On the Borders of Virtual Reality

Curator's Note

What would it mean to attend to the borders of a medium?

Certainly, this means evaluating the medium’s affordances and limitations at the level of narrative or form. It would also mean analyzing the ways different media represent the physical, political, or social borders of the world. And one would have to account for the ways a medium can constrain, contour, or construct distinct spatial formations. Yet foregrounding a medium’s boundary-making practices cannot simply devolve into definitional arguments about medium specificity. Contemporary media scholarship has by now shown that media are in fact transmedial, while border studies scholarship insists that boundaries are much more complex and much more porous than a single definitional line. To examine the borders of a medium, then, is precisely to take up those moments where the boundary-making practices of a medium’s physical and semiotic instantiations hold its starkest, perhaps most impactful, political implications.

Consider the case of Carne y Arena, the much-lauded virtual reality (VR) installation created by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki, wherein the viewer/user visits the desert at the U.S.-Mexico border and encounters a group of migrants about to be captured by U.S. Border Patrol.[1] The installation’s popular and industry acclaim included support from notable liberal politicians and journalists,[2] a Special Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Oscars) “in recognition of a visionary and powerful experience in storytelling,”[3] and the 2018 VR Film of the Year award from the Academy of International Extended Reality (AIXR).[4]

In promoting Carne y Arena, Iñárritu states that “VR is all that cinema is not [... ] the frame is gone and the two-dimensional limits are dissolved.”[5] Like video games, VR films present their images in uninterrupted streams that more closely mimic human perception in real life. Yet, as Sasha Crawford-Holland argues, this unbounding of viewer attention has a cinematic history.[6] The use of the long take has been referenced by film theorists as liberating the spectator’s sense of attention by allowing them to focus on whatever they want within the frame. Because of the 360-degree field of vision and uninterrupted stream of images from beginning to end, VR adds to the range of this free spectating. In this affordance, virtual reality represents more of an extension of cinematic practices than a radical break from them.

Almost two decades ago, Philip Rosen asked, “How is it possible to imagine, to express, to interrogate borders in a way suitable to the present?” Putting Hardt and Negri’s Empire in dialogue with film studies, Rosen traces how films “materialize the obstinate force and temporality of borders,” ranging from early cinema’s experiments with spatial editing, to classical cinema’s consolidation of invisible editing techniques, to contemporary art cinema’s reincorporation of composition and editing as alienation tactics.[7] Each of these aesthetic traditions signals not only the historically situated transformation of the medium but also the political valences of narrative identification and formal estrangement as dominant and resistant, respectively.

In classical cinematic form, for instance, strategies that made the editing cut invisible helped elide the material construction of the film. Eyeline matching functioned as a way to make and unmake the borders of the visible. Since VR’s champions point to the medium’s capacity for doing away with noticeable editing cuts altogether as key to its potential formal innovations, it follows that this new media form replicates — perhaps even accentuates — the conservatism of its mid-20th century antecedent.

In Carne y Arena, the continuous, 360-degree field of vision allows the viewer to roam around the virtual desert space with or without regard to the migrant story taking place in its center. By undoing the borders of the frame, the VR video presents us with a view from anywhere, implicitly granting the viewer/user an omniscience and ease of movement that contrasts with that of the migrant characters depicted in the narrative. Further, the characters within the VR video do not acknowledge the user’s presence until the very last moment, when a Border Patrol officer recognizes and yells in the direction of the viewer’s point of view.

By design, the affordance of a 360-degree field of vision represents VR’s most prominent potential for formal innovation. Iñárritu’s own introduction to the project goes further by positing the “disappearance” of the frame as an enhancement to develop engaging stories about migration. The unexamined yet implicit assumption in this statement is that undoing the “borders of the frame” somehow positively relates to undoing geopolitical borders.

The opposite is more likely. Critical analysts of neoliberalism have convincingly argued that the ideology of open borders touted during the late 20th century more often than not operated as a means to reinforce structural inequalities.[8] Borders become more open for capital but not for humans, except for the select cosmopolitan groups with economic means and the right passports. As such, only the privileged citizens of the Global North — the group most likely to be patrons of Carne y Arena — can really subscribe to the fantasy of undoing borders and frictionless border-crossing experiences that VR promises.

Rosen’s example of an alternative to the ideological erasure of editing and dissolution of borders was Chantal Akerman’s From the Other Side (2002), itself a documentary about the U.S.-Mexico border and its effects on migrants and border residents. What Rosen calls the “rigor of the frame” in that film draws attention to what it means to produce bounded space in cinema by avoiding both the movement of bodies from shot to shot and eyeline matching. Akerman’s film “eschews the dematerializing interrelations of frames and shots” that classical style pursues “in the name of [a] consciousness” that renders visual limits as analogues for geopolitical boundaries.[9] By reinscribing the rigor of the frame, Akerman forces spectators to confront the limits of visual mobility and therefore dwell on how these aesthetic restrictions figure the restrictions to mobility and access that these migrants face. This technique aesthetically renders the material function of borders within the moving images themselves.

In the case of virtual reality, such rigor of the frame will not be found in the moving images themselves but in its exhibition space. The importance of the exhibition space to the viewer experience also has a cinematic history. Because spectatorship is an environmental and bodily process, understanding the historical work of cinema has entailed analyzing the surroundings where the exhibition takes place and how these surroundings shape how such images will be perceived. Exhibition contexts foreground cinema’s “structures of disavowal,” as Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece calls them: “its borders and unboundedness, its duration and atemporality.”[10]

Despite variations in hosting site, Carne y Arena generally consists of three main rooms. In the first room, you must take off your shoes and place them, along with your other belongings, in a locker. You wait for an alarm to go off, then proceed to the main VR stage. The main room is totally dark, and the floor has a slight curve and is covered in sand. The attendants greet you by handing you the VR backpack, which hangs from the ceiling, and help you put on the headset and headphones. After the six-minute film, you proceed to a smaller room to pick up your belongings. The last room is a long corridor where you can find the stories of the various migrants that inspired the creation of the VR video.

Carne y Arena’s spaces of exhibition are strictly regimented and act as disciplining structures for the viewer before and after the actual moment of experiencing the VR film. Such spaces not only reinforce the individualistic sensorium that VR assumes but also regiment VR viewership as a question of temporal access. This spatial configuration is thus inseparable from the border politics of the project, even if it remains largely unacknowledged and unexamined.

Borders are violent in literal and figurative senses. The strategic planning of border security posts forces migrant populations into dangerous areas. Building the security state apparatus itself often involves dispossession and enclosure of resources, which significantly harms the well-being of border communities.[11] Borders reorganize the basic points of reference for exiled and displaced communities, fossilizing social orderings and class divisions through their unequal organization of space. Borders undo bodily habits and redo subjectivities: in their mobilization of data, air, and sound, they not only shape the circulation of bodies across demarcated lines but also perceptively shape the bodies themselves.[12]

Focusing on the exhibition contexts of Carne y Arena sheds a different light on the border politics of this famed VR installation. Its spatial design choices facilitate specific bodily comportments better suited to reflecting on the nature of borders and thus allow us to interrogate the violence of borders in ways far more fruitful than the narrative empathetic appeals of the VR film. Because of how this exhibition design refracts the implied politics of its content, I find Carne y Arena as a suggestive case study to illustrate why the location and limits of virtual reality matter for the experience of the medium as much as whatever appears within the 360-degree image. As much as this medium has witnessed newfound appreciation for dissolving the “border of the frame” by presenting a 360-degree plane of vision, virtual reality relies on strict physical specifications and behavioral norms that effectively reinscribe new material borders. At stake in interrogating the “borders of virtual reality” is not only describing where they are located but also arguing for which forms and ideologies they reproduce and what can be gained when we read them against the grain.


[1] Originally premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17, 2017, the VR installation later set up long-term exhibitions in Milan, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Washington, D.C. Following the lifting of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, it began a tour of multiple cities in North America. https://carne-y-arena.com/

[3] Steve Dove, “Alejandro Inarritu’s ‘CARNE y ARENA’ Awarded a Special Award Oscar at the Academy's 9th Annual Governor's Awards,” OSCARS, November 13, 2017, https://www.oscars.org/news/academys-board-governors-awards-oscarr-alejandro-g-inarritus-carne-y-arena-virtual-reality

[5] Benjamin B, “Carne y Arena part 2 - Notes on VR Cinema Design,” American Cinematographer (2017), https://theasc.com/blog/the-film-book/carne-y-arena-vr-masterpiece-innaritu-lubezki

[6] Sasha Crawford-Holland, “Humanitarian VR Documentary and Its Cinematic Myths,” Synoptique 7.1 (2018): 19-31.

[7] Philip Rosen, “Border Times And Geopolitical Frames,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 15.2 (2006): 2-19.

[8] Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (Zone Books, 2010)

[9] Rosen, “Border Times And Geopolitical Frames,” 15.

[10] Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece, The Optical Vacuum: Spectatorship and Modernized American Theater Architecture (Oxford University Press, 2018), 11.

[11] Reece Jones, Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move (Verso, 2017)

[12] Benjamin Muller, Thomas N. Cooke, Miguel De Larrinaga, Philippe M. Frowd, Deljana Iossifova, Daniela Johannes, Can E. Mutlu, and Adam Nowek, “Collective Discussion: Ferocious Architecture: Sovereign Spaces/Places by Design.” International Political Sociology 10.1 (2016): 75-96.

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