Image: John Bumstead

A Professional Computer Refurbisher Turns Broken MacBooks Into Glitch Art

Most broken LCDs look ugly. But when you repair thousands of them, sometimes they stand out.

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Nov 10 2015, 4:20pm

Image: John Bumstead

At any given time, John Bumstead has several hundred MacBooks sitting around his home, in various states of disrepair. Some of them just happen to look like this:

Image: John Bumstead

Bumstead is a professional MacBook refurbisher, and so he spends much of his time sourcing hundreds of laptops at a time from places where electronics normally go to die (most of his come from electronics recyclers). He fixes them up and sells them. It's a lot of swapping graphics processors, repairing headphone jacks, replacing broken glass and LCD screens. It can get tedious.

Somewhere along the line, he realized that the images on some of these screens looked interesting. And then he started taking pictures. The result is some of the most impressive glitch art I've seen in quite some time—the kinds of graphical weirdness that can only be achieved by someone who sees literally thousands of computers with shattered LCDs and unseated graphics processor units every year.

Image: John Bumstead

"There are pretty common GPU defects in which the graphics processor becomes partially unseated from the logic board, which can cause a sunset effect or a strange fragmentation on the display," Bumstead told me. "I started videotaping those and it just—it was almost gimmicky thing at the beginning, but lately I've come to take it more seriously."

Bumstead will now purposely put two broken computers together to produce his desired effect—many of the photos you see here are the result of him putting a partially broken LCD onto a computer with a broken graphics card, pulling up a screensaver or other cool image, and documenting what happens.

Image: John Bumstead

The effects are often ephemeral and short-lived. These computers ended up at an electronics waste facility because they were unusable, after all.

Image: John Bumstead

"You power on the machine and see what it produces, but the thing is that when the chip is cool, it makes one kind of display, but when it warms up it may do a different thing or it may break entirely, so you're really just capturing a moment in time," he said. "At the early stages you get minor defects, but then you get spectacular stuff that's fragmentation and display of fractals. Once it gets beyond that, you just have a black screen and a sleep light."

For now, Bumstead is just displaying his art on Instagram and on his website, but he hopes to create a gallery exhibit with computers that have different defects or abnormalities.

Image: John Bumstead

Bumstead's career is predicated on fixing the same few defects on one specific model of computer, over and over again. Injecting any sort of creative juices into that process kills the monotony.

"I fix trash for a living—I turn junk into gold. This is another manifestation of that," he said. "I'm not producing a working computer, but I'm taking something that was broken and I'm transitioning it into something entirely different. Now it's art, and I think that's just as valid of an existence as a computer. As a computer, it was just a drone. As this, it's one of a kind."