Gemma w/ Eileen Isagon Skyers

A conversation about virtual curation, the NFT marketplace, and building DAOs.

Published August 16, 2023

Eileen Isagon Skyers joined us recently for a conversation about the new artist-led fund, Gemma Projects, cofounded by herself and Lindsay Howard. Gemma releases weekly commisioned projects by their Founding Artists, which frame new perspectives on digital culture and creative evolution. 

You can find Eileen through her website, or follow her on Instagram or Twitter. Check out Gemma Projects on their site, read interviews and essays on HiddenGems, or follow them on Twitter.

ABSORPTION by Ikaro Cavalcante (occulted)
— Commissioned by Gemma. Mint here

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USURPATOR: Thanks so much for joining me. So, you're a Brooklyn-based curator, writer, and artist focused on digital art and culture. You're also the co-founder of Gemma Projects, which is a new artist-led fund that perpetuates creativity. As long as I've known you, you seem like a force within this space; the emergence of Gemma feels like a natural progression for what I've known you to be involved in so far. But I guess I don't have a coherent account of how you've been moving through the space and how you got into the field.

I worked in the traditional art space with both nonprofit organizations and galleries for nearly a decade before approaching Web3. My first role in Web3 was as an early team member at Foundation. I felt like I learned so much about the blockchain so quickly during the pandemic. The idea for Gemma has been percolating for quite some time, and it definitely drew from my experiences across all of these spaces. In 2016, I actually opened a gallery in Bed-Stuy that intentionally centered the work of BIPOC creators. I have found that I always encounter this need to challenge the dominant institutional frameworks that I am up against, or the infrastructures that are in place.

Much of what I've witnessed in practice, with regard to artists and cultural practitioners in Web3, is that it's unfortunately mirrored a lot of the inequities that I've seen in the traditional art world. I'm very aware of the lessons that museums have taught us, the models that they provide for supporting artists across generations—but I’m also aware of the limitations of institutional space. I think the art canon has long been associated with museums, and that the Web3 space sort of, strangely, followed suit. It's creating rarefied language, and rarefied objects, around rarefied artists, that the space itself permits. With Gemma, we are imagining what it looks like to bring some parts and models of the pre-existing infrastructures that actually work for artists (instead of against them) into an onchain model. We are looking across artists, residencies, and funding organizations to try and conceive of a model that gives them more time and resources, but also a community to create and share these works with.

U: Right, is part of it an accessibility issue? Where it’s kind of a closed-off club?

EIS: Yes, definitely. If you were trying to break into the scene today, with a “genesis” mint–even if you are a respected artist in the traditional art world, or have gallery representation—the general consensus is that it would be difficult to gain any kind of notoriety in the NFT space. In the nascent days of the NFT boom (around late 2020, or early 2021), that was not necessarily the case. So we’ve regrettably seen more doors closing, rather than opening, for artists.

U: One of the things I wanted to talk about was the current market, the fluctuations of how everything has been panning out in the last two years because, just like you said, a year or two ago it was exploding. It felt like anyone who was getting in at the right time could start building in that space or making a name for themselves. I don't really know what it's like now, how people are still getting into it and if they're still finding success.

EIS: Interestingly enough, if you read through Basel's 2023 Art Market report, they address the fact that wallet adoption has continued to increase despite the fall in the market, which is really interesting.

I often ask artists how they might think of their practice in relation to the NFT space, and, unsurprisingly, many traditional artists say they don't feel that this space was really built for them or meant for them. If your work is based on long-term, slow, intentional, conceptual research and frameworks, it can be really difficult to cut through the noise. The art world is also a marketplace, of course, but NFTs have created such a speculative financial space; it's moved quickly through these different hype cycles and each one seems to operate with a different logic. It’s getting more difficult to trace which hype cycle, format, series, or logistical framework is most “current.”

U: When you say that artists didn't feel like the space was made for them—I guess this is more of a historical question—but, I don't really know who it was made for.

EIS: Well at some point, I saw a lot of digital artists, code artists, and/or software artists whose work I'd been following for the better part of a decade finally begin to locate a community that would attribute financial value to their works online. This level of support was something that so many digital artists had never seen in the traditional art space. It was a promising moment for artists working with certain kinds of media—one that very quickly folded over on top of itself. Suddenly, there was the meme economy, and the rise of PFPs, and multiple platform fees. This is a great question you’ve posed, because in a commercial sense, if the space is made for everyone, then it is also for no one.

U: Yeah, it feels like it very quickly turned into a market where you had to put out as much work as possible in order to succeed. The people who I talk to now who are still in crypto and NFTs—not so much in an artist's capacity, but for money-making—it’s all about making a lot of stuff with multiple editions. For instance, a big project where each piece is almost the same but differs slightly, so you can sell each piece as an NFT. It’s low effort, high output.

So, how are you trying to move away from this with Gemma? Are you trying to carve out a new space within our current market?

EIS: We are working on a few different things, some of which I can’t share yet. But, for now, we've lined up roughly six months of commissioned artworks. Much like a traditional granting institution or gallerist would, we are sharing a small contribution with artists, so that they aren’t necessarily bringing their work to market with this anxiety around whether or not their time and labor will be compensated. As curators we are also checking in, scheduling studio visits and exchanging dialogue with artists to guide them through the process of creating their works. We hope to reintroduce a bit of the criticality that has been missing, particularly during the bear market.


U: So, how does it work? Is it like a residency, where the artists mint their work through Gemma?

EIS: Yeah, you could think about it that way. The work is commissioned by Gemma, which broadly means that we also contextualize the project, provide editorial support, and conduct outreach. Initially, when we were talking to artists about Gemma, they would describe the feeling of minting a new work, or releasing a project on an NFT marketplace, as a somewhat lonely, unceremonious event. You kind of just click and wait. So, we wanted to make it more communal, more celebratory, more like you're releasing it within a community of other artists. That's something we are hoping to continue to develop in our model moving forward.

U: Is that mostly online, or are you doing in-person events with the drops?

EIS: Thus far, our activities have been mostly centered online. We hosted a launch dinner that felt very intimate and earnest, because I do feel that gathering in person, with intention, is still very much an important part of building a community. We definitely want to host some in-person events in the near future. Otherwise, we have continued to do studio visits in person with artists when we can.

U: I've been thinking lately about digital art and how it is inherently lonely. I'm trying to weigh the pros and cons of a communal or intersubjective gallery experience where other people are seeing the art with you. I don't know why I seem to miss that when I'm looking at virtual art, because I'm not really sure what I'm missing. Like, when I go to the Met and there’s all these people crowded around Starry Night… like, that's not nice. I don't like that. But it does build a more visceral experience. I was wondering if you have any thoughts or solutions about the solitude of making and engaging with digital art.

EIS: Oh, definitely. Maybe this isn’t unique to creating digital art, but there is the myth of the artist, alone in their studio, and I don't think that digital art is an exception. What you noted about the aura or visceral nature of being in the presence of others as they experience the art with you…that is definitely missing from the telepresence of experiencing work online. Some of the early uncanniness, slipperiness, or magic that was very felt when NFT marketplaces were introduced was that you could see and experience the energy of those who had bid just before or after you. There was a sense that someone else was there. Marketplace mechanics have matured so quickly, and there is still much to be explored. For instance, the artist Constant Dullaart has been working on a site called where viewers are represented as a red dot, or small webcam video, as they view artworks together throughout the digital exhibition space.

U: Yeah, I feel like there's a lot of opportunity for more creativity. I know that people have been trying to do it, whether it's Metaverse galleries or virtual installation work, stuff like that.

EIS: Zora also introduced tokenchat so when you mint, you can leave a little comment in the process. This helps socialize the experience of minting, but there is not a lot of development yet in terms of telepresence.

U: Yeah, true. I feel like even now with virtual art, I see it all the time and it is so integrated into our user experience of social media websites, which is great for exposure, and great for people being able to get their stuff out there, but it does seem like my connection to it is less intentional.

EIS: It becomes passive.

U: Yes, I guess the relationship changes inherently because of that factor.

When I was looking over Gemma’s bio, it reads that Gemma is co-inhabited by artists, curators, and contributors with a shared vision of how culture is going to shape the future. I was wondering what aspect of culture you were referencing there, and what part of the future you're hoping it's going to shape. Maybe that's too broad of a question.


EIS: It is broad, I think we’ve intentionally made the statement broad. I think about this a lot, for instance: what if artists developed AI instead of technologists? What would that look like? Technology itself is neither dystopian or utopian. The creative applications and the culture surrounding the technology determine its systems of participation and power, which are in turn echoed in the larger systems around it. This is what is meant to be felt in the statement about how culture can potentially affect our future in a meaningful way. Culture is, to some degree, regenerative, and if we aren’t taking any kinds of creative risks today, we will only see more of the same in the future. We hope to stir up an expanded vision of what art curation can look like in this next chapter; a chapter where, as you said, we are continuously barraged by images.

U: Are you guys trying to find artists who are involved in this space in many different mediums? Or, is it mostly just about the shared culture or vision?

EIS: We are looking to curate works by artists that show some sort of intentionality, criticality, or questioning of the internet's next evolution. That can be interpreted in so many different ways, across mediums. In terms of my curatorial perspective, I'm trying to encourage more than one mode of genre participation. In the NFT space, what an edition looks like oftentimes is a very static image. I am trying to think through more conceptually driven works; works that can relate to something in physical space; works that show critical commentary about our use of technology itself. I am drawn to work that’s very media aware.

U: Another thing that I was thinking about was how the founding artists take on a collective role of defining Gemma's mission and how your resources are going to be allocated. I know that's maybe approaching the idea of a decentralized framework. I know that you're somewhat of an expert on DAOs, so I was wondering if that was the approach, or how DAOs are informing this structure.

EIS: We conceived of Gemma as a DAO and we aren’t one yet. After participating in several DAOs and researching them, I’ve observed that starting as a DAO from day one is not necessarily the optimal solution. In many cases, it can progress and ideate slowly over time.

I actually shared a presentation on “How to DAO'' at the New Museum recently for NEW INC’s demo day. There are so many possible answers and resolutions for how DAOs will operate long term, and so many of those lie in the future. DAOs are such an interesting infrastructure because they offer this topline view of social meaning, and how that gets attached to a technical architecture, and how that feeds into different value systems.

U: So when you say that it's not always optimal to start something out as a DAO, why is that? Or if you could expand on why it's better as a trajectory or goal instead of something that you start with right out the gate.

EIS: DAOs are not without faults. For instance, if we started out as a DAO, not only would we need to expend time and resources implementing a legally sound infrastructure, we would also have to determine what flavor of tools, nuances, and language we choose to organize ourselves around—essentially, how we govern the DAO. I think that if you truly build it with them, instead of simply building it and letting them come, those involved will have a shared interest in the way that the DAO itself is run.

U: Yeah, that's true, it feels like every DAO starts out extremely centralized, but they just kind of call it something else. How do you think that DAOs are going to be changing within the tech and art space in the near future? I know that a year or two ago, everyone was hoping that everything was going to become a DAO, like the government's going to become a DAO. I don't know if it's just from where I'm sitting, but it feels like that discourse has died down a lot.

EIS: No, I would agree. I think we've realized a lot of the inadequacies of organizing this way, and that's both from a legal perspective and a technical perspective. DAOs rely on so many different forms of tooling to address fairly simple social issues. DAOs transpired when they did for a reason; it was a result of people thinking in tandem about new forms of finance and new forms of social organization. I think that's owed to the pandemic, creating a need for resources and socialization, also borne out of a lack of transparency in a lot of other kinds of organizations. They're a very strong attempt at establishing different kinds of hierarchies.

But I think that as Web3 has continued to mature, we've started to see all of the different kinds of DAO infrastructures and patterns hybridize with other models of institutional practices that predated them; sometimes replicating them and rebranding them as something else. While I don't think the term or format is necessarily going away anytime soon, I don't know that they are revolutionizing the government or major infrastructures like the corporate workplace. I have heard it spun in so many different ways; DAOs could become larger institutional frameworks, or they could become these kinds of fractional levels of social signal. You think about orgs like PizzaDAO and DJ-DAO, which don't really need to have the term “DAO” in them necessarily, but they’ve become these smaller infrastructures that signal a specific community. And then tokenizing those communities simply shows different levels of participation within those spaces.

U: Do you see it breaking out of the Web3 space anytime soon? I know that the structure can be replicated in almost any discipline, and just be called something else. But we have yet to see, at least from my perspective, a group, framework, or structure from anywhere other than Web3 calling itself a DAO.

EIS: That's true, and I mean, when you think about it, this framework in many other environments is just hanging out—like, in a band or a friend group. Maybe if you take the “DAO” element out of Web3, you’re just hanging out.

U: Exactly.

EIS: But in reference to other spaces that are using the structure, I know that there are a lot of legal litigations. Wyoming has historically recognized DAOs as legal entities, or limited liability companies. But banking a DAO in order to interact with many spheres outside of blockchain can be extremely difficult, and often expensive, making the process somewhat inaccessible to those who would potentially benefit from this technology the most—like mutual aid groups.


U: Yeah, it does seem like we're taking this very familiar structure and giving it a different name. And because it has a different name, or belongs largely to a certain space, people don’t give it as much credence. For instance, with regard to NFTs, its value is based on communal agreement. It’s the same thing as private property, but we recognize private property because we’ve built all these other secondary frameworks or structures around it; if you try to steal someone else's private property, you're going to get prosecuted for that. That’s what makes us believe that the concept is this real tangible thing, but it's not. It's all just an idea.

EIS: It's a social contract. An NFT is a literal contract, which is kind of funny and poetic in a way. I've thought a lot about NFTs as a form of “property” that establishes digital property rights. I don't know that collecting and owning digital objects fundamentally changes how we see property, but it certainly fundamentally changes how we ascribe value to digital objects.

We consume so much digital media so freely, and we live in a present that is flooded with images made by machines; we can't even tell whether a machine has made an image or a person has. I think that NFTs offer some way in which we are going to signal our values, or determine what kinds of images we find beautiful or compelling in this emerging context. What kinds of images are we going to pay attention to in the future? As we know, digital artworks have often been discounted in terms of value when compared with large scale paintings, but they can also take hours to render, code, produce, export…these are issues that new media and software-based artists have been addressing for decades, much longer than NFTs have existed.

U: Do you think it is mostly a materiality issue, when it comes to the actual buying and selling?

EIS: Yeah, maybe so. That's a really interesting question, because it's not something you can hold, but it is something you can display. You can own it, but it certainly feels a bit more ephemeral.

U: From your perspective, what do most people do with their digital art once they acquire it?

EIS: Some people display them in their homes, and I know of some collectors that have opened gallery spaces dedicated to their digital art collection. Broadly speaking, people view the work in a crypto wallet, set up a gallery page, or organize some kind of profile around it online, much like you would curate your own MySpace or Tumblr. It can carry the same sort of social signal as it would if you were collecting physical artifacts.

U: I'm thinking about how buying physical art doesn’t necessarily make you a collector. Some people have a small collection and are buying art to display it in their homes, while big art collectors store their collection elsewhere. But regular people can buy a painting and it becomes part of the aura of your home. With NFTs, you are automatically a collector because the piece doesn’t really have a purpose outside of sitting in your “collection.” Is that something that you see? Do people commonly buy one or two NFTs, or are they usually collectors?

EIS: I've seen people who have purchased just one or two [NFTs], particularly when they are signaling their support for a specific artist or cause. I think that's a really strong collector mentality to have, to some degree. I think about my collection this way: I try to remind myself that this is a global technology, and that when you support the work of artists from the Global South, or from Southeast Asia, or artists who have otherwise been historically underrepresented in the traditional art world, it can go so much farther toward contributing to their ability to continue to create.

U: So, how does fractional ownership also play into all of this? This is something that I don't really know that much about, but how do you think it relates to this idea of ownership and how people want to buy NFTs or to have them in their collection?

EIS: Fractionalized ownership as a concept has shifted dramatically since its introduction. If you were able to collect a Monet with a group of your friends, would it still be meaningful for you to technically own a section or a pixel of it? The ability to own a part of a piece, or contribute to a collective effort, is what drove fractionalization in the first place. A lot of that energy has redirected toward how we conceptualize the value of open editions, wherein there is no fixed supply or number of collectors that can mint a specific edition.

U: On the topic of the NFT market, I know that it has died down recently, at least in the Western world. Do you think that because of this fluctuation or downturn of the market, it's been able to find its niche?

EIS: I often say that I can't predict whether this ecosystem will reach the bull market highs of early 2021 again. I can share that while the market is down, it's certainly not out. The industry (especially in the west) is waning, yes, but I think that this is still a legitimate “billion dollar brigade,” even if it's no longer in the billions. Maybe this is a happy medium, or maybe it starts to trickle forward. It's funny because people generalize these kinds of numbers; I think it's in part because it shot up so quickly that people can now dramatize headlines that say “NFTs are dead.” It was probably centuries before the art market finally boomed in the eighties, it took it decades to mature and crystallize into what we now know it to be. I can't speak to what this space will look like in 4 years… maybe we can at least stop referring to them as NFTs. Maybe they will just be another form of media, or art, that we produce.

U: That's a good point. I never thought about that, because I don't like calling them NFTs either. It’s an ugly word.

So, when it comes to galleries that are selling digital art, are they largely trying to build their own platforms for buying and selling it, or are they using Foundation, Zora and stuff like that?

EIS: I would say some smaller galleries—bitforms comes to mind— they've been really open with experimenting with different models and marketplaces. Pace Verso has introduced their own digital collecting infrastructure.

U: And then can other people sell their work on that, or do you have to be represented by the gallery?

EIS: Pace Verso is more of a curated, closed system.

U: Okay, interesting. Does that make it much more available to buy? I guess I could just walk into a gallery and buy something, but the physical spaces often involve having connections.

EIS: It depends on the gallery, when you're looking at major blue-chip galleries like Pace or David Zwirner, it is nearly impossible for a collector who isn’t established or verified to buy a piece: there are coded systems, waiting lists. They’ve got entire teams dedicated to record keeping, market intelligence, and client development, so that they can theoretically time solo exhibitions to the moment when their collector base will come forward. It’s all very orchestrated.

U: In those same types of galleries, when it comes to digital art, do you still have to jump through all those hoops or can you just go on their platform and buy it?

EIS: It depends. There's a lot more experimentation when it comes to digital art. But yeah, it really depends on the artists. I'd say those galleries are selling a lot less digital art, mostly just because of their client base.

U: Going back to Gemma, what do you guys have going on right now? I know that you had some drops recently.

EIS: Yeah, we’re doing weekly releases with artists until early December, and the next one is going to be a photograph by Anna Condo. She's a really brilliant photographer who's become known for her still lifes of flowers, and then in recent years become really prolific in AI post-photography; generating images of not only flowers, but sculptures and portraits. We've commissioned a photograph by her.

LES FLEURS DE CV by Anna Condo — Mint here

U: And you guys also just commissioned one from Petra Cortright?

EIS: Correct. I think that we're accidentally falling into this recurring theme of flowers because Petra's piece—our first one—was Flowers for Gemma, and Anna Condo’s also sharing one that’s floral.

Still from Flowers for Gemma by Petra Cortright — Mint here

U: It's very fitting to have flowers, especially as you're opening. It’s celebratory.

EIS: Definitely. A lot of people have told me that Gemma brings a bit of necessary feminine energy to the space that they haven't really seen or felt before browsing these sites. It's not something we necessarily did intentionally, but I think it's a byproduct of who we are, how we approach things, and how we ask questions and interact with artists. So that's been really interesting feedback.

U: I wouldn't say that the rest of the space is so distinctly male per se, but definitely a certain aesthetic that's going on, especially with branding.

EIS: Yeah, we know it when we see it. It's so hard to create a brand identity that feels like it has longevity; like an instant classic, you know?

Gemma logo

U: How did you guys go about developing yours?

EIS: We were all over the place, but we have a really talented brand designer, his name is Carlos Sanchez. We had mood boards, and he came forward with multiple design options and also showed us how they would start to apply and play out with the artworks themselves. And frustratingly to some degree, we landed on a white background with black serif text, which is an approach that so many galleries take, but after going on this visual journey and landing there, I understand why that is. A lot of it has to do with letting the artwork sing, and letting that be at the forefront. One thing we found celebratory is that we have our Gemma blue— we have our blue manifesto, and blue is going to be continuous as our accent color because we didn't want to always just be black and white.

Gemma ManifestoMint here

U: Yeah, having one solid shade that’s associated with your branding, I think that's always going to be classic.

EIS: Yes, it’s a nod to Yves Klein, but it's also a nod to early internet culture at the same time—like, error 404 screens and Windows 94 default backgrounds.

U: I love the callback. Thanks so much for joining me! Will be looking forward to your guys’ next drop.

You can follow Gemma’s editions on their site,  on Twitter, or read essays and interviews on

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USURPATOR is an online magazine sharing essays and interviews about the user experience of our current virtual landscape

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