After being premiered at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, the Virtual Reality installation “Carne y Arena” by Alejandro G. Inarritu is now open to the public at Fondazione Prada in Milan until 15th January 2018.
“Carne y Arena” (“Flesh and Sand”) drags people into an extreme but real circumstance, the experience teleports them inside a situation which, despite involving the lives of millions of people, most of us, are used to watching with coolness and indifference on television: the crossing of the border between Mexico and the United States.
Alejandro G. Inarritu is a film director who already has proved his excellent ability in telling stories with the cinematic medium, but this time he needed something else, a new tool, a new technology in order to move people’s souls in a deeper way for what concerns a serious topic as the one of migrants’ crisis.
Therefore, the director has decided to experiment with a new medium as VR and to create an unprecedented experience.
Collaborating with the well-known director of photography – Emmanuel Lubezki, with whom he already completed two feature films (“Birdman” and “The Revenant”) and also with a team of VR experts, Inarritu, with “Carne y Arena,” pushes the boundaries of Virtual Reality, both from a technological and expressive standpoint.
Because I admire Inarritu’s feature films and I work in the VR industry, I couldn’t miss this opportunity to see a film director experimenting with the VR medium. That’s why I booked my session immediately after Fondazione Prada made tickets available. It goes without saying that all the slots available have flown off the shelves.
Once I arrived at Fondazione Prada, people at the reception asked me to leave all my stuff in their cloakroom, wallet and phone included, in order to avoid distractions and to let me live the experience to the fullest.
I am now in front of a building named “Deposito” (warehouse), a big building that lets you imagine how much space there might be in there. Only after the experience I’ll understand why they decided to set the installation here.
At the entrance, a girl from the staff warns me that they got a few minutes of delays because the technology adopted to run the experience is very high-end and it is easy to have some little technical problems. This news doesn’t sound bad at all to my ears, but rather enhances my excitement and expectations about it.
The girl contacts the technical team inside and as soon as she receives the greenlight, I step through the door.
The entrance of the installation is wrapped by darkness, on a wall there is a caption (backlighted) which explains briefly the thinking behind “Carne y Arena”. Once I’ve finished to read the caption, I proceed through to the next room. I’m in front of a cold metal door. I open it and enter an aseptic room. The faint cold light makes the room slightly visible, the ceiling is low, no windows and there are used and worn shoes all over the place. A new caption on the wall says that these shoes have been found in the desert where thousands of people decided to cross the border between Mexico and United States, defying the law and nature.
On the wall, there are also some instructions. They say to take my shoes off, put them inside a locker, have a seat on a metallic bench and wait for the sound of a red siren. Only then I could open the next door.
While I was waiting, I’ve forgotten of the world out there, of my appointments and things to do that day. I was ready to live the experience in the most intense way. I also started to observe more intensely the shoes around me and I asked myself: “Who they belonged to? What terrains they have been through? How long did they walk? And, moreover, what happened to these people?”
My thinking is rudely interrupted by the siren: an incessant and sever sound, loud, definitely loud.
I open the door and this time the room is very wide, also the ceiling is very high and reminds me of a warehouse.
Immediately after my first step in this new room, I feel the terrain made of sand under my feet. Like the previous one, this room is also weakly illuminated but I can recognize two human profiles in the centre of the room waiting for me. Without saying much words to me, they help me to put on the headset, headphones and a backpack.
Few seconds and I’m in the middle of the desert, immense, boundless. On my skin, I feel a breeze. In the distance, I see a group of people coming towards me. The experience has begun.
Because I don’t want to spoil the VR experience to the reader I’m not going to describe it but I can tell you this: for the whole duration of the experience I had goose bumps.
My engagement was full, visceral, so much so that I’ve reacted very instinctively to the events of the story.
Once the VR experience was over and I took off all the devices, I proceeded through to the next room. This new room was similar to the first one, smaller but without the shoes all over the place. There was a locker where I found my shoes.
Even in this room I have to wait for the sound of the siren and while I was waiting I had time to think about the experience I’ve just lived.
After a few minutes, the siren activates and I enter the last room where I see on the wall the faces of those people I’ve met in VR. Faces of real people, with some lines on their backstory, from where they come, why they left their hometown and what they went through when crossing the border.
In conclusion, “Carne y Arena” is an experiential journey and for this reason is difficult to explain with words the emotions I felt in that moment. I decided not to spoil the VR experience, hoping the reader will be interested in experiencing it personally. The choice of creating an entire multi-sensory installation proved to be successful. Dividing the installation into different rooms, which I’d call “acclimatisation room,” “experience room” and “reflection room,” contributes to give more strength to the VR experience, empowering the impact and generating more intense emotions in the visitor.
We must acknowledge Innarritu for being wise and gentle while recreating a story of this kind without taking a position on a sensitive and difficult topic like this.
He decided to let “common” people experience an event (happening right now, even when the reader is reading this) that is “common” among millions of people.
“Carne y Arena” is the result of many years of research did by the director, who wanted to be as true as possible to reality. It is not a case where the techniques adopted are those that are capable of delivering a staggering sense of realism like the one of “motion-capture” which captures faithfully actors’ movements, or the one of “photogrammetry” that allows to re-create very credible environments.
Without any doubts, “Carne y Arena” pushes the boundaries of VR forward both as technology and medium. The hope is, also and especially, that this “push”, offered by an immersive medium as VR, is going to move people’s hearts, to make them more informed and aware on this topic. Without a widely held perception we cannot hope that a similar situation can take a turn for the better.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “CARNE y ARENA (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible),” is a Virtual Reality installation produced and financed by Legendary Entertainment and Fondazione Prada.
Included in the Official Selection of the 70th Festival de Cannes, the project is currently presented in its extensive full version in the Deposito at Fondazione Prada in Milan.
From 7 June now to 15 January 2018
10 EUR (access to the VR installation only)
Online reservation required. This exhibition is for individuals that are at least 16 years old. Visitors below 16 years of age could access the exhibition under certain conditions. Terms and conditions apply. Please visit <http://www.fondazioneprada.org/project/carne-y-arena/?lang=en>for more information.