- Immersion and Immiseration:Alejandro González Iñárritu's Carne y Arena
I was born in the United States, and every time I've left, it's been by choice, for work or for pleasure. I travel volitionally, and my movement is largely unhindered. Although I have had some memorable encounters with the security state at airports and border crossings, in general, the worst I expect at these places is a hassle or a delay. My nationality, my whiteness, my cis-genderedness, my able-bodiedness, and the markers of my class status help expedite my transit or deflect the gaze of the state.1 Thus I cannot know the subject position of a person who comes to the United States under duress, in fear, or of necessity, as an undocumented migrant. But the virtual reality simulation Carney Arena promises that I and other similarly situated visitors might briefly be able to feel it. In their overwhelmingly positive responses to Carne, entertainment industry professionals, critics, and visitors marvel appreciatively at this possibility. However, I want to query both the affordances and limitations of this mediation of migrant suffering by reflecting on my own experience of Carne and its broader reception. Carney Arena (Flesh and Sand) is perhaps the highest-profile exemplar of a burgeoning genre of VR documentaries and simulations inspired by humanitarian crises. In what follows, I depart cautiously from the consensus about their goodness and efficacy to mark the dynamics of privilege, pleasure, and spectatorship operative within them. Although these media objects offer spectators uniquely multimodal encounters with circumstances radically different than their own, their staging of both immersion and immiseration generates a vexed form of empathy that demands further critical consideration.
Carne y Arena is a six-and-a-half-minute simulation in which visitors witness, or experience, or participate in (I don't know what verb best describes the work of VR spectatorship) a violent encounter between a small group of migrants and the US Border Patrol that unfolds in a desert landscape. Its creator, Alejandro González Iñárritu, averred that his goal for the project was to give people the experience of "walking in the immigrants' feet, under their [End Page 1093] skin, and into their hearts."2 Carne premiered at Cannes as the festival's first-ever VR "official selection" in October 2017, and subsequently traveled to Italy, Mexico, and Los Angeles. Carne's longest run to date was from March to October 2018 in Washington, DC; I saw it there in mid-July.
With its somewhat opaque tagline, "virtually present … physically invisible," Carne offers visitors a sensation of proximity to undocumented migrants that does not include any actual contact with them. In this way, it inadvertently replicates what Greg Prieto describes as the founding contradiction of the Mexican immigrant experience in the United States: simultaneous inclusion and exclusion.3 Visitors' proximity to the migrants is virtual and immaterial; the projection into their feet, skin, and hearts may be deeply felt, but it is also entirely imagined. The simulation's capacity to facilitate a mediated introjection into a radically different subject position is the locus of its power, but also the feature that raises the thorniest questions.
The first successful experiments with virtual reality occurred in the 1970s, but these applications were mostly specialized for industry. More affordable, functional, and consumer-friendly devices like the Oculus Rift headset came to market in the mid-2010s, a period also marked by a drive to integrate VR into humanitarian projects. In November 2015 the New York Times launched its VR platform with a documentary called The Displaced. To capture the audience for this project, the Times delivered Google Cardboard viewing devices to more than one million subscribers, who received them with their Sunday papers. This rudimentary pair of goggles licensed unprecedented access to the refugee crisis, as told from the perspectives of three children.4 Similarly, Clouds over Sidra, a VR documentary produced through a partnership between the UN and Samsung, which premiered earlier that year, offered viewers an immersive window onto the life of a twelve-year-old...