A woman who wears many hats, native Philadelphian Alex Klein is an artist, writer and curator. After majoring in art history at Columbia and getting an MA at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, Klein moved to Los Angeles, where she received an MFA from UCLA. She became a curatorial fellow at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2007. Alongside teaching and her studio practice, Klein co-organized, with James Welling, “Around Photography,” a week-long series of events at the Hammer Museum, and started “Words Without Pictures,” a book and website devoted to contemporary issues in photography. She also co-founded a publishing imprint, Oslo Editions.
These days Klein finds herself shuttling between L.A. and the East Coast, where she has recently been appointed the new program curator for the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. A.i.A. spoke with Klein about her new position and her upcoming work.
How would you describe the mission of Oslo Editions, which published its inaugural volume last year?
Oslo Editions came out of a wish to find a space where my partner, designer and writer Mark Owens, and I could explore what might be involved in an “editorial practice,” and engage with the community of artists and writers we find ourselves in conversation with. Although our primary focus is on publishing, our first book, Contra Mundum I–VII, grew out of a lecture series we organized at the artist-run Mandrake bar in Los Angeles, and since then we have also made furniture, arranged screenings and exhibited objects in galleries. Our next book projects are with writer-theorist Evan Calder Williams and artist Anna Sew Hoy.
As for your new position, what factors led you to take on this new job, and how would you describe your role at the ICA?
The ICA has an incredible radical history with the added bonus of being affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania. I was excited by the prospect of shaping a new position in a non-medium specific, kunsthalle environment. Thanks to its curatorial vision, it is a very artist-centered institution, and I liked that I was approached precisely because I am a practicing artist.
The way I tend to describe my new position is that I work as an artist within the discursive space of the ICA. My primary interest is to bring the concerns of the studio into dialogue with different critical and historical registers while also opening up the general conversation about what is at stake in contemporary practice. While there are definitely moments when it makes sense for me to work in the physical space of the gallery, my primary focus is on the program.
What sorts of programs are you planning?
I am really excited about a new series of “salon” discussions between different artists, critics and curators that will take place every other week beginning in October. We have some really amazing people coming through for the conversations, including artists R.H. Quaytman and Eduardo Sarabia, and curator Anthony Huberman, and, to plan talk about everything from black market economies to interdisciplinary models.
You’re also launching a new program called Excursus; what can you tell us about that?
In a sense Excursus is exactly what it means, an exposition or digression from a primary text, or in this case, the main exhibitions on view at the ICA. Three times a year an artist, designer, publisher or other cultural producer will be invited to create a context where more intimate programming can take place in the museum; i.e. roundtable discussions, readings, workshops, etc. I suppose it’s somewhat antithetical to the general push in museums to increase visitor attendance and numbers, but I wanted to deviate from the standard auditorium-based event and think about organizing programs that might only involve a few people and occur more organically.
Our first Excursus program is by the designer Andy Beach, who works under the moniker Reference Library and took inspiration from Philadelphia’s Prohibition-era Centaur Book Shop, which by day operated as a store and radical press, and by night as a bohemian meeting place. The installation is a place to peruse a mixture of archival material, but will also host a series of events. All of this will be made available through an online artist residency. I think it will be interesting to see how this changes with our next “resident,” East of Borneo.
Do you have any multi-platform projects similar to Words Without Pictures in the works?
That was a really amazing experience and I have to acknowledge Charlotte Cotton, who initiated that project. WWP was really about documenting one year of conversations about photography from as many different perspectives and with as few preconceptions as possible. It came soon after a conference that I had organized with Jim Welling at the Hammer Museum the year prior, and at a moment in Los Angeles when we were all very deep in conversation about issues about what was at stake in the medium of photography, while also thinking through emergent publishing and conversation platforms.
The ICA Salon series and Excursus both have this potential built into them, and will hopefully generate a certain momentum leading up to ICA’s 50th anniversary.
How important do you think the web is for museums in the 21st century and do you have any plans for changing the ICA website?
If there is one thing I learned from WWP it’s that the web is a time-based medium and there is a lot to be said for slowing it down every once in a while. There have definitely been discussions about the ICA website, but at the moment I am really focusing on Excursus, and its online component. Through the website, the artist will be able to reach people who might never be able to come to the ICA. At the same time, it will always be physically linked to and rooted in the discussions and archival material at the ICA and will expand over time as the project grows. I’m not rushing to make it happen all at once. It’s a cumulative process.