When we met for this interview Ruby Que had just returned from a residency on Maury Island in Washington. The residency was on a harbor, near enough to the ocean that one could see it. “While I was there it kind of hit me that I haven’t been home in a long time,” Que says, thinking about another small island, in Hong Kong, where they grew up.
Que is young. They graduated from School of the Art Institute with an MFA in 2022, but several conceptually rigorous performances and installations, including a multimedia installation included in Katie Rauth’s 2022 exhibition “Like a House on Fire” at the Comfort Station, reveal an artist who is asking vital questions about the medium of film and its relationship to performance and audiences.
Although Que describes their art career as not beginning until after college, during their time as a student at Cornell they were deeply involved in film—working at a film festival, making films with friends, studying film theory, and perhaps most influentially, working at the nationally recognized movie theater, Cornell Cinema. That training promoted a critical foundation in the medium they started to explore in a more experimental manner in graduate school.
“I had kind of this reverence for film when I was at Cornell,” Que says. But once they got to SAIC the availability of found film and the encouragement to experiment with the limits of the medium pushed Que to a more physical, irreverent engagement with film as material.
Que is enamored with 16mm film, a celluloid stock historically associated with amateur filmmaking. “It’s just big enough that you can see what you’re doing,” they note, as they slowly unreel a roll of film used in a recent workshop they led for artists. “When you’re doing something like this [working with film] you really start to understand how time passes.”
16mm film is also a big enough palette on which to collaborate. In a recent performance at No Nation, a nontraditional art space in Wicker Park where Que lived as an artist in residence for a year, Que fed clear film leader through a projector, shooting boxes of light, rather than images, onto their audience. As the film rolled, Que circulated through the audience with acrylic paint on their hands, holding the hands of willing audience members and asking them to grab hold of the film as it was continuously moving through the projector, their fingerprints marking the film as it passed. The performance ended as each audience member received a cut piece of the film to take home.
The performance married Que’s materialist engagement with the medium with their interest in installation and performance as contexts for both film production and reception. Although some of Que’s earlier film works explored documentary as a genre of film and method of storytelling, installation and performance shirk film’s traditional spectatorship models and association with linear chronologies.
“Every time I shoot something I see it in an installation setting, as a small part of another whole rather than on the big screen,” they say. “I want people to enter a space and walk around, to touch things, and move things. In an installation you can actually traverse the boundaries of time and space.”
Where documentary pretends to mastery, installation and performance engage the world and others with fragments and a sense of the transitory that, at least to Que, feels more authentic. “I feel like my life is dictated by a lot of brief encounters,” Que says. With a performance, “I’m not trying to get to know them [their audience], I’m not trying to understand their whole being, but in that brief encounter you can still see so much.”
In “A Movie is a Thing Alive,” the performance of which Que is the proudest, they engaged the melancholy as well as beauty of transience through an illustration of film’s own impermanence as well as our detached response to its disappearance. The performance began with a set of found images Que planned to use to create an experimental documentary about their own life. But since they aren’t interested right now in work about identity, they realized they didn’t want the film out in the world and decided to ritualistically destroy it. In an overlapping set of projections on a Chicago house, Que simultaneously projected the film and the flame they were using to set it on fire as it finished rolling. In its poetic exploration of disappearance and reclamation, the performance offered an opportunity for Que to explore film’s occupation of a precarious middle ground between permanence and obsolescence.
As I left our interview, Que showed me recent work with wood and metal, materials they had been using to create spoons. It’s a new interest sparked by the neurodivergent community’s use of spoons to describe their capacity, how many spoons you have refers to the amount of energy one feels on a given day. “They’re comforting to have,” Que says of spoons, “And they refer to capacity in a metaphorical way but also in a very physical way.” It’s a surprising end to a long discussion of medium and film, but a promising demonstration of openness and curiosity for an artist who is just beginning their career. (Jennifer Smart)