Alex Rivera: Sleep Dealer (2018) | poster excerpt
Sleep Dealer (2018) | poster excerpt

Embodying the Mexico-US Border with Virtual Reality and Other Imaginings

Iñárritu’s VR experience Carne y Arena, Vizcarra’s documentary La Línea, and Rivera’s sci-fi film Sleep Dealer create unconventional imaginings of the Mexico-US border.

The Mexican American border is over 3,000 kilometers long, reaching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. People experience the border differently through its length depending on several factors like citizenship, immigration status, race, gender, and age. The border is a place that marks cultural, geographical, and national separation, division, and otherness, yet also collaboration, mobility, and cross-cultural interaction. The division creates issues of cultural sovereignty, education, language, and technology, generating what philosopher Félix Guattari calls an ecological crisis, which compromises the relationship between subjectivity and its exteriority, creating a sort of implosion. Because subjectivity allows for individual perception, and if we think of exteriority as the environment, the implosion creates a crisis of loss of individuality and interconnectivity with the environment and other people.

In other words, it alienates, dislocates, and disconnects the inhabitant of the border, and otherness becomes commonplace. Because of that dislocation and otherness, imaginations of the border are not straightforward or conventional. Furthermore, the border becomes a geographic, physical, and imaginary space of tension between several factors, such as the imaginations of its inhabitants and immigrants, between the movement and the static, slow and explosive violence, and between the mundane and the extraordinary through questions of technology and visibility. 

The concept of borders is addressed in the documentary La Línea by Mael Vizcarra (2018), the Virtual Reality (VR) experience Carne y Arena by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (2018), and Alex Rivera’s sci-fi film Sleep Dealer (2008). While these are all unique unconventional imaginations based on the environmental crisis discussed by Guattari, each one uses images to comment on different technologies to reorganize and reimagine the space of the border. The image is the language of the border in this case because of what philosopher Vilém Flusser describes as: “The significance of the image as revealed in the process of scanning therefore represents a synthesis of two intentions: one manifested in the image and the other belonging to the observer. It follows that images are not ‘denotative’ (unambiguous) complexes of symbols (like numbers, for example) but ‘connotative’ (ambiguous) complexes of symbols: They provide space for interpretation.”

Consequentially, the stories and forms used in each of the different narratives point out tensions in the border, such as static and movement and explosive and slow violence, and open the space to interpretation. Furthermore, it is through the reorganization of space in the form of subjective unconventional imaginations that the new border imaginary is born, and the boundaries of the nation-state are broken.

Imagined Reality in Carne Y Arena

In 2018 I had the privilege to attend Iñárritu’s virtual reality experience Carne Y Arena. The experience follows a group of immigrants attempting to cross the border through the desert. The project focuses on the desert and on those immigrants that don’t have the privilege of crossing via a tedious line. Iñárritu uses VR to recreate the story of the border crosser, of the immigrant that has no other choice than to risk their life and dignity to cross into a better life.

The experience goes beyond imagery and has a specific process. First, you go into a cold empty room where you take off your shoes and leave your belongings behind in a locker. A buzzer sounds, and you enter the stage. The sand on the floor is grainy and hard, activating the sense of touch. Then you are given a backpack, headphones, and the VR set, and soon the immersive experience starts. The VR set works as a technological mediation, which Flusser defines as: “Images are mediations between the world and human beings. Human beings ‘ex-ist’, i.e. the world is not immediately accessible to them and therefore images are needed to make it comprehensible.”

The immigrant experience becomes central with the first imagery of a group of immigrants crossing, in which, through the VR set, you can see the suffering in their faces and hear the pain in their voices. Suddenly the border patrol appears, with blinding lights, an aggressive attitude, and dogs barking. Depending on where you stand, several narratives make every experience individual, unique, and open to interpretation. After some heart-wrenching time, it ends without ending, the future of the immigrants is in limbo, and yours is too. The person that enters the exhibit comes out changed and disturbed, with a false feeling of having experienced something while looking at the virtual border. 

The VR experience creates a technical image produced by an apparatus. It differs from traditional images by “Ontologically, traditional images signify phenomena whereas technical images signify concepts. Decoding technical images consequently means to read off their actual status from them” (Flusser). The problem with the technical images is that “This apparently non-symbolic, objective character of technical images leads whoever looks at them to see them not as images but as windows. Observers thus do not believe them as they do their own eyes. Consequently, they do not criticize them as images, but as ways of looking at the world (to the extent that they criticize them at all). Their criticism is not an analysis of their production but an analysis of the world” (Flusser). Therefore, the person having the VR experience is led to believe that they’ve actually experienced a border crossing, that the event is showing a true world. However, it diminishes the actual lived experience of the immigrants. 

La Línea and the Camera As Body

Vizcarra’s La Línea and Iñárritu’s Carne Y Arena highlight different aspects of the border. On one side, La Línea shows the daily-ness, the mundane, and the consistent activities of vendors at the border that operate in a unique space of the largest legal checkpoint on the entire border. It showcases the slow decay of the area or slow violence, which author Rob Nixon defines as “a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental, accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales.”

In other words, La Línea shows the violence in the mundane, in the vendors having to hustle through car engine pollution, scorching heat, and constant surveillance. This makes La Línea slow and long, yet transmits some of the violent mundanity to viewers. On the other side, Carne Y Arena highlights the specific feelings of fear, loneliness, disorientation, and violence of the once-in-a-lifetime experience of crossing the Mexico-US border illegally, from the exhausting journey to the inconclusive outcome. Focusing on the big event of the crossing,g Carne Y Arena brings about explosive or spectacular violence. The spectacular immediately impacts the audience by generating affect in the form of horror, empathy, or any other overwhelming emotional response. 

While they are different, unconventional narrative forms addressing different unconventional border subjects, both La Línea and Carne Y Arena rely on the phenomenological concept of embodiment, defined by anthropologist Paul Stoller as “The body is the locus by and through which we engage the world. Bodies have the ability to incorporate cultural memory and history, so cultural memory itself can be embodied.”

Vizcarra highlights embodiment by making it evident that she is walking around with the camera, filming between cars and people, and following freely. She uses this technique because “As we walk and film with a camera, we make the space of the film, while simultaneously making the physical space of the border. The filmmaking process by nature, then, revuelve, mixes up the relationships between people, as well as between people and place.” Vizcarra is giving voice to the vendors, but the documentary form makes her presence evident. Her camera movement makes it seem like the audience is in her place, conversing with the vendors, selling stuff to the travelers, and sometimes just looking around. Moreover, it showcases the everyday nature of the slow decay in the area and the almost invisible impact of the slow violence in the vendors and the area. 

Iñárritu takes embodiment through walking to a different level. The person in the VR experience is barefooted and depending on where and when they walk, they can see and listen to different situations, which makes the experience significantly different for each participant. The Los Angeles Times described it as “For one, it puts the viewer almost literally in the shoes — certainly, among the shoes — of the individuals who make this treacherous expedition in search of political and economic security.” The unconventional nature of the experience makes it possible to feel and see the arduous spectacular journey from close and creates a personal connection that generates empathy.

Iñárritu mentioned that his goal with Carne Y Arena was to “allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts.” In other words, the goal of the embodiment is not only to allow people to experience something as peculiar as the border crossing but to empathize with the decision of the immigrants to take this strenuous journey because, as the Los Angeles Times article says, “They are stories of people willing to risk their lives crossing vast oceans of sand to face uncertain futures — all in the hope of improving their lives and that of their children.” Furthermore, the explosive and spectacular aspect of a border crossing makes the experience more shocking, creating a more palpable form of affect. 

The VR experience, however, goes beyond embodiment and creates an emotional reaction in the participants. Bishop explained it as: “(It) does more than just toy with the idea of replicating someone else’s life experiences. It actually tries to convey the emotional horror of them, using a mix of physicality and artistic interpretation.” Other reviewers have left the exhibition crying, shaken, and traumatized for weeks. Iñárritu achieves this by having the participant, after the VR experience, walk through a hallway with several screens, and in each, several stories are told by the immigrants themselves. The connection is immediate because the faces on the screens are the same as the ones in the VR experience. The participant just “experienced” the crossing with them and now hears their heart-wrenching stories. Unlike La Línea‘s documentary form, Carne Y Arena VR and the stories told in the hallway allow the protagonists to tell their own stories. Iñárritu is absent, giving space to the immigrants. 

Yet, the main drawback is that the unconventionality of these forms of storytelling limit or enable accessibility to both texts. On the one hand, La Línea was made with a low budget; it can be accessed digitally and watched at any moment both alone or with a group of people. It allows for an unlimited audience, which is common, like crossing through San Ysidro. On the other hand, Carne Y Arena is among the most expensive artistic presentations, it has only toured in a few cities, and the demand for tickets limits its access. Moreover, it must be experienced in a specific place, one person at a time, and for a limited amount of time, making access difficult.

La Linea and Carne Y Arena are doing the work of representing the Mexico-US border as a heterogenous space, an unconventional space where each experience is different. In some places, people spend their entire lives on the verge of the border between the two countries. Some people cross the border for fun, while others risk their lives crossing it. It is an unconventional space that requires unconventional narrative forms. 

Sleep Dealer‘s Imagined Space

The dislocation of the border is not only a “present” thing in the past and present but also the imaginaries of the future of the border. Rivera’s Sleep Dealer showcases the tension between slow and explosive violence, static and movement, and the use of embodiment through science fiction. The premise of Sleep Dealer is a future where water is privatized, and the Mexico-US border has been closed for years. In the film, Tijuana is a multicultural global hub of immigrants, where people known as sleep dealers connect to machines through nodes and work remotely in the US. By connecting to the machines, the film provides a metacommentary on the concept of embodiment by extending the body into the machines and in the impact of technology to both connect us or divide us.

Sleep Dealer follows two parallel stories. First is Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Peña), who hacks into the water company’s security system. Because of this, his house is blown up in retaliation. He emigrates to Tijuana to become a sleep dealer. Memo’s arc creates an allegory between connecting to the machines to work remotely and the border space as a bridge to get to different places or disconnect us from reality. Second is Luz Martínez (Leonor Varela) uploads her memories to a computer’s software that sells those memories as stories to the rest of the world. However, Luz can’t lie and has to share her feelings with the software, which complicates the idea of storytelling, information, and truth. Luz’s narrative arc provides a metacommentary on storytelling, the dialectics of each story, and the different perspectives that create the global border imaginary. 

The allegory of embodiment is based on Stoller’s idea of the body as the tool through which we experience the world. In Sleep Dealer, Memo needs to have nodes implanted into his body to connect with the machines and be able to work. The connection and virtual reality set allow Memo to work in the US without crossing the border.  Yet, the nodes are not only used for work but also for entertainment, watching stories, hanging out with other people, and sexual activity. When a person is connected they are experiencing an alternative reality that, to a certain extent, is the ultimate embodiment of cultural memory because it includes everything from work, entertainment, and stories. In other words, for a sleep dealer, cultural memory becomes reality, and reality is nothing more than a transitional state between connections. 

In Sleep Dealer, the embodiment of cultural memory is portrayed in an ambivalent fashion, creating connections and as a sacrifice of family and home. Sleep dealers go to Tijuana to work strenuously to send money back to their families. While they don’t physically cross to the US they still renounce their previous lives. Machines make it much easier because the virtual world seems much better than the real one. Yet if sleep dealers stay connected for too long, they go crazy and lose every physical and human connection.

The loss of human connections in Sleep Dealer works allegorically as a representation of the sacrifice of millions of immigrants that leave everything behind to cross the border and help their families. The “American Dream” is the story they are sold, yet the reality is much closer to what we see in the real world in the film. Therefore, the act of crossing is not necessary because the sacrifice for the immigrant is the same as in reality. 

While Tijuana is portrayed as a sad, poverty-ridden city, it is through the colliding realities of immigrants that it is also understood as a global city. In the introduction to the memory software, Luz describes Tijuana as “the biggest border town in the world. It pulls people like a magnet. Even today, after the border has been closed for so long, nomad souls arrive carrying nothing but their dreams”. Those dreams are not based on reality but on stories about the border that brings so many people to Tijuana. The immigrants we see in Sleep Dealer seem preoccupied, mysterious and caught up in their (un)reality. In other words, Tijuana seems to be a space where different local fantasies of reality connect and collide, creating globalectic place where each experience is unique, dislocated, local, and global.

Furthermore, that dislocated locality is evident in the slow violence in Sleep Dealer. The representation of the decaying spaces in Tijuana, such as the strip club and the pub, the city as old, sketchy, and dark, and the people’s expressions of desperation shows the space’s slow destruction and constant violence. However, while the physical space is decaying, the technology is still present, and it is through technology that the border is broken spectacularly.

Is not only the machines that can be applied anywhere as long as the person has the nodes but also through the facility to “buy” memories that Luz’s Sleep Dealer works as a metacommentary on storytelling as a tool for empathy and as a way of breaking borders. Luz uploads her memories of meeting Memo to the software and sells those memories. Luz is unaware that the buyer of her memories of Memo is Rudy Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), the pilot that destroyed Memo’s home. Through the memories software, Ramirez slowly learns Memo’s story and not only empathizes with him but feels extremely guilty. Ramirez ends up physically crossing the border, connects, with the help of Memo and Luz, to the drone system, and uses drones to destroy the dam that withholds water from Tijuana’s citizens. Sleep Dealer seems to argue that, through storytelling, multicultural collaboration, and spectacular action, even in the most extreme cases, the border is still an imaginary space that can be broken. 

Works Cited

Bishop, Bryan. “Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena proves that great virtual reality means going beyond the headset”. The Verge. 8 July 2017.

Bradshaw, Peter. “Carne y Arena Review”. The Guardian. 22 May 2017.

Flusser, Vilém. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion. 2018.

Guattari, Félix. The Three Ecologies. Bloomsbury. 2014.

Heyman, Josiah. “The State and Mobile People at the US-Mexico Border”. Class, Contention, and a World in Motion. eds. Winnie Lem and Pauline Gardiner Barber. Berghahn 2010. Accessed 12 November 2020.

Miranda, Carolina A. “Inside Alejandro Iñárritu’s VR Border Drama at LACMA: What You Will See and Why You Might Cry”. Los Angeles Times. 20 November 2017.

Miranda, Carolina A. “Many miles in their shoes: Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s VR border drama at LACMA drops viewers inside a perilous immigrant journey”. Los Angeles Times. 2018.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press. 2013,

Stoller, Paul. Sensuous Scholarship. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. 

Thompson, Anne. “Why Alejandro González Iñárritu Is the Director Who Finally Got VR Right – Cannes 2017.” IndieWire. 22 May 2017.

Vizcarra, Mael. “Entre Líneas | Between Lines: Mobility, Temporality, and Performance at a Mexico-U.S. Border Checkpoint .” Emory University. 2017.

Wa Thiong’O, Ngugi. Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. Columbia University Press. 2014.