Nell Ruby
July, 2014

…A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist — not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.
—Leo Tolstoy

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
—Muriel Rukeyser


Work as Play
My studio work is based in a spatial practice with social critique at its core. In my projects I set up opportunities for playful exchange where artist and viewer collaborate to explore the intricate, entertaining and instructive conventions of our relational nature.

Using everyday objects and familiar frameworks—a cereal box, a windowpane, a light bulb or a garden hose—I draw the viewer into my fantasy world. This is my conceit: it looks like fun. I appeal to the viewer’s thirst for play to construct an atmosphere of ease where together we look at the quirks of everyday American life and the complicated infrastructure of power dynamics embedded therein.

Sheets to the Wind details

Sheets to the Wind, 2006, Details
Multi-media mixed media installation with projected video, 35’w x 75’d x 35’h
The video image on the right shows a portion of the installation in situ link to video:

Although my intentions and inspirations have remained consistent, in the last few years I have experienced a shift in the expressive form of my work. Earlier life-size architectural tableaux exist as literal walls and windows staging metaphorical analogies about barriers and borderlines between public and private psychological space. The viewer enters a world of symbols: windows are possibilities in which variations in light transport the gallery from a routine room to a windy prairie plane or a night sky; the public space becomes Narnia’s infinite wardrobe, rife with possibilities.

Sheets to the Wind, 2006, details

The performative qualities of the installations have pointed me to my current interest, which involves direct interaction with my audience. In my new work, bodies have replaced windows and walls. The “architecture” defining edges and passageways is now built out of the artist and viewer. This art is created by you and me. Instead of metaphor and abstraction, I am tackling perception and response directly.

In this new genre relational work, form, process and content intermingle. The viewer is the pulse that animates the piece consenting to participate in a lively call and response system among maker, object and viewer.

In contrast to the monumental scale of the earlier tableaux, the new work is more personal in scale, presenting a more tender, intimate and potent experience. My focus has moved toward an emphasis on the reception of the work rather than on its preparation. Through joining forces with the viewer I seek an exchange that makes the project “our” work. I am performing the work, and so are you. Performance is an interactive exchange: I respond to you, you respond to me and together we make meaning from the moment.

You are an Advertisement  

You are the advertisement, 2010
Interactive sculpture with mixed media and toy megaphone: 72"x36"x36"
The video image on the right shows a portion of the piece being performed, link to video:

You are the Advertisement
In You are the advertisement, a large cardboard structure on stilted legs waits in the room to catch your eye. The box is blanketed in familiar brightly colored packaging—Coca Cola; Cheerios; Tide—products typical to any (American) grocery store, and likely to be found in your own pantry. You have an existing relationship with this imagery, a conditioned cultural response to advertising language that makes you to feel at ease with the object and eager to explore it. The object is at once strange and very familiar. It is its daily-ness that makes it so inescapably accessible. These objects don’t feel precious or intimidating. Instead, their quirky presence is playful and banal. The work signals permission to play. Inside the structure, (which you of course enter, because you simply can’t resist) you encounter a battery-operated voice-changing toy megaphone, and a series of texts inviting you to read them aloud.


Left: You Are the Advertisement, detail inside/back view
Scripts attached to wall on left, instructions hand-written onto cardboard
Right: Video of a performance of The Cost of Goods Sold, 2012; link:

The pages hanging inside the structure are transcriptions from daytime TV commercials advertising a variety of products, including anti-aging wrinkle cream, sleeping pills, grass fertilizer, etc. Captured on a random rainy afternoon, the ads are a typical sampling of the daily bombardment of messages that speak to our inadequacy. (You look old, and that’s bad! You need more sleep, and that’s bad! Your yard is weedy, and that’s bad!…). By reversing the method of delivery You Are the Advertisement subverts expectations about who holds power. In The Cost of Goods Sold, a group of observers participate with me as I "orchestrate" their individual readings into a cacophonous audio piece using these same scripts. Here the group becomes a cohesive band of authoritarian voices. This is what I’m after: the passive bystander becomes the expert; consumer becomes producer; passive recipient becomes active agent; influenced becomes influential. You Are the Advertisement positions you as the clear amplified, but fun-filled, voice of authority. And, as in all forms of free play, the experience puts you in the mood for creative reflection as you walk away.

My former installations, although exciting in their multi-media effects, resulted in separating me from the work. Even though I was passionately engaged in the process of making them, I assumed the role of static observer for the duration of the show. At the exhibition opening I would play the pre-defined role as “artist-at-her-opening”.  Now I am moving into work where I can actively engage the viewer as part of the work, and more fully set in motion a sentient response.

Projecting a video of Andre stretching onto the person of Andre stretching
From: character sketches
link to the full video:

Andre and the Giant Collaboration
Working with Andre and the Giant— a two-person collaboration project with artist Andre Keichian— has given me the right balance of permission and push to develop my growing interest in performance. We started our work by developing sketches that function as “performance videos” for live venues, large-scale outdoor projections, body-as-screen performance and as stand-alone films. My work with Andre is a study in examining categories, edges, and boundaries.

Character Studies
Standing Outside With My Mouth Open Wide is a series of exercises showing characters that we each believe to be present within us, but invisible to others. In the act of performing these inner identities--a schoolboy, a stripper, a plumber, a queen, tourists, a den mother, a femme fatale--we make them real. In this form of playing out, a trusted witness, in this case the videographer, is essential to enact the part of looking. It is in the act of showing that we are seen

In this piece, “over” acting the identities of the characters to the point of cliché makes clear behaviors we impose on ourselves. In playing someone else we can see ourselves.

The process of making the work is in itself an act of intimacy, trust and consent. Together we agree on our roles, the text of the script, and the format. We created these sketches in an isolated space interchanging the function of observer and observed. The observer is in charge of the looking in the form of filming. She corrects the aesthetics, directs the spotlight, determines the color and temperature, and selects the point of view to best highlight the performance. The role of the photographer as trusted witness is essential to the process as the knowledge of being observed brings the characters to life. It is because of looking that the character can be seen; we perform ourselves for each other.

Still images from performance video: Standing Outside With My Mouth Open Wide, 2011
Link to selected video clip:

The performance is twofold: it occurs the first time privately in the making with an intimate exchange between the artists, and it happens again in its public exhibition. This video was performed in a one-night pop-up performance gallery called Show Off, where fifteen invited artists were asked to explore new work that represented taking a risk. No one invited was allowed to simply watch: all had to participate. This made for a supportive audience and an exciting night. Andre and I put together our video as a series of relationships: juxtaposing the characters we played as if they were in dialogue with each other, when in fact each is in his/her own world in actuality and metaphorically. The appearance of a relationship between the characters is supplied by the viewer. We projected the characters at life-size onto screens in a small room, and stood silently on either side of the video as the characters sang, seemingly with each other. Andre and I as “real” figures (dressed in costumes) became part of the fictionalized story.

The Great Train Trickery was instigated by an invitation to create a performance for a fund raising event focused on the theme of trains. In this video, we employ the cultural cliché of American Western movies to explore notions of identity construction.

The Great Train Trickery
, performance video stills, 11 minutes
Link to video:

The Great Train Trickery is full of tropes. Our video follows the rules of Westerns. It includes all the usual suspects: a damsel in distress, a good guy, a bad guy, and an evil gal. And it has all the typical scenarios: a capture, a fight scene, a rescue, a love scene, and a happy ending. So on the surface everything feels right with the world. The viewer knows the drill. This familiarity provides a sense of comfort, safety, and receptivity for the viewer. The twist is that Andre and I each play both characters; the bad guy is sometimes Andre and sometimes me. We switch costumes (black handlebar mustache and black hat and long coat or golden braided wig) to mark the character, but in fact we fluidly switch back and forth between genders and roles. Because of the viewer’s absolute familiarity with the formulaic script, s/he is able to completely suspend disbelief and to play along with what could be a confusing cast of characters. But wait a second, you ask. Are those characters women or men? The good guy is falling in love with the bad guy? Wait just a dad gum minute fella---? What’s going on here? The viewer is left with a topical sense that everything is okay, but an internal emergence of pesky questions. As with the comfort projected in the packaging of You Are the Advertisement, the banality and predictability of old black and white western movies create an accessibility point where the viewer lets her guard down and the inquiry that emerges subverts the benign framework of the conventional form with the introduction of a new formula.

Trickery performance
The Great Train Trickery was performed as a video projection onto a billboard near the train yard. It is intended to have live piano accompaniment.

Link to video:

The Great Train Trickery rewrites a familiar story. Because the characters are such clichés, the viewer ignores them. Instead she is attentive to what is different in the video, which is the form of the story telling itself. She identifies not with the characters depicted but with the story being told. In deconstructing and recreating a predictable old story, I scramble the system. If I can make this story different, anyone can. The viewer accesses the role of authoring the story, and by extension is free to redefine the story she has written for herself. One of the goals of my art is manifest in a work such as this:  by granting agency to the viewer, I empower her to find her own narrative as well as to star in it.

In this piece our task was to write an artist statement, which expanded into a word and image video. We are reading aloud to each other from an e-mail exchange exploring the nature of our collaborative work. Ultimately we decided the most effective expressive technique is reading to each other while projecting our work onto our bodies—our naked torsos with our faces hidden by our script became canvases of the stories that we tell through light play. In a further act of blurring identity, Andre reads my writing and I read theirs (read: his. Andre uses gender neutral pronouns for self-reference.) Gender construction is the main theme of our work in this project, as we use our bodies as literal signposts to “write” our quest for true identity through light and image. Our bodies perform the notions of our hearts and minds.

Video stills from Disclosure: Artist Statement
link to the full video:
(video contains nudity)

Transcription (my own writing is in boldface):

NELL (via Dre's voice)
I like to pretend, but I don't like pretense. When I pretend I make up rules for myself. When I'm pretentious, I'm sticking rules on myself, as if you're making up rules for me, but I never ask you what they are. There's no consensus, I just put them on you like gaudy earrings, there's no exchange and no real relating.

DRE (via Nell's voice)
I like how taking on new roles brings about a new awareness of myself. That may be about the rule-making? It's about taking on new considerations, and though make-believe they are still grounded in something real because we are real, and we mean what we do. I do not like pretension, but I do like gaudy earrings.

Nell (via Dre's voice)
Yes. It seems important that your willingness, drive and motivation to explore new aspects of yourself is interesting to me. I like to watch you explore, and I'm inspired by the way you risk and learn about yourself. I realize that you see me reflect and respond to you and I see that I like that about me. I trust you trusting me. I see the essential nature of this work as rooted not just in our curiosities about our selves, but in our curiosities about each other. It is based in relating and relationships. I want and need you to be my confidante, my audience and my foil. I rely on you responding to me.

DRE (via Nell's voice):
You provide an expectation that I require myself to fulfill. Our work addresses a form of playfulness that if I were alone I would walk away from. In a way I'm performing for you. And I'm performing with you. How has this relationship become one of the most positive dynamics in my life? We're dissimilar yet understood by one another, and mutually misunderstood at large. Everything we do is absolutely relational. I think we both consider the other to engage in risky business. What I feel comfortable with may challenge you, yet you still intimidate me. Maybe it's this that creates a neutrality of power. I'm not afraid to give to you because I also require something from you, and I trust these needs will be met. I also trust that I will be heard, which is amazing, and probably why we never fight.

Nell (via Dre's voice)
I am continually surprised at the way we are different. I think our bodies make that point-- age for example. You could easily be my child, although I don't think of you like that. My body is so… used. It shows my history of a working life, birthing and nursing children. My body looks like the life I have lived and yours seems young, but also very real, scars and imperfections. I like the juxtaposition of you with a long way to go and me having already gone. And you are tall and dark and thin, and I am none of those. When we put those things on video and display them on the wall it adds an aesthetic dimension to looking at my body--our bodies--that I find appealing. Our bodies become form and light and removed from me and you. They become something I don't want to judge because that is so beside the point.

Dre (via Nell's voice)
When I use my body in performance I consider how I choose to characterize myself. It requires me to be physically and emotionally present. I cannot detach though I often require myself to let go. I negotiate how to remain conscious but not self-conscious. I do not always feel that my body represents me. I'm not always comfortable with what I do, but I do it anyhow. I believe this vulnerability is significant and I recognize your participation in this process as well. It's like you said, when our bodies translate into forms and light they're no longer our bodies, but rather familiar objects. I feel safe within this separation of self, which I think brings up an interesting distinction on the role of detachment.

Nell (via Dre's voice)
Detachment and plasticity. I feel as if our bodies which seem so static and unchangeable are actually playgrounds and are absolutely moldable. I keep searching within the molding and manipulation, for me. Where the hell am I? I'm a stripper? I'm a den mother? I can't grab it. The "me"-ness. It's as intangible as light. It's comforting to define "me" as light and form, which is mutable and dependent on the room and on the weather conditions. The light captures qualities that I identify with: fluid and always changing according to the climate. I like the way you and I form a climate of open house: anything goes. Working with you brings the same delight and fulfillment that I had when playing and pretending as a young child. We play like children in a performative moment and then act like grown ups later when we discern what gets to be called "finished".


I see the details we discovered in our video statement as a kind of story telling. We use the stories we're told to figure out our own story; the stories act as role models, set expectations, and form our personal ethos. The stories we hear effect the stories we tell to each other and those we tell ourselves. Stories are how we relate. By embodying our stories, we hope to inspire the viewer to decipher the text inscribed on her own body. Because art and the perception of art are embodied, I want the audience to “body up” to own the story she harbors within.

Cul de Sac
In my current project I am creating an intimate installation of a collection of personal stories spoken in voices of people you might know. I am gathering them from friends and acquaintances who tell about remembered situations where they felt stuck and uncomfortable, but didn’t leave, either because they were children and could not, or because of some other social confusion.

left: Cul de Sac, maquette for proposed mixed media installation: shrinky dink, grass, video
right: sketch for the audio and video that will play inside the window (video will not be directly accessible, but will be seen in reflection)

The scene for the set up of the installation:
You enter a darkened room filled with miniature “houses” made of translucent walls glowing with the familiar flicker of blue TV-screen light. You hear the murmur of a neighborhood of multiple voices. Each house has a voice coming out of a TV screen in its living room that you are able to view through the open window and is situated atop a "yard" of live grass that tickles your nose as you lean down to eavesdrop. You feel you are invading the privacy of these imaginary people because of your conditioned behaviors about the private sancitty of other peoples’ houses, but you are in the gallery to see the art, so you do it anyway. The picture window—the only opening into the house—reveals a room devoid of furniture except for a large TV showing a “home” video of children playing. The carefree visual is accompanied by the story narrated by a stranger to you, whose words become distinct as you come closer. The story doesn’t describe the imagery on the TV screen, but it clearly acts as its companion. The video portrays a mundane private event: someone washing her hands; children at play; a woman applying make-up; a man shaving his face. Each room is a world unto itself with its own particular anecdote and its own electronic light source, the veritable heartbeat of the chamber.

Although the home connotes a “private” space it sits in a public venue. The grass is real and its smell creates a visceral connection with the viewer. The video image, while mundane, has a dream-like quality to it. The whole situation is both familiar and fantastical. You relate to it and try to interpret the parts. You become the theater where the story plays out.

I am interested in our wildness—the forces that excite and confuse us. We build houses and invent stories in order to protect ourselves from storms, dirt and bugs. We think we are safe inside our stories. I’m drawn to the blurry boundaries that divide safety, suburbs, and stasis from the dangers and vicissitudes of human nature.

Blurring the edges opens a space for reflective potency within which we can relate and connect to each other and share creative experience. In my work I build a platform from which to observe an unfolding of our social habits, gut instincts, and learned behaviors. From within a state of receptive play, a viewer is invited to examine the arbitrary cultural expectations that define us and to consciously participate in the act of thinking up a culture where she can freely define her own receptive and responsive identity.


Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.
—Jeanette Winterson



Selected projects:

Complex Mammal Collective:
Complex is a group made up of professional artists and professors with whom I work. The inspiration for the group was to model collaborative art making for students through bringing our creative lives into the classroom. In this ongoing series we work “out loud” in the dance, studio and composing spaces, sharing our ideas in a public dialogue to illustrate exchange and process.

Timeless Bearings 2009

The choreography, projection, and sound score were inspired by research on Parkinson's Disease. The piece is a Complex Mammal creative collaboration with original music by composer Juan Chattah, original movement by choreographer Bridget Roosa and original still and video projection by Nell Ruby.
link to the video:


Shift 2008

Shift explores the relationship of bodies and industry to the earth. Each artist used the notion of whole (earth); manipulated (earth) and fundamental (earth) as a means from which to compose three segments in each artists medium. The works were conceived collaboratively, developed separately according to specified timings, and then combined for the performance. Original sound score by composer Juan Chattah, original movement by choreographer Bridget Roosa, and original still and video image projection by Nell Ruby. Danced by Agnes Scott Dance Theater students.
Link to the video:

Complex Mammal, 2007
Complex Mammal is the seminal performance piece for the group. Original sound score by composer Juan Chattah, original movement by choreographer Bridget Roosa and original still and video image projection by Nell Ruby. Danced by Agnes Scott Dance Theater students.
Link to the video:

Andre and the Giant:

Rear Window,2012
A window projection for Mondo Homo, a performance projection supporting themes of "queering" identity


Luminous Cat, 2010

This was a project juried into the 2010 Atlanta Flux initiative. This is an evening of juried performances and installations in Atlanta's downtown Castlebury hill district where city lights are doused for several hours. We performed a "night parade" where 15 paraders created white costumes to act as both spectacle and screen. Composer Juan Chattah created an original musical score that we plugged into a large sound system, that was powered by a generator at the tail of the parade carried along on a dolly. At the rear of the parade were two people with projectors who projected home videos of children playing onto the parade participants, buildings and onlookers, compressing the "stage" and blurring the boundaries between public/private and actor/audience.


Fudge Pop, 2012

In this project we recorded ourselves eating fudge pops while projecting a 1960s commercial for fudge pops onto our bodies, then projected that video onto our costumed "live" selves as we waltzed and played music to an original live composition as part of juried programming for the exhibition My Sweet Sweet.
Link to the video:


An audio recording from a radio series: Loveseat

Loveseat, a monthly audio series for BURNAWAY Radio, is artists talking with their favorite people. Loveseat works to access artists’ most natural voices by inviting them to speak with any one person of their choosing in the intimate StoryCorps studio at the Atlanta History Center. BURNAWAY’s published excerpts from Loveseat conversations seek to expand our perceptions of how artists live, think, and make in Atlanta, as well as revealing who is doing so alongside them. A wild and ever-growing document, Loveseat captures personal histories, local histories, relationships, communities, obsessions, quandaries, plans, processes, coincidences, jokes, and secrets—all with equal enthusiasm.


showing / thinking

Showing / Thinking

Showing / Thinking is a project that grew from a 2012 gallery exhibition conceived by our gallery director to illustrate thinking patterns that make up the human creative process. The exhibition was unusual in that it was not focused on finished works, but rather on unveiling the inspirations and quirks of thinking. It was also unusual because it incorporated academicians, in this case art historians, who are not used to putting their work on display alongside studio artists. I was profoundly moved by this exhibition and the conversations and connections that emerged from the seemingly random group of six participants. My notion for the continuation of Showing / Thinking as a broader concept, is to engage the spark that inspires intellectual engagement at large. Wouldn't it be interesting to see how as an object lesson to show the ways that creative thinking occurs across all of the liberal arts disciplines? My vision is that such an exhibition would be an outstanding lesson for our students to de mystify the notion of professor as genius, and to show the work that goes into coming up with finished / publishable ideas. It would also provide connective tissue for integration with my colleagues, whose work I know only generally. The exhibition provides a means for my colleagues to be known. And I see now, it is a way for us to relate to each other, and in that way the show becomes an extension of the work I am doing in my own art. The participants are performing relational activity.

The show engages five people of various disciplines. Each participant writes his/her own process statement, exhibits “work” in the show, and participates in an open process conversation. I have designed and produced catalogs for three exhibitions since 2012.

2012: Beidler (STUDIO ART, print making); Ruby (STUDIO ART, installation and performance); Sadler (ART HISTORY, medieval); Smith (ART HISTORY, contemporary); Ciejka (ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY);
link to 2012 description:
link to download the catalog as a pdfpdf for showing / thinking catalog

2013: Riddle (MATHEMATICS); Graml (GERMAN STUDIES); Moon (Studio ART); Drinkwater (CLASSICS); Meyer and Spresser (STUDENT and PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER special project)
link to 2013 description:

2014: Pippin (RELIGIOUS STUDIES); Cozzens (ENGLISH); Emert (EDUCATION); Taylor (Studio ART)

2015: anticipated Koch (MATHEMATICS); Rogers (BIOLOGY); Lee (CREATIVE WRITING); Emerson (STUDIO ART)



Design for various Springalingadingdong posters

Springalingadingdong is an ongoing collaborative performance project with Birmingham artist and restaurateur Carole Griffin. The project creates a spring festival that is focused on creating a fully engaged experience of revitalization and renewal. We employ food, music, theater and visual riches to create a visceral integration and excitement of the senses for participant and maker. More images for this project.

La palabra

La Palabra is a collaborative book created by an artist collective. The book emerges through the act of each artist inventing a character and a story through her own image and text. Link to the book


Art House Coop digital sketchbook library, The Brooklyn Library.

This is a project where I participate as an artist to become a part of the largest artist book library in the

detail of artist book