Alessandro Ludovico on Mon, 10 Jun 2002 00:48:10 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Virus Charms and self-creating codes

[This text is part of the 'I Love You' exhibition curated by the Franziska
Nori and the team into the Museum of Applied Arts in
Frankfurt, opened to the public from the 23d of May to the 13th of June, ].

Virus Charms and self-creating codes.

Alessandro Ludovico

Our perception of viruses stems both from the way we consider the most
recent epidemic diseases, such as AIDS, and from an innate fear of having
one's own body invaded by other efficient organisms, capable of
re-arranging their working patterns in order to facilitate infiltration
into their host. This perception applies to the principles of knowledge
society with similar consequence. Many are concerned with cultural
infection, as it may change our identity, and as communicative distances
grow shorter, this process seems to become even more inevitable. Viruses
are able to adapt and to transform themselves very quickly - hence their
dark charming powers. Computer viruses actually do have quite the same
qualities. They have proved to be important and influential to a large
section of, as their ability to invade foreign systems in a very
obvious manner reveals any badly protected system controls.

The loss of innocence.

A code's possible destructiveness may be programmed and activated from a
distance like an explosive device. This mechanism, however, makes its user
lose his innocence, forcing him to discover the very existence of
uncertain possibilities among the fascinating traps on the screen. It even
calls into question the user's rule over the machine, which he usually
exercises by means of his keyboard, a word-generating artificial limb, and
the mouse, as a sceptre.  Net.artists have often used methods related to
the idea of pre-programmed invasion, and they have mostly taken the
winning side in any conflict.

Etoy, for instance, a group of media agitators, has been among the first
to make use of the concept of "cultural viruses" by systematising their
propaganda as to make it infiltrate the systems of market and commerce
(etoy.CORPORATEIDENTITY, 1994), and of finance (etoy.SHARE, 1998/99).
Typically viral appearances have been used like a weapon, to "penetrate",
allowing both invasion into and dominion over foreign territories, even
if, as in this case, the conflict is modelled after David and Goliath.

In their early works such as the emblematic "OSS", Jodi, a pair of enfants
terribles in, have developed a disquieting aesthetics of abnormal
and unpredictable computer behaviour, evoking the real or imagined
presence of something "alien". Their aim was to make the computer user
gradually believe that "there's something going wrong".

Canadian Tara Bethune-Leamen, head of "Virus corp", also defends the idea
of an offensive device, too. To computer users, she offers the possibility
to destroy (at least symbolically) parts of pre-chosen web sites with the
help of an animal-like symbol opposed to the aseptic and heavily armoured
aesthetics preferred by big companies.  In this view of sight, however,
the "virus" tends to become a tool used by its author. It helps anybody
who is able to use it radically to make ancestral destruction fantasies
come true. As an insidious "virtual object" confirms in the
literary work "Hypertextual Consciousness", by Mark Amerika: "  I'm not
at all polite. Would you mind me infecting you with my latest virus?"

Joseph Nechvatal follows a different, less rebellious approach. The 2.0
version of his "Virus Project" applies an artificial life programme with
virus qualities to abstract paintings. The programmed infection changes
their original contents by altering colours and forms.

Neither does Mary Flanagan in [collection] describe the intrusive power of
viruses as an offensive weapon. [Collection], is a software application
based on [phage], an earlier work by the same artist detecting
miscellaneous data in the maze of computers connected to the web and
having the same software installed. The data are rearranged and put into a
new context within an animated three-dimensional space. Facing these ideas
and quite complex algorithms, the artists are given the opportunity to ask
professional programmers for help in shaping electronic pieces of art.

The group Epidemic joins the technological aspect with an explicit
preference for the aesthetic part of the source code. During their
"" they succeeded in contaminating the Venice Biennale media.
The computer virus strolling around the exposition pavilions was made
front page news. In spite of all this clamour, the code could work only in
a programme language that is not very common, the Phython. It is far more
interesting that this group of programmer-artists demonstrated that a
virus' only purpose is to "survive". Hereby they gave a new social and
aesthetic value to viruses and refused of the traditional notion of
natural malignity of any form of virus whatsoever.

The differences between good and bad viruses .
As famous zoologist Richard Dawkins explains, viruses are not simply 
invasive organisms, but they respond to two characteristic 
environment conditions in order to exist and to multiply. The first 
is the ability of the hosting system to copy information accurately 
and in case of errors, to copy an error with the very same accuracy. 
The second is the system's unconditional readiness to execute all 
instruction codified in the copied information. Refined virus writers 
are of the same opinion, like Dark Fiber from Australia who declares 
"A good virus should infect a machine without interrupting its use in 
any way." Virus programmers, or at least those who succeed in 
conceiving the magic of an executing code, are writing a true and 
deep literature in computer language, and obviously appreciate 
viruses not just as simple tools. In many cases, they started writing 
viruses after their own personal computers had become infected, 
thereby arousing curiosity to study the very code that has been 
responsible for an upheaval within their "computerised territory". 
This is what had happened to one of the most respected virus creators 
of the first half of the 1990s: Hellraiser, a member of the 
Phalcon/Skism group and founder of 40Hex, an electronic magazine for 
virus programmers whose concise and eluding contents have influenced 
a large part of American virus writers. One of the most famous 
definitions we owe to Hellraiser says, "Viruses are an electronic 
form of graffiti." It is marvellously typical of them to per- petuate 
themselves over the years, apparently for ever, and to become a 
medium themselves, as to be seen in the Internet at any time.

Jean Baudrillard says in Cool Memories:

"Within the computer web, the negative effect of viruses is propagated
much faster than the positive effect of information. That is why a virus
is an information itself. It proliferates itself better than others,
biologically speaking, because it is at the same time both medium and
message. It creates the ultra-modern form of communication which does not
distinguish, according to McLuhan, between the information itself and its
carrier." Viruses have their own methods to survive and to reproduce
themselves within computerised systtems. On the one hand their necessary
egoism stands in sharp contradiction to the user's wishes, and it
expropriates him, step by step, from his possession of the computer.  On
the other hand, many users try to secure free access to all means of virus
production, thus trying to regain intellectual control over the
instrument. Romanian virus writer MI_pirat, for instance, has programmed
his web site in order to make it generate simple viruses of the "macro"
type. It works at the base of simple programme commands anybody could use,
even without any experience in programming. The author insists on the
point that nobody writing this sort of codes would be interested in
provoking devastation, but in expressing and appreciating innovation.

It is worth considering some interesting social and cultural reflections
related with electronic communication when affected by a virus like
"sircam" or, even better, a "worm" propagating within the net. Sircam
chooses a document from the hard disk and sends it to all addresses found
in the e-mail address book. So everything private, public, and
interpersonal gets mixed up because of the possibility to reproduce
information and to transmit them instantaneously in the net. Basically,
the working patterns of both computers and the net form a wonderful
environment to make viruses proliferate. But if we compare the way
personal computers send signs and information to the net with the way
human nerves and brain do the same thing, we may well compare viruses and
their ways of collecting and generating information to the way we produce
language. This should open new insights into the role computer viruses
play, and into their very nature, as a form of language. Maybe these
insights are nearer to reality than we could successfully imagine today.


Etoy: []
Jodi: []
Jodi: OSS []
Tara Bethune-Leamen: Virus corp. 
Mark Amerika: Hypertextual Consciousness: 
Joseph Nechvatal: Virus Project 2.0
Mary Flanagan: [collection] []
Epidemic: []
40Hex []

Richard Dawkins: Mind Viruses. Ars Electronica, facing the future. 
Edited by Timothy Druckery. Boston: MIT Press, 1999
Jean Baudrillard: Cool Memories. Blackwell, 1996
Julian Dibbel: Viruses are good for you, in Wired 3.02, Februar 1995
The Art of Accident. NAI Publishers/V2 Organisatie, Rotterdam 1998

Thanks to: Franziska, Jaromil.


Alessandro Ludovico
Neural Online - daily updated news + reviews
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