The Privilege of Escape, 2019. Photo: Adam Reich, Courtesy Creative Time

Analogies For Life: A Conversation with Risa Puno

Risa Puno’s The Privilege of Escape, at the Onassis Center in Manhattan through August 11, 2019, beat out 631 other proposals to become the winner of Creative Time’s first open call for artists. Taking escape rooms—immersive environments where groups solve hands-on puzzles against the clock—as its starting point, this participatory project examines privilege by placing it in the context of a competitive game. Upon arrival, volunteers, who find themselves cast as subjects in a study conducted by Puno’s pseudo-scientific research institute, are cautioned not to exit by the same door they entered unless it is an emergency. Two rows of hourglasses mounted on a wall underscore the importance of time, while a TV monitor indicates surveillance. Even the bathroom signs have been altered, re-labeled so that participants must read them carefully to figure out which one to enter. After receiving instructions, subjects are divided into two groups of eight and directed, like lab rats, through either door A or door B; then they must race against the clock to solve a series of interactive, artist-designed sculptural puzzles in order to unlock clues, gain access to more puzzle pieces, and escape from the locked rooms within the allotted 45 minutes.

The Privilege of Escape is the latest in Puno’s ever-expanding body of teachable-moment works inviting participation. Her early projects include food-flavored chapsticks, a surprise-filled piñata, a trick-filled miniature golf course about emotions, and a comedic obstacle course. Reservations for The Privilege of Escape, which are free, are currently “sold out,” but Creative Time is releasing a limited amount of extra tickets every week through the end of the installation’s run. (Update: The Privilege of Escape is reopening for a limited run from September 12–29. Tickets are available here.) The Creative Time website also credits the many collaborators, project supporters, backers, and public art defenders who made the project possible.

If you are “locked out” of The Privilege of Escape, Puno has two other participatory projects on view in New York. Common Ground, an installation with interactive, symbolically patterned tables and benches, is at Hudson Square on King Street between Hudson and Greenwich Streets through December 2019. Risk Management, another interactive game, is being played at Brookfield Place, on Wednesdays and Saturdays at midday through August 7. In September, Puno will be artist-in-residence at Cold Hollow Sculpture Park in Vermont.

The Privilege of Escape, 2019. Photo: Adam Reich, Courtesy Creative Time

Jan Garden Castro: How many drafts of The Privilege of Escape did you create before you arrived at the final version?
Risa Puno:
So many. My original proposal was an escape room, but it evolved quite a bit throughout the production process. In fact, during beta testing, we changed some aspect of the experience after every single play test. We had five days of play testing and multiple games per day, so there were at least that many iterations, without counting the number of times we changed it before we got on site. There was a lot of collaboration and a lot of discussion with the Creative Time staff, as well as with various production experts and our social justice consultants.

JGC: What role did the social justice consultants play?
They talked through our ideas with us and made sure we were striking the right tone. Due to the serious subject matter, it would be very easy for this to go horribly wrong. We wanted to be sure that what we were saying made sense and that we addressed the issues thoughtfully and with the necessary sensitivity. 

JGC: You designed the games, which are abstract and have no instructions. All of the clues and puzzles are visual or three-dimensional. 
RP: In general, with an escape room, you don’t know where to start—you look at what resources you have available and try to make it work. The rooms themselves are analogies for life. In life, you have goals and obstacles to achieving those goals, and you’re just trying to figure it out. You don’t always know where to start, and you’re trying to unlock opportunities in order to succeed. In games, you also have rules of engagement and agreed-upon assumptions of fairness. We wanted people to think about the mechanics of games and how that can relate to larger systems.

The Privilege of Escape, 2019. Photo: Adam Reich, Courtesy Creative Time

JGC: Metaphorically, being locked in a room is different from being locked out of it.
You can look at it both ways—you’re trying to break into something, such as locks, but you’re also trying to get out of a bad situation. I love escape rooms; I think they’re super fun, but it is ridiculous to be paying money to have extra problems put on you to see if you can break out of them. Not only does the concept of trying to unlock resources speak to privilege, but also doing escape rooms is a highly privileged activity, in and of itself. It’s not cheap, and often people who already have plenty of traumas in their lives don’t want to pay to add more. 

The irony of doing an escape room about privilege is something I found interesting. Aside from that, you feel very real emotions when you’re in the room. You feel frustration, you feel confusion, you feel visceral joy and excitement when you open something. Then there’s the anxiety: Am I going to be able to accomplish everything before the time runs out? I don’t know what to do, where to look. This is a rich opportunity to play with how people experience those emotions. Also, escape rooms require teamwork the ability to work with others—and communication, which speaks to collective social change. 

JGC: The level of skill in your group, which is arbitrary, is a factor.
RP: We wanted a mix of people. Creative Time set it up so you can book only two tickets at a time, and you are forced to play with people you don’t know. Some commercial escape rooms let friends book the whole room, but we wanted to bring strangers together.

Common Ground, 2017. Wood and glass tiles, 2.5 x 21 x 21 ft. Photo: Justin Hoch

JGC: Have you tried a lot of commercial escape rooms?
RP: Yes, maybe 25. I’m an avid fan, but some escape room enthusiasts have done hundreds. A lot of commercial rooms have overblown narratives in which you’re handcuffed or involving viruses that are going to kill the world. I wasn’t that interested in scenarios like that. I’m interested in the emotional component and the feeling of accomplishment people have when they get out. Even if they don’t get out, they still have a lot of fun. I like the idea that a certain amount of confusion and frustration is allowable in escape room design, even more so than in the mini-golf course I did.

JGC: Dealing with the unknown, and not knowing what comes next, spurs creativity.
RP: That’s one of my favorite things about escape rooms. They are all about subverting assumptions and seeing things from a new perspective, and I think that’s important when trying to understand privilege. Plus, I think people are more open to ideas when they are having fun.

JGC: Your outdoor project Common Ground is also on view right now at Hudson Square in New York. Was this first shown in 2017?
RP: I originally created Common Ground for Rufus King Park thanks to the UNIQLO Park Expressions grant that I received through the New York City Parks and Recreation Department. I came up with the idea after the presidential election in 2016. It’s a celebration of harmony through diversity. Another project commissioned by Arts Brookfield, called Risk Management, which was at the Grace Building in May, is now at Brookfield Place on Wednesdays and Saturdays through August 7, 2019. 

Risk Management, 2019. Interactive installation, dimensions variable. Photo: Talisman Brolin

JGC: What does Risk Management involve?
It’s a carnival-style game of strategy and chance. There are beanbags that you launch at a round platform, which is suspended from a single point so it tilts very easily. You take turns with someone else to get as many beanbags onto the platform as possible. As you load it up with more and more beanbags, you affect the balance of the entire system. It can be stable if the bags are evenly balanced. Or you have the opportunity to try to sabotage your opponent by upsetting the balance in order to knock off his or her beanbags, but then you’re also putting your own beanbags at risk. So it’s about trying to figure out whether the risk is worth the reward.

JGC: Sounds like you have a three-ring circus going.
RP: It’s pretty exciting and surreal to have three public artworks live in Manhattan at the same time.