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Bystander: On a migration experience

By Peter Versteeg

A waiting room with benches and very bright light from a fluorescent tube. Clothes and shoes lying all around. There’s sand on the floor. I have to put my shoes in a closet and wait for the alarm to sound. The moment I sit down on a bench I realize I get impatient. And I think to myself: Ah okay, I know what this is. The refugee’s experience has a lot to do with waiting. Not exactly knowing what you are waiting for and why it takes so long. Okay, I understand what they try to get across here.

When the alarm sounds I move into a dark, spacious room where a young man gives me instructions while another young man puts a VR-helmet on my head, connected to a rucksack, which he places on my back. I start walking around.

I feel disoriented. The light is dim, as if the sun will set very soon. I see desert around me, rocky hills, cactuses. I only dare to move slowly, afraid I will bump into the wall. Reality has become something else. I’m in another place, yet I am still aware of the physical reality of the exhibition room.

Then I hear them. The people. Spanish words. Where are they? I can’t see them. I try to walk towards the sounds. Shadows appear. And then all of a sudden the noise of a helicopter. Police sirens. Somebody yelling through a megaphone. “Get down on the ground!” Some people respond immediately. Some don’t. Do they understand English? The little children most likely not. The yelling of the police officers and the noises continue, mixed with the yelling and crying of the people. It’s really unpleasant. I think I know what’s happening here. The lawmen are trying to disorient the people in order to make them more compliant. Or perhaps they really think that they are dealing with dangerous criminals.

There’s another thing I know: I am not part of this scene. The moment I was able to see the people I tried to connect with them. But when the police raid began I immediately felt I was no part of the whole thing, ignoring all the orders that were shouted. They shouted at them, not at me. It plays before my eyes as an intense and very vivid three-dimensional film. It’s the closest I have ever been to a film scene. I sympathize with the young man who speaks neither English nor Spanish because I feel he is really in a terrible and hostile place at the moment. I worry about things getting out of hand, becoming more violent maybe. I worry about the pregnant woman and the little children. I see an image of these same people sitting around a table, a scene from their past, pictured as a dream. And then I hear the sound of birds. Cranes. Flying in a V-formation. Is this how cranes fly? At that moment I feel like it’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Yes, I know what you are trying to tell me. Birds migrate freely, responding to a seasonal urge. They are not bothered by laws or borders.

The scene switches back to the group of people on the ground in the border desert of the United States. Suddenly an officer shouts at me: “Hey, what do you think you’re doing! Get on the ground, now!” And then silence. The scene changes. The sound of nature awakening. The sun sets over the desert. And I hear the cranes again. I can watch them for hours.

When the event is over, one of the assistants takes my rucksack and VR-device. I walk through a door to enter another waiting room. There I pick up my shoes from a closet and go outside after the alarm sounds.

I wasn’t proud of myself that I could be present in this scene without becoming personally affected. Neither did I feel guilty about it. The tragedy of the liminoid, that voluntary betwixt-and-between time-space of the modern world, is that it shows us that different realities are possible without us being urged to act upon them. VR is an enhanced film or theatre experience. We are now able to witness/experience a world coming apart and actually feel that we are in dangerous place. But we feel it as a bystander, as somebody who is experiencing something very profound, while knowing that everything will go back to normal soon.

Peter Versteeg is lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. He likes to reflect on cultural products and the things people do with them.

Carne Y Arena is a virtual reality installation that is based on the experiences of migrants trying to get across the border between Mexico and the United States.

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