Sam Griffin’s recent exhibition Corvée, at London’s Gallery Vela, consisted of a series of sculptures and drawings exploring the aesthetics of corporate office spaces, and, as a closing event, a film screening. Griffin met with Dean Kissick in a Scandinavian café just around the corner from Tank to talk about Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, Cedric Price’s thoughts on the Freedom Tower, and Frank Stella’s appropriation of National Socialist aesthetics.
Portrait: Henry Kingsford
Dean Kissick Can you tell me about the film Tomorrow Land that you’re screening today?
Sam Griffin It’s the original promotional film that Walt Disney put together to explain the proposed EPCOT development, so it’s him talking through various overviews of this unrealised city. But it’s a project that never got finished, and the only parts of it that survive in the contemporary incarnation of Disney World are the Spaceship Earth attraction – which takes its name and its geodesic structure from Buckminster Fuller – and the monorails.
DK Was EPCOT planned before Celebration, the Florida town developed by the Walt Disney Company?
SG Oh yeah, a long, long time before Celebration – which I’m told has been rocked recently by a series of murders.
DK A murder followed by a suicide, but the two are supposed to be unconnected…
SG Well, the community in Celebration is very tightly controlled: you’re not allowed to hang your laundry in the front garden; you have to have a certain number of parties per year for the neighbours. And with the original EPCOT development, the company was able to declare the Florida site as a sort-of semi-autonomous state – Disney World is a no-fly zone, for instance – with a view to having much closer control over the proposed city that they were going to build. It was a fascinating project, and all the more interesting because it never actually happened, I suppose. It was conceived in the spirit of American post-war optimism, and intended to showcase the very best of American industry as well, but the main problem with the project was that Disney died, and he was the driving force.
DK Though he’s not totally dead yet – his head is supposedly cryogenically frozen forever. Maybe he’ll be revived and then he can build EPCOT after all – what sort of city was it supposed to be?
SG Its mnemonic is Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, so it was set up as a kind of test site, and there was a lot of cross-pollination between what it was trying to achieve and what was going on with Milton Keynes. It was a genuine attempt to create a city that could circumvent the idea of obsolescence – just about every aspect of the city would be modular, so it could be removed and updated on an almost continual basis. What Disney was attempting to do was so fundamentally different to the way that any other city would work. He was trying to manoeuvre around the very concept of stasis in a constructed environment.
DK It sounds like Cedric Price’s (unrealised) Fun Palace.
SG You know, I had breakfast with him once, just before he died. He came into the Slade for a breakfast meeting and told a great story also on this theme of architecture and transience – about going to a meeting about the proposals for the redevelopment of Ground Zero, and hauling Daniel Libeskind over the coals by asking, “How long is this building [the unbuilt Freedom Tower] going to last?” And Libeskind said, “It will last forever!” But, of course, it won’t last forever, that’s proposing a sort of impossibility, and Price and Libeskind really locked horns over this idea.
DK How does Tomorrow Land connect to your exhibition Corvée?
SG Disney’s vision is like Walter Gropius’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, the design manifesto that dictates everything from the city plan right down to pieces of ornamentation in the space, and how these two things can act in concert to precipitate very particular psychosomatic effects. And this leads into my show, which is about a reasonably consistent vernacular that runs through corporate workspaces. The choice of plants that they use in these places is particularly interesting, as it seems to denote a peculiarly corporatised notion of a tropical paradise. Some of the lobbies are almost a contemporaneous version of Marie Antoinette’s dairy yard – they look like these tiki bars in Mauritius but are all contained in this regulated corporate vernacular of reflective materials, and everything is wipe-clean and just-so and there are no messy edges.
DK You chose some flora for the sculptures in your show.
SGYes, Aloe vera and Dracaena fragrans Massangeana, both tropical plants. I’m interested in the fetishisation of the natural world that exists with the placement of these plants within these corporate spaces, because it’s so antithetical to the principle activity occurring there: they’re not paradises, they’re not symbols of liberation, they’re work environments and they’re representations of power. So I purchased these plants from a company that supplies interior landscaping for offices, by masquerading as an employee enraptured with the idea of this tropical foliage.
DK You also use a lot of symbolism – is that connected to corporate logos, or religious iconography, or even art history?
SG I’m very interested in how certain artistic movements, like American minimalist painting, have been cannibalised by corporate aesthetics, so in this show you have the triangle symbols everywhere, and they’re references to Frank Stella. One of his early works is this black painting called Die Fahne Hoch!, of the exact same dimensions as the National Socialist flags brought out on the marches, and that always fascinated me because it’s like Stella restaging a kind of National Socialist call to arms: to forget the past and follow this new cause. Except Stella is doing it with the art world, not with the German public. His work is proposing a rebuttal of the previous aesthetic traditions and attempting to forge the new way, and its revolutionary aspirations tally with the “blue-sky thinking” that surrounds a lot of businesses – the ideas of boldly striding forward and self-fulfilment that a lot of people find so intoxicating in these corporate environments, and the cultishness of it. §