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Can a Computer Virus be Art?

The art world, no stranger to scandal, has seen its share of polarizing projects. The following theme, computer viruses as art, is a bit dated, as the oldest reference hails from 2001. Judging, however, from instances still occurring in late 2009, the topic remains touchy, particularly as it shifts from theory to practice.

On the theoretical end of the spectrum was 0100101110101101.ORG’s contribution to the esteemed Venice Biennale in 2001. The plan: “[On June the 6th 2001,] Biennale.py becomes headline-hitting news…a controversial work of art revealing how media hysteria can be theoretically provoked and raised. Following the spreading of the virus, Symantec Corporation, world leader in Internet security technology, detects Biennale.py and starts the hunt.” The artists had multifaceted goals; once created, the virus would be autonomous, spoken of in terms almost personified: fighting to survive, and being a peaceful virus that wishes no harm to the host. The creators played with the notion of biological viruses as well—with the source code printed on shirts, the virus was literally spread by bodies. What the collaborators addressed here was the hysteria associated with the notion of a virus, but what about the repercussions of their actions in the question of “What is art?” For instance:

“Q.: Do you mean that any programmers who cause troubles and serious damage with viruses etc. should refer to your action and call themselves artists in order not to be made responsible for what they were doing?

A.: Yes.”

Which leads us to a more recent example from 2009, a game ominously labeled Lose/Lose. With software replicating the look and feel of a classic video game, a player attempts to destroy alien ships. What an oblivious player might not realize, however, is that with each hit, he or she is permanently destroying a file from his or her own hard drive—high stakes for a game. Creator Zach Gage argues that the more technology we have at our fingertips, the less we comprehend it. Thus, “What implications does trusting something so important to something we understand so poorly have?”

Both examples are completely transparent in their intentions, and cautions were taken (the former explained how to disable the virus, while the latter provided ample warning to potential players). But does the declaration of something as art excuse the nature of the creation? Malware is so named because of malicious intent—the artists in these cases might not fit the definition, but that’s not to say that others won’t, causing the fine line between art and cybercrime to become increasingly blurred.

Links:

iAntiVirus blog post “Entertainment in exchange for loss of data!” http://blog.iantivirus.com/2009_10_01_archive.html

Wired “Want to see some really sick art?” http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2001/06/44728

Contagious Paranoia project http://www.0100101110101101.org/home/biennale_py/index.html

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