Searching the words “screens” “art” “computer” on Tumblr earlier this year brought me to a site called DEAD TECH ART which is a growing collection of photographs of computer malfunctions and screen “glitches”. I wanted to talk to the person documenting these new forms of art - so I found him.
If someone in Portland, Maine momentarily loses grip of their morning cuppa as they check their emails, drowning their laptop in steaming coffee, chances are they’ll meet Chris Burns later that day. Handing over their soggy, suddenly useless piece of thinly crafted metal, plastic and glass, they will be praying that Chris can magically do whatever it is computer technicians do and “Please, God help.” Chris will try and fix the problem whilst seeing beauty in the broken. Sometimes seeing the good helps you to deal with the bad.
“When we’re dealing with a computer, which most people do now, the visual interface is the primary thing that we are always dealing with. You are looking at that presenting information and you are reacting to it and manipulating it. To me it’s interesting when that malfunctions. When it’s this unbelievably complex system and it malfunctions and it’s not doing what you want but it’s beautiful in its own way.”
Chris is the founder of the Tumblr site DEAD TECH ART where he uploads photographs he takes of malfunctioning processors shown through their injured screens. He started taking his photographs around four years ago when he started fixing computers. As we rely more and more on computers to help with the most important factors of our lives, people like Chris are becoming the new doctors and surgeons.
“It’s like taking pictures of really interesting wounds but it’s not quite so grotesque."
“I just noticed that a lot of what we saw had kind of digital art attached to it. Part of my job is to take pictures of the damage on computers and so I’d take a lot of pictures of water on circuit boards and stuff like that. And having a camera available and having stuff present itself on the screen, I thought was pretty interesting. I saw some stuff that I thought was really cool and I just wanted to share with people.” Liquids meeting circuit boards is one of the most common problems Chris deals with during his day job, although he prefers the software malfunctions and anomalies seen on the screens.
“They are not meant to be and it’s kind of the computer doing its own thing. It has its own beauty outside of what you are trying to do with it, that it’s not doing.”
Chris grew up wanting to know how things worked. He would spend time taking things apart and putting them back together to see if they still functioned the way they did.
“I would make tapings (before we had computers) that would record stuff, and I would record myself playing with record players manipulating the sound.”
He sees his job fixing computers as an extension of that curiosity; this thing of manipulating machines “pro-facto” after they have been made. He’s always been a creative guy and also writes songs and produces music. He also has an eye for a good image: an image that is at its most arresting when it comes from a place it shouldn’t come from. When the machine creating the image is programmed to do one thing, but due to other factors, does something visually completely different and new.
There is an underground community of image-makers that are into ‘glitching’ and use various computer programs to deliberately ‘glitch’ images on the screen. However Chris likes the surprise, the chance of finding art in disaster. He uses the word happenstance, a lot in our interview.
“There are people that are into things like “circuit bending” which is purposefully abusing electronics to get them to produce anomalistic things. But to me the neater stuff is the happenstance stuff. When it’s supposed to be working and then it doesn’t, because you weren’t trying to see that specifically, it just kind of happened.
To me it’s art. It’s this very complex system that is layers of different systems. Hardware operations systems, software systems and then your computer on top of that that are failing, that’s making this graphic anomaly happen.”
Our relationship between technology and ourselves is constantly evolving. Chris refers to his photos as “artifacts”. The screens, computer programs, software and hardware we are surrounded by change so rapidly that an image of a screen taken two years already looks like it is from a bygone age, a past that disappeared without us even noticing.
“A lot of this stuff is a snap shot of what we have, of what’s going on now. Like when you fracture what’s called a LDS cable, inside of a laptop, it has a certain sort visual anomaly that it presents (on the screen). Next year when new laptop’s come out they won’t have that cable at all. That may just be an artifact of now.”
He doesn’t have specific names for a lot of the visual anomalies he takes pictures of but there’s a repeating image of a software malfunction that always makes for new, interesting juxtapositions in its visual death throws:
“There’s a repeating image of a software malfunction on a Mac called a ‘Kernel panic’. Your screen on goes grey and there’s like an image of a power button in the background and a bunch of different warnings come up in different languages that say, 'You need to shut down now.' Anyone that has used a Mac has seen that one from time to time. It’s this specific thing that is going on with the system that is kind of interesting because that itself will have kind of artifacts (behind it) and it usually happens when the computer is in the middle of doing something so it’s this little frozen moment.
It’s this thing that’s job it is to present visual information and it malfunctions and it does it’s own thing and that’s neat to look at in and of it’s own.”
Our eyes are constantly absorbing visual messages. Messages then picked up by our internal processor, always whirring, sending information back to us. Do these photographs of malfunctioning technology depict what images our brains would show us if we were wired up to a processor and a laptop screen? All the blurring of the recognizable icons, colours and fonts that are woven into the fabric of our digitized lives, morphed into confusing, beautiful abstractions. For me the most compelling of Chris’s photographs are the ones that capture the reflection of the person looking into the screen. The silhouette of a head and neck and the curve of a finger as it reaches forward to assess the damage. DEAD TECH ART shows us art made independent humans but captures us inside the machine.
VIEW MORE FEATURED ARTWORK AND READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 03: TECHNOLOGY HERE ON PAGES 118-123.
All photos posted with permission by DEAD TEACH ART