Virus Charms and self-creating codes

By Alessandro Ludovico

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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.