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A visit to Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s virtual reality installation, “CARNE y ARENA”

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “CARNE y ARENA,” a virtual reality installation, now showing at Montreal’s art center, Arsenal Contemporary Art, is a time-travel machine.

Upon arrival, my friend Cristina and I waited our turn to see the installation in a somber dark hall. My name came up first. I went alone inside a bright room. I sat on a bench located in the middle of the four white, textureless walls. On my left, there was a door with an unlit red lightbulb on top. A sign next to it instructed me that when the light would turn on, I should use that door to the installation. By the door, a

small metal access door, about a meter off the ground, has a white light flashing. A sign next to it indicated me to take my shoes off, open the door and leave my shoes inside.

Now, I am barefoot on the bench. I suddenly become aware of the room temperature. It’s cold. My feet are cold. I notice for the first time that the floor is made of metal. I put my feet up as to protect them from the environment that has turned hostile.

I hear noises coming from outside, unrecognizable noises. I look around. There are shoes scattered across the room. Flats, sneakers, sandals, baby shoes... Those shoes, I read, were collected in the Arizona desert. I feel uncomfortable. I wonder, how long I would have to wait in this room. Or perhaps, I missed the light? I check. No, the light is still off. Am I doing what I am supposed to do? I am feeling a bit anxious. I calm myself by telling myself that Cristina is outside. She could come get me if something went wrong with the installation. I am sure there are surveillance cameras in the room, watching me. I don’t look for them. The notion that somebody is looking at me, waiting in the cold room, barefoot, makes me feel vulnerable. Then in a fraction of a second, I recall feeling like that before.

I was a sixth-grade student. I was sitting with my parents inside the waiting room of the International Santa Fe Bridge, at the crossing point of Juarez, my hometown, and El Paso, at the border between Mexico and the USA. I was going to a school field trip to the Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, New Mexico. I, as a Mexican citizen living at the border, had a tourist visa which granted me access to areas of the US territory near the border. New Mexico was not one of them. So, I needed to get a special permit to go see the rockets on display at the museum.

I was flanked by my parents. My mom was reading, and my father was waiting. He waited patiently. He held a folder in his hands where he kept his original pay stubs, our social security documents, our home bills: the most recent electricity bill, phone bill, gas bill... Both of my parents were teachers, we have never had a permit rejected. I should have felt calm, but I was not. I wanted to see the space suits. What if one of the officers on the other side of the counter, chatting, staring at a screen or drinking coffee while our waiting was prolongated, would stop me from seeing the world’s first satellite, the Sputnik?

Back in the waiting room in Montreal. The cold room, my bare cold feet, the strange sounds of the outside, the uncertainty, bundle up with my experience of being human. Finally, the red light turned on. I step outside the room. There is gravel on the floor. It hurts a bit when I walk. Tiny stones poke my sole’s skin. Ça chatouille un peu, but I can still walk. I arrived at the core of the installation. I put on a vest, earphones and a VR headset. Twenty seconds later, I am in the Arizona desert at dawn. I am with a group of people trying to cross the Mexico-US border, walking through the desert. The border patrol intercepts them (us). The officers would ask them (us) to take the shoes off. The film lasted few minutes. I am back into a cold room, a smaller one. The experience of having walked on gravel is very present. I still feel the tiny stones on my skin. I look at my feet. There is dust on my feet. A white light turns on above the room’s access door. I go get my shoes. Now, I can leave for good. As I am walking towards the entrance, through the dark hall, sensations of cold, of gravel, of random sounds, break the barrier of time and space, inside of me.

On my field trip to Alamogordo, I saw the Sputnik and I tried the astronauts' ice-cream sandwich for the first time: lightweight like cardboard, sturdy like an Oreo cookie, sweet and creamy like the real Neapolitan ice cream. Delicious. Like life itself.

By Lily Olivas


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