Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu's 2006 film "Babel" includes as one of its interweaving narratives the story of an undocumented immigrant, a nanny searching the desert for two lost children under her care.
The interactive, virtual reality experience plunges the viewer quite literally into the footsteps of migrants on their desert journey.
"Carne y Arena" unfolds across three spaces. In the first, viewers are ushered alone into a frigid holding cell and instructed to remove their socks and shoes. You might wait shivering by yourself for 15 minutes or more.
The cement floor is littered with plastic water jugs and piles of footwear: dirty cowboy boots, sun-warped high tops, plastic baby sandals. All collected along a busy migrant corridor in the Arizona desert.
“And it felt like a (real) detention center actually,” says reporter Sergio Burstein from the Spanish-language newspaper Hoy Los Angeles. who ventured through the exhibit right after me.
“Obviously, it’s a very uncomfortable situation for someone who is detained,” says Burstein.
A loud buzzer breaks the spell, signaling me to move to the next space. The icy floor beneath my bare feet gives way to sand.
I’m alone in a large dark room, except for two technicians. They help me attach virtual reality goggles and headphones, and assure me it’s safe to walk in any direction. They’ll tug me back if I get too close to a wall.
Within seconds the room disappears.
I’m surrounded on all sides by an immense desert, whichever way I turn my head. If I walk toward some desert scrub, it gets closer, just as it would in real time. It shimmers in the predawn darkness.
I look up and a ribbon of morning light slowly spreads over a mountain range. Then I hear voices coming closer, and hurried footsteps thudding across the sand.
A group of breathless immigrants stumbles out and spreads around me across the sand.
A woman shushes a sobbing child. I turn around and see a mother cradling the child in her lap.
Out of nowhere it seems an SUV appears and screeches to a halt just feet from us. Whether I like it or not, I am now with this group of migrants.
There’s dust, shouting, people running. Guns are drawn. A helicopter roars overhead and shoots down a blinding spotlight.
A border agent shouts in my direction.
“Get down on the ground now!” he yells, his eyes fixed on me. I spot his rifle’s muzzle in the flashlight glare.
“Yeah, I started walking toward him like I wanted to punch him in the face,” says Burstein of his own experience. “That was crazy because it felt like a real thing, that was scary.”
This exhibit is Iñárritu's first major venture in the virtual reality plain, a project he worked on over a period of four years.
“I think that virtual reality allows the people to experience at least a fragment of a real event that happened to some person, for them to understand, deeper, a reality,” Iñárritu said during an interview sponsored by the Cannes Film Festival.
“The definition of cinema is: a reality that is composed within a frame. Virtual reality does not have a frame, so the limits dissolve. And it’s something you don't see only, but (that) you experience, too," Iñárritu said.
I was not able to speak to Iñárritu for this story, nor have reporters for most other media outlets. Media, and the general public, are also prohibited from recording or photographing any aspect of the exhibit.
The artist and the museum are trying to strike a delicate balance. There’s a concerted effort to keep exposure to a minimum so as to avoid spoilers and preserve the exhibit’s integrity, while making sure the message of the project reaches a large audience.
There’s no fixed end date for Alejandro Iñárritu's "Carne y Arena" exhibit, though tickets are sold out through early September.
"Carne y Arena’s" reality may be “virtual” but it does make the often abstract issue of immigration feel all too real, says Santa Monica-based filmmaker Ric Perez-Selsky. He’s been exploring the virtual reality realm in his own work.
“There was young men, there was old men, children. This (exhibit) really put a face on these people -- and it was the face of everyone across humanity,” says Perez-Selsky.
Once they move through the reality warp of the virtual experience, visitors get back into their shoes and slip into a dark space where they can regain their senses.
The walls are lined with portholes. Peer inside and a face blinks back at you. These are video portraits of immigrants whose real-life cross-border experiences informed details of the virtual reality segment.
They say nothing in the videos, just keep their gaze fixed in front. Text is superimposed over their impassive expressions. As you read their stories you’ve no choice but to look them in the eyes.
“There is no human being who as a result of desiring to build a better life should be declared illegal or considered disposable,” said Alejandro Iñárritu while speaking to an audience at LACMA's 2015 Art + Film Gala.
“I would rather propose to call these people undocumented dreamers, as were most of the people who founded this country,” says Iñárritu.
“By naming them that, we can start a real human conversation with the most precious emotion a human being can have: compassion.”