Griffin Frazen on data visualization, 3D modelling and «using architectural thinking and technical skills to help people understand protests from a spatial perspective»
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Griffin Frazen had a cultural upbringing surrounded by narrative and performance. Having initially studied art and film, he later trained as an architect graduating with a Master’s in Architecture from Princeton University. Describing the course as a small program that encouraged students to find the aspect of the discipline that interested them and to develop a «rigorous architectural thinking», Griffin took advantage of the access that studying at Princeton gave him to other discourses. «I remained engaged in Art history, film studies and philosophy». His studies culminated in a politically and socially engaged thesis under the theme «Call to Action» and he tells how «in the end I didn’t actually build or propose a final material structure». Instead, Griffin examined the protests in Egypt and Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2013 events which he identifies as «architectural moments». Going on to design temporal event and performance spaces, Griffin continues to advocate for the mobilization of architects and their skillsets in human rights work and remains engaged in protest and event reconstruction through his collaborations with Situ Research, an organization based in New York where he now resides. «Disillusioned with Architecture as a trade» upon graduating, Griffin chose to work in a different medium and secured his first job at a motion graphics studio. Alongside this he also began working with his peers in the music industry and describes «slowly developing a freelance career, working with musicians and applying the skills that I had learnt from Architecture, motion graphics and animation». Not beholden to one medium, Griffin puts it simply. «I have these certain skillsets and it’s just about finding the right people and the right projects to explore ideas».
Consequently, Griffin’s work is centered around collaboration and although his works are integral structures, they are intended to be shown as one part of a broader work of live performance art or recorded film and speak to the intersection between Architecture and bodies. On working with new collaborators, Griffin explains it’s «a combination of luck and preparedness» and credits good timing for his collaborations with artists such as Solange with whom he has collaborated on two projects, Orion’s Rise, 2017, and Metatron’s Cube, 2018. «Solange wanted to approach the stage design more like an Architecture project, which is to say not relying on stage materials which often lead to the same results. She was revolutionary in wanting to spend a lot of money, to do something that was going to stand out because of how it was made».
Citing Orion’s Rise as an example of live performance design, Griffin explains how the deliberate design process began with sketches of design options that referenced formal language, geometry and precedents by Étienne-Louis Boullée and Walter De Maria. «I was approaching this more as an architect and someone that designs performances and events to translate it into something that could fully convey the music and support the musicians and choreography on the stage». Working backwards from the first show, Griffin explains, «we knew that we wanted the first show to be a big deal so we focused on that and then looked at how those pieces could be transported and broken down». Constructed from welded steel frames, clad in wood and painted white, the pyramids were seamless objects that could not be dissembled. «We didn’t want to see the seams so it was really about making these close to perfect objects». In contrast, the stairs were modular to allow for changes in venue size and the orb was inflatable so that «at certain venues, like at the Sydney Opera House, it could be suspended and at others it could be weighted and built into the stairs». Griffin provided detailed technical drawings that instructed the crew on how the stage should be assembled at each location. «Sometimes the pieces had to be remade in certain cities because it made more sense than trying to transport them». Live performances and concerts have provided Griffin with the opportunity to work in a number of iconic venues including the Sydney Opera House designed by architect Jørn Utzon.
Griffin’s design for the Dior Guggenheim Gala, 2015, at the Guggenheim Museum designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright was another such opportunity. He describes creating a dialogue with the building and how the rotunda «informed the circular nature of the stage, using the language of the spiral». Of equal importance to Griffin in the design of live performance spaces is lighting design. «Similar to my resistance to how stages are designed, I also think they are often lit in a very similar way and so that’s something that I like to try and challenge». Working closely with lighting designers to avoid the use of laser and strobe lighting, Griffin prefers theatrical lighting that accentuates the sculptural form of his works. The use of chromatic white is thus not a symbolic choice but a practical one. «It’s not about a color, it’s about light and shadow and so I think white lends itself well to that». In contrast to designing for live performance, Griffin also designs for recorded performance. Although Metatron’s Cube uses a similar design language, «the first instance and premiere of it was always going to be a film». Thus the design process included storyboarding and dialogue with the Director of Photography. With live performance «it’s more about the viewer deciding where they want to look», with film you are able to edit and use the language of cinema to say «you’re going to see this and then you’re going to see that and the meaning is produced in between those two things».
With the global pandemic ensuring the cancellation of live performance events in 2020, and continuing into 2021, Griffin has relied on digital modelling and animation to stay creative. «I missed being able to go to performances and design for performances». Comfortable working in 3D software, Griffin uses Rhinoceros to design works that will later become physical structures and Cinema4D to create visuals for animation projects including his collaboration with Paul Banks on the music video for ‘Broken Tambourine’, 2020, a project they completed remotely and across continents during the pandemic. Griffin talks about the distinction between Rhinoceros and Cinema 4D which lacks scale. «I think it speaks to what its intended purpose is. It’s much more about a visual or creating a world, not something that’s ever going to have to be physical». Griffin’s skillset in 3D software has also presented him with the opportunity to continue his research on protests through data visualization, work he initially found hard to find outside of an academic institution. Introduced to Situ Research through a friend, Griffin began collaborating with them back in 2017. In 2020 Griffin collaborated with Situ Research on two further projects, one with Amnesty International that focused on the use of tear gas against protesters and another with the Human Rights Watch which analyzed police misconduct at the June 4th protest in the Bronx’s Mott Haven. «The project itself was very immediate because the protests were only a couple of months before the project was released». For this work, Griffin relies on «footage from protesters, activists and human rights organizations» bringing him back full circle to his thesis which looked at the use of social media in protests and «the way that Twitter and Facebook were used to organize». He continues, «there was this contrast between the mainstream media and on the ground reports which we’re still seeing now». Hesitant to call it storytelling, Griffin describes the editing and clarifying of such videos as a form of unbiased «visual journalism» and continues «my skill is using architectural thinking and technical skills to help people understand these things from a more spatial perspective».
Titled ‘The Trap’, the project in collaboration with Situ Research and the Human Rights Watch resulted in an internal investigation into the New York Police Department’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, which has since confirmed the findings of the video analysis that disproportionate force was used against protesters with Mayor de Blasio apologizing for the handling of the protest. In this way, «the work with Situ is a really clear way for me to apply my skills and my design to something impactful». In an essay titled We March by Mabel O. Wilson and Bryony Roberts from Bodybuilding: Architecture and Performance, Wilson and Roberts frame parades and protests as a form of ‘public’ performance that has a prominent place in African American history and civil rights movements. This view of protests as the temporary occupation of public space that makes visible the needs and rights of bodies relates Griffin’s work with Situ Research to his more artistic collaborations and he explains that whether designing spaces for performance art or analyzing those of protests, he is «interested in how different types of spaces engage people, audiences and protesters and how they support different types of events and activities». He continues, «you see how cities get weaponized against people to control and suppress them and you also see how protests make cities visible in new ways». For Griffin his design work is «about creating a space that will produce a certain event or performance. Hopefully to a positive end».IMAGE GALLERY
Griffin Frazen is an interdisciplinary designer, primarily known for his work in the design of performance art spaces for artists including Solange, Grimes, Kelsey Lu, Yves Tumor and Jamie xx. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he attended New York University before receiving his Master’s Degree in Architectural Design from Princeton University. Griffin has taught architectural design at Princeton University and Pratt Institute and now resides in New York where he frequently collaborates with SITU Research on human rights spatial analysis projects.
SITU Research is a New York based interdisciplinary applied-research division working at the intersection of Architecture, urbanism, policy and human rights investigating and addressing social, legal and scientific challenges through an architectural lens.