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GROUP HUG: Interview with Risa Puno at The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia

Once a game is completed, participants can enter Puno’s non-traditional bahay kubo from either side of the scoreboard.

Risa Puno, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Group Hug, 2024. Photo credit: Carlos Avendaño.


By CLARE GEMIMA April 25, 2024 

Risa Puno's solo exhibition, Group Hug, currently showing at the , is an interactive installation exploring the complexities of giving and receiving care. 

Crafted over a two-year residency in collaboration with the FWM Studio, her participatory installation employs game play elements to sublimate activities found in the act of caregiving, and encourages visitors that choose to enter the exhibition via its Care For route to, in some moments quite urgently, co-operate in order to understand the unspoken dynamics and significant efforts behind providing care. Through the use of sound recordings from the Philippines, and the ability to almost fully transcend into her lucious ergonomic configurations, there are plenty of opportunities to reap relaxing rewards if one chooses to enter the experience from a different direction, and with a desire to be Cared For.  

In conversation with Clare Gemima, Puno uncovers the philosophical underpinnings of Group Hug, and the profoundly personal significance behind its innovative design. From the incorporation of pre-colonial Filipino concepts like kapwa (“neighbor” or “fellow humans”) to the reimagining of a traditional bahay kubo structure, Puno shares her journey of conceptualization and creation, offering an extremely generous glimpse into the emotional core of her exhibition, as well as her own relationship to cultural traditions, belief systems, and grief as a Fil-Am artist.  

Clare Gemima: Can you elaborate on how the pre-colonial Filipino concept of ‘kapwa’ informs the conceptual framework of GROUP HUG, particularly in relation to the themes of care and collective well-being? 

Risa Puno: Kapwa is sometimes translated as “shared identity” or “shared humanity.” Psychologist and researcher Carl Lorenz Cervantes likes to describe kapwa as “us-ness.” But it essentially means that I have a moral obligation to take care of you the way I would take care of myself. It’s something that is a core aspect of Filipino culture, as well as a grounding principle of this exhibition. 

I have only known the term kapwa for a few years; however, it’s something I’ve been trying to describe for a very long time. It’s something that shows up in almost all of my work, though it’s probably most pronounced in Group Hug. I guess if I weren’t an artist who needed to write artist statements and grant applications, then I might not need a word for it because then it would just be a way of life. My parents didn’t talk about it because that’s just how they conducted themselves. If someone needed help, of course they would lend a hand. There’s another Tagalog term, bayanihan, that describes the act of many people picking up a bahay kubo (house) and moving it together, but it’s also a term for cooperative support and effort without expecting anything in return. Collective care is a part of who we are. We are a kapwa people. 

Clare Gemima: At the center of Group Hug, a transitory structure guides audience members through both ‘Cared For’, and ‘Care For’ paths. How did you approach the task of reimagining a traditional Philippine bahay kubo within the context of this exhibition? Specifically, how did you navigate the balance between maintaining its traditionally communal essence while incorporating elements that might seem disconnected from Filipino culture, such as its hexagonal shape and candy-colored aesthetics? Could you elaborate on how you incorporated Western influences, like the Willy Wonka, Disney, and Barbie presence within this framework, and explain how these particular aspects acknowledge your cultural disconnect? 

Risa Puno: The Fabric Workshop and Museum has a practice of making artist boxes and process labs that give visitors a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes labor that goes into crafting the artwork. I really liked the ethos of this, so instead of putting it in the back of the show or on a different floor, I wanted to put this at the literal center of my exhibition. I asked the museum if we could build a symbolic bahay kubo that represented a home for my ideas so that I could invite people into my heart and head. Since the content of this show is so personal, I didn’t want people to feel like they were voyeurs or that they were on the outside looking in. I wanted to make sure they knew they had permission to know about me and my family, and that they had access to enough context about my culture to be able to connect with the work, if they wanted to. 

The hexagonal shape is something that shows up in a lot of my work; it’s something that I’ve always been drawn to because it has always felt like it symbolizes connection and community. And in doing research for this project, I found out that hexagons show up in designs across the archipelago of the Philippines and they do actually symbolize connections to family and ancestors. The candy colors symbolize a child-like desire to connect with my cultural roots. But they are also my way of acknowledging how I am a degree removed from my own heritage, and how I often fill in the gaps with Western influences. The flat shapes echo the lack of dimension in my own understanding, while the bright colors remain ever hopeful. 

Other than that, I shared my core goals for the space, and then the design of the structure itself was up to the interpretation of the FWM Studio. There were also a lot of logistical considerations, like how we couldn’t mount it on literal stilts like a traditional bahay kubo, because it was more important to make sure that it was wheelchair accessible. So, while the final form may not be immediately recognizable as a bahay kubo, it was created with the spirit of community and gathering that they have come to symbolize.

When entering Group Hug, participants are immediately met with a question and a choice of two paths: would you rather work to care for others, or have others work to care for you?. Risa Puno, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Group Hug, 2024. Photo credit: Carlos Avendaño 

Clare Gemima: Within your reimagined bahay kubo, a 20 sided die covered in a range of questions can be discussed and contemplated by your audience - almost like an interactive icebreaker. I am curious as to what your own answers would be to some of the questions you posed to your audience. “How does being cared for make you feel?” And, “what have you learned about yourself through caring for others?”

Risa Puno:  Hahaha… I love this! Jill Adler at FWM did such a great job with the engineering and printing of the icosahedron. Plus, I don’t get to play my own games enough. :) 

Since I’m usually someone who is more comfortable caring for others, how I feel when being cared for kind of depends on who is doing the caring. When it’s care from someone like my mom who I am very close with, it feels amazing because I can let go and just trust that she’s ok with whatever may come up. But sometimes accepting help from someone else can feel very heavy. Like sometimes when I am cared for, I feel so overwhelmed by gratitude that it can feel hard to breathe. I’ve described this sensation as a “crushing sense of gratitude”... like I have been given such a weighty gift that I cannot possibly begin to repay that kindness. I’ve since come to realize that this relates to a Filipino core value called utang na loob which has to do with the moral obligation we have to reciprocate the kindness that someone has shown to us. It’s weird because it feels good but also really uncomfortable. 

In terms of what I’ve learned about myself? I guess I’ve learned that I am both stronger and weaker than I realized. As in, I’m more confident that other people can lean on me and rely on me, and that I am strong enough to be able to support them. At the beginning of this journey, I wasn’t sure if I would know how to be there for my parents, or if they would accept my help. But now I feel pretty confident about my ability to help my family, even though I live far from them.  

I’ve also learned that I have my limits too. My dad used to tell me, “you can do anything you put your mind to.” And as beautiful a sentiment as that is, I’ve learned that that’s just not true. I now know that if I ignore my own needs and push myself beyond my own limits, then I will get sick too. And that sometimes, part of taking care of someone else has to be taking care of yourself.  

Clare Gemima: [cont.] “How do you balance your own needs with the needs of those that you care for?” and “do you feel like your work for others is appreciated?” 

Risa Puno: Well I guess you can probably guess that my answer to that first one is: I don’t balance my needs with the needs of others as well as I’d like. To be honest, I’ve totally been guilty of focusing on how I can help others to the point where I ignore some of the stuff going on in my own life. It’s also tough because self-care isn’t something that my mom prioritized for herself, so that’s never been a priority for me either. In fact, I’m only now trying to develop the self-awareness to figure out what I need and when I need it.

But I definitely feel like the work I do to care for others is appreciated. Maybe not every little thing every single day, but definitely overall. Plus, I think it’s kind of a gift to even be allowed to care for people because that requires them to be vulnerable with you. In my family, I often end up taking the “tough love” role where I bring up difficult topics or bridge emotional gaps between different family members, and I’m really grateful that they have enough trust in me to let me do that. And I’m especially fortunate because my family is very vocal about letting me know when they appreciate my help, so it’s always really nice in the end, even if the road getting there is sometimes a little rocky. 

Participants who chose to ‘Care For’ are provided mallets to address “needs” in the form of illuminated orbs. As the game progresses, the “needs” increase in frequency and start to become overwhelming, as is often the case when caring for others.

Risa Puno, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Group Hug, 2024. Photo credit: Carlos Avendaño.

Clare Gemima: In reference to your four grandparents who have now passed away, what led you to juxtapose their presence, or lack thereof, with the superstitious significance of black butterflies within Filipino culture? Can you explain the superstition further, and is it something that you grew up believing in? 

Risa Puno: My Mommy Cely, (my mom’s mom), was actually very superstitious. She wouldn’t let my mom grow her hair long because it would make her short (even though my mom is now only 4' 9 1⁄2” tall), and on New Years Eve she would make everyone in their immediate family peel and eat one grape for every year they had been alive. Stuff like that. But I had actually never heard of the black butterfly superstition until researching for this project. 

I was reading A Handbook of Philippine Folklore, (2006), by Mellie Leandicho Lopez (that I got from this amazing online bookstore Philippine Books!) and found: Ang paru-parong itim sa loob ng bahay ay dalaw ng patay (“The black butterfly inside the house is a visiting dead person.”) I asked around and, while my parents weren’t familiar with the superstition, some of my other family members were. And later, I was actually having an unrelated conversation with my tita (aunt) about ghosts and spirits, and she was telling me about how in the days after each of her brothers passed away, her family was visited by a big black butterfly. The most mind-blowing part was that she didn’t even know about this superstition either, she just thought her brothers liked to appear as black butterflies!

As you might guess, some people are scared of the butterflies (like how people are scared of ghosts), but for other people, it’s comforting knowing that their loved ones are close by. For Group Hug, I liked the idea of inviting my lolas and lolos to watch over the people caring for others and being cared for. On the walls of my bahay kubo, there are little facts about each of my grandparents that match the markings on each of the butterflies so that you can decode which butterfly is which grandparent. For example, the butterfly with the flowers on its wings is Mommy Jessie (my paternal grandmother) because I was told that my Papa Ruf (my paternal grandfather) used to always leave fresh sampaguitas—a type of jasmine and the national flower of the Philippines—on her bedside. 

Clare Gemima: Group Hug works in a way where people are both cared for, and responsible for the care of others. When taking the ‘Care For’ path, audience members have to use a mallet to whack purple lit objects that sit atop large crates, similar to playing whac-a-mole. The aim of the game is to play for as long as possible to allow members on the ‘Cared For’ side of the show to be able to relax. As the players continue to whack, more spheres light up at a progressively faster frequency, making it impossible to whack all that is necessary. At this point, the game ends, along with the “care” it was providing to those on the other side of the exhibition. 

How did the invention and function of this particular game come to represent the action of caring, or caring for others in Group Hug?

Risa Puno: In my mind, there was only one game that could symbolize the work that goes into caregiving, because it needed to embody the urgency of what we, as a family, have been feeling. How we haven’t been able to plan, and instead have only been reacting to whatever popped up next. For me, that’s Whac-a-Mole.  

Whac-a-Mole is usually a single-player and competitive game, but by changing it to a multi-person and cooperative experience, I wanted to describe how hard it can be to work together with other people in pursuit of care. How, because we are working to meet the same needs at the same time, we can sometimes get in each other's way. But also, because there are so many needs to meet and they keep coming faster and faster, we can’t do it alone. It can be frustrating and confusing and stressful, but it can also be weirdly joyful and rewarding. 

And then of course, there was the whole design of the ‘Cared For’ experience; that was much trickier to figure out. I had to think about things like: once there are people who are willing to do work to ‘Care For’ you, how do you know that you are being offered support? For example, how does an inanimate object offer consent to a person? And how do you even embody support in a museum experience? It took many months of iteration with the FWM Studio to figure out how the chair should behave, what it should look like, and what it should feel like. I like the weird geometric coconuts that we ended up with, and I especially adore the way the Studio brought the goofy cartoon leaves to life. They are so nubbly and adorable. They feel like a hug when you sit in them.

Within the bahay kubo, a rollable icosahedron, or d20, prompts visitors to discuss their experiences and attitudes toward caring for others and being cared for. Risa Puno, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Group Hug, 2024. Photo credit: Carlos Avendaño.

Clare Gemima: Similarly, the ‘Cared For’ path offers much more comfort, as one can enter geometric, fleece laden, and reclining chair pods that activate with meditative sounds recorded in nature. Can you tell me more about the sound element installed in the pods, and explain how this concept came to represent being taken care of, or being cared for in the show?

Risa Puno: For the sound design of the whole installation, I was really lucky to have research assistance from Maryam Sophia Jahanbin who has a degree in ethnomusicology. She helped me find a mix of traditional and indigenous Filipino instruments from freesound.org, as well as recorded music by Bayanihan, the National Dance Company of the Philippines (and thanks to family members who reached out to their friends, I was able to get permission to use it in my installation!). I blended those sounds together to get the music you hear when you press the big red ‘Care For Together’ button to start the game. I wanted to create a sense of ritual and ceremony to begin the experience for both sides.  

Then, you hear an invitation from inside the coconut-like pods: “Are you ready to be cared for?” It’s designed to draw your attention to the formation of the plant-like structures into chairs, and offer you a place to rest. As you sit, you hear the soft sounds of crickets and the voice coos, “As you get comfy, this space will shift gently to accept you.” Then the pile of fleece leaves goes into full recline as you start to hear the sound of gently crashing ocean waves in the background. You can hear the sound of people working for your care, but it is relatively faint compared to the soothing sound of the waves. And when the people caring for you become overwhelmed by the number of needs, the ocean waves die down, the crickets return, and you hear the warm voice say: “As you feel the support to stand on your own, remember: you have been Cared For.

I originally wanted some kind of music for the inside of the pods, but it was Maryam’s idea to go with something more environmental. Which was definitely the right way to go because it immediately transports you someplace else. And she found recordings by someone named Kevin Luce of so many amazing locations throughout the Philippines. It was particularly difficult to find a background sound that could somewhat nullify the noises of the game being played, while still being soothing. But luckily he had the perfect recording of a beach in Batangas. The ocean was active enough so that the smashing of the mallets wouldn’t sound violent in contrast, but the waves weren’t so strong that they were disturbing. When you are inside the pod, the waves almost sound as though they are washing up against the outside of your giant geometric coconut. (He also recorded the nighttime cricket sounds in the countryside of Oriental Mindoro island in the Philippines.)

In addition to finding and mixing the sound files (which my brother Ronnie helped me with), I then had to figure out the timing of the sounds with the “choreography” of the chairs, as well as the language of the voiceovers (which I recorded myself), all in relation to what was happening on the ‘Care For’ side of things. (You can see the diagram for this inside my bahay kubo.)

Clare Gemima: After meeting you and hearing you talk so ecstatically about your making process, which involved AI, various methods of fabrication, and a massive amount of physical labor, I am interested in your emotional response, now that your show is finally erected. What was your initial reaction to examining visitors navigate Group Hug on its opening night, and what was it like to witness members of your own family interact with the work?

Risa Puno:  Oh, seeing the work come alive is always my favorite part! Since I make interactive work, I never consider what I make complete until people are using it. And this opening was really special. I had 38 family members come in from all over the country—New York, New Jersey, Delaware, North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Arizona, California… even Hawaii! Plus all of my friends who came down too. One of my titas even flew with a lei of fresh Hawaiian flowers that she surprised me with at the opening!! I haven’t seen some of them in many years so it was like a true reunion. Not to mention the Philly and Greater NY Filipino community totally turned OUT! I’ve never seen so many Filipinos in a museum at the same time! My heart was seriously so full. And so many of them told me that they’ve never been to a museum solo show by a Fil-Am artist before, which made me feel both sad and proud.

Not to mention, there were so many people who came up to me that night (and contacted me since then) to tell me how much the work has resonated with them. There were school nurses and other healthcare workers who told me that they felt seen because their labor was being acknowledged. There were elderly people who thanked me for creating work that normalized conversations about caretaking. There were people who talked to me about losing parents and loved ones and the process of grieving. And then there were several people who shared stories about how they had a bad day and that being there felt like the hug that they needed. I am so touched that so many people have been willing to engage with the work and these topics at all, let alone open up and share their emotions and stories with me. It was an honor to make work for them.

When the game is initiated, the leafy seats within three coconut pods recline, offering participants who chose the ‘Cared For’ path the opportunity to relax.

Risa Puno, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Group Hug, 2024. Photo credit: Rawny Media. 

Clare Gemima: The show’s name was derived from a New York Time’s crossword clue that stated “many-person act of support or affection.” Was this the starting point for building your installation, or did this title appear much later in your process?

Risa Puno: That was from the May 8, 2023 crossword puzzle. So it was around halfway through my residency. I was actually doing the puzzle on my way back from visiting my parents in Kentucky. I had flown in so that I could be there for my dad’s first specialist appointment, and we were all still reeling from the news of his diagnosis. 

Before that, I was dealing with some invisible chronic health issues of my own (that I continue to struggle with), but at the time I didn’t know how to manage them or how to take care of myself. So for the first half of my residency, I found myself asking questions about the dynamics between rest and work, and the relationship between self-care and collective care.

But in the middle of all that, my dad—someone who has devoted his life to the care of others as an orthopedic spine surgeon— got diagnosed with serious health issues. All of a sudden, he had to retire and learn what life looked like through the eyes of a patient. My mom (who is also a retired doctor) had to step up a lot and become a caregiver. And my brother and I had to figure out how to be there for our mom. Our branch of the family “Puno”—puno is the literal word for “tree” in Tagalog—is usually pretty good about supporting others, but we ended up being the ones asking for a lot of support. 

Within just a few weeks, the focus of my show (and my life) shifted from efforts to take care of myself, to that of my family trying to take care of my father and of each other at the same time. It was barely a conscious shift; it was just following where my heart and mind were at the time.

That’s why, when I was playing the crossword puzzle on the plane back to NYC, and I realized that the answer for the clue: “many-person act of support or affection” was “GROUP HUG,” I knew it had to be the title of the exhibition. Because that’s what we were experiencing at the time. Everyone in the family banding together to help out.

Clare Gemima: Over the course of your two year residency at the Fabric Workshop Museum in Philadelphia, what were some of the most challenging or important experiences you faced? 

Risa Puno: Whew! That’s tough to answer! There has been so much that was challenging and so much that was important. This was my first time making work that was super personal and my first time incorporating visual aspects of my culture. So I have felt really vulnerable. Especially because the personal content is about events in my family that are currently unfolding, so I’ve been processing them emotionally in real time while creating the exhibition. 

Plus, FMW has a very unique process where they completely manage the production of the artwork, including fabrication, timeline, budget, etc. So for an artist like me who usually creates very detailed plans that I either execute myself or hire fabricators to build to spec, it was quite a challenge having people who I’ve never worked with before interpret my ideas, sometimes without knowing exactly what they would look like before they were installed. This was especially tricky because in addition to being so personal, a lot of the subject matter was rooted in my cultural heritage and only one person (out of over 30 people!) who worked on my exhibition was Filipino (salamat, Brian Ratcliffe!). So there was a lot of labor that went into translation and education, which was already a little bit of an emotional minefield for me since I was grappling with feelings of insecurity regarding my own authenticity over connecting with my culture.

But I think what I learned is that I’m more resilient than I ever knew. And that there are lots of Fil-Am people who are also embarrassed about feeling inauthentic or scared of shaming our ancestors. But all we can do is try. And believe that we do have embodied knowledge that hasn’t been erased by colonization. Because I believe we are Filipino (or Filipina, or Filipinx) “enough.”

I’ve also learned that there are so many people who are dealing with grief. The more I’ve opened up about this, the more other people have opened up. I’ve come to realize that grief is just a normal part of everyday life. And I wish it were more normalized, and given more space and more care. I hope that Group Hug can be one step in that direction.

GROUP HUG is on view March 1 through July 21, 2024 at Fabric Workshop Museum, 1214 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA. WM

Clare Gemima

Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.

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