Meet Risa Puno, artist behind Infinite Play

Risa Puno, the Open Studio Fellowship Artist behind the sculpture Infinite Play on exhibition at Franconia, has had a busy couple of months. After finishing her residency at Franconia, she returned to New York City to install The Course of Emotions, a fully-functioning mini-golf course commissioned by the NYC Department of Transportation as part of their Summer Streets program. Designed and fabricated by Puno, each hole presented a different emotional obstacle such as Worry, Jealousy, or Anxiety.

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An enthusiastic climber atop Puno’s Infinite Play

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A family puts the hole inspired by the emotional obstacle Frustration in Puno’s mini-golf course

Then, in late September, Puno participated in Bartertown Trading Post XVI at the Dumbo Arts Festival in Brooklyn, NY. Bartertown is the brainchild of Heather Hart, another Franconia alumna. Bartertown was an area of the festival filled with booths run by different vendors, much like a street fair or flea market, except no money was allowed to be exchanged. Instead, customers traded for the goods and services offered. Puno’s project, Please Enable Cookies, persuaded customers to provide personally identifying information in exchange for homemade cookies baked with extravagant ingredients, like Salted Mexican Chocolate Chunk or Peanut Butter Coconut Curry. And then Please Enable Cookies and Bartertown opened at the Brooklyn Museum as part of their Crossing Brooklyn exhibition. Check out recent articles in ProPublica, Open Source Radio on NPR Boston, and The New Yorker to learn more about Please Enable Cookies.

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Customers provide Puno with personally identifying information in exchange for homemade cookies

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Puno’s cookies decorated with logos for social networking sites that collect online users’ personal information through digital cookies

In the last days of Risa’s residency at Franconia, I had the opportunity to talk with her about her artistic practice, Infinite Play, and some formative moments in her early career. Take a look!

What is your creative process like when you’re making sculpture?

My art-making process is all about problem solving. It starts with the overall challenge of figuring out how to turn a single idea or abstract concept into a tangible, memorable experience. When I embark on a project, I take a lot time to distill my idea and establish its functional parameters. I think about who will use it and how they might understand it. After I commit to a concept and format, I move into a sort of neurotic planning phase that usually involves a lot of Googling, diagramming, and math. Every project has different logistical hurdles, so I am constantly researching different ways to make or do things. I never pick up a saw or drill or fastener until I have a rock solid idea of what I am making and a straightforward plan of how to do it. When someone once asked me for my motto, I replied, “Measure thrice, cut once.” After the planning phase, it is all about execution and dealing with whatever extra issues may come up. Along the way, my decisions are always guided by functionality-I always strive to make legitimate versions of familiar amusements that work seamlessly and feel good in your hands. I believe that if participants implicitly trust their interaction with an object, then they are more open to accepting new ideas and experiences.

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Check out Risa’s “making of” video for Infinite Play here

Tell me about your project at Franconia. How does it relate to your past work?

My work usually involves games, and because its interactive and playful, a lot of people have suggested I try making public art. The problem is, most of my work involves supervision and lots of pieces. It’s not just the kind of thing you can leave in a plaza. But I liked that idea of moving in that direction.

Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse really helped me imagine my work in a outdoor, public context. Normally I make finite games;  they involve a structure that supports interaction in one or a few specific ways, last for a set time, have designated players, and clear rules. Infinite games are less mediated and therefore self-sustaining. The object is to keep the game going. I thought that if I could make a structure for infinite play then I could make a public art work.

Infinite Play is a playground structure. It’s a set of monkey-bars twisted in to the shape of a Möbius strip, a single surface object geometrically-speaking with no beginning or end. Climbers can go around and around for as long as they please. Hopefully it will be a structure for infinite play.

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Why did you propose your project to Franconia? What did the experience of working here offer?

I don’t know where else I could build this. There are very few artist residencies that can set you up with a 20 foot gantry all for yourself. In terms of spirit, Infinite Play matches the playfulness that Franconia visitors bring to the park and sculptures. In the end, I was most attracted to Franconia’s pledge to support artists with ambitious ideas and an interest in challenging themselves. I don’t normally work in steel or curves. To date, this is the largest single object I’ve ever made. I can’t even imagine where else Infinite Play might have come to be.

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Intern Artist Carson Tarnasky helps Risa add supports to Infinite Play

Where did you study and whom did you study with? How have those experiences influenced your own work?

My painting professor at Brown, Wendy Edwards, was a really big supporter of my transition in to sculpture. One day I went to the Salvation Army thrift shop, and found this awesome painting called Sunset Tide. I covered it in un-chewed Juicy Fruit gum, made a relief, and brought it to class instead of oil on canvas. She liked it so much, she told me “No more paint.” From then on, I critiqued sculptures in painting class.

Marlene Malik was a big influence as well. I started making crazy installations when I was in her class. I was nervous because they were so big, and they were bigger than I thought I could handle. She helped me understand that to be an installation artist you have to let stuff go. You have to trash it when it’s done. That’s been really different at Franconia. I’m so used to doing things for a shorter period of time, I’ve never had to think about what things would be like over years, certainly not outside over a Minnesota winter, and that’s been a great problem-solving experience.

Finally, when I was in grad school at New York University, I took a class on exhibition design with Oliver Hirsch. He was amazing. It was a visual arts administration class, but they let me in anyway. I learned how to lead people somewhere with visual cues, how to think about how people take in art, how the viewing experience unfolds. It was invaluable to me as an installation artist that makes interactive work.

How did your time at Franconia compare to other residencies you’ve completed?

This was my first residency where I’ve actually had to reside somewhere. I’ve always just done projects in New York, and for those I can still work in my own studio. I wasn’t sure that my practice was mobile, but Franconia seemed like it could really support artists. Making and creation is built in to this place. Now I want to apply everywhere. Now I know that I can leave my studio and make things, too.

I just want to say thank you to everyone here for being so great. Aside from just hands, the Intern Artists offered enthusiasm, emotional support, and encouragement that was invaluable. Franconia really does feel like family. I feel so privileged to be a part of that.

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Franconia Staff, Intern Artists, and Hot Metal Artists help Puno move her sculpture to its new home

Franconia’s Artist Fellowship Program is made possible through major support provided by the Jerome Foundation, Windgate Charitable Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support provided by the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and many generous individuals.
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