Risa Puno: New York’s Sweetest Cookie Monster

It’s 6:45am on a Thursday morning. It’s raining, the shops are still closed, and the streets are post-apocalyptically empty. And yet, from a seventh floor apartment in Gramercy Park, the smell of freshly baked cookies wafts through the halls. Risa Puno has been up since 5:00am, baking, decorating, and packaging for round two of her latest art installation, “Please Enable Cookies.”

A test batch of Pink Peppercorn Pistachio Cookies has four minutes left in the oven. “Assuming it goes well, I will have you do the other ones,” Puno instructs. The kitchen table is covered with Polaroid-sized cookies, all of which are in the process of being decorated with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram logos.

Photo Oct 23, 9 17 34 AM (1)

Chances are you’ve allowed a website to “enable cookies,” or have agreed to an app’s “Terms of Service” without actually reading them. This is what Puno’s installation is all about: Internet privacy and security, and what we’re willing to give without question. “Please Enable Cookies” debuted at the 2014 Dumbo Arts Festival, and made an encore at last week’s “BarterTown, a curated exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.

People have called Puno a performance artist (which, for the record, she is not). She is an Interactive Installation Sculpture Artist: “I make things that are interactive,” says Puno, “even if that means interacting with me.” “Please Enable Cookies” was her most hands-on installation, “Which is why I think a lot of people call me a performance artist, even though I’m not performing.”

Puno doesn’t sculpt “in the traditional, reductive sense.” She created interactive vending machines while getting her M.F.A. from New York University. As a visiting artist to Monmouth University in 2008 (and reprised for NYC Summer Streets in 2014), she devised the “Course of Emotions,” a fully functional mini-golf course in which each of the nine holes represents a different emotional obstacle the participant must overcome (think question mark-shaped windmill blades for the “Worry” hole). Puno’s only “real” sculpture exists in Shafer, Minnesota, where she received an Open Studio Fellowship to the Franconia Sculpture Park. She created “Infinite Play,” a Möbius strip shaped monkey bar set to allow “unending fun.”

“Please Enable Cookies” was the first (and probably only) time that Puno will combine her baking hobby with her artistic career. The idea for “Please Enable Cookies” started as chicken-scratch ideas in a black leather project notebook: “I don’t have all the exact details flushed out,” reads her proposal, “but I like to bake and people like sugar, so that seems like a good place to start.” And, let’s be serious, who wouldn’t love a melt-in-your-mouth Brown Butter & Rosemary Snickerdoodle, all for the low price of your social security number?

Here’s how “Please Enable Cookies” works. Puno sets up a table, and displays several different kinds of homemade cookies. And they’re free…sort of:

“1. Choose what information you want to submit.

  1. Fill out form with your own information.
  2. Submit form to staff to total points.
  3. Pick out your homemade cookies.
  4. Enjoy!”

The form consists of standard questions: your name, address, phone number, mother’s maiden name, first grade teacher’s name, last four digits of your SSN…basically all the information that you’ve put on the Internet. Each answer is worth a different amount of points, as are the different cookies. For example, you can get one point for putting the name of your first grade teacher, and five points for your fingerprints (taken dutifully by Puno’s assistant). In total, you could get up to 35 points total.

The cookies range in points from 5 to 35. While the Pink Peppercorn Pistachio Cookies are among the cheaper ones (seven points), the high-ticket items are the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram cookies, each personally decorated by Puno herself on this particularly rainy Thursday morning.

Photo Oct 23, 9 18 01 AM

When she’s behind her cookie booth at “Please Enable Cookies,” Puno looks incredibly put together: She wears a pink apron, with her classically jet-black Filipino hair pulled into a tight pony and winged eyeliner that would make Nicki Minaj jealous. But at home, running on less than five hours of sleep, Puno scurries about in sweatpants and a dirty polo shirt.

“They say that cooking is an art and baking is a science, but I’m an artist who likes to bake,” Puno says as she mixes a batch of royal icing with blue food coloring. “It’s funny because… wow, we are not even close. This is supposed to be Facebook blue.” She adds another drop of blue dye, and keeps stirring.

She likes the structure of baking: “Instead of being ridiculed for my OCD, I get rewarded for my precision!” As a Brown University pre-med undergraduate, Puno was always a numbers girl. The bookshelves lining her apartment’s walls are filled with old Organic Chemistry textbooks (some of which are used for Puno’s day job as a standardized test tutor. Puno loves standardized tests.)

While at Brown, advisors urged all pre-med students to pick a second major: Puno chose art. Also thanks to Brown, she bought her first cookbook. Puno was on her way to a campus tour as a high schooler, when she wandered into an airport bookstore. “This was two-thousand…,” Puno tries to remember the date. “I love how I’m like, ‘2000.’ No way, I’m way to old for that!” It was 1998, actually, when Puno bought “Gourmet’s Sweets.” The book is still on her shelf, next to O-Chem.

It’s time to move the test batch to the cooling racks. “Feel free to eat the biggest one,” Puno offers, “Tell me if it’s too much Pink Peppercorn.” It’s not. But Puno is a perfectionist—because it’s her second time with the installation, all of the proper tweaks have to be made.

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For a project she initially doubted, “Please Enable Cookies” is easily Puno’s most talked about installation. “It. Has. Been. Crazypants!” she exclaims. She’s been interviewed for The New Yorker, Smithsonian Magazine, and Slate (“Ugh, that one kiiiilled me!” she exclaims, particularly of Slate’s claim that her Pink Peppercorn Pistachio cookie was a “promised car wreck.”). In her early morning cookie factory, her phone goes off countless times with Instagram notifications. She’s also getting tweeted at from users all over the world—a first for Puno. “I guess I’ve only ‘been an artist’ for a decade,” Puno reflects. “It means there are still lots of firsts to come!”

It’s ironic for Puno, whose installation is about privacy, to have her life become so public. In fact, she only made her Instagram (@risapuno) public a month ago. But as an emerging artist, Puno has to find the balancing between getting stuff “out there,” and keeping a private life. So we’re willing to give our mothers’ maiden names for a Chocolate Chip Espresso Walnut cookie…what is Puno willing to give?


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