Last December Creative Time, the public art group behind such large scale projects as Kara Walker’s sugar "sphinx" in the Domino factory and Duke Riley's pigeon-based Fly By Night, held an open call for NYC-based emerging artists to submit a proposal for the organization's next big exhibition. In just one month they received more than 630 entries, and the winner, Risa Puno’s wonderfully complex and clever The Privilege of Escape, opened this week beneath the lobby of a lavishly appointed Midtown office and condo tower.
I was fortunate to snag a spot to experience Puno's immersive work—which consists of two challenging escape rooms and their surrounding infrastructure—in the final preview group on Wednesday night, and will say that if you already have tickets, you're in for a treat.
There are many surprises of course, including the way the whole thing hammers home issues of inequity and privilege, and Creative Time has asked for spoiler-free coverage, so we won't be giving anything away here or in the photos. Here's what we can say: The Privilege of Escape works like an escape room: your team has a set amount of time—in this case 45 minutes—to solve a series of puzzles, each one building on the last, until the final door opens with a flourish and you are free. Here's more from Creative Time:
[The] framework is built upon understood social systems that are accepted as norm, but serve some better than others. In life, we have structures in place the give undue advantages to some over others. In The Privilege of Escape, these systems come in the form of the traditional escape room tropes of conditions and hints.
The intention here is to envision our own game of life. The conditions that have formed the United States are built on white supremacy. Our societal structure privileges white male heteronomity, which has helped shape the rules of the American way of life. Accordingly, some are handed the map and tools that make the path easier.
When it comes to privilege and inequity, there is a need for deep systemic change. The first step is the acknowledgment that, in many ways, the game of life is rigged. For a truly equitable future, the rules must be revised in order to support collective success. Puno’s The Privilege of Escape is not a solution to a problem. It is a challenge. We are each forced to contend with the personal question, “having described privilege, what will I do to lessen or end it?”
Many of the puzzles take the form of classic games, and most involve deciphering symbols in some way to learn the combination of a lock, or a keypad, which lets you open that box over there, for example, or gets you into the closet, or swings open the door on the bottom of that strange polygon sculpture thing. And while there's no narrative of impending doom and death here, you can't help but get nervous as the clock winds down (and this is Puno's intention), and relieved as each challenge falls.
My team, Team A, escaped with just 2:42 to spare, and that was with clues and encouragement provided live on our room's countdown screen whenever we got too lost. Team B only completed 80% of their tasks. Afterwards both groups sat in the debrief room and members of The Institute, which is what the fake lab conducting the fake experiment is called, revealed exactly what just happened, and why. The whole thing is extremely well done from beginning to end.
(Scott Lynch / Gothamist)
Risa Puno's The Privilege of Escape is located at Onassis USA within the Olympic Tower, 645 5th Avenue, with entrances at either 52nd or 521st Streets. The project will run through August 11, and tickets are free, but right now every time slot is booked.