Game Theory

Game Theory

In Risa Puno’s interactive works, play’s the thing.
Risa Puno Portrait

In Risa Puno’s interactive works, play’s the thing.

Talisman Brolin

One of Risa Puno’s most gratifying moments came as she watched a father and daughter play miniature golf on The Course of Emotions, an installation she designed to match obstacles with feelings such as jealousy and frustration. 

“They were at the hole labeled ‘Anxiety,’ and the girl said, ‘Daddy, what’s anxiety?’ He told her, ‘It’s like when you’re really nervous, like before recitals or before a test.’ He told her not to worry,” Puno says. “I could see them connecting over that, and it made me really happy.”

The conversation-inspiring course, which Puno first created in 2008 and has reproduced several times since, rewarded the pair at the next hole, “Relief,” which gives players an easy hole-in-one. 

Creating such catalysts for connection, whether among acquaintances or strangers, is what drives Puno, an installation and public artist who takes her fun seriously. 

“I try to package ideas in fun experiences, because games are an established way to interact,” says Puno, 35. “They allow people to let down their boundaries in a safe space. I like when people are open to connecting what I make with their own ideas. It’s a collaborative thing.”

Since 2004, when she was an MFA student at New York University, the Brooklyn artist has been creating a range of clever devices, including vending machines. Oral History (2008) explores the relationship between food and memory by dispensing flavored lip balms and personal stories. 

Puno also creates a number of games that encourage social interaction, such as the two-person Good Faith & Fair Dealing (2012), where players, who may choose to compete or cooperate, tilt a wooden game board to guide balls through a maze. 

Please Enable Cookies brought Puno national media attention in 2014 for its sly commentary on the digital “cookies” that websites use to collect personal information – and how readily users give it up. For that, the artist baked cookies, some bearing frosting with logos of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites, which she exchanged for people’s data to highlight how personal details are used as currency. Participants had to fill out a form that included a “terms of service” page crammed with incomprehensible legalese in tiny type. 

“People have called my artwork social experiments, like I’m some sort of mad scientist,” she says. “I just really like thinking about why people do what they do, make the decisions they make.” 

While Puno doesn’t see herself as a scientist, she did initially set out to be an orthopedic spine surgeon, like her father. (Her mother is an anesthesiologist.) But the program she attended at Brown University recommended that pre-med students choose a nonscientific major for a well-rounded education. 

“I’d always been creative but was so busy doubling up on math and science that I had no chance to take art in high school, so I declared art as my major,” Puno says. 

Sculpture, which she says draws on skills she learned from her parents, ended up being the perfect fit. “I think understanding structure comes from my dad, who had an engineering background, while my organizational skills come from my mom,” she says. “And, as my mom pointed out to me, I’ve always been the happiest when using my hands.” Ultimately, she chose art over medicine.

Puno can’t pinpoint why she’s drawn to games, including many that evoke a certain Americana nostalgia, especially since her personal remembrances are more conflicted. The child of Filipino immigrants, she experienced discrimination in both subtle and overt ways while growing up in and around Louisville, Kentucky.

“Maybe, in some weird way, my work plays into that, creating this America that is idealized,” she says. “Maybe I feel like I don’t belong in it or wish I belonged in it, or maybe I do belong in it because I made it.”

While most of Puno’s early work focused on interactive installations and games with a beginning and an end, which she often had to preside over, she’s recently expanded into stand-alone public art. For that she partly credits the 1986 book Finite and Infinite Games, by religious scholar James P. Carse, which compares life to game playing. 

“He gave me another way to think about games and play,” she says. “I realized that what I wanted to make was an infinite game, where no one wins and everyone can keep going.”

That led her to create Infinite Play, a set of bright yellow steel monkey bars twisted into the shape of a Möbius strip, a one-sided closed curve with no beginning or end (the same form as twisted “infinity” scarves). The structure, built in 2014 during a five-week residency at Franconia Sculpture Park in Minnesota, seriously challenged her technical skills.

“That was the first time I proposed something that I honestly wasn’t sure I would be able to build, because it was curvy and also my first real time working in steel,” says Puno, who has a part-time job tutoring mostly high school students in math and science. “I was used to making angular things that could be calculated ahead of time. I think it’s the first thing I’d built that I had to keep stepping back to see if the shape was right.”

Her most recent piece, Common Ground, which will be installed this summer at Rufus King Park in Queens as part of New York City’s Art in the Parks program, also came with its challenges.

The base, a grid of interconnected wooden picnic tables, is similar to something she built for a different park project two years ago. But this one features surfaces tiled with mosaics, a new-to-her art form, with designs inspired by the neighborhood’s mix of cultures and by patterns found within the nearby King Manor Museum.

“I’ve never actually done mosaics or worked with tile or mortar or cement and grout,” Puno says. “I had to look up all those things. That comes with every project, though this one is, honestly, a little bit trickier than I expected.”

She pauses, then adds with a laugh, “That happens to me a lot.”

Like much of Puno’s work, the tables of Common Ground invite people to gather.

“In New York, we’re all on top of each other,” she says. “Having to navigate that is something I find fascinating. With Common Ground, I like the idea of creating something that gives people the opportunity to be together. I think life is so much more interesting when you’re interacting with other people.”

Check out this fun video documenting the making of Infinite Play.