cpu artwork SER 20160810
Artist Joyce Haughey arranges circuit boards as she works on a piece Wednesday at her Trafalgar workshop. Haughey has spent the past 16 years collecting old computers, taking them apart and reassembling the pieces into works of art. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

At one time, the blood red center core memory board had helped NASA technicians track satellites and shuttles on missions in orbit.

The retired computer no longer manages the intensive calculations necessary for space flight. Instead, hanging on a wall in Joyce Haughey’s Trafalgar studio, it has been transformed into a modernistic collage of burrowing circuits, descending rows of processors and chaotically beautiful wiring patterns.

“I kept finding things that were pretty like processors and other pieces that I wanted to keep,” she said. “As you keep collecting it, you see more and more patterns. That’s what makes it so much fun.”

Haughey, a Trafalgar resident, has spent the past 16 years collecting old computers. She buys the vintage processors and equipment from auctions or salvages them from businesses who are upgrading their systems.

With the machines in her studio, she takes them apart to their base elements, reassembling the pieces into amazing works of art. Old processors become abstract landscapes and collages. Silicon wafers are segmented and recreated as dazzling mosaics. Floppy drives turn into metallic flowers, insects, cogs and other circular adornments.

Some of the pieces need to be seen and worked with using a magnifying glass. Combining all of these minuscule pieces into a cohesive work of art can take weeks, months or years.

“It can take months to get the parts. Some of this stuff I’ve had since 2000, so it can take years before I get enough of a piece that I want. Then when I have all the pieces, it can be a few more months to finish it,” she said.

Her pieces are currently hanging at the Greenwood Public Library through the end of August.

“Her work is so beautiful and unique and I think many people are drawn to it,” said Valerie Moore, reference librarian at Greenwood who organized the show. “Technology is transitioning so quickly, it’s refreshing to see someone take old, discarded pieces and make something wonderful out of them.”

Stepping into the doors of Haughey’s studio — the former bank building in downtown Trafalgar — is to be surrounded by the history of computers during the past 30 years.

Rows of old machines that need to be salvaged are stored under tables. Plastic bins of copper-wound floppy disc drives are stacked on shelves and tables. Small bits of copper and silver, cut down and up-cycled from old computer electrical cords, are collected in plastic bags.

When local companies, library systems and schools upgrade their computers, Haughey steps in to salvage the machines. Since she started working with computes, Haughey has recycled more than 1,600 machines that would otherwise have gone in a landfill.

She sees her work not only as an expression of creativity, but an eco-friendly solution to technological turnover.

“Most of the work, probably 95 percent, is finding the computers, hauling them home and stripping them out. I kind of pile it up in colors and multiples of things,” she said. “If you start putting them together, you see things. I always have junk all around. If you put it away, you forget you have it.”

Haughey keeps heat sinks removed from the machines. At one time, each apparatus helped manage the intense heat generated by the computer processors. Now, the items serve as eye-catchers to children and their parents as they walk by.

“I try to keep a few things in the window for kids who walk by,” she said. “Anybody is welcome to stop in while I’m here. I show them around, and kids that are into art, I give them pieces to take home and play with.”

Haughey is one of a handful of artists throughout the world working in recycled computes. Franco Recchia, an Italian artist, reimagines the elements from old computers and turns them into cityscape sculptures. New York-based artist Theo Kamecke uses the forms of circuitry to make unique sculptures.

Kamecke, a documentary filmmaker for many years, had collected a pile of vintage circuitry over the years. The hand-designed circuits had a sort of beautiful aesthetic that struck him as an ideal material to use in his work.

“It comes down to the way the circuits were made. I wouldn’t have done them at all if they hadn’t been graphically appealing,” he said. “At the time I was doing this, no one knew what a circuit looked like. I always avoided calling attention to them as technology and focusing on them as art.”

Yuri Zupancic takes microchips and RAM, turning them into tiny canvases where he makes impossibly detailed oil paintings.

“Painting on microchips is an intuitive response to everyday life, where I’m constantly alternating from online activity to hands on experience,” Zupancic said in his artist statement. “It is essential to explore this space ‘between’, where virtual, tangible, and mental spheres overlap, where apps and icons mingle with emotions and physical stimulus.”

Haughey has always had an interest in taking base elements and creating something visually exciting. She was a toy designer throughout her career, doing projects such as envisioning plush toys to compete with Beanie Babies and doing high-end toys in Germany.

Her foray into computers started around 2000. Her husband, Ron, was working for a company who had leased Cummins Inc. their computers. When the decision was made to upgrade, that left more than 1,000 machines that would otherwise be scrapped.

Haughey volunteered to help go through the computers and pull out the hard drives to be wiped clean. Then she started separating the machines into steel and aluminum pieces, and her interest in the guts of the computers started to grow.

As Haughey’s experience and skill level have progressed, so are the things she’s been able to do with her artwork. She is doing more cutting and segmenting of the salvaged hardware, though doesn’t venture too much more into altering the appearance of the pieces.

“Everything else is exactly as it comes out of the computer. I don’t paint them, or do anything else to them. It’s exactly what the computer gave me,” she said.

Not all of her work becomes serious pieces of art. By gluing some square processors together and adding a hinge to one, she can create unique keepsake boxes.

In the winter, she uses the combination of gold, green and red on some boards to make Christmas ornaments.

Hardware from different companies and eras are made with varying colors, materials and styles.

Silver Intel Pentium processors skew more modernistic, particularly when paired with the dazzling rings used as spacers in hard drives.

Some of Haughey’s pieces would make hardcore technology historians and aficionados drool.

The NASA MODCOMP computers, used for tracking in the 1980s, were given to her by a friend who ran a computer e-cycling company.

She was able to buy a Silicon Graphics Onyx server — the kind of equipment used to create the film “Toy Story” — at an auction. The piece had previously been used in IUPUI’s graphics department.

“The boards were so smooth and so much fun, I wanted to do something unique,” she said.

Haughey does not show her work often, mostly keeping her art on display in her studio. She was part of a South Bend Museum of Art exhibition in 2011, and was featured in a profile in the Wall Street Journal about silicon platters and those who collect them.

But she has big plans for the future. Haughey has set her sights on the birthplace of much of her raw materials — Silicon Valley. She has worked with the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, regarding a group show with four other artists working in recycled computers.

Though details are still coming together, Haughey hopes to have a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for the exhibition soon. Ideally, the show would be up in the next year.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.