We didn’t escape.
The red countdown clock taunted us and every passing second was a reminder that our best efforts wouldn’t be enough. In the final minute responses to our impending failure varied. Some participants talked amongst themselves. One bounced a ball off her arms. Others, like myself, worked until the clock read 0:00.
I figured even if we weren’t going to escape, I would go down swinging.
We solved all but two puzzles. As the doors of our escape room opened we saw the other group sitting on the opposite side of the debrief room. They seemed quite comfortable and I wondered, how did they manage to escape? What did we miss?
As we took our seats and began to discuss our experiences, it became clear that we weren’t in ordinary escape rooms. (In an effort to be deliberately present, I opted to read very little about the experience beforehand.) Rather, it was a social experiment of sorts to explore privilege, the lack thereof, and how it impacts performance and outcomes.
No stranger to utilizing games as a lens for exploring how we move through the world and relate to one another, Risa Puno’s “The Privilege of Escape” is her largest installation to date.
Escape rooms have boomed in recent years making Puno’s choice a fitting one. It is also a reminder that using the tools of our time, in this case a popular group game, remains an important way of drawing people in for fun while attempting to have a difficult conversation. Open until August 11th it can be experienced at Onassis USA in New York City.
The work is the latest by Creative Time, an arts organization whose mission is to create space for artists to have critical conversations. Those dialogues have produced memorable public works in recent years that often span discussions between the past and present, present and future.
Kara Walker’s 2014 “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” was a sublime meditation on the duality of how black women have been seen throughout history as both mammy-like and oversexualized. Then there was Pedro Reyes’s hauntingly eerie and superb “Doomocracy,” billed as a “political house of horrors” just weeks before the 2016 presidential election. The immersive experience was an examination of the country’s political and social climate and what the future could hold.
Puno’s work, chosen from among 632 submissions, is the inaugural piece for Creative Time’s Open Call which aims to support emerging artists addressing issues around social justice.
When art is meant to act as a catalyst for critical and nuanced dialogue—in this case privilege and its role in perpetuating marginalization—essential questions must be asked. Who is this work for? With whom is the work in conversation? What is it saying to them? What is it prompting them to do? Or not do?
Those answers matter. The lack of clarity and depth of exploration in “The Privilege of Escape” results in a well-intentioned, fun, and thoughtfully curated exercise, but it ultimately falls short.
Attendees are separated into two groups, given 45 minutes and one objective: solve the interactive clues and escape the room. Simple enough, right? Perhaps. At the conclusion of the experience, during a 15-minute debrief, participants learn that each room contained the same puzzles but different variables, including one that plays with the perception of color.
As a result of those variables one group had a distinct advantage over the other. A performer who plays the role of discussion moderator peppered my group with questions. How did that knowledge make us feel? Did it skew our views of the experience and our performances given the outcomes? For some it did but the majority of participants focused their comments on inquiring about the contents or lack thereof in the other rooms.
Is that a sign participants were thinking about their privilege? Was it an attempt to better understand the game? Maybe it was both. Perhaps it was neither. Either way, something important was lost.
Before a substantive conversation or reflection about privilege and the intersection of our identities could begin the experience was over. We gathered our things and left. Perhaps some participants would ruminate about the room as a metaphor, their role, and what could be done to create a more fair society. Others would likely leave and think of it as just the latest escape room they experienced and rank it among others. I left thinking about what could have been.
Games offer utility in their ability to make us think critically but at their core they offer an escape and a brief suspension of routine or reality. The beauty about a game is just that—it’s a game.
Whether you solve the puzzles or not, the doors still open and you get to resume your night. And that brings me back to those essential questions. Because participants are not inherently aware at the outset that one room has an advantage they are allowed to be fully present in the fun of the game.
The ability to do so is a gift. It allows participants to solely focus on the task at hand rather than wondering what advantages the other group may have and what they can or must do to compensate for them.
People with identities that are marginalized don’t get that luxury. They are inherently aware of how privilege consciously works to keep them from solving the puzzle, from opening the door, from escaping and all that it means.
The brevity of the debrief undermines the purpose for playing the game and misses the potential to foster meaningful dialogue. Additionally, it does a disservice to those for whom the absence of privilege is part of their lived experiences. That reality deserves to be explored beyond a barely surface level conversation.
At its worst the discussion allows participants to opt out, and at its best the illusion of being woke. The problem with illusions is that they deceive us, lulling us into a false sense sense of security that things are fine just as they are.