Interview: Martha Kirszenbaum

On the occasion of this weekend’s Los Angeles Art Book Fair, we sat down with curator Martha Kirszenbaum, founder and director of L.A.-based non-profit Fahrenheit, to discuss her experiences in the city’s ever-burgeoning arts community.


You founded Fahrenheit in 2014 in cooperation with the FLAX Foundation. How did that pairing come about? 

I was in Los Angeles in the spring of 2013 to do research for an exhibition on Kenneth Anger’s visual influence at Palais de Tokyo. During that time, I was invited to meet with the executive director of FLAX (France Los Angeles Exchange), a private non-profit foundation based in L.A. aimed at promoting French culture in the city. They were looking to develop an artist residency program, and I suggested that we pair it with an exhibition space and open the residency to curators and critics.

How did the project develop from there?

We agreed that Fahrenheit would invite France-connected individuals to come for a period of one-to-three months, giving them the opportunity to explore the city, think, and produce an exhibition, a performance, a talk, or whatever else. The residents stay in a house in Highland Park and receive per diems and production money for projects that are developed through a direct collaboration with myself as the director and curator.
In the past two years, we have invited individuals such as artists Julien Prévieux (who received the prestigious Prix Marcel Duchamp for the performance we produced at Fahrenheit), Caroline Mesquita, Davi Douard and Laure Prouvost, dancer/choreographers Ligia Lewis and Thibault Lac, critic Dorothée Dupuis and exhibition space Shanaynay. The idea is to bring to Los Angeles individuals who haven’t shown or worked in the city (or, in some cases, the US) and invite them to collaborate with local artists, musicians or others. David Douard’s exhibition, for instance, featured works by Liz Craft and Jesse Stecklow, while Laure Prouvost’s film was the result of collaborating with Los Angeles-based musician and producer WYNN and a cast of young local adolescents.
Fahrenheit also functions as an exhibition space in the industrial part of Downtown, located in a former textile storage from the 1940s, where I organize exhibitions, performances, screenings and public programs. Every year, I curate an exhibition that has no direct connection to the residents, implicating instead more historical artists. The 2014 exhibition “Street Life,” for instance, featured films by Michel Auder and Józef Robakowski, while 2015’s “Everyone’s Heart is Full of Fire” paired works by Dorothy Iannone and Genesis P-Orridge.


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How would you say Fahrenheit differentiates itself from other residency programs?

I believe that our model is quite specific, in the sense that there is only one resident at a time, working on a specific project, with an actual space proposed for the delivery of the project. It is therefore a rather intimate residency program, one which affords the resident a lot of freedom to reflect, think and travel. I work closely with the artists in developing their projects, which can lead to great artist/curator collaborations—our current exhibition with Laure Prouvost, for instance, is the result of long exchanges and many hours spent in my car driving around town. Lastly, there are actually very few residencies in L.A.—especially when compared to the booming art scene and the growing number of artists who want to move here or at least spend some time in the city. In that regard, I have the feeling that we are a different and quite necessary entity here.

Beyond its promotion of French-related practitioners, would you say that Fahrenheit favors any particular subjects or themes in its programming? 

Actually, in my curatorial practice, I have never been particularly interested in representing a nationality. I have indeed worked with many French and Polish artists in the past, and I of course respect and follow the prerogatives of the foundation that hired me, but I’ve also tried to open up the program to artists from Europe and Los Angeles as well. I’m not too keen on thematic programming, either, but I am very driven towards film, sculpture and performance. I come from a film background: I worked in the Media & Performance Department of MoMA and have developed exhibitions focused on filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and Henri-Georges Clouzot, along with several film programs, such as “Fetish and Figure,” which has been shown in several institutions. But running an exhibition space also means challenging your own tastes and going beyond your inclinations as a curator, so it’s actually a very good exercise to embrace artists and practices you might not have paid attention to otherwise. That said, it has been a crucial point for me in developing Fahrenheit that there be a strong presence of female artists and curators in the program—particularly if they come from France, where they are generally underrepresented.


close up without Laure2


As you mentioned earlier, Fahrenheit’s current exhibition is “A Way to Leak, Lick, Leek” by artist Laure Prouvost. Can speak a bit as to what drew you to Prouvost’s work, and how these latest pieces developed during her time at the residency?

I have been following Laure’s work for quite some time; I’m fascinated with her ability to convey desire, oneirism and a fantasized depiction of nature through film and installation. I decided to invite her to Fahrenheit because I thought that her practice as a filmmaker, and particularly her attention to natural and human environments, could really thrive in a residency set in Los Angeles. During her one-month stay, she filmed every situation she encountered—the streets of Highland Park, her Zumba class, cruising on the freeways at sunset, the L.A. River, Joshua Tree, etc. She wrote a script for young adolescent actors that we cast in the city and whom she filmed in Fahrenheit’s parking lot. She also produced a series of smoke drawings, collected objects, leaflets, pieces of wood and metal. The exhibition results in a delineated urban experience made of driving in L.A. and breathing in petrol and plastic smells. The main installation presents the video, for which we have also produced an original hip-hop track, and is surrounded by an immersive installation in which Laure coated the floor of the space with blue resin and filled the space with technological junk, tropical trees, pineapples and branches of tumble weeds—like an apocalyptic vision evoking a private pool the morning after a wild night.

As someone who’s long worked internationally as an independent curator, how does L.A. differ from other cities in which you’ve lived and worked? What’s made you want to stay?

Los Angeles is an ungraspable, complex, beautiful and dark flower in the desert. It’s a place where I simultaneously feel so comfortable and yet a total stranger in the night. For the Parisian I am, moving to a place where you don’t run into people on the streets was a pure culture shock. I lived almost four years in New York, where I studied and worked as a young curator, and felt immediately at home—the European influence, the Jewish humor, the moody passers-by. But in coming to L.A., I felt like I had no cultural point of reference beyond the fictions I’d encountered in movies and American photography, which shaped my curatorial eye as a teenager. I moved here out of fascination with the city’s counterculture, its art and music scenes, its wildness and darkness, and for the heartbreaking golden light that makes me shiver at every sunset. I’ve stayed because I love driving; because a lot can be done here with so much space and cultural potential; because I was able to develop my program at Fahrenheit; and for the very unique feeling of being at the right place at the right time.

How would you characterize your experience of the city’s artistic community? What do you see as Fahrenheit’s place within it?

It is quite difficult (and actually rather vain) to try to describe the art scene of a city—especially when we’re talking about as wide, diverse and shifting a place as Los Angeles. What I do find interesting, however, is that in the past three years, the landscape has been transformed and enriched by individuals from New York, Europe and Latin America opening new galleries (Karma International, Freedman Fitzpatrick, Jenny’s, Chateau Shatto) and non-profit spaces (Chin’s Push, LACA, Fahrenheit). Artists have also been moving here from all over because the rents are cheap and the quality of life is so much better than in London, Paris or New York. All of this makes Los Angeles a less provincial and isolated place, opening up its potential.
Actually, something I had totally underestimated when we started Fahrenheit is that very few young emerging European artists are exhibited in Los Angeles—particularly in contrast to somewhere like New York. In that sense, I quickly realized that our program was filling an empty window here. We are also located Downtown, next to François Ghébaly, Night Gallery and 356 Mission, which situates us within a larger community of artists, curators and locals, often living and working on the east side and/or Downtown.


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Will you be attending the Book Fair this year?

Of course! It is such a necessary initiative in Los Angeles, where I wish I could read while I drive and listen to the new Rihanna.

Are you looking forward to any particular booths or programs?

I’m excited to see what Black Lives Matter will present; to discover Hannah Black’s new book Dark Pool Party, presented by London-based publisher and space Arcadia Missa, which seems to echo Laure Prouvost’s exhibition; and to attend a performance by Switzerland-based artist and musician Felicia Atkinson. I also can’t wait to pick up a copy of Dorothy Iannone’s 1976 silkscreen print Doesn’t Everyone Make Mistakes in September? at Printed Matter’s booth. More generally, however, the Book Fair is a time of reunion with friends from all over the world who came to visit or exhibit.

What are some of your favorite artist books?

Ah, lists and favorite things… I keep renewing them! I am currently exploring a fantastic book by French-Lebanese artist Lamia Ziadé entitled Ô Nuit Ô Mes Yeux, which is about her work on the fascinating period of cabarets, singers and dancers in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria in the mid-20th century. Other favorites include Dorothy Iannone’s You Who Read Me With Passion Must Forever Be My Friends, Michel Auder’s Stories, Myths, Ironies, and Other Songs and Anna Ostoya’s first monograph.

Looking ahead, what does the coming year hold for Fahrenheit?

Laure’s exhibition is up until mid-April, and then in May we will open an exhibition of Renaud Jerez’s sculptures and textile works, produced during his residency and in collaboration with a (secret) L.A.-based artist. In the fall, we will present a group exhibition of Middle Eastern artists curated by Paris-based Myriam Ben Salah, who will be our curator-in-residence. I am very attached to this project, which revolves around the notion of the “post-Arab,” and hope it can travel to institutions in France and Northern Africa.
As for our programming, we will be part of a major Los Angeles retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s oeuvre, screening Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman and two rare short films of hers. Then I will program a series of talks and (hopefully) a dance performance with an amazing (and, for now, secret) Paris-based female choreographer.

Martha Kirszenbaum is founder, director and curator of Fahrenheit, an L.A.-based residency program and space dedicated to exhibitions, performances, film programs and talks. She is a regular contributor to KALEIDOSCOPE and Flash Art.

"A Way To Leak, Lick, Leek," a solo exhibition by Laure Prouvost, is on view at Fahrenheit through 9 April 2016.

Christopher Schreck is KALEIDOSCOPE's Online Editor. He is based in New York City.

Images: Exhibition overview of Laure Prouvost, "A Way to Leak, Lick, Leek," 2016. Photo credit: Jeff McLane; Production still from Laure Prouvost, Lick in the Past, 2016. Video, Duration 8:23 min. Courtesy of the artist and MOT International. Commission: Fahrenheit by FLAX; Installation view, Room 2: (Foreground) A Way to Leak, Lick, Leek, 2016. Vinyl tiles, resin, various electronic items, paper sheeting, iPads, iPhones, tablet screens, foliage, metal, plastic, wood, cables, polyester seats. Courtesy of the artist and MOT International. Commission: Fahrenheit by FLAX. (Background) Lick in the Past, 2016. Video, Duration 8:23 min. Courtesy of the artist and MOT International. Commission: Fahrenheit by FLAX. Photo credit: Jeff McLane; Installation view, Room 2: (Background) Lick in the Past, 2016. Video, Duration 8:23 min. Courtesy of the artist and MOT International. Commission: Fahrenheit by FLAX. (Foreground) A Way to Leak, Lick, Leek, 2016. Vinyl tiles, resin, various electronic items, paper sheeting, iPads, iPhones, tablet screens, foliage, metal, plastic, wood, cables, polyester seats. Courtesy of the artist and MOT International. Commission: Fahrenheit by FLAX. Photo credit: Jeff McLane.

Portrait image by Deborah Farnault.