Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s ‘Carne y Arena’ Lets Audiences Live the Immigrant Experience

As the Uncanny Valley becomes increasingly narrow for graphic artists, the applications of CGI are finally moving out of so-called “low art” mediums like videogames and into the realm of fine art. The potential of full-blown, multi-dimensional art experiences, a la “Björk Digital,” has only barely been glimpsed at this point. But now that placing the audience in an immersive environment no longer requires painstaking construction, it seems like it is easier than ever to redefine the boundaries of what can be seen, felt and implied.

Such is the case with Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s new VR installation “Carne y Arena (Virtually present, Physically invisible),” which opens at LACMA on July 2. The acclaimed director of “Babel,” “Birdman,” and “The Revenant” has turned his focus toward the immigrant and refugee experience, providing a vast open space to allow audiences to walk through a six and a half minute VR experience, crossing a virtual Sonoran Desert in search of a better life. The state-of-the-art exhibit features immersive, multi-narrative interactivity as audiences live through these harrowing realities and interact with the individuals they meet during their journey.

The stories are based on the experiences of actual refugees that Iñárritu met during his research for the project. “I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing many Mexican and Central American refugees,” Iñárritu says. “Their life stories haunted me, so I invited some of them to collaborate with me in the project. My intention was to experiment with VR technology to explore the human condition in an attempt to break the dictatorship of the frame, within which things are just observed, and claim the space to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts.”

Aside from the countless individuals brave enough to share their stories with Iñárritu, the acclaimed director also produced this piece with frequent collaborator and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Birdman,” “The Revenant”), producer Mary Parent, and ILMxLAB – an immersive entertainment wing of Lucasfilms.

Given the rhetoric surrounding the most recent election cycle, this exhibition promises to have no shortage of challenging statements about the living, breathing humans that are often written off as aliens or scapegoated toward political ends. And as “the superficial lines between subject and bystander are blurred and bound together” as LACMA claims, the installation offers limitless possibilities for empathy. If this installation is as groundbreaking as early reviews seem to indicate, this may be a vital step toward understanding our neighbors – not just through our eyes, but also their own.

CARNE y ARENA (Virtually present, Physically invisible)” opens at LACMA July 2.