Matthew Steinke resurrects the genius of an unknown inventor

“Reverse Plane of Cloudy: The Re-Animated Subconscious of Lieutenant Ray Mallory” uses video, sound and music to animate robotic instruments, kinetic sculptures and automated appliances


If you were to die today, what would the objects you leave behind say about your life — and how would those object sound?

Matthew’s Steinke’s newest work will give it try. “Reverse Plane of Cloudy: The Re-Animated Subconscious of Lieutenant Ray Mallory” is a multi-media installation that resurrects aspects of the memory and soul of the unknown inventor Ray Mallory.

“Reserve Plane of Cloudy” opens 6 to 11 p.m. Sept. 7 and continues through 9 at the Museum of Human Achievement. 

A conceptual artist and composer, Steinke is the lead creator of “Reverse Plane of Cloudy” along with collaborators Thomas Echols, Bryce Kassen, Jesse Peterson, Joshua Pablo Rosenstock, Katie Wood and Yuanyuan Kay.

“Reverse Plane of Cloudy” uses video, sound, software and music to animate robotic instruments, kinetic sculptures and automated appliances.

Steinke’s artworks explore aural possibilities in ephemeral and physical ways by utilizing robotics in tandem with sound. His interest in aural automata first began while studying analog electronic music at Evergreen State College in the late 1990s. As a student, the high cost and sparsity of electronic music tech (effects pedals in particular) lead Steinke to teach himself how to construct his own equipment.

Looking to get more acquainted with electronic handiwork, Steinke took up a part-time job as a VCR repairman at the Capital Loans pawn shop in Seattle after graduating from Evergreen. Once hired, the company sent Steinke to be trained by the longtime employee he was replacing, Ray Mallory.

Meeting with Mallory at his home, Steinke discovered that Mallory was a fantastical inventor and creative mind. Mallory’s living room was filled with hacked appliances and invented machines layered with knobs, switches, needle meters, and vintage LEDs. To the modern eye, Mallory’s machines were more conceptually artistic than utilitarian.

“He didn’t have a fine arts background, I don’t even think he would have known what a found object was,” says Steinke, “He was a working class inventor. He inspired me to pursue musical inventions and sound, expanding my electronic music composition interest into the physical space.”

Unfortunately, the reason for Mallory’s retirement from the VCR repair business was because he was dying. Diagnosed with AIDS and having already lost his life-partner, Honey Wells, to the disease five years earlier, Mallory was bitter, poor, and lost when Steinke met him. Steinke believes that Mallory, being in the final stages of his life, also suffered from the “frustration that a lot of inventive people feel — a lack of appreciation.”

“Reverse Plane of Cloudy” pays tribute to Mallory’s unrecognized talent by featuring reinterpretations of his inventions, as created by Steinke. These pieces symbolically recreate the only remnant of Mallory’s persona that was left behind when he died — his objects. In viewing and hearing these mechanical works, spectators will piece together the story of Ray Mallory’s life, and in the process, the very nature of death and the subconscious.

The operatic narrative of the show is divided between the varying works in a nonlinear fashion, allowing certain elements of the exhibit to be missed or overlooked. As the viewer takes in Mallory’s fractured memories and personage, “Reverse Plane of Cloudy” deliberately imparts a feeling of incompleteness and uncertainty to the viewer.

Steinke says this strategy is intended to open up the installation to a variety of interpretations. He suggest that “Reverse Plane” might symbolize Mallory’s resurrected subconscious still “looking for Honey Wells, or maybe he’s still himself and he’s trying to fix things, so he’s constantly trying to repair these memories. Or maybe there’s other things at play.”

Although the performative installation features compositions from Steinke and his collaborators, the music being performed by the automata delves less into the “phenomenological,” as Steinke puts it, and are instead poetic depictions of sound. The augmented and custom-built instruments and objects perform with little-to-no amplification, allowing the acoustic sounds of the exhibit to chaotically (but beautifully) co-exist.

“Reverse Plane of Cloudy,” utilizes a variety of artistic perspectives to bring the persona and desires of Mallory back to the land of the living. And while this effort may seem philosophically futile, it’s also what makes this work a beautiful tribute not just to Mallory, but to the nature of life itself.

“You can try to encapsulate [memory] into recording, into some kind of object, but that essence of the person is gone,” Steinke says about the exhibit.

“I think Mallory would have loved it.”

Joshua Figueroa
Joshua Figueroa
Joshua Figueroa is a musicologist and arts writer from Santa Barbara, California. Now based in Austin, he splits his time between going out to eat too much and arguing about video games.

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