Words by Charlotte Kent
I walked through a painting studio to get into my VR set up and attend the (re)opening of XR artist Carla Gannis’s  new show WWWunderkammer , in Mozilla Hubs and Telematic Gallery in San Francisco, CA (the original VR piece ran on desktop VR with massive CPU & GPU, in full 3D with all of the avatars animated, which people could only experience in the gallery). The design effort and dedication to create virtual worlds, ones that allow us a step back––and to the side, back and forth, or just meander about––to see a bit better the world we encounter every day, that is what art and technology have always done. Art is proving to be one of the most accessible means of exploring VR for those who are not ready to commit to the complex world of video games. Though Social VR has been around for a while, in this period of social distancing and remote access, it presents an ideal space for connecting to share a joint experience like an art opening…one where everyone is an avatar and so just a little more weird and just a little less certain of themselves.
You don’t need a VR headset for Mozilla Hubs, where Gannis built the three rooms of her cabinet: WWWunderkammer Main Room ; Game Cabinet Castle ; and Telematic Gallery . The screen experience works well, and that convenience is one of the reasons that Mozilla Hubs is a popular social VR space to explore. It is a virtual collaboration platform that works in your browser; you can create your own 3D spaces or join ones that already exist. These can be pretty simply decorated ‘rooms’ or complex creations like the ones Gannis produced. Whether in a headset or using keyboard keys, glance through the Hubs Controls  before you launch into a space so that you know how to get around. It’s like knowing the words for right, left, straight ahead, and turn around when travelling. You’ll figure it out eventually, but it sure makes leaving the airport, bus or train station easier if you arrive knowing them.
Humour and humility are key. My first time in Hubs meeting someone, I couldn’t manage my motion and kept zipping by them when I was trying to meet them in front of something on a ‘wall’. My microphone worked and then it didn’t so we text chatted until I figured out how I had turned it off. When I arrived at Gannis’ opening, I was impressed with how huge everything was until I realized that I had entered the room somehow very, very small––so small that I couldn’t interact with the kiosks that lead to the two other rooms. Since everyone is an avatar and none have legs exactly, I wasn’t at knee level, but I sure was close to the ground. Growth comes with knowledge, I offered before exiting the room to rearrange myself.
The art VR world is incredibly welcoming. The relative newness of the technology makes its advocates eager to help others orient. In galleries and at art fairs, there were often lines for the VR work. But, those experiences don’t provide the sense of community where VR becomes enticing. VR associated with hard core gamers is intimidating; joining a group where your amateur manoeuvres cost them virtual life or death is hard. And, if you don’t know what to do in VR or why it might be fun, it’s hard to spend hundreds of dollars on the set-up. Social VR, and the way Gannis uses Hubs for this show, provides a level of accessibility that invites audiences to check it out on their screen. For those with headsets, it is a glimpse at what the art world may yet provide more readily.
Gannis has a penchant for history, along with an absurdist streak and a palaeontologist’s love of layers, so her Wunderkammer is a wonderland. The 16th century furor for cabinets of curiosities set precedents in many ways for museum collections but is also an all too apt approach to the internet of the 21st century. And since we are all perpetually online now, her project makes plain…are we majestic spectators of the wwwunderkammer, or (more likely) part and parcel of it?
Every wall and cubby of the WWWunderkammer Main Room  is full of the curious artefacts of our era. The ceiling has a moving whale, reminiscent of the great hall in the New York Natural History Museum, but also of the first illustration of a cabinet of curiosity, Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale (Naples 1599) that shows a ceiling covered in fishes. She has sections filled with strange creatures that you realize are dedicated to extinction. Obsolescent technology also gets its space. A corner of emoji and symbols inspired a text frenzy with another participant to see which one of us could spot them first.
For several years, Gannis has cultivated personas, several of whom grace different areas of the room. Lucille Trackball  is in pride of place in the comedy corner (there is a tragedy section, too, largely politicians). C.A.R.L.A GAN  represents Mirroring; each of the six has their own virtue/vice, and they are made of emoji rather than white silicone, a twist on the works of the marvellously mad Mannerist painter from the 16th century, Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) inspired Gannis to make this world full of possibility, but Gannis’ wall of texts got me talking to another visitor about which books and newspapers I would include of hers: Doris Lessing, Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Mary Shelley, and more. There is so much to discuss in what Gannis has created that social VR is an ideal space for this exhibit because your avatar can tug at a friend to come see this, and that, and this other thing.
You can take photographs in Hubs as you roam, and definitely should. Every speck of space in Gannis’ Wwwunderkammer is full of visual thought. In the Game Cabinet Castle , you’ll find dinosaurs in the trees if you roam off to the side. The mottled rocks, creatures and cabinet interiors were produced largely using Playform.io , an AI training model specifically for artists. Slipping into the Telematic room reveals the installation in the gallery with all the prints, cabinets of objects, painted holodeck….There is a skull with a VR headset in the gallery and I am reminded of the layers upon layers of reality that we can inhabit now. “Meta” said Claudia Hart, another VR artist who attended the opening.
Everyone is craving social engagement, and though distance is still a prerequisite, we can also think about what we mean by that engagement. I want to see and talk about something in real-time with a friend who is looking at it too. I want to talk and laugh and think seriously about the world, unravelling my own ideas as I try to articulate something through a work of art. In social VR, we have a chance to reexperience that dynamic, to be side by side in exploring the increasingly virtual realm of our lives. We need to reflect on the ideologies, aesthetics, histories, resources, the sacrifices of the virtual space wrought by the internet…and social media is not the only meeting ground. Social VR offers space for us to meet and learn in conversation with each other. What a Wunderkammer is that!