The experience takes you step by step into the experience. At the start, you’re in LACMA so the experience of stepping into an exhibition is familiar and the director’s statement on the wall sets the tone. The second room however, is cold, you surrender your shoes to a metallic locker and socks and the floor is freezing. Shoes scattered about (actual shoes found on the border), you cannot progress into the next room until an alarm sounds. You cede some control to the experience and are primed for what’s to come.
Once the alarm sounds you step through a door into a hot and dark room, floor covered in sand. You’re fitted with a backpack and headset tethered to the ceiling. The room is massive so you have a lot of freedom to explore the desert landscape. If you get too close to a wall you’re given a gentle tug by one of the volunteers.
Once the experience starts, the action plays out - as night falls, the party is come upon by immigration enforcement and the standoff begins. But while you’re fitted with a backpack, your role is neither voyeur as one would be in a film or player as you would be in a game - you’re a mix of both.
For example you can’t physically touch anyone in the scene, the minute you step into them (or if they walk into you as happened to me), you see their heart beat. And while you yourself do not possess a physical body (you are not male, female, old or young) you do cast a shadow.
As a helicopter flies above you, the sound is so loud that you feel it thanks to the powerful speakers in the room. You also feel the wind as it blows hard towards you. As the story progresses it detours into surreal elements, embracing the medium by breaking down reality - One harrowing scene shows the party is seated at a dinner table in the middle of the desert, while a gruesome miniature of a man slowly walking into an ocean towards a capsizing boat of refugees. It’s chilling, playing on scale to evoke an emotional tone (think the hospital bed in Dear Angelica.)
Once the experience is over, you’re given your shoes back. As you wait to be summoned into the next space I noticed dust on my knees and feet (from crouching). I already felt so emotionally charged by the piece, but being covered in dust felt visceral.
The last step of the experience you are treated to essays from each member of the crossing party in a narrow hallway. You’re separated from the main room by actual parts of the border wall. Through holes in the fence, you can see other users experiencing the piece. It’s a masterful use of the barrier, allowing the echoes of the other experience to wash over you as you read these essays.
Iñárritu’s piece, exhibition or installation is so wonderful. If you can see it, please do so - it rethinks what art in physical space is. It demonstrates VR’s power as the ultimate empathy machine without being condescending or intrusive. Congratulations to the team at LACMA and Iñárritu for putting this together.