Nonny de la Peña does not mess around. Whatever party atmosphere is suggested by Storyscapes, the liquor-sponsored transmedia project space as part of the Tribeca Film Fest, the vibe comes to a literal stop once you hit the chain link fence that surrounds de la Peña’s new interactive work, Use of Force. But this mixed vibe of welcoming party and off-putting limitation is a perfect metaphor for the primary subject of de la Peña’s new work, the U.S.-Mexico border. More specifically, de la Peña uses installation art practice and interactive, virtual reality technologies to recreate the circumstances surrounding the brutal beating and subsequent death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas at the hands of U.S. Border Patrol Agents in 2010, as witnessed by bystanders.
After slipping on virtual reality goggles and headphones, you are encouraged to walk around the virtual space. Your movements allow for different vantage points as they would be in real life; simultaneously, you are prompted by the audio of bystanders who are witnessing the beating. The experience is intense and rattling. It’s not just the brutality of the subject matter, but also the dawning self-awareness of your own instincts as you seek the best vantage point and are thrown off by the chaos of a group event. This leads to reflections on our tendencies as witnesses toward voyeurism, intervention, or stunned inaction. De la Peña’s work has long been focused on such themes. She readily cites things such as “bystander syndrome” with the precise studies to back it up and has pioneered an innovative new media approach to documentary that she calls “immersive journalism.” She has a long and impressive career of more traditional investigative journalism behind her but is also filled with the keen attention to injustice and will to action of an activist. She’s got the curiosity and drive of a techie and the vision and creative realization of artist. Triple threat, big time.
Afterward, unpack all the intensity from your head while grabbing a drink at the (free!) Bombay Sapphire Gin bar. But don’t forget to pick up a postcard at de la Peña’s installation and write government representatives to demand justice for border abuses and mail it in. De la Peña’s interactive work demands that we be not just viewers, but doers.