The new gallery installation at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art will use augmented and virtual reality to obfuscate what's real and what's not. Gallery visitors can wear VR headsets to step into the artist's metaverse and explore 18 themed "wonder-rooms", like the one above, the "Video Game Cabinet Castle." | Video Game Cabinet Castle by Carla Gannis Courtesy of Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

New York City-based artist and educator Carla Gannis brings a physical manifestation of her ongoing virtual project to the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. 

This exhibition, called wwwunderkammer, can be explored through social virtual reality (VR), a simulated 3D world also called a metaverse. Visitors at the Halsey can experience Gannis’ metaverse using VR headsets in the gallery space and participate as their own avatars. Alongside the digital work, Gannis will show physical sculptures, videos and what she called “augmented reality experiences,” where static objects in the gallery come to life through animations. 

Artworks consider the complication between real life and virtual reality, and the internet’s impact on contemporary culture. | Library by Carla Gannis

Gannis combines historical art references with internet semiotics in this maximalist exhibition which asks viewers to engage with questions about the effects of the internet on culture and society. 

“We’re all carrying iPhones around all the time, looking at these while we’re talking to and engaging with people in physical reality,” Gannis said. “We are increasingly living in a mixed reality kind of world, and that’s something I’m speaking to in this installation, having physical experiences that are metaphors for this virtual space.”

The exhibit title is a reference to art objects called wunderkammers, also known as cabinets of curiosities or wonder-rooms, a tradition which emerged in mid-16th century Europe. In her exhibition, Gannis said, she uses the wunderkammer as a metaphor for the museum. 

“Wunderkammers were these collections of artifacts by people who were traveling the world and finding objects that represented science, mythology, speculations on what the world means,” Gannis said. 

The wwwunderkammer project consists of 18 different “chambers” which focus on specific aspects of our contemporary life such as increasing threats to our environment, how technologies alter our perception of ourselves and how our language has shifted with the advent of the internet. One room, for example, is filled with 3D virtual models of endangered species.

“There is a room about decolonization and global pluralism, another is a cabinet for humor as salvation during times of stress,” she said. “Another cabinet speaks to women in comedy, and I have female-identified comedians from all around the world in there. 

“I find humor to be the ultimate Turing [ability] test for artificial intelligence (AI). Will they be able to make us laugh? Because it’s a kind of emulation of language that computers still have a hard time parsing. Other cabinets speak to emerging technologies and to tech obsolescence.”

Bringing the exhibit to life 

Gannis added the “www” to refer to the World Wide Web and the way that we all create wunderkammers of our own through social media accounts as a presentation of our personalities and interests. That information is used by advertisers to create a “profile” of our likes and dislikes.  

She points out the disparate identities of “real self” versus “internet self” as well as the internet self we present versus the one controlled by those collecting our data. 

Within the rooms are seven avatar characters which Gannis said serve as “museum docents.” The artist herself is represented by a silver robot-esque character named C.A.R.L.A.G.A.N, which stands for “cross-platform avatar for recursive life action, generative adversarial network.”

Gannis, who started her art practice as a painter, began incorporating digital technologies into her work in the late 1990s and unveiled her first “avatar” in 2001. Her C.A.R.L.A.G.A.N avatar looks markedly different from the other six that currently exist in her metaverse, which are created by manipulating emojis into body parts.  

“My avatars are inspired by this mannerist painter, Arcimboldo. He would make representations of people from fruits and vegetables. I decided to use emojis. They’re kind of uncanny looking, but suggesting that all of our robots or avatars going forward, they don’t have to be these sleek, minimal white robots. In my world, I can assert that our future can be more fun and absurd and [not take] this corporate trajectory.”

The avatar named Oliver is an “AI politician,” while the avatar called Tipu’s Tiger is a “cat meme decolonizer,” she said.

Artist Carla Gannis uses computer programs to give life to several distinctive characters or avatars, each raising specific questions about the internet’s effects on our self-perception and presentation. | Hologram mockup by Carla Gannis Courtesy of Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

“I have Lucille Trackball, who is an AI stand-up comedian. I have Lady Ava Interface, a nod to Lady Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer, a woman. Maura is a love, sex and comfort robot, speaking to how we’re starting to foster relationships with these emerging technologies.”

In one of the video works at the Halsey, Gannis has trained the AI program ChatGPT to give voices and personalities to the avatars.

“We are hearing more and more about ChatGPT and questions about the consequences on humanity at-large. I’m incorporating it into my work because I think it’s important for us to participate in these discussions and to question our relationships to these emerging technologies.

“What does it mean to us as human beings in terms of jobs, in terms of the art we make, the music we make? I think art is a good place for us to ask those questions.”

The exhibit displays May 19-July 15 with a reception 6:30-8 p.m. May 19 and an artist talk at 2 p.m. May 20. To learn more, visit

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