Immigration is a sensitive topic in the US, due to the millions of people living here without legal status. It's known to spark heated debates throughout the country, with politicians, human rights activists and lawmakers all fighting for their respective cause. To get to the heart of it, you have to go to the deserts of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, which are main entry points for immigrants looking to cross into the US illegally. US security officials have spent years trying to stop this or, at the very least, slow it down -- they've even built a massive wall along the Mexican border.
Gallery: Virtual Borders Arizona, a VR art project | 7 Photos
This ongoing conflict is what inspired Virtual Borders Arizona, an art exhibit that uses virtual reality to take you to one of the most dangerous deserts in the US -- where it often reaches 100 degrees. For people chasing the American Dream, it is a deadly road to travel. The project, created by artist Jamie Toll, consists of three sculptures representing those who have dared cross Arizona's dry areas, often in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones. But his piece seems to go beyond that. It's about the idea that physical borders, regardless of the law, limit human creativity and our ability to learn from each other as a species.
To deliver his work and message, Toll wanted to do something out of the ordinary. Instead of a traditional gallery, he took the sculptures to the middle of nowhere and captured stereoscopic, 360-degree panoramas of them. The last, and perhaps most important step, was to create a VR experience that could be enjoyed via Google Cardboard and other similar headsets. "Using VR as a technology enables the audience to experience the site [and] specific art in a completely new way," says Gabija Grusaite, who is the content curator for the project. "It's not about being a spectator anymore, but rather a fully immersed experience."
"At some point of life everyone needs to cross [a] metaphorical desert in order to succeed or to survive."
Interestingly enough, the sculptures are still located in remote locations of the Arizona desert -- about a two- to three-hour drive away from Phoenix. And they're not easy to miss, since each one measures roughly 20 feet in diameter. Ultimately, though, Grusaite says this exhibit is about shedding light on things that jeopardize people's creative freedom. "We are aiming to raise a dialogue by taking people down to the desert and showing that [the] harsh terrain borders imposed by people are not important," she explains. "Desert is a very powerful symbol of an extreme climate and landscape, and at some point of life everyone needs to cross a metaphorical desert in order to succeed or to survive."
The experience itself is slightly underwhelming, namely because there's not much room to interact with the story. Sure, you can see the sculptures displayed on the desert grounds, but the VR implementation could be stronger if it also shed light on other elements of the journey -- like the gallons of water US citizens leave for migrants to drink in times of need. After all, Virtual Borders Arizona was created to make you feel as if you were an observer. And although it does do that to a certain degree, you never really "feel" as if you're in the shoes of an immigrant. It's definitely a more immersive representation than framed pictures on a wall, but you need more than virtual reality to understand what these people have gone through.
Virtual Borders Arizona made its debut in New York City yesterday, but the iOS and Android app won't be available to everyone until later this week. So keep an eye on the App Store or Google Play if you're interested in checking it out.