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Editor’s note, 1/13/21: Carne y Arena has been reopened after temporarily closing in November due to COVID-19 restrictions. The experience runs through January 30.
I’m sitting on a steel bench in a cold white room, waiting. Dirty shoes and plastic water jugs are scattered on the floor. Red letters on the walls tell me I’m to stay here until a light flashes next to the door I’m meant to go through. Suddenly, a voice comes over the loudspeaker, commanding me to take off my shoes and socks and place them in the stainless steel box on the wall. I feel like I’m in trouble.
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A minute passes before one of the lights starts blinking, leading me through the door into a dark, spacious room, illuminated only by a dim orange light. I feel like I’m stepping on sand as I approach the person waiting for me. She outfits me with a VR headset, and I’m suddenly transported to an open desert, and not the kind you see in pictures. I no longer feel like I’m in trouble—I’m afraid.
This is the beginning of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s, Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible), currently on display at the Hangar at Stanley Marketplace. Having produced and directed cinematic masterpieces such as Birdman, The Revenant, and others, Iñarritu continues to practice his bold storytelling techniques in this immersive virtual reality experience, in which participants can see—and feel—what it’s like for Mexican and Central American immigrants to cross the border in search of a better life.
The VR portion of the experience is all-encompassing. It’s a strange feeling knowing that what you are seeing is not actually happening—that the people traveling with you who are nearly dying from dehydration are not real; the border patrol agent yelling at you while pointing a gun to your forehead is not real. What a privilege that is.
But these experiences are based on true stories from refugees that Iñárritu met while creating this project. “There are no actors here. These are true stories re-enacted by the people who experienced them. Even some of the clothes they wear are pieces they wore while crossing the border” Iñárritu said in his artist statement for Carne y Arena.
Every detail of the installation is perfectly planned to add to the experience. The shoes seen in the white room, for example, are actual shoes that were found at the U.S.-Mexico border. And after you complete the immersive and the virtual reality portions of the exhibition, you’ll arrive at a black wall, where several pictures of immigrants’ faces are lined up, with a button under each image. Press a button, and you can read these individuals’ stories to better understand why they chose to flee their native countries—and what they encountered on their journeys.
Carne y Arena is short—it takes only about 20 minutes—but Iñárritu manages to fully captivate visitors from start to finish. I had to constantly remind myself that it was just VR to keep myself from bursting into tears.
And that visceral response is purposeful. Iñárritu states that the project started growing in his mind over a decade ago—the traveling exhibit was first shown in Washington D.C. and Amsterdam, and will open in Montreal in December—and he wanted to find a personal way to present these stories. “The experience was cathartic and emotional. After many years, their memories finally have a public face,” Iñárritu said.
If you go: Carne y Arena is open on select days at the Hangar at Stanley Marketplace in Aurora through January 30. Visitors must reserve their tickets ($35–$55) in advance, as they will not be available for purchase at the site. Extensive safety protocols, including disinfecting the VR headset with ultraviolet lights, have been implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19.