Selena, a mother from Guatemala, has her image digitally re-created from "Carne y Arena." (Chachi Ramirez/Copyright Legendary)
Art and architecture critic

When it is over, you are cold, and alone, wondering who those people were, why they were treated so brutally, and what can be done to make the world right.

Until it closes, sometime late this summer, the hottest ticket in town is likely to be for “Carne y Arena,” a virtual-reality experience created by the Academy Award-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Installed in a converted church on Benning Road NE, near the bustling H Street Corridor, “Carne y Arena” uses architecture and virtual reality to immerse participants in a terrifying and topical vignette of modern life, the experience of fleeing violence, crossing borders and confronting the full fury of state power.

After interviewing refugees from Mexico and Central America, Iñárritu has distilled their experience into a 6 1/2- minute virtual-reality drama that places the spectator directly in the moment when exhausted and brutalized migrants are captured by American border agents, guns drawn, dogs barking and helicopters thundering overhead. It is a shattering experience.

Carne y Arena,” which roughly translates as “Flesh and Sand,” premiered last year at Cannes as the festival’s first virtual-reality Official Selection, and has been seen in Mexico City, Milan and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It arrives in Washington as President Trump’s border wall and the new, ardent nationalism of his supporters threaten to erase this country’s self-image as a haven for the oppressed. But Iñárritu, who includes in his woven stories the perspective of a U.S. Border Patrol agent haunted by his encounters with dehydrated and dying migrants, says his goal is to transcend political debate: “Once we intellectualize it and politics gets into it, everything is reduced and everything goes to vulgarity,” he said in an interview.

“I try to keep myself away from judgment and not take sides,” said the director, whose credits include “Babel,” “Birdman” and “The Revenant.”

The installation of “Carne y Arena” was no lightly scrubbed, quick-paint-job pop-up. It required not only converting a small church to incorporate a large, sand-covered space for the virtual-reality component, but also the design and construction of a waiting gallery for those with tickets, as well as museum-quality galleries and other rooms. Only one person can enter at a time, and visitors are allowed in at 15-minute intervals, though some will linger longer in the last gallery, which presents biographies of people seen in the virtual-reality room. Passersby will see the old church lined with the rusting metal barrier elements used in some places along the southern border, and a crisp, sleek wood-covered structure for the adjacent waiting lounge.


A user in the "Carne y Arena" experience. (Emmanuel Lubezki/Emmanuel Lubezki)

The experience begins with a brief introduction to the work before you enter a deliberately cold, sterile, cement-floored room with crude metal benches and two lockers for shoes, socks, bags and backpacks. This room mimics the holding cells for detained migrants, who speak of inhumanely cold temperatures and lack of privacy. The virtual-reality component, experienced in bare feet on sand, includes goggles, headphones and a backpack and allows the visitor to move freely through an illusionistic space that gives an uncanny sense of being alone in one of this country’s vast and breathtaking Southwestern deserts.

The medium of virtual reality is developing at an extraordinary pace. Iñárritu says, “I don’t think the technology is yet there, and there is still a lot to really get better.” But it was sufficiently developed that he felt he could use it now, even if that meant mustering all his directorial savvy to “hide all the limitations of the medium.” The experience he produced breaks free from traditional Hollywood narrative, dispensing with backstory and character development, to focus on what would be, in a traditional film, the climax of the story.

“I think this medium deserves to find its own language,” he says. “It should not carry that narrative tradition.” Rather, he believes, it should focus on a more abstract representation of space combined with a kind of proto-narrative. Without revealing what happens within the short drama, one can say this: It leaves you with a profound sense of being in the desert, before and after a trauma, and that sense of isolation and beauty combine with the residue of emotion to catalyze a deep sense of common human frailty and vulnerability.

Iñárritu’s work offers one answer to a powerful question raised by another virtual-reality experience at last year’s Whitney Biennial. Jordan Wolfson’s “Real Violence” focused all the power of the technology on a single, brutal scene of violence, in which a young man is beaten and stomped bloody and senseless, on a beautiful, sunny day in New York. It seemed to ask: Which way will this medium drive us, toward voyeurism or empathy? Iñárritu’s “Carne y Arena” answers: If used right, empathy is possible.


Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu directs a motion capture shoot for "Carne y Arena." (Chachi Ramirez/Copyright Legendary)

But what to do with that empathy? Americans have a tendency to think of immigration as a quintessentially American problem, when it is in fact a global issue, and one of the defining issues of our age. We haven’t yet comprehended what Hannah Arendt called “the right to have rights” and that no matter what our Constitution says, the United States has an obligation to defend that fundamental ur-right to have rights for everyone within its borders. Neither the United States nor the European Union quite comprehend the corrosive power of militarizing the border against refugees, and how the dehumanizing effects of encounters such as the one depicted in “Carne y Arena” may destroy the very ideals we believe we’re protecting.

So in Iñárritu’s work, the invitation to think beyond borders has both a political and aesthetic dimension. We see a nascent technology of fully immersive illusionism, which shatters the traditional frame of the camera, used to depict an episode of terror that should shatter any illusion we have that walls, guns, dogs or armed men brutalizing defenseless people are going to solve the global problem of migration. This feels like an epochal moment. For 2,500 years, at least, from the shadows of Plato’s Cave to the cycloramas of the 19th century to Hollywood and virtual reality, the species has dreamed warily of a form of storytelling that would put us in each other’s heads, in each other’s spaces, fully open to other realities.

“This technology can be used very badly, scarily badly,” Iñárritu says. A spokeswoman for the event declined to comment on the cost of the project, which was produced by the Fondazione Prada, the Emerson Collective and Legendary Entertainment. Until the technology is affordable, the development of this medium will probably fall to corporate actors and those who can attract substantial institutional support, which means it may not be a genuinely democratic art form for years to come. And the potential for political manipulation is indeed terrifying.

But this effort, which may in five years be seen as as primitive as the old flickering fantasies of the Lumière brothers, shows the potential of the medium’s capacity for utopian epiphanies.

Carne y Arena opens Monday at 1611 Benning Rd. NE. Advance tickets, which are free, are necessary. For more information, visit carneyarenadc.com.