Special Issue: Assembly Leads the Way in NFT Photography
Assembly Leads the Way in NFT Photography
With a combined 30+ years of experience in the world of Fine Art Photography, Ashlyn Davis Burns and Shane Lavalette have become a driving force in onboarding blue-chip artists from the IRL photo world into the NFT space. Last winter, they teamed up to form Assembly, a creative agency and gallery that represents some of the most important photographic artists working today.
Back in August we profiled the photographer Alejandro Cartagena and his breathtaking rise into the forefront of NFT photography. Few people in the space know, however, that Cartagena is represented by Assembly, who played a key role in spreading awareness of his work within the NFT space.
This week, we sit down with Ashlyn and Shane to learn the ins-and-outs of Assembly and their activities in the NFT photo world.
Morning Drop: First off guys, for those who don’t know you could you talk briefly about your respective backgrounds in photography and how your experience/interests came together to form Assembly?
Ashlyn Davis Burns: Prior to Shane and I founding Assembly, I was the Executive Director & Curator of Houston Center for Photography, a 40-year-old nonprofit dedicated to supporting photographers through a variety of programs. Shane and I have known each other for many years through our non-profit network and would often cross paths at related events. Assembly was born out of many years of discussion about the shifting state of the field, which we were both navigating as directors of non-profit institutions. Ultimately, our current business model solidified as a response to both the pandemic and our desire to see more robust support systems for artists. By launching as a virtual platform, we knew we would be able to work to support our roster of artists through longer-term initiatives that could be developed in lockdown, then debut in person once the world opened back up.
Shane Lavalette: Ashlyn and I have both been driven to support emerging and underrepresented artists throughout our careers, whether that’s through exhibitions, publications, residencies, or other projects. In addition to my former role as Director of Light Work, I’m a practicing artist myself, and so I also understand many of the challenges of navigating the art world and the value of having some kind of support system in place. Assembly is a platform that brings together elements of a gallery, agency, and creative studio in order to holistically support artists and their practice. At the outset, we wanted to make Assembly an inclusive, ethical, forward-thinking, and truly artist-centric space and this is something we take a lot of pride in. We’re still in challenging times, but also find this to be an exciting moment for reimagining what a platform for artists can be.
MD: On your website you describe Assembly as a “Gallery, Agency, and Creative Studio,” which in the traditional photo world is a bit of a hybrid model of artist representation. How did you land on this idea, and what kinds of activities exist under its purview?
ADB/SL: We recognize that an artist’s practice is in and of itself multifaceted, so by creating a platform that can support a variety of projects, efforts, ideas, and opportunities, we believe we’re positioned to be the most responsive to artists and their expansive needs. We talked a lot about what it means to live a creative life, and we spoke with many artists about their candid experiences working with galleries and agencies—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and used this feedback to develop a path forward that could potentially foster positive changes in the industry.
Like a traditional gallery, Assembly is interested in placing works with individual and institutional collections. However, as a virtual space, rather than focusing on exhibitions in a single location, we are interested in creating exhibition and programming opportunities at numerous locations around the country and hopefully globally as well, whether through collaborations with other galleries and non-profits or through unique pop-up opportunities in various locales.
In addition to the traditional dealer relationship, we also act as a commercial agent for our artists on editorial and commercial projects with publications and brands, by negotiating contracts or pitching story or campaign ideas. This dual component is particularly interesting to artists working in photography as it allows numerous opportunities to now only sustain their creative practice, but also to extend their fine art practice in unique ways with a broader audience.
Finally, Assembly also supports the marketing, sponsorship and funding component for our artists by supporting grant and residency applications, seeking out unique sponsorships for project-based support, and promoting their work with a broad array of constituents. While many brick-and-mortar spaces do some of this, from our experience, there are few who bring these components together in a more active way. We sought to fill this gap as well as to drill down a bit deeper into what it really means as a dealer or agent to support our artists’ practices, rather than just the end product that hangs on the wall.
MD: Many in the NFT world now know of the photographer Alejandro Cartagena, but fewer actually know that he is one of the artists you represent and worked with to drop The 50 Carpoolers. Can you recount some of the early conversations you had with him about the potentials of the NFT space for photographers, and how you collaborated to help launch his crypto career?
ADB/SL: Alejandro was interested in the NFT space very early on and we all did a deep dive together to learn everything that we could in order to support his interest in experimenting with this new space. We had numerous conversations with colleagues at institutions, auction houses, and galleries and at the time really felt that work needed to be native to the NFT space, incorporating the blockchain as the medium itself. However, as our conversations evolved, we realized that it was an important statement in-and-of-itself to turn existing, iconic work—work that for Alejandro was originally successful because of the virality of the project on the internet—into NFTs.
Artists have been fighting for equity in their work for hundreds of years and photographers in particular have remained somewhat relegated to the sidelines in terms of the ability to competitively price works in accordance with more traditional fine arts like painting and sculpture. So, Alejandro’s interests in launching his genesis project as The 50 Carpoolers really fit into the values we support as a business. We also loved that the project’s roots were also tied to the internet—Twitter and Reddit in particular—and so it felt like bringing it full circle by launching them as digital jpegs, as NFTs. As many know, the few pieces we originally minted and listed sat on the Foundation platform for some time before we began connecting with collectors on Twitter, ultimately sparking the first bids by well-known NFT collector and NFT photography champion, DT Luiz. After that, it was like a wildfire had been lit and the rest is history, as they say.
MD: In the larger scope of things, you two are as well-attuned to the traditional art photography world as anyone I know. How do you imagine the future of that world now as the NFT space, and the potential value it offers to artists, begin to be more widely known? It seems to me that there’s a looming shakeup in the ways that photographic artists have traditionally built their careers.
ADB/SL: We keep saying this, but it’s really an exciting, potentially revolutionary time! So many amazing artists we’ve spoken to who have launched their “genesis” NFT projects have told us how it has changed their lives—they’ve paid off debt from art school, they’ve been able to cover material costs for creating new, physical work. It’s truly groundbreaking. We think we’re about to see a huge influx of institutions coming into the space—some probably pretty successfully and others maybe not so much, if they are not participatory. As we know, it’s all about building community around these works, and it takes a huge amount of effort on the artist’s part. We’re trying to relieve that effort as much as we can by making a little corner in the space for true art photography lovers. There’s so much potential for the application of this, though. What if graduate students were asked to mint their thesis works as NFTs in order to immediately pay off their school loans? What if philanthropic institutions began creating collections that rose in value in order to fund the entry costs to mint and list work? We are very excited about the ways in which this can create new pathways for artists at all levels of their careers and redefine the place of the artist in society.
ADB/SL: We are so excited about the potential to continue innovating in the space and have some big plans in the works for the rest of the fall and winter. You can expect Assembly drops to happen at least every other Thursday, with a few weekly drops peppered in. Our next launch on October 14th is with Penelope Umbrico, an artist who has been working with the internet as source material for several decades now, navigating the dawn of the internet as an image sharing platform to now, with this new work created specifically and uniquely as NFTs. The project, Range: Of Swiss Fort Knox (50 Generative Photographs) focuses on Swiss Fort Knox, an underground data center deep in the Swiss Alps designed to provide “long-term access to our digital cultural and scientific assets.” Like in her broader artistic practice, she sourced internet photographs, here using images tagged “Swiss Fort Knox”. She then photographed the images on the screen with her iPhone, processing them through the device’s multiple camera app filters that simulate the “mistakes” of analogue photography: light leaks, chemical burns, and bokeh. The hallucinogenic colors blend with the disorienting effects of the iPhone’s gravity sensor to dislodge any perception of stability in the mountain, the data center, and the photographic medium. We are thrilled to help her launch one of the first photographic projects created specifically for the blockchain.
Readers can see all of Assembly’s artist drops, including upcoming ones to mark your calendar for, at www.assembly.art/nft
Join the Assembly community on Discord to keep up with the latest at https://discord.gg/SQqVMybhFV
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