Inside this unassuming building, a virtual-reality experience lets you step into a profound drama at the U.S. border. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

How did your family get here?

On a grand vessel with a grand name, or in the treacherous belly of a slave ship? Did they brave the crush at Ellis Island or flip open foreign passports to display visas as they strode into JFK Airport? Did a small boat carry them here in the cloak of night, rocking and churning for all of a 200-odd mile journey? Or did they pad across a rocky desert on foot, vulnerable to the blazing sun and growing thirst, at the mercy of the very people guiding them forward?

Set aside for a moment your personal politics around legal and illegal immigration, and recognize that this is our shared American story: For many of us, our ancestors came here from somewhere, propelled by war, hunger, the threat of violence, the promise of religious freedom or, sometimes, plain starry-eyed ambition. What is forever changing is how people get here, how we greet, or instinctively reject, their arrival — and what trials they face in pursuit of a new life.

That’s the notion that stayed with me, like the gravelly sand that stuck to my tights, after I slipped off the virtual-reality goggles and emerged from “Carne y Arena,” the immersive and high-tech new installation from film director Alejandro G. Iñárritu that opened in Washington in late March. Awarded a special Oscar last year for its daring storytelling, it lands in the nation’s capital on a wave of escalating buzz and just as the current administration proposes unprecendented measures to curb legal and illegal immigration. It’s no wonder, then, that “Carne y Arena” (or “flesh and sand” in Spanish) is quickly shaping up to be this year’s most intriguiging experience — and one of its most in-demand tickets.

Roughly 7,000 guests will pass through the installation before it ends Aug. 31, and it’s almost certain that each one will draw different conclusions than I did. Although “Carne y Arena” straps every visitor into the same seven-pound backpack, headphones and weighty VR goggles and deposits every visitor into the same 6½ -minute scenario — in the middle of the harrowing landscape of real Mexican and Central American border crossings, among a group of migrants caught in the snare of Border Patrol — the unique medium of virtual reality means we each walk away with a deeply personal experience.


Lina, a 53-year-old who immigrated from Guatemala, is just one of several people who inspired and formed part of the narrative in “Carne y Arena.” (Emmanuel Lubezki)

To tell you any more about what you see when the virtual world comes into focus would take away from it. But I can say this: What you do with those minutes, how you embrace the visceral reaction to your body being dropped into a new and strange place, is a litmus test for your worldview. The Washington Post’s film critic, Ann Hornaday, fell to her knees when she viewed the installation at its Cannes premiere last year.I did almost the exact opposite: I wrapped my arms around myself for warmth and shuffled toward the edges of the action, determined to gaze upon the scene rather than become a central character.

With the nation polarized over immigration policy, an installation about those who arrive by illegal means can appear to be a #Resist moment. But the Mexican-born director Iñárritu, best known for his Hollywood films (“The Revenant,” “Birdman,” “Amores Perros”), and his partner, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, began the process of bringing “Carne y Arena” to life five years ago. They interviewed migrants from Mexico and other Central American nations and used their stories and their faces to create the characters you’ll encounter in the virtual world. They spent a year simply working to grasp the still nascent technology, one that, in this case, can make you feel as if somebody else’s story is your own.

With its emphasis on experience, “Carne y Arena” isn’t all that different from Yayoi Kusama’s mirror rooms and even made-to-be-selfied spaces such as the Museum of Ice Cream. Immersive spaces are all the rage. But it’s likely to be the first art installation you’ve seen in a long while that insists you put your phone away. It offers no hashtags, makes no cheerful directives on how to “get in on the conversation.” It simply wants you to have a conversation.

A quick disclaimer: “Carne y Arena” can subject you to a surprisingly high level of discomfort. After reading this, maybe you’ll decide that it’s not how you want to spend a sunny spring afternoon. (The whole event is bookended by serene pre- and post-experience spaces with modern furniture and soothing lighting, perhaps to calm you on your way in and out, though I’m not convinced it’s not a subtle reminder of our safety and comfort.)

Although “Carne y Arena” is free, if you do want to attend, you can’t just walk up or wait in line. You must reserve your 15-minute time slot. Luckily, the next two-week block of tickets, for time slots April 16-30, will be released April 16, with more viewings planned through the spring and summer.

What else should you know? Read on.

It’s a solitary experience, almost from start to finish.

Arrive at the former Trinidad Baptist Church that houses “Carne y Arena” just across from a busy strip of discount shops, and you’re in for a surprise: No line. Head to the left of the front doors to find the “pre-experience” tent and get checked in, and again, it’s likely you won’t find a throng of people, all thanks to staggered entry times. You’ll enter the installation one person at a time; rethink making a visit part of a date or a girls’ day out. Signs will direct you to put away your coat, shoes, socks and any bags, and then you’ll wait alone, too. Once you’re in the VR space, handlers will ensure that your equipment is working and that you don’t run into any walls but will hardly interact with you beyond that. You may do what you please in the virtual world.


Before stepping inside “Carne y Arena,” visitors must set aside their phones, coats, shoes and bags. (Emmanuel Lubezki)

What does virtual reality really mean?

Expect to be transported to a different place, if not time, where you’ll be able to move around and view an alternate world through your own eyes. Take a few seconds early on, before the action starts, to look around the stunning desert setting where “Carne y Arena” takes place. VR offers a 360-degree view, so you can walk in various directions and see the landscape change or look up and see the sky. I glanced to my right and even caught my own “shadow.” Headphones will fill your ears with voices and cawing birds. Cold gusts of wind blow, giving you real goose bumps. Characters seem to acknowledge your presence in their world. It can feel surreal.

No, you can’t Instagram-story it.

Your phones are allowed in the pre- and post- spaces, but really, there’s nothing to photograph here. Treat it as a brief escape from the texts and emails. Be here now, as they say.

Does it contain violence? Will I have any kind of physical reaction?

Don’t worry, even the skittish won’t blanch at Iñárritu’s footage. (It’s really not for children younger than 14, however.) But expect “Carne y Arena” to be as physical an experience as it is a psychic one. Part of stepping into the migrants’ world is being exposed to the same elements, including rocky ground, ambient sounds and weather — nothing most of us can’t handle. But then again, a few minutes after I left, I realized my legs were still shaking from the shock of it all. I had been anxious about motion sickness after feeling an immediate wallop of nausea seeing a virtual-reality art piece at last year’s Whitney Biennial in New York (where I practically spiked my goggles five seconds in).

But the motion in this virtual-reality scenario was much more seamless, and I didn’t have the slightest bit of queasiness. That said, organizers of the event do warn that “Carne y Arena” is not for those with “claustrophobia, heart conditions, back conditions, a history of seizures, epilepsy, and/or sensitivity to flashing lights.” On the way in, you’ll be asked to sign a waiver.

Stick around and watch the interviews.

Iñárritu thoughtfully ends the installation with transcripts of interviews from the real people who inspired and appear in “Carne y Arena.” Seeing their interviews, which are captioned in English and Spanish, illuminates much of what you’ll see and feel during your time inside. There are youths telling the stories of traveling alone, some who describe injuries, others who speak of their time in detention. Be sure to watch a heartbreaking story from a border officer.

Is there anywhere to go to decompress and talk about what I’ve seen?

The large and very comfortable “post-experience tent” is designed to foster conversations, and H street restaurant Maketto has even set up a free coffee and tea station, complete with barista, to give you a reason to hang around. But the site is close to an array of bars and cafes on the H Street NE corridor. Options include Maketto’s own cafe, or hop on the streetcar back to the other end of H, near Fourth, where you’ll find Fare Well, Sidamo Coffee, the Wydown coffee shop, Fancy Radish and other places.

Where is it?

“Carne y Arena” is installed at 1611 Benning Rd. NE, just past restaurant-filled H Street NE. You can get there with the usual car-sharing apps or taxi, via the X1, X2, X3 and X9 buses, or the D.C. Streetcar, which is free, by boarding at any of its stops on H Street NE. Exit at the 15th Street NE stop, and walk to the exhibit. There is free parking in a clearly marked lot next to the church, so if public transportation isn’t an option for you, have no fear. You can drive.

How should I get tickets?

A block of tickets is released every other Monday at 8 a.m. The next release is April 16 at carneyarenadc.com.

At the site of a former church at 1611 Benning Rd. NE.

Dates and hours:
Reservable slots are from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily through Aug. 31.

Admission: Free.