sand. And then, just as the chaos of the round-up seems to be reaching its peak, everyone is just suddenly gone.
That’s when I found myself walking alone in the desert once more. And as I crossed the terrain, I saw them: discarded shoes and a backpack, left behind by the people I’d just seen swept away. Perhaps the same shoes and backpack I’d encountered in the freezer minutes before.
The final part of Carne y Arena’s triptych is a video installation, and it brought the entire experience home. Facing an unbroken stretch of border fence was a black wall with nine windows set at eye level. Within each a video clip was playing: a single close-up of one of the people portrayed in the VR experience, with text explaining their struggles and travails in their own words. A woman who had worked relentlessly so she could afford to bring her family over one by one, a Border Patrol officer with no respect for those who can’t find empathy for people eager to start a better life; their faces simply stared at me as I read their stories. In virtual reality, I’d observed their ordeals, unable to intervene. But here, their direct gaze became an emotional call to action: these were real people, and simply observing them wasn’t an acceptable option.
It’s tempting to discuss Carne y Arena just as a virtual reality experience. A filmmaker on the level of Iñárritu getting involved in the medium is what many hope will elevate it to the point where mainstream adoption is truly within reach. But the greatest takeaway from the piece is that VR alone isn’t enough — not to deliver the kind of rich emotional experience Iñárritu was interested in delivering, at least. Carne y Arena’s physical bookends aren’t bells and whistles; they’re part of the core conceit of the piece itself. The reveal of the discarded shoes in the VR short directly pays off the time audiences spend in the freezer; the last segment with the wall of videos takes the terror of the virtual segment, and makes it heartbreakingly personal. None of the three sections fully work without the other two, resulting in a multi-tiered experience that does more than just toy with the idea of replicating someone else’s life experiences. It actually tries to convey the emotional horror of them, using a mix of physicality and artistic interpretation.
Iñárritu is focused on delivering the best emotional experience, not simply the best virtual one
Obviously, augmenting virtual reality with real-world, physical elements isn’t new. Full-blown hybrid arcades like The Void mix the two extraordinarily well, and even smaller solutions like Nomadic’s modular system are incredible in the way they enhance the sense of presence while in VR. While Carne y Arena’s use of sand and wind machines do give its headset portion a wonderful sense of tactile immediacy, it’s a very different kind of impact than actually sitting in a physical recreation of a freezer, not knowing how long you’ll be there, or what will happen next.
Ultimately, Iñárritu has built something focused on delivering the best emotional experience, not simply the best virtual one, and that’s where Carne y Arena’s power lies. In the rush to experiment in a burgeoning medium, VR is being used to try to replicate every environment possible, and that kind of experimentation is vital. But all too often, little thought is given to presentation, or whether a particular experience is even well-suited to VR in the first place. The entirety of Carne y Arena could have been delivered through a headset — things similar to the freezer portion already exist in projects like 6x9 — but that wouldn’t have been the most impactful way to deliver this experience, or the most engaging one.
Recognizing that immersive entertainment can be more than just VR — that it can include physical locations, art installations, and mixed reality elements — is going to be vital, particularly as the industry focuses on location-based entertainment. For creators, that may very well be the meta-lesson from Iñárritu’s evocative and heartbreaking piece: expand your toolbox when possible, and use the best medium for the story you want to tell. The filmmaker himself seemed to understand that by deciding to move away from traditional cinema for this project in the first place. Given how incredibly effective Carne y Arena’s mix of physical and virtual is, perhaps other creators will too.