CARNE y ARENA virtual reality montreal

Alejandro González Iñárritu

Oscar-winning VR experience Carne y arena simulates the drama of border crossing

Filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work is being presented in Montreal by PHI Centre.

There is a poignant difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy deals with the ability to understand someone’s situation and feel for what they are going through. Empathy takes this notion a step further. Empathy is the ability to walk in another person’s shoes for a deeper understanding of them. Carne y arena — the Academy Award-winning virtual reality experience by visionary director Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant and Birdman) — intertwines art and technology to allow its audience to exude empathy in ways one could never have imagined.

Carne y arena (translation: flesh and sand) first premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. The experience leads its viewers through a dreary desert to a border crossing in which a group attempting to make it from Mexico to the United States is stopped, its members taunted and arrested by the border patrol. 

Carne y arena takes place within multiple rooms at l’Arsenal Contemporary Art, as presented by the PHI Centre. Participants are first taken into a freezing cold room covered with beaten up shoes and are asked to take off their own. This is meant to simulate a detention centre. After a long wait, an alarm sounds and directs visitors to a dark room covered in sand. There lies a virtual reality headset and a backpack. “This is in case I need to pull you back from hitting the walls,” explains a guide.

Carne Y Arena montreal virtual reality
Carne y arena is on at l’Arsenal Contemporary Art until June 20. Photo via Sandra Larochelle

The PHI Centre tells me that Carne y arena is taking place at l’Arsenal due to there being more room to engage and fulfill the artistic vision. So there is plenty of room to roam around in this virtual reality experience.

The relations between the non-citizens and the border patrol offers a range of engagement. Dropping to the ground as officers scream “Get down on your knees!” is just as captivating as watching the fear in non-citizens eyes standing alongside the border patrol.

The juxtaposition of Carne y arena is fascinating. At once, virtual reality is a very high tech and privileged technology. Its pairing with the gritty experience of crossing the border makes for a thought-provoking journey into a world far outside of our comfort zones.

Carne y arena concludes with a third and final room that features a number of Mexican and Central American U.S. non-citizens detailing their traumatic experiences immigrating to the country. As it turns out, Iñárritu (who, incidentally, began shooting his latest film Limbo in Mexico City this month) sought out many of these individuals to help piece together the experience. This was achieved both through their stories and, in some cases, acting. 

Iñárritu uses a sensitive perspective to help turn Carne y arena into an empathetic experience like no other. It is the most potent virtual reality experience I have ever engaged with. ■

Carne y arena, presented by the PHI Centre, is available at l’Arsenal Contemporary Art (2020 William) until June 20. For details, please click here.

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