A chilling VR experience, set at the US border, is worth getting scared for

Empathy cathedral.
Empathy cathedral.
Image: Agatha Bacelar/Emerson Collective
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President Donald Trump has characterized illegal immigrants as “smugglers and traffickers.

The most powerful art show in Washington, DC shows the experience of unauthorized immigrants and refugees at the American border from a very different perspective.

Housed in a special-built theater inside the Trinidad Baptist Church in northeast DC, Carne y Arena (flesh and sand in Spanish) offers an unforgettable immersion into an encounter between refugees and the U.S. Border Patrol—one that makes it difficult to believe that many people would volunteer for such an ordeal if they weren’t desperate.

Academy-award winning filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu, known for critically-adored films as Amores Perros, Babel, Birdman and The Revenant, based the production on his interviews with actual Central American and Mexican refugees who crossed the US border. “Their life stories haunted me, so I invited some of them to collaborate with me in the project,” writes Iñárritu in a statement. “I’ve experimented with VR technology to explore the human condition in an attempt to break the dictatorship of the [movie] 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.” The result is both educational and haunting.

Carne y Arena is designed to be experienced alone, and Iñárritu planned the immersive VR experience with no escape.

The deceptively soothing antechamber with boat-shaped planters.
The deceptively soothing antechamber with boat-shaped planters.
Image: Anne Quito / Quartz

The first room is chilly and filled with piles of dusty shoes strewn all over floor. A small caption on the wall notes that they’re real, worn-out shoes left by immigrants and their small children as they crossed the border. Some of the shoes even belong to people who didn’t make it alive. You deposit your own shoes in a cold, silver locker reminiscent of that in a morgue.

The second area is a vast red-tinted room, with powdery desert sand covering the entire floor. Two sullen figures in the middle of the room strap VR goggles, a backpack, and headphones on you. They say not to worry, everything will be fine as the room closes in.

Virtually there.
Virtually there.
Image: Emmanuel Lubezki

Then, the show begins. You’re alone in the Arizona desert. The sky is a beautiful pink-purple, birds fly overhead. A gaggle of Spanish-speaking people arrive and it appears that you’ve been cast in the role of an illegal immigrant. There’s a child, a grandmother, and frantic men, all speaking with their hearts in their throats.

As the herd moves north, a US Border Patrol helicopters thunders from a distance. Chakk-chackk-chak-chak, chak-a-chak-akk-a. They are loud. As the chopper catches up with you, a bright light floods the area and a group of US Border Patrol agents and their ferocious dogs appear to round them up. There’s a lot of commotion, and it’s inevitable that you “bump” into one for the panicked figures in your periphery. Then boom! You’re transported inside of him, staring at his animated red beating heart.

It’s only been 15 minutes, but it feels like an eternity.

After you collect your shoes, dust the sand from your feet, and reunite with your mobile phone, you pass through a corridor lined with videos featuring immigrants telling their stories about crossing the border.

Just out of the exhibit, there’s a cheerful café offering free refreshments and stacks of cookies under glass domes. “This is a place to decompress,” says the nice, smiling attendant. The room is decorated like a spread from the Crate and Barrel catalogue.

As you settle into the plush sofa, you realize that you can still feel the sand on your feet.

Carne y Arena will be in Washington DC until August 31. The show is free but reservations are required.