The Curiosity and Ambition of Emily Xie
Emily Xie is a full time generative artist living in New York City. In this conversation, she discusses her childhood, career journey, work process, favorite NYC haunts, and much more.
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The Curiosity and Ambition of Emily Xie
A thing about life is that you never know what’s next.
Because of this unpredictability, we often end up constructing cinematic narratives of our lives in reverse (“this led to that which led to now”). Reality, however, is not always so simple. If you were to go back 10 years and ask your past self what your life would be like today, Past You would probably get it wrong.
A decade ago, Emily Xie probably could not have predicted that she would become a professional generative artist focused on blockchain based work.
Yet even if she didn’t realize it, Xie has been preparing for this career for her entire life — slowly acquiring all of the requisite skills and tools for a future that she had an inkling might be right around the corner, even if she couldn’t quite envision it. Like the protagonist of her own RPG, she was continually leveling up in pursuit of an actualization that she could sense, but couldn’t name.
The old cliche tells us that opportunity is where luck meets preparation. In Xie’s case, I would modify the adage slightly to say “opportunity is where luck meets curiosity and ambition.” During my research, and throughout our correspondence, I was struck by Xie’s insatiable curiosity and her focused ambition. Time and again she has demonstrated through her actions that when she is interested in something, she dives deep and she aims high.
Growing up, she spent hours playing video games, building websites, and doing art.
As a Harvard undergraduate, Xie majored in History of Art and Architecture, coupled with various Studio Art courses. She eventually earned her Master's in Computational Science and Engineering. (With the rise of digital code-based art, I predict it will become increasingly popular to study art and computer science in tandem, but in the early years of the 21st century, Xie was ahead of her time.)
While she was a student at Harvard, Xie ran a fashion blog called Books and Liquor which was one of the first venues where she could publicly indulge her interest in design and aesthetics (the blog is still up and is fun to poke around).
Professionally, Xie has worked engineering jobs at places like Sotheby’s, the famed fine art auction house, and Squarespace, the design-forward website builder.
In the mid 2010s she discovered a generative art course on YouTube and “immediately fell in love with the genre” according to an interview she did with ArtBlocks COO Jeff Davis last year.
And in 2016 she became an artist-in-residence at Pioneer Works, a non-profit cultural center in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. During her residency, she dedicated herself to producing generative art and showing it to the public.
By the time that blockchain-based generative art begin to breakout in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Xie had the experience and tools she needed to seize the moment and make some career-defining moves.
After many early experiments with generative and code-based art that attracted a niche following, it was not until her release of Memories of Qilin on Art Blocks in March of 2022 that Xie truly arrived into the collective conscious of the broader generative art community.
Since then, Xie has become a household name among generative art lovers, and has released a number of other works. Her most recent work is a collaboration with Cactoid Labs and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
In this conversation, Xie covers many things, including:
Her childhood and career journey
Her experience during Art Blocks mint day
Her teaching philosophy
Her take on AI
Her favorite NYC restaurants and museums/galleries
Grail pieces in her collection that she’ll probably never sell
Her favorite video game
…and much more!
Please enjoy this conversation with artist, engineer, and educator Emily Xie.
A Conversation with Emily Xie
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
I grew up in rural America and lived a pretty modest childhood. My parents both worked in Chinese restaurants, so they were always tied up with long work shifts. This meant that I had an enormous amount of autonomy as a kid.
I ended up spending most of my time on the computer. Cyberspace offered so much more to explore than my small hometown ever could: online, I discovered the world of art, learned to draw, immersed myself in video games, and built hideous websites.
Tell me about your career journey. I’m always fascinated by people who make the leap from having day jobs to becoming a full-time artists.
I’d always identified as a creative: I loved to sketch, paint, and make collages as a kid. I was at my happiest whenever I was crafting something visual. However, as much as I enjoyed art, I never thought seriously about becoming a full-time artist.
Coming from an immigrant family meant that I carried a lot of the expectations that came of that, so I pursued a more practical path, which for me came in the form of software engineering. Fortunately, this was something that I also enjoyed doing given my lifelong love for computers.
As a software engineer, I ended up working with a variety of tech organizations––from small startups to big tech companies. I bounced around in different domains within programming, working on things like developer tools, machine learning, and visualization. Engineering catered to my exploratory nature. And while it was a satisfying career for me, I always had this nagging sense that I wasn’t nurturing my creative tendencies to the fullest.
Sometime while working as an engineer, I discovered generative art. It quickly became my favorite hobby because it seamlessly merged my skills in programming and my passion for art. In particular, I loved the learning process around it: there were so many techniques and foundational algorithms in the generative art space for one to learn and master, and that really excited me.
“Once I discovered NFTs, however, it dawned on me that my favorite hobby could actually become my career.”
I took hiatuses from the tech industry at times to fully focus on generative art, and at one point somehow even managed to take part in an art residency at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. But generative art was always just for pure enjoyment––something that I did for myself as a pastime, and never truly with the aim of becoming an actual artist. I’d always returned to software engineering out of necessity, and would continue to pursue creative coding during my free time.
Once I discovered NFTs, however, it dawned on me that my favorite hobby could actually become my career. Early last year, I finally made the leap, leaving my programming job to pursue art fill time. It’s been an incredible journey so far; I feel like I’ve grown and learned so much––both as a person and as an artist––in a relatively short period of time. And I certainly plan on continuing along this path.
I think the term “full-time artist” is a bit opaque to people who are not artists. What does a day in the life of Emily Xie look like?
My day to day is super varied. I always start off the day with a cup of tea and I try to hit the gym as much as possible to keep myself sane and centered given how fast-moving and dynamic the web3 space is.
Overall, the reality of being a full-time artist is quite different than what one would expect given how much time we have to spend tending to matters outside of the art itself. I often find myself meeting with gallerists, communicating with folks over DM, answering emails, fulfilling print orders, attending art events, and writing or speaking about my work.
While the business side of art can quickly become consuming, I find that it’s all well worth it once I get to sit down and enter art-making mode. I just try my best to cordon off large chunks of distraction-free time for this so that I can enter that flow state that I so crave.
Walk me through your art setup. What specific software and tools do you use?
Since coding is so time and energy intensive, I also find that it’s important for me to concretely visualize my ideas before implementing. For this rapid prototyping process, I tend to use Photoshop, Procreate, or a paper and pen to make rough sketches.
The Qilin is a legendary creature that appears in Chinese Mythology. Why did you choose the name “Memories of Qilin” for your Art Blocks Curated collection?
Yes, that’s correct! The qilin is a legendary being that has a dragon’s head, a deer-like body adorned with fish scales, along with a lion’s mane. Fundamentally, Memories of Qilin is a project that explores the concept of folklore and mythology. Because the algorithm produces various life-like forms, viewers are very much encouraged to interpret them. Just like a vague “memory” in one’s mind, the figures you might find in the outputs teeter on the edge of actualization. The “qilin” part of the title both reinforces the project’s mythological theme, as well as the chimerical quality of the series.
And it was actually my mom who turned me towards the qilin reference. Over the course of the project’s development, I kept showing her the outputs, and when I finally asked her to help me pick a title, the first thing she mentioned was the qilin because of its shape-shifting nature.
That’s a great anecdote. Can you tell me more about what your parents' reaction has been to their daughter becoming a successful artist?
They are proud and supportive––and I think it definitely helps that it's been a fairly successful endeavor so far!
Memories of Qilin was an Art Blocks Curated collection. What was the Qilin mint day like for you? Where were you? How were you feeling before, during, and after?
Mint day was surreal. I was just at home with my partner, along with some close friends and family. Memories of Qilin had become by far the most meaningful creative project I’d ever taken on. It took me 6 months to make, so it had become a large part of my life. And in that time, I matured significantly as an artist. I felt that I had truly found myself, my unique style, and what I cared about aesthetically.
Because of this, watching the dutch auction was almost unsettling. It marked the moment that this project — which had been mine to obsessively shape and mold for half a year — was no longer in my own hands, but released out in the world. I felt a strange mixture of vulnerability, excitement, relief, and even sadness of having to let go.
Do you have any personal favorite palettes from Memories of Qilin?
Yes! I like all of the palettes, but there are several that hold a special place in my heart. I love Blossoms for its unapologetically feminine nature. Dragon Dance means a lot to me, as it encapsulates the bold dynamism and energy of the traditional performance it alludes to. Intrepid is the most prevalent palette because I find the contrast between daring blues, reds, and yellows to be visually captivating––both audacious yet harmonious. Lastly, Hong Bao holds sentimental value for me due to its cultural reference and its confident usage of red, which might be one of my favorite colors.
Are there any works or collections (besides Qilin) that you are particularly proud of?
I’m particularly proud of Off Script, which I released with Bright Moments. When I first set out to do this project, I was interested in the idea of materiality and real-life textures, and I wanted to examine what that would mean in a digital context. And I also wanted to explore color, composition, and form in the purest way possible.
With all of these elements, I ended up turning to the concept of modern collage. I felt that the resulting series really managed to capture all of these interests that I had, and I felt that it looked convincingly like glued-together pieces of found material despite the fact that it’s all code under the hood.
I’m also pretty delighted about my most recent work called Thread Effects in Blue. I’m proud of all the detail that went into it; the piece is so full of moving parts that were painstaking to program. Being able to bring them all together in a cohesive way was a pretty fun exercise.
What’s your elevator pitch for long form generative art? Imagine you’re talking to a traditional art appreciator who has never gotten into digital art or NFTs. Why should they care about generative art?
Generative art is art that is produced by algorithms. It is one of the most definitive art forms of our generation because of its code-based medium.
We live in an increasingly automated and technology-oriented world. Since algorithmic art embodies so much of our present day society, collecting or creating it is an inherent dialogue on the modern condition!
You just participated in a release that was a collaboration between LACMA and Cactoid Labs. Your piece, Generative Patchwork and Bullseye, is inspired by the "Bullseye" quilt from 1896 by Martha Lou Jones in the LACMA Collection. A lot of your work has a textile-like quality and speaks to the relationship between the human and the computational.
It’s a beautiful piece, and I am happy to be a collector. You describe the piece as the “first release is a modified output from a generative mini-series that I will release later next month as part of the broader digital initiative curated by Lady Cactoid. Can you tell me more about the mini-series and what we can expect?
Generative Patchwork and Bullseye is a generative algorithm that’s capable of producing many different renders.
The initial edition for Remembrance of Things Future Vol. 1 was 100 editions of a single output from this program. This upcoming mini-series will be a set of unique outputs. So, it’ll be 1/1/x. The only difference from the release of Vol. 1 is that there will be more palettes, and I’ve adjusted the canvas ratio to help distinguish it.
When did you buy your first crypto? What was it?
I purchased an inconsequential amount of crypto in 2018 just to see what all the fuss was about. A couple hundred bucks of Bitcoin and Ethereum. To be frank, I had very little interest in crypto. The only thing that brought me to this scene in a real way and kept me involved was generative art!
Do you have any worries or fears about AI? If so, can you elaborate? If not, why not?
Absolutely. I feel both an underlying existential dread but also a sense of excitement. In terms of the anxiety, I’m mostly worried about the unrelenting pace at which AI advances and the effect that would have on our society. We all knew that something as coherent as ChatGPT would come along. But I think we just didn’t expect it to arrive so quickly.
I forgot who tweeted it, but someone on Twitter wrote that it won’t be AI that replaces you; rather, it will be a human using AI. That resonates with me. Productivity per capita will increase significantly, and what previously required large teams will be tasked to just a single person using AI. In the past, we’ve always observed that new technology displaces workers, but the new industries created in the wake of automation produced new positions to make up for it. I wonder, though, whether this wave of innovation will play out differently, and that perhaps the pace of AI advancement will significantly outstrip the creation of new jobs.
For what excites me, I’m interested in the creative potential that AI unlocks. I’m keen to experiment with incorporating some form of AI in my upcoming work. And I can see how generative art and AI might intermix. Part of what makes generative art so exciting is that you are relying on the algorithm to provide some level of randomness and surprise. The same applies to AI-generated outputs––and I can imagine areas for synthesis between generative and AI art here.
You have taught online courses in the past. What are your tips for being a successful and effective teacher?
Yes — I’ve certainly given some workshops and lectures on various programming topics, mostly designed for beginners! My philosophy is that the best teachers are the ones who see themselves as students. I think of myself as someone who is continually learning. And in reality, that’s everyone’s situation too: life is just a continual but slow process of growth.
As long as you know more today than you did yesterday, then everything will pan out okay. And when you have that mindset, it’s much easier to empathize and identify with students––even those who are completely new to programming.
Zooming out 10, 20 years - what are you hoping your career will look like?
To be honest, I don’t have a solid vision of what life looks like that far out. I only hope to be able to continually put a piece of myself out into the world through my artwork. As long as I’m continually evolving as an artist, and as long as I have created things that inspire and resonate with other folks, then that’s good enough for me.
This has been a very enlightening conversation Emily. Let’s finish up with some rapid fire questions.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Leftover Chinese food. 😅
Anything by Yotam Ottolenghi! The unexpected, bold combinations of flavors in his dishes are incredible.
Last recipe you made that you will definitely make again?
Thai steamed fish with lime and garlic. I made it for my friends and they loved it!
[Editor’s Note: Here’s the recipe]
Favorite video games?
The Final Fantasy series. I’ve played VII, VIII, IX, X, X-2, XII, XV, Tactics, and the VII remake. This series was such a huge part of my life growing up. I loved getting to know the characters, watching them develop, and getting lost in the expansive worlds. I can’t wait for the next installment of VII remake to come out (I might disappear for a while whenever that happens).
Most aesthetically beautiful video games?
Aside from Final Fantasy? Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is stunning.
If you could have dinner with any living artist past or present, who would it be?
There are so many artists throughout history that I’d love to get to know. But right now, I’m in the mood to kick it with Hieronymus Bosch. I want to know what on earth was going on in his head while painting such nightmarish scenes.
What are your personal favorite Art Blocks projects?
I love so many of them––how do I even narrow it down? Off the top of my mind are Anticyclone by William Mapan, Running Moon by Licia He, Screens by Thomas Lin Pederson, Chimera by mpkoz, Alan Ki Aankhen by Fahad Karim, and Skeuomorphs by ItsGalo.
What are 1-3 pieces you have collected that are in the “hold for a very very long time and maybe forever” category?
Probably Folio by Matt DesLauriers and Screens by Thomas Lin Pedersen. Both of them have been inspirations for me over the years, so the fact that I get to own a piece from each brings a lot of personal meaning.
What are 1 to 3 pieces that are on your grail list to acquire if you get a chance - this could be a specific piece, an artist, or a collection.
I’d love a Light Years by Dmitri Cherniak or Fidenza by Tyler Hobbs one day. Both of these folks are also huge inspirations to me.
Are there any artists in this space you would like to shout out to help bring some eyeballs to their work?
All of the artists in the PROOF Curated: Evolving Pixels exhibition, are incredible and deserve infinite eyes on their work. (I’m admittedly biased because I helped curate it!) The folks in the exhibition are Lars Wander, Xin Liu, Nan Zhao, Helena Sarin, Fingacode, Juan Rodriguez Garcia, Entangled Others (Sofia Crespo and Feileacan McCormick), Cory Haber, Sasha Stiles, and Ivona Tau. Please check out all of their work. I can’t believe how much talent is in this single show.
Favorite NYC restaurants?
My palette biases towards Asian food:
Birds of a Feather in Williamsburg for elevated Chinese
Yin Ji Chang Fen for cheap but outstanding rice noodle rolls
Davelle Cafe for Japanese comfort food in an adorable setting. If you like seafood, get the uni spaghetti!
Raku in Soho for excellent udon
Soothr for Thai. Shoutout to Raptornews, who I’ve shared a few meals there with!
Da Long Yi for Sichuanese hot pot
NYC Galleries or museums you would recommend to visitors?
Pioneer Works in Red Hook, bitforms gallery, Guggenheim, MoMA PS1, and Dia Beacon (a 2-hour train ride outside of NYC, but very much worth it!)
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