There is perhaps no better example of a true artist who follows intuition and obsession without preconception than John Bumstead. Burned out by corporate America in the early ’10s, Bumstead retreated from the office to start his own computer repair business.
Meanwhile, he followed his idiosyncratic passion for photographing dead trees on long walks in his free time. When he noticed the interesting beauty of broken screens and corrupted GPUs that passed through his shop, he started to combine the two, uploading his photos into the “broken” computers and photographing the distorted versions — not because he thought it was art, but just because it looked cool.
It was only after a Vice journalist happened to be at a computer repair seminar alongside Bumstead and wrote an article about Bumstead’s glitch art that it began to click: he was onto something. While he didn’t invent glitch art, in a way, he did invent it for himself.
Visit John Bumstead’s MakersPlace storefront
Your work is perhaps unique among glitch artists. Can you tell me about the relationship between your day job repairing Apple computers and your art? When did the two sides meet?
I have a business refurbishing MacBooks and sort of retro products. That’s where the art came in. I’ve been in business for about 14 years, and I’d buy thousands of broken computers from recyclers. Now and then I’d see an interesting broken screen, or I’d get one with a graphics processor defect that would have artifacts that looked kind of interesting. I got the idea to pull up my photography on those machines and use the defective machines as filters for my photography. So I take pictures of the screens that are affected with the photography behind them.
So yeah, my art and my work are a kind of a symbiotic relationship because I go through the stacks of broken computers, and every hundredth one is something I can use for the art. Then suddenly I’m in art mode because I found a good computer. It’s a weird thing. I never expected it. It just kind of came out of nowhere.
When did this nascent discovery happen? And how did it progress?
I think it was probably about like 2013, 2014. Just seeing an interesting broken screen with the liquid crystals blurring around, and you can use your fingers and kind of finger paint on the screen. Then you bring up a different image behind it with different colors, and it all looks different again.
In the beginning, I created an Instagram and took a lot of pictures, and I didn’t think of myself as an artist at all. It was just like, Look at this cool thing. And that’s all it was.
But I would collect the computers that were like that. And over time, I started to accumulate a lot of them, and I would categorize them, and I would know like, okay, this one does this, that one does that. So it’s kind of a collection of filters. And depending on what I wanna see, I’ll pull up one computer or another computer — that kind of thing.
It’s gotten more sophisticated with time as I’ve collected more machines because I effectively have more tools.
How many computers would you say you have that you use in your glitching?
I have about 200 that I’ve collected that do interesting things. Actively, on a day-to-day basis, I probably use 20 to 30. I have five or ten that are my absolute favorites.
How long are you spending on Glitch Art on an average day?
I try to do it every day because I am a big fan of the incremental improvement thing. The idea that incremental improvement eventually goes exponential. So you have to keep at it to see the curve go up. On an average day, probably an hour.
People laugh, but I do it while I watch TV. I’ll have one of these broken laptops on my lap.I compare it to knitting. If you’ve ever known someone who knits and they can have a full conversation with you, and they’re going at it because it only takes like 10% of their brain. It’s kind of like that for me.
I’ll have a laptop on my lap that’s broken, and I’ll be cycling through hundreds of my photographs and provoking the processor to get it to screw up the picture, and then I’ll have my phone there, and I’ll be taking pictures of the laptop while I’m sitting there watching TV. So my studio is my couch.
So the final images are actually photos of the screen rather than screenshots?
Yeah. The source material is pictures of dead trees and flowers that I’ve taken out in the world. And then I’ll take a batch of those and put them on a machine. Then I’ll cycle through those images, take pictures of the screen with the distortions. And then I’ve got a new batch of images with one layer on them. I’ll take those, and I’ll put those on a different machine and get another layer.
I have images that have been layered through 15 machines, and I don’t remember even what the source material was because it’s so mangled.
You said that you didn’t consider yourself an artist when you started, but you were doing photography at the time. Where did photography come in?
I’ve always had a fascination with dead trees. I started seriously photographing them probably a few years before the glitch thing. I’ll walk through the forest, and I’ll find a tree, and I’ll revisit that tree in the different seasons. A dead tree is weakened internally. Eventually, it collapses. When I find a great dead tree, it’s like I want to photograph it as much as I can and on as many different settings as I can.
I don’t know. It sounds cheesy, but trees are interesting things. They’re all around us, but they’re invisible to us. They’re big. They’re bigger than dinosaurs, and yet we don’t even see them. You see a dead tree without its leaves, and it’s almost like the perfected form. Like it’s as big as it ever will be. It’s the finished product. And I like that sort of ominous feel that they have when you stand before them. Like you’re standing in front of a dinosaur.
That feeling is something you can’t necessarily tell in my art, but that’s a goal. If I can show a tree or a flower and make it look threatening or powerful, that’s something I’m aiming for.
I find it interesting that your photography is so focused on organic matter, and your processing is very much the opposite. How does this affect you when you’re going in to photograph things? And when you go to glitch these photos, how far are you trying to push it as far as into the inorganic?
I think of it as a blend. A tree, a plant, really is a glitch. It has that sort of fractal element to it, that sort of randomness to it. And a lot of the broken screens look like flowers. A lot of the GPU defects look like a tree branch. I see it as a kind of collaboration between the natural and the digital.
If I can produce something that confuses a person into thinking that a digital artifact is a flower or that a real flower is a digital artifact, then that’s interesting to me. I think of it as a dance where the similar aspects of the natural and the digital are kind of intermingled and playing with each other.
When a GPU defect appears on the screen, an artifact appears on the screen, a lot of people think it’s just random, but it’s not random. When I pull up an image of a flower, the flower may be like this, but then a triangle will pop up right here. And so there is an interplay from the image to the digital artifact. And you might say, Oh, triangle, that’s a very simple image. But in its defective state, the triangle may be the best approximation of what it can possibly do in that damaged condition.
Do you try to modify defective GPUs to your liking?
I pretty much use the defect as it comes because there’s not much you can do. It’s like performing brain surgery with a sledgehammer. Most of what you could do would just kill it.
You can cool them down. I’ve put laptops in the freezer. That helps. Often it’s an excess of heat that causes them to do their thing. So I do have laptops that need to be warmed up before they start artifacting.
Certain laptops only artifact when you do certain things to them. Sometimes you pull up an image, and then you resize it, or you do full screen, or you have a movie playing in the background to keep the computer at a high level of intensity, and then you pull up an image on top of that. There are a lot of things to provoke the GPUs.
You can crimp video cables. That’s one thing I do. An LCD video cable has like 20 pins. So you can get in there and clip them, and you start to learn which is red, which is green. You can cut the red, and then you have blue and yellow, so you can proactively manipulate those.
The rumor is you were heavily inspired by the work of David Carson and Nine Inch Nails. Can you tell me about the influence of these two forces on you as an artist?
I’ve always been a Nine Inch Nails fan. I’ve seen them more than 50 times. And David Carson. The cover of the album The Fragile really spoke to me when I saw it. And that was 1999, so that was before I ever thought of visual art much at all. It was just a really bold choice of graphics to use. And it just stuck with me. Maybe that’s where some of the trees and the flowers came from because you have blurry flowers, you have a field, a gray sky, and stuff like that.
But I love what he does. It’s art, for art’s sake. It’s all about aesthetics, which is similar to mine. It’s about texture, color, juxtaposition, those kinds of characteristics. He tears things up and puts them all together. And that’s that. I’ve always appreciated what he’s done.
Can you tell me about Glitch Art is Dead and the Glitch community in Minnesota?
Glitch Art is Dead is a Glitch show that has happened three times. The first one was in Poland, I’m not sure the year — but seven, eight years ago. The next one was in Minneapolis four years ago or something.
And then we just had one in Granite Falls, Minnesota, a little farming town a couple of hours west of Minneapolis. We took over a building, had some workshops. It was bizarre. I don’t think this little town has ever seen a pile of strange artists quite like that before. It was a lot of fun.
The show was put on by Miles Taylor, who’s an active member in the Glitch community. It was associated with the Glitch Artists Collective, a big Facebook group with something like 60,000 users.
The other big recurring Glitch-themed show is Fubar, which is in Zagreb, Croatia. And most of us in the community have been out to Croatia for that at one time or another.
How would you characterize kind of glitch art at large and kind of break it down for a total noob?
Oh, geez. I’m kind of an outlier because I deal with hardware. And most people… I’m strange in that I go through hundreds of broken computers to find one that’s interesting. So I’m super lucky in that respect. I’m one of the few people who is total hardware.
But there are… Well, one category is people who write software that does glitching. There’s a guy named Kaspar Ravel who wrote a program called Tomato that is basically a command line thing where you can pull up a JPEG and glitch it.
Some people use Audacity, which is a freeware audio program, and they’ll load up a video into the audio program and apply a reverb to the video and then export it and then play the video.
Many people are into different file formats because the file formats have different visual characteristics when they are altered in different programs. There is a huge chunk of people who deal with analog distortion, like CRTs and tools that distort and mix analog signals, that kind of thing. That’s a big chunk of people.
What else? I mean, there are a lot of people who use apps. There are a lot of apps out there that are pretty interesting.
It’s funny, occasionally, I’ll have someone look at one of my images and say, Oh, you obviously use this app with this setting. And I’ll go find the app and look at it and be like, Oh, that does kind of look like something I would do.
It’s almost like as if the app was created to mimic something that actually happens. It’s interesting.
Do you have any favorite glitch artists?
Right now, my favorite is probably James Usill. He takes super old, 500-year-old paintings of figures, and he’ll put it in the middle and then glitch the area around it. It’s stunning. I mean, it’s really stunning. And it gives the art…sort of intent? Whereas a lot of glitch art is not necessarily about anything. So he’s great.
I’m curious — you very much stumbled upon glitch as an art technique, sort of almost in a vacuum. How did you then discover the glitch art genre and community?
I’d been posting on Facebook and Instagram, and he said, you know, that’s glitch art you’re doing. And I was like, Oh, really?
It was funny. I was featured in a Vice article because I was at a repair convention talking about repair, and someone mentioned my Instagram. It turns out there was a Vice reporter in the audience, and he wrote an article about the art. But again, I didn’t even think of it as art at that point.
The community kind of came to me, I guess is what I’m saying. And at that point, I found the Glitch Artists Collective, which is a Facebook group. And it happened overnight. It was really amazing. I remember I posted something on the Glitch Artists Collective and bam, I met a thousand new people and was instantly part of the community.
I have to say, you know, art is great, but the community and the way that that has blown my world wide open is by far the best thing about all of this.
You mentioned that a lot of Glitch Art doesn’t mean anything or is not really engineered to make a profound statement. But I’m curious if you have any pieces that you have done that you find have like the most profound personal attachment to?
Yes, but it tends to be about aesthetics. It tends to be about a feeling more than about, you know, This is taking a stand for this issue.
One of my goals is to create stuff that has enough complexity that people can look at it and make something of it. And I don’t title anything because I don’t want to give a suggestion. I don’t want them to go into it thinking, Oh, well, he said it’s a flower, so this is a flower, you know.
I’ve enjoyed doing installations and getting feedback from people. You think a show is you showing people something, but I think of it as like a science experiment. It’s like, Well, here’s my hypothesis. I’m going to put my hypothesis out there, and then I’m going to get the feedback. And then you go to a show, and people just do stuff. They’ll stand in front of my interactive screens or whatever and tell me things, do things, interact in ways that you wouldn’t expect. And you take that, and you learn from it, and the next thing may be different because of what you learned.
How is your work evolving lately?
Well, it started with the broken screens and the GPU defects, and the more devices I find, I’d say the more sophisticated it gets. The more tools I have, the more experience I get with those tools. I’ve gotten into iPads lately because in my business, I’ve been getting thousands of iPads. A lot is interactive now because you can put an iPad that has a screen defect and bring up FaceTime. And so you’re looking at yourself on the screen distorted.
I’ve gotten into disassembling LCD screens down to their polarized elements and then sort of reimagining them, putting them back together. That’s been a big thing lately. On my Instagram lately, the insane color stuff — a lot of that’s polarized art.
Actually, I’ll show you. This is the glitch tower. That’s seven iMacs. The stuff you can see physically coming off the screen — those are the actual polarized filters that have been peeled off and then cut up and then put back on. You turn them in different directions, you get different colors.
And then I have a slideshow of like 200 of my images. And what happens is that the top screen is unaffected. Those are just my images sort of cycling through, and then they drop down to the next two, and then the next two, and then the next two.
So you’re seeing the source image and then six different variations of it being glitched.
Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you would like to talk about?
One thing I talk about a lot, I tend to think of my art as finding. These computers are considered broken. I was in the corporate world for 14 years. And I kind of broke down. I couldn’t take it, so I had to get out of there. So I started a company taking all the broken computers of the world, fixing them, and putting them back into the world.
And then the computers that I couldn’t fix… Well, you could say I still fix them, but I’m fixing them by turning them into art. If something appears to be broken, it’s just a matter of our expectations of that thing. We think that a 20-year-old computer is obsolete. You know, might as well just throw it away.
But if you change the expectation, you change the purpose. If it has a smashed screen and you love that smashed screen, then, hey, now it’s art. Now it’s perfect. It’s about changing the purpose to make things new again.
And not only that but that machine with a smashed screen: it’s now an individual. Because it used to be a clone. It used to be just one of 20 million, all the same. But now it’s an absolute individual. Now it’s a one-of-one instead of a one-of-20-million.
We talk about meaning behind glitch. That’s kind of what it means for me. The images don’t tell you that story, but the images plus that story is what I’m getting at, you know?