Carne y arena intertwines border crossing with virtual reality

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

Carne y arena first premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. The experience leads its viewers through a border crossing through a dreary desert, in which a group attempting to make it from Mexico to the United States are stopped, 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 for if I need to pull you back from hitting the walls,” explains a guide.

Carne y arena is available at l’Arsenal Contemporary Art until June 20th. (photo via Sandra Larochelle)

There is plenty of room to roam around in this virtual reality experience. 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. 

The relations between the noncitizens and the border patrol makes for a diverse engagement. Dropping to the ground as the latter group scream “Get down on your knees!” is just as captivating as watching the fear in noncitizens 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. noncitizens detailing their traumatic experiences immigrating to the country. As it turns out, Iñárritu 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.

Earlier this month, Alejandro González Iñárritu began filming on Limbo, his new Spanish-language film. Legendary cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, Uncut Gems) serves as director of photography, with shooting taking place in Mexico City.

Carne y arena, presented by the PHI Centre, is available at l’Arsenal Contemporary Art until June 20th. Learn more information here.

For more Montreal arts coverage, please visit the Arts section.
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