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Trust Us, You Should Catch This Eye-Opening Virtual Reality Experience Before It Leaves Dallas

A new VR experience in Fair Park wants viewers to open their minds and senses to the plights and stories of Mexican and Central American immigrants.
A new VR experience in Fair Park wants viewers to open their minds and senses to the plights and stories of Mexican and Central American immigrants. Madalene Garcia
No trip to the movie theater or opera is comparable to the intense and core-shaking immersive experience taking place at Fair Park’s Food & Fiber Pavilion. From now until April 18, you should make time to visit the virtual reality exhibition Carne y Arena (Flesh and Sand), which plunges guests into an intense scene between refugees crossing the border into the United States and Border Patrol agents.

This installation, written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, was presented a special Academy Award in 2017 and is based on the true stories of Mexican and Central American immigrants. Iñárritu, the acclaimed director of films such as The Revenant, Birdman and Babel, interviewed many refugees for the project and was inspired by their haunting stories to create an experience that would allow viewers to be a part of a chaotic and heart-wrenching scene, a common one for many who attempt the journey into America by foot.

This 20-minute exhibition is meant for guests to travel through alone, with no phone or photography use permitted. It begins with a brief statement from the exhibition's creators that is heard while standing in a small pitch-black room. Individuals are then prompted to enter a solemn gray area that is well below normal room temperature with faded articles of footwear scattered throughout the floor. There are instructions on the wall that ask guests to remove their socks and shoes and then they quietly wait for a flashing alarm to signal that it is time to enter the next phase of the experience. The time between removing footwear and being moved to the next room is several minutes-long, depressing and tense. The only information on the wall aside from the instructions is a short description of the shoes that decorate the room, these were all abandoned in the desert by migrants attempting to complete the dangerous trek toward the American dream.

When the alarms go off, guests enter a room filled with dirt and sand underneath their bare feet. They are met by a person who simply assists with handling the virtual reality equipment and they are handed a backpack to wear throughout the chilling six-minute experience. When the goggles are worn, viewers are transported to an arid desert setting and come face-to-face with a group of immigrant adults and children who are wailing in exhaustion from their long journey. Suddenly the Border Patrol is among them with flashing sirens, pointed guns and whirring helicopters above. The scenario between the two groups is stomach turning as the migrants plead and cry in despair, desperate for food, water and safety while met with angry commands in English.

Reactions from viewers vary. On the day we visited, some chose to watch the scene from behind a virtual cactus or others froze in place, obeying the all-too-real shouts from the Border Patrol. The experience ends with an agent, hand on the trigger, screaming directly at the viewer to get down on the ground. Then the screen goes black.

Once guests have taken part in the unnerving experience, they leave the room and are led to a quiet dark hall with digital images of real-life people such as Lina, 53, from Guatemala, Luis, 36, from Mexico or Amaru, 20, from El Salvador. Guests are able to spend a couple of minutes reading through each immigrant’s stories and learn about the sacrifices and risks they took for the possibility of better lives. Each refugee has their own narrative. Some gained success in the States while others struggle with the complicated legal processes that hinder them in becoming citizens.

When the experience is now over, guests have the chance to write the director a handwritten note before they make their way out of the venue. Some guests looked too stunned to do so, with most unsure of how to process this heartbreaking scenario, a sad reality for so many people.

This exhibition has traveled internationally and been presented in Mexico City, Amsterdam and Milan and debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017 as the first virtual reality piece shown in the festival’s history. It has also made stops at American museums and was shown at the Denver Center for Performing Arts and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

The current viewing of Carne y Arena has made its way to Dallas in association with the Nasher Sculpture Center and the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Tickets begin at $35. The experience is recommended for mature audiences ages 15 and up.
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