Last Updated on August 16, 2019

What is it like when an artist gets her big break and all her career dreams come true? What new challenges arise, what comes next and how do artistic and career expectations change? I recently had the privilege (yes, pun intended) to speak with Risa Puno, the talented artist behind Creative Time’s sold out interactive installation The Privilege of Escape, to find out. Risa Puno is a sculpture and installation artist who uses exchange and play to understand how we relate to one another. Often taking a whimsical form, Puno’s work creates accessible spaces to explore universal human conundrums. 

The Privilege of Escape was selected from over 630 public art proposals submitted by New York-based emerging artists through an inaugural open call initiative by Creative Time, a 40+ year-old non profit organization that presents innovative art in the public realm.  Inspired by the escape room format, Puno created an immersive environment and interactive experience that encourages visitors to think about the function of privilege in society. It is Puno’s largest and most ambitious installation to date. 

I asked Creative Time Executive Director Justine Ludwig why Puno’s proposal won over all the other applications. “In surveying the landscape of contemporary public art it became clear that many of the same artists are repeatedly receiving major commissions. We wanted to disrupt that narrative by opening up the opportunity to work with Creative Time to the next generation of greats working in the field. We were so impressed and honored by the breadth and range of creative visions proposed to us through the open call,” said Creative Time Executive Director Justine Ludwig. “Risa shares Creative Time’s mission in presenting art that sparks dialogue and addresses the timely topic of social dynamics. Just as we feel the public is important in making art accessible, we believe that institutions such as Creative Time can play a major part in supporting emerging artists.”
Artist Risa Puno Risk Management

Puno’s Risk Management, a carnival-style game in which two players take turns using a mallet to strike a launcher that propels beanbags toward a suspended platform.

Prior to becoming the first emerging artist to work with Creative Time and the winner of their first open call, Puno was a Math and Physics tutor along with a long list of other part-time jobs. It wasn’t until her corporate commission from Arts Brooksfield, Risk Management, earlier this year that she finally is able to support herself as a full-time artist. In this artist interview, I spoke with Puno about her unconventional journey from a pre-med student from Kentucky to a public sculpture artist in New York City, how she prepared for the Creative Time interview, and what she’s looking forward to after the Privilege of Escape closes this month. 

Alexis Yuen: What are the challenges that come with getting your big break?

Risa Puno: I had to learn to give up some of the control (of my work) working with fabricators and learn how to communicate exactly what I want. I do have very detailed drawings but it’s not the same as making it yourself, especially when there’s an issue. Say the material didn’t work out exactly the way you wanted, you can just make the call, you can choose where to compromise. That is the tricky thing to do and something I’m trying to learn as I’m trying to scale up. 

What happens after your work is exhibited? 

For Risk Management, I’ll take the installation back after the last day of the exhibition. They may want to exhibit it elsewhere as this is already the second location. Risk Management is easy to reinstall, it’s self contained and intended to be reinstalled every week. 

I can build in modularity if i know ahead of time. For Privilege of Escape it was only intended to be a one-time temporary art installation. I’ve been approached by people if it could be shown in other places, I would love to do that but it wasn’t built to travel. Literally some of the objects are built inside the space so we would have to cut them apart in order to get them out the door, unless we take down some of the walls we built. I don’t know if the site of the space wants to keep those walls or take it down? If I had to cut apart the work,  I don’t know how salvageable the pieces are going to be.  

Does Creative Time own the rights to The Privilege of Escape?

No. They have first right to reproduce but they only do things once. And obviously I’d credit them in the future. They said I’m free to go forth with it, which would be amazing to have it live on. That would be fantastic. 

What was it like applying for and winning Creative Time’s first-ever open call to submit a proposal for a public artwork?

I found out I had made the short list and I had one week to put together a full proposal. Before that I only had 250 words written about the project, so in a week I had to figure out a full proposal and full budget. I came up with an entire workflow including sample rooms, which I didn’t end up using. But I just wanted them to know that I could handle it. I wanted them to know I can figure out the logic of an escape room because you can have these wack-a-doo ideas but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can bring them to life It’s like a math problem, which relates to my background. I use a left-brain approach to my work. 

What appeals to you about interactive art and public art?

Very much of my work is rooted in real life. I first started doing art by taking painting classes, but it was just not real enough. I feel like you need a really good imagination to be working in 2D and I don’t. I actually just really like things in real life. So I started making sculptures…this whole pedestal plinth situation again is very separate. (referring to how most sculptures are displayed on a plinth and not to be interacted with). So I started making installations and again, this whole thing of not being able to have agency or autonomy of your own experience as a viewer isn’t very interesting to me, so I started making them interactive. Then, even more interactive in public art.  Then it’s really in everyone’s everyday lives and that’s what I like so much about public art. That’s why immersive theater is so counterintuitive for me because it’s pretend. You’re removing people from everyday life, whereas I usually insert the things i make in everyday life. 

How were you able to bring to life such a large scale public art project? 

I’m strictly analog. I don’t do electronics so I had a technical advisor who is a puzzle consultant who designs escape rooms. He collaborated with me to help me understand them more. He taught me the wisdom of how escape rooms work .Then we had to design the objects and props to be able to house the components in the room and they needed to be repairable. So, how do you make it be able to open again without taking the whole thing apart. We had to design puzzles that speak to different kinds of thinkers, so there’s so much to think about.

On top of it, we worked with our social justice consultants to make sure we were striking the right tones. It was really tough to figure out the right mix that it’s not so hit over the head and too heavy but not so subtle that it says nothing, and figuring out where the balance is. 

Artist Risa Puno Privilege of Escape Creative Time Big Break

Creative Time brought on Emmy-winning lighting and sound designers, a director, script writer, fabricators and social justice consultants to bring Risa Puno’s project to life. Photo by Adam Reich.

What was it like finding the perfect partner to bring your work to life?

I’ve always wanted to work with Creative Time. It’s like when people talk about their favorite celebrities and say ‘we would be soulmates, they just haven’t met me yet.’ I fully believe that because Creative Time takes on something new with artists with every project don’t just produce the same thing over and over again. And that’s what I do, I made a mini-golf course, an escape room, a playground spinner abacus thing, interconnected picnic tables. So i felt their willingness to take on new things really fit with the way I like to work. I feel like a lot of public art has to be appealing to everyone and offensive to no one. But because of that, you end up having to take out your teeth, which is fine. I just feel honored to even have a voice in the public art world. 

One thing that was most exciting about working with Creative Time was getting to make something where I get to put my teeth back in. That (Privilege of Escape) was risky and scary, and potentially controversial and they were willing to take that risk with me. And that’s the dream right? Having somebody who’s willing to fund your work, to support  you by giving you an opportunity or giving you all the above, and by associating their name with you, especially when their name holds so much weight. Think about the 40 years of public art tradition behind it.

What does it feel like to achieve your dream goal as an artist?

It’s totally surreal. I still don’t feel like it’s really me that they chose, let alone we already did it, and it already got such great press in the New York Times. It doesn’t feel real. Honestly, my biggest regret is that they only work with artists once. This is the dream and it got met. Now I have to figure out what my new dreams are. I hope I can apply what I learned with them to new projects. It’s weird to be suddenly on my own again. There are people who have expressed interest in exhibiting Privilege of Escape, but even if I could manage to secure the funding and the contract, I don’t have the organizational capacity to coordinate all the things that would need to be coordinated. I would just have to be working with an institution that will be able to help out with that. 

How will you find funding for new projects?

Corporate projects have the funding. When you have the money you can hire people to help you as an artist. It’s tricky to hire a single project project manager (in terms of quality control) but I think it’s possible. With my relationship with Creative Time now, I can ask if they know anybody who’s looking for part time work. What I’m really hoping is if I have enough projects, I can have project managers or consultants regularly.

Though it is bittersweet that the Privilege of Escape has come to an end, the experience will remain close to the hearts and minds of visitors who had the privilege to attend. For those who missed it, don’t worry, Puno has only just begun. Knowing how intelligent, curious, and humble she is, she will take what she learned from her big break with Creative Time to create new dream goals. It may not be an escape room next time, but we can surely expect more playful installations from Puno in the future.  

Privilege of Escape closes on August 18, 2019 after a week-long extension made possible Creative Time’s crowdfunding campaign.

What’s your definition of an Artist’s “Big Break”? Have you had one? Did you attend The Privilege of Escape?  Share your comments and feedback!

Alexis Yuen
Alexis Yuen

Alexis Yuen is an art advisor, business and branding strategist, art tour docent, activist and former artist. Prior to founding The Art Diplomat, an advisory for good, she worked for the premier art show, Art Basel and the auction house, Christie’s.