Ideastream | Dan Polletta  |  July 10, 2019

‘Room’ Asks Visitors To Solve Puzzles To Gain Freedom At SPACES

SPACES wants visitors to come into “Room” in order to escape from it.

The new multimedia installation combines performance with the popular escape room phenomenon. In escape rooms, players draw on clues and hints to solve puzzles to gain exit from a structure. Artist Marisa Williamson uses the puzzles as part of the way to retell the historical narratives of three women who were enslaved in colonial America: Sally Hemings, a slave who gave birth to several of Thomas Jefferson’s children, Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American female poet, and Tituba, the first woman accused of being a witch in the famed 1692 Salem witch trials.

Williamson has teamed with several collaborators, including three area actresses to create “Room.” Williamson, who has used other types of games in her work, had been playing around with the word “escape” in her mind.

“I was thinking about what the word meant to me in its kind of difficult history. I think the model of the escape room serves as a kind of trick in a way to talk about really tough topics, while people also have an expectation of fun, so maybe they are open and disarmed around what to expect and experience, “ Williamson said.

Over the last five years, Williamson has focused much of her artistic attention on bringing to life the difficult story of Hemings. Williamson said she was fascinated not only by Hemings’ story, but what it represents.

“We know so little about her and something about her existence at the intersection of power, privilege and servitude drew me, and felt like it had a lot of connections to the present,” Williamson said.

Williamson said she learned a lot about other people by the way they reacted to Hemings’ story as well as about herself.

“The lessons I’ve taken from Sally Hemings as she’s situated in history, is that resistance can sometimes be covert or latent, or sometimes be a mystery and hard to define. But that it is a big part of the African-American experience in this country,” she said.

“Room” examines the common ties among the three women.

“I think they all negotiated blackness in different ways even though blackness meant a lot of things to them. They give us a good layout of how the black American experience is actually very varied and diverse. I think for me, the women share a lot in common with black women today and women today and really give an intersectional voice to a feminist movement,” Williamson said.

Williamson’s desire is that the act of solving puzzles will cause viewers to think about freedom differently.

“I hope that people understand that this game at one moment is a metaphor or metonym for these struggles for freedom. But I also hope that people understand that this kind of tool is not in itself a tool to be used to enact any real change, but is in fact a way of thinking about and re-entering the world after they leave the gallery with some ideas for how to think creatively and humanely about other people’s struggles in the everyday world,” Williamson said.

Marisa Williamson and ideastream's Dan Polletta [ideastream]

Reservations are required to experience"Room" which is on view through August 2.

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