Winner of New York Creative Time’s open call for public art project ideas, artist Risa Puno, talks to STIR about her latest project The Privilege of Escape, which opened at Onassis, New York, in July and will be exhibited till August 11, 2019.
The work references escape rooms, which are aesthetically transformed into a thrilling game. Attendees to this interactive art project are engaged in puzzles and activities that resemble popular board games, racing against time, and solving cues - all directed at stimulating them to re-contemplate how privilege functions in society.
Sukanya Garg (SG): How did you first begin working on projects that incorporate games?
Risa Puno (RP): I have loved playing games my whole life, so I have always found them really inspiring. I like how they can operate as simple metaphors for more complex social interactions. I believe that games can be used to better understand how we relate to one another. Plus, I think that when people are having fun, they tend to be more open to new things.
SG: Why privilege? Where did the idea behind the work The Privilege of Escape come from?
RP: The word ’privilege’ has become so loaded that it often triggers some pretty strong reactions that can shut down meaningful conversation. Our privilege often manifests in what we do not have to worry about or the things we are not aware of, so that invisibility can make it really challenging to address. So, I wanted to create a game that delivers a concrete, low-stakes, tactile experience that can (hopefully) bypass the charged language and open up.
I think escape room games are a particularly interesting way to address this topic, because the ability to escape is inherently a privilege. The freedom to remove yourself from disturbing or harmful circumstances requires (at the very least) access to means, expectation of mobility, and the hope for a more favourable outcome. A game that requires collective problem-solving to get through uncomfortable situations seems like an ideal format for tackling difficult social issues. Also, I think having to work to unlock resources and opportunities in order to advance yourself speaks a lot to the concept of privilege.
SG: What does the process of creating such a work entail on a functional, artistic, collaborative level? What inspires your choice of mediums?
RP: Since I almost never make the same thing twice, I always have to learn new stuff for each project. For The Privilege of Escape, I had to learn all about puzzle design and what goes into creating an immersive experience. I have played as many escape rooms as I could fit in my schedule, and practically every room I have played has offered fun and unexpected moments that I found inspiring. It is fascinating to see what kinds of narratives game designers come up with to create a sense of urgency and wonder. As a builder and tinkerer, I especially love seeing exciting sets and hands-on puzzles that require spatial reasoning and visual logic. I am a total nerd, so I definitely prefer puzzle-based challenges over tasks. I live for that 'aha' moment when you realise what you are supposed to do with something that has been right in front of you the whole time. I have also become addicted to the rush of adrenaline that comes when you don’t know how many puzzles are left, so you are not sure if you are going to make it out in time.
SG: Could you give us insight into what sort of games would this escape room be incorporating?
RP: Unfortunately, the element of surprise is one of the things that makes an escape fun, so I cannot yet reveal anything before the exhibition opens. But I will say that lately I have been thinking a lot about the assumptions you make when entering an escape room and what makes the game fair. There is a surprising amount of acceptable frustration and confusion that is part of the normal escape room experience because the players’ sense of accomplishment is rooted in overcoming difficulties.
SG: How has creating this work been different from the other interactive works you have been creating till now? Have there been any challenges?
RP: This is way more ambitious than anything I have built previously. Building an escape room is already a crazy logic puzzle in itself, but I think this escape room inspired public art installation has even more elements and people involved. It has been amazing to work with the entire team at Creative Time to bring this idea to life. Brainstorming and communicating with so many different people has definitely been something that took some getting used to, but I am just so grateful to be so well supported throughout this process. In addition to their brilliant and hardworking staff, they connected me with rockstar experts with knowledge and skill sets far beyond my own, including puzzle and technical consultants, a director/script-writer, sound and lighting designers, and social justice educators. It isbecause of Creative Time that this project has grown to be bigger and better than anything I could have ever imagined on my own.
SG: What do you hope for the participants or viewers to take away from this experience?
RP: I imagine that people will walk away feeling a lot of the same emotions they do when playing regular escape rooms. After a really good game, I usually leave still feeling tingly from the thrill. I am hyper-aware of the world around me and my role within it. I want to relive every moment and puzzle, trade opinions with my teammates, celebrate the things we did really well, and talk through things that we could have done better.
I love discussing the dynamics between the players and how that affected our game. It makes me feel like we were in charge of our collective experience. I think that is what having the privilege of escape is all about.
SG: What do you hope to reveal or bring forth through this exhibit?
RP: As an artist, my aim is to present a playable experience that allows participants to draw their own conclusions and form their own opinions.