Carne y Arena: Art and Technology
Alejandro G. Iñárritu isn't interested in joining the political discussion on immigration. At least not when it concerns his virtual reality installation piece, CARNE y ARENA (Virtually present, Physically invisible), that opened last year at the 70th Cannes Film Festival. What Iñárritu is interested in, however, is immersing you in a very raw, complex human experience, in an environment from which you cannot escape.
Monday night, the Academy Award-winning director sat down with Jenna Pirog (Director of Immersive Experiences at National Geographic and former Virtual Reality Editor at the New York Times) at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. to discuss the powerful installation to a sold-out crowd. I haven't experienced the installation yet which arrived in D.C. in March (although I've tried - it has sold out within mere minutes of ticket release) but it wasn't a pre-requisite to understand the vision of Iñárritu's work. It was clear there was no political agenda, at least not one Iñárritu consciously intended, but rather a desire to tell a story that often gets overlooked, that of the migrant.
Very often we hear migration stories from many perspectives but from the ones who matter the most. The very real experience of leaving one's home country to a new, unknown land gets white-washed and politicized, and this multi-layered human experience suddenly becomes a detached for/against debate that fails to capture the intensity of these situations. Iñárritu's work, however, attempts to solve that problem and put you in their shoes... or quite literally out of it as you are instructed to experience the installation barefoot.
Virtual Reality (or VR) is not new and when Iñárritu first began thinking about VR about 6-7 years ago, the technology was, according to him, "shit." But with time the technology got better and his use for it grew stronger. He interviewed hundreds of immigrants all over Latin America and through these stories, pieced together the complexities of what can be seen as a universal migration story within Carne y Arena.
What struck me was Iñárritu's absolute rejection of technological advancement for vanity's sake. And this isn't a mark against the selfie-generation. Iñárritu makes no remarks on Instagram, selfies, or other self-indulging habits. Instead, all of humankind can learn to use what might be seen as pure entertainment and apply it toward's our own salvation.
Like Iñárritu, I've only really experienced VR platforms intended to entertain you in some way. Iñárritu mentions the Michael Bayesque appeal VR has. I, myself, have played around with VR when after watching Stephen King's film adaptation, It, the audience was given a cheap headset to place our cell phones and a website link. It was creepy and a little cheesy but this is what I expect when I hear about VR.
This isn't to say there hasn't been an attempt to create more meaning out of this technology. Aside from being another tool from which artists can express their ideas, museums like the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden have used it to bring accessibility to a wildly popular exhibition, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, re-creating the artists' light installations. And there are plenty of other VR experiences meant to sway your emotions towards empathy for various social issues (VR is apparently called the "empathy machine").
But what's so different here is the combination of all the senses, not just the visual. Iñárritu doesn't just show you around the desert, he wants you to feel the sand underneath your feet, the wind on your back, and to remove the safety of detachment from the experience. You are now the migrant, regardless of your politics. I'm sure there are other similar VR experiences that attempt to engage all of the senses, but for obvious reasons, my ears perked when I first came across this installation.
It is no secret that the Latinx community in the United States as a whole is under duress. In a time when the safety of our black and brown communities are being more openly threated by the highest powers that be, CARNE y ARENA can serve to create more white allies and empower those who might have otherwise stayed silent.
I've always believed in the power of art but never imagined its power could be so directly applied. Surely, Iñárritu understood the political implications of his work, no matter how unintentional. The ability to change hearts and minds sounds like the imagination of a bleeding heart but to people of color it is a matter of actual life and death. Without having immersed myself in Iñárritu's VR installation, I can't quite say what worked and what didn't but I'm not sure I would care either way. The Latinx community needs to be heard, both in politics and in art, and I'm thankful that Iñárritu found a way to combine both. ✻
For tickets and information on CARNE y ARENA, visit carneyarenadc.com.
Featured image of CARNE y ARENA, 2017. A user in the experience, Photo credit: Emmanuel Lubezki.