Emily Xie on Textile as Personal Canvas

Visual artist Emily Xie spoke with Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) about her close relationship with textiles, their intersection with computation and coded generativity's aesthetic pursuits.
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Emily Xie, Memories of Qilin #235, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Emily Xie on Textile as Personal Canvas

Visual artist Emily Xie spoke with Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) about her close relationship with textiles, their intersection with computation and coded generativity's aesthetic pursuits.


Peter Bauman: Textiles seem to be on people’s minds these days. Besides your own collaboration with LACMA last year, Interwoven, there are at least two major international exhibitions showcasing textile art in 2024. In North America, there’s Woven Histories: Textiles and Modern Abstraction, which recently opened at the National Gallery and finishes at MoMA. Then in Europe, there’s the Barbican and Stedelijk’s Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art. Why do you think this historically under-examined medium is receiving this attention now?

Emily Xie: I think several forces are at play. For one, the world is simply becoming more open to the idea that other forms of media can be considered fine art, aside from the traditionally recognized categories like painting, sculpture and drawing. And I think part of this has a gendered aspect to it. In the past, textiles and fiber arts have been undeservingly categorized as “craft” or as a decorative medium, largely because they were considered women’s work and thus a lesser art form. As we’ve started to recognize women’s contributions more, we’ve begun to re-evaluate some of these biases and, as a result, have begun to embrace textile work for the highly complex and multifaceted art that it truly is.

At the same time, I also think that the interest is a response to the effects of technology. We are spending large portions of our days in front of a screen and our lives are becoming increasingly governed by computation. So I think there’s a sense of nostalgia and humanity that textiles offer as a counterbalance. Fiber arts tend to be considered slow, manual and laborious. And it’s been around for pretty much most of human history—a reminder of simpler days. Textile is also a fantastically sensorial medium, which stands in direct contrast to the sterility of technology. For example, fabric carries scent absorbed by its fibers. It evokes warmth as it is used to blanket or clothe oneself. And it’s also highly textured and tactile. It’s the complete opposite of the smooth, cold surfaces of machinery.

Peter Bauman: You mention that textile has in many ways, the opposite characteristics of physical machinery. Yet machines (algorithms, computers, systematic thinking) can also amplify the power of textiles. For instance, you said to NFT Now about your LACMA project Interwoven: “People often ask, ‘Where do you get these patterns from? Where did you get these textures from?’ What they fail to realize is that those patterns are entirely generative. They are dynamically created on the fly by the code.” How does generativity allow for the medium of textiles to be expanded upon?

Emily Xie:
Well, for one, it helps with the ease of creation. In many ways, the medium of code is perfectly suited for pattern design, given its repetitive nature. To produce a seigaiha pattern, for example, one simply needs to program a circle that repeats inward with alternating colors. Once this element is complete, all that is required is a loop that replicates it in rows up and down the page.

Extrapolated out, we can see the ways that generativity can facilitate pattern design at a complexity, scale and level of detail that just can’t be rivaled with a more manual process.

Generativity can also grant uniqueness to each pattern. Historically, textile designs were static and simply repeated over and over again on fabric. But with code, we can program infinite variations. For instance, in my own practice, the patterns that you see in my own artworks are in fact unique across each invocation, never to be precisely repeated again. Dimensions of variation might include color palette, or the exact positioning of elements, or the precise colors of individual petals of, say, a series of flowers, or perhaps the sizing of individual elements. The possibilities can be endless here, which traditional textiles—with fixed patterns and repetitions—can't offer en masse. It means that each piece of printed fabric can differ in either subtle or perhaps significant ways without the need for a person to alter the design between iterations.

Generative elements that I haven’t quite played with yet include time and environmental data. What if we produced textiles that evolved with each iteration? Or what if we integrated data about the world around us into a design? I’m excited to potentially explore these further down the line.

Emily Xie, Assemblage #2, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Peter Bauman: You noted how generativity can facilitate pattern design. But you spoke to SuperRare about how you draw inspiration from the physical as well: “I love patterns, lush textures, and textiles—and being able to combine these elements into organic, bold visuals.” Could you elaborate on how textile, collage and wallpaper inform your visual vocabulary? How do you translate these tactile qualities into your digital creations?

Emily Xie:
I spend a good amount of time browsing these real-life materials for inspiration. Textiles are part of my day-to-day life. I love browsing clothing, feeling the fabrics of each item and thinking about how the contrasting materials play off of one another in an outfit. I equally enjoy looking at handicrafts and admiring historical garments or ceremonial textiles. Sometimes I also stop to examine wallpaper design while out and about. And other times I simply appreciate patterns or textiles that I come across on the web.

To translate my inspirations into code, I tend to port over the visual characteristics of these mediums into the work. For example, I’ll mimic the rhythmic repetitions of wallpaper design or try to create my own version of a floral print fabric I’ve seen out in the wild. Replicating the textures of physical media mostly entails close examination and then breaking down how the elements would translate into rulesets. So much of the world around us is made up of mathematical rules at the end of the day; it’s just a matter of figuring out which ones might apply. For instance, to algorithmically create the grain of aged collage paper, one can draw repeated faint lines of varying lengths over and over again in a random distribution throughout the canvas.

But inspiration takes on more forms than just visual mimicry. I’m generally inspired by the stories these mediums tell and the historical narratives and sense of craftsmanship that they encapsulate.

It’s about infusing my work with narrative and ensuring that it tells my story, as that will inherently provide the warmth and human touch that physical media provides.

Emily Xie, Memories of Qilin #391, 2022. Courtesy of the artist


Peter Bauman: Speaking of that human touch, your work asks questions about the relationship between the human and the computational. Why are these questions so critical today and how do textiles give us clues to examine them?

Emily Xie:
We’re definitely at a critical inflection point with technology, given the rise of AI. There’s a lot of anxiety and speculation around its potential impacts and it’s a new technology. So I do think we’re in a place where we need to think more deeply about how we relate to computation. The history of textiles can perhaps offer insight into this relationship.

The medium in particular has embraced technology over time and demonstrates how we might use it to augment or greatly enhance our creativity instead of just replacing us.

The Jacquard loom came around in the early nineteenth century, introducing punch cards as a method of automating woven designs. This revolutionized the textile industry and greatly sped up the weaving process. It democratized textiles by making them more accessible and affordable, which embedded them into the larger human conversation. The efficiency gains also led to increased experimentation in designs and generally opened the door to complex and intricate possibilities that weren’t feasible before. One might argue that computation here enabled new forms of creative expression, even as it removed the human hand. Of course, though, I’ve highlighted a rather optimistic viewpoint. Within textiles, technology produced helpful outcomes just as they had negative rundown effects, much in the same way that something like AI would play out for us today.

Peter Bauman: You brought up the Jacquard loom; what relevance is there to the close connection between the history of textiles and punched-card computing? Is it a fun coincidence or is there more meaning behind it (e.g., the programmatic or systematic thinking required)?

Emily Xie:
I think there’s definitely greater meaning behind it. The Jacquard loom’s usage of punch cards led to the development of early computers.

I think this history demonstrates how patterns, structures and algorithms underpin both fields. There is an inherent systematicity in both art and math. We tend to think of these two disciplines as opposites but they are much more intertwined than not.

Peter Bauman: You’ve used a wonderful analogy for generative projects before, describing them as quilts where each output is a piece that tells its own story while being an integral part of the whole. Is that also how you see “the work” in generative art?

Emily Xie:
Absolutely, at least in terms of long-form generative art. I think that’s what makes the format so challenging in some ways.

Each piece in a series needs to be compelling enough to stand on its own, to tell its own story, while at the same time belonging to a greater whole that helps shape and refine the overarching concept—much like a patch of a quilt versus the overall blanket. There should always be an engaging interplay between individual and aggregate.

Emily Xie, Memories of Qilin #120, 2022. Courtesy of the artist


Peter Bauman: Your fluency with the history of this movement comes from your art history studies and, if I remember correctly from a conversation we had in Mexico, modern art history was your concentration. So, of course, you’re fully aware that the story of the Bauhaus weavers workshop will make a great movie one day. We’re also basically a hundred years away from some of the workshop’s early milestones. Are there any Bauhaus weavers that you draw inspiration from? How has the workshop influenced your practice?

Emily Xie:
I would not be the first generative artist to say that I’ve found inspiration in the work of Anni Albers. This is especially true more recently, as I’ve been diving into a more direct exploration of textiles in my practice. I am fascinated by her use of striking, contrasted colors and repetitive geometries. I also love Gunta Stolzl’s work for its fluidity and expressionist elements. Her pieces feel very free, despite the highly structured process of textile production. I love how she intermixed opposing patterns and textures.

These artists and the Bauhaus weavers workshop in general tended to cast the rulebook aside. They experimented with weaving materials that weren’t necessarily traditional. The work that they did played such a pivotal role in elevating textiles to a higher form of art. I’d say that most artists whose practice explores textile, myself included, stand on the shoulders of these giants.

Peter Bauman: Nearly every culture in the world has an ancient textile tradition; what speaks to the universality of the medium?

Emily Xie: It’s a basic human necessity. Everyone needs clothing and warmth. Beyond that, I do think that humans have an innate creative impulse.

Since textiles make for such a personal canvas—they are worn visibly on your own body or cover you as a blanket—this desire to express oneself tended to materialize there.

I’d also say there’s a strong social component to it. Humans are social beings, and textiles brought people together. People shared skills, told stories and participated in rituals around textiles and their creation.

Emily Xie, Interwoven #25, 2023. Courtesy of the artist


Peter Bauman: Your aesthetic appears to draw from skeuomorphism, inspired by physical media—collage, textile and wallpaper. How do you respond to critics who feel the digital should not attempt to mimic the material?

Emily Xie:
In my opinion, both approaches are valid. I do think there are so few domains left in the world where one has such uninhibited possibility and freedom. Art is one of them. We shouldn’t let “shoulds” or “should nots” dictate what we do. Art should be free and inspiring. All artists have their reasons for what they do. I believe we should be open to it all and take that as an opportunity to dive in and see the universe through their eyes.

For me personally, I play with skeuomorphism because physical media can be so interesting when reinterpreted in a digital context. It challenges us to think about what may be lost or gained when going from physical to digital manifestations. It explores the ideas of reality versus representation as well as the human relationship with the material world. These are all themes that I find important given our increasingly digitized lives.

Peter Bauman: Postmodern thought and contemporary practice have largely led the art world away from classic notions of aesthetics and beauty. Yet the coded-generative art space seems mostly focused on seductive visuals. First, do you agree with that assessment? And is this a challenge to postmodern thought or an indication of something else?

Emily Xie:
I agree that much of the generative art space is focused on seductive visuals. And I interpret this as more of a challenge to postmodern thought than anything else.

I do believe that these days, we’ve started to feel some fatigue around the irony and apathy that have generally characterized postmodernism. We’re in a cultural moment where a part of us is longing for sincerity. There’s something so raw and permissive about letting ourselves indulge in seductive visuals.

And the way that generative art presents that fits where we are with it too. The fact that such pleasing visuals are produced by an algorithm draws attention to the medium itself. Any observer, understanding that what they see is made with code, would immediately start puzzling about the ways that it’s done. It transforms passive observation into a more active form of examination. Lush visuals in generative art allow us to embrace pure aesthetic and beauty while simultaneously keeping us investigative of them, as they challenge our assumptions around production and ask us to look deeper.

Emily Xie, Memories of Qilin #189, 2022. Courtesy of the artist


Peter Bauman: These can be challenging times for artists. What advice would you give to anyone trying to support themselves with a digital art practice?

Emily Xie:
It goes without saying that it’s so important to build an online presence and community since we’re dealing with digital art. But what one might not realize is that a lot of this space is also driven by human connection. So if you are lucky enough to be in the vicinity of in-person events, go attend them and get to meet folks IRL! It will also positively color your experience as an artist too; you’ll meet interesting people, find patrons, connect with other artists and make friends along the way. The offline aspect makes it so much more fulfilling and will keep you energized.

Also, prioritize your well-being. The digital art space can be overwhelming, especially given how new this iteration of the current ecosystem is. The landscape is constantly evolving as we’re all figuring things out. It’s almost like trying to create when the ground beneath you is lava. Given this, I think it’s so important to make sure that one takes self-care seriously with plenty of rest, exercise and time with family and friends. It’s difficult to be creative when you are ill so it’s necessary to find a balance!


Peter Bauman: I love to know how artists go about analyzing work. Walk me through your inner monologue or the process you go through when absorbing a work of art. How is this process different for plastic, digital and generative work?

Emily Xie:
I’m a pretty visually driven creature so I always think about immediate aesthetic impact. I do this across all forms of art. At a base level, the composition has to be compelling. Do the components, shapes, lines and forms interact and counterbalance one another in a way that is intriguing? Color is also extremely important, as colors can drastically change the emotional charge of an image.

Beyond that, I’m interested in seeing if work is trying to say something and if the visual components support this message. I tend to ask myself: Is there an interesting story here? Do I resonate with it? And to really grasp the meaning, I often have to learn about the details of the artist or think about the context in which this art was made. What was the decade it was created in? What was happening politically and culturally at the time? Who is the artist and what was their life like?

When it comes to generative art specifically, my analysis does involve one more layer, which considers technique. I often do find myself looking longer at generative works where it’s not quite clear to me what foundational or underlying techniques they are using. The former components tend to matter much more to me but coming from my engineering background, I can’t help but think about how something might have been made.

Peter Bauman: Where does the work mainly (not entirely, of course) lie with you—process, outputs, concept or something else?

Emily Xie:
I think it’s certainly a combination of everything, though I would say that it mainly lies with the outputs and the story that those images tell. I’m most interested in expressing my ideas visually and trying to think about how to emotionally connect with those who are viewing my work. In that sense, I suppose you could consider me as leaning more in the direction of the “resultist” camp.

I tend to consider the code as the paint and paintbrush and the resulting outputs as the paintings. But of course, the medium and the techniques around a piece matter a lot too. It’s all interconnected. The process and medium itself—the fact that it’s made with an algorithm—often contribute to or are integral parts of the stories that I am trying to tell.


Emily Xie is a visual artist working with algorithms to create lifelike textures and forms.

Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) is Le Random's Editor-in-Chief.