Marina Otero Verzier is one of the curators of Malware: Symptoms of Viral Infection, an exhibition on the history and evolution of the computer virus being held at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. The exhibition has generated significant interest - not just in arts/tech circles but also in computer security.
We asked Marina about the exhibition, why Het Nieuwe Instituut has organised this exhibition, and the artistic potential of malicious software.
Why choose the computer virus as a topic for an exhibition?
MOV: In recent years, Het Nieuwe Instituut has directed its focus in many of its projects towards the informal, the unseen and the ephemeral. Unlike other museums, the institute is not generally looking for authors and originals.
Creativity and innovation are at the core of the disciplines of architecture, design and digital culture, so the projects presented at Het Nieuwe Instituut address how innovation is inseparable from conflict. There is no innovation without disruption.
The exhibition epitomises these two positions.
Following the Instituut's commitment to look beyond the classic notions of authorship, Malware explores a design practice that is, most of the time, anonymous and clandestine. In the design of computer viruses, we clearly see how innovation and conflict come together.
Malware is also the first part of a series that investigates agents able to permeate the sphere of the body (whether it is human, machine, or that of the nation-state) and its prosthesis in the form of domestic and private spaces, triggering a multitude of cultural stories and fears. Through the lenses of viruses, AI, as well as ghosts and financial devices, it might be possible to reformulate questions of privacy, domesticity, property and belonging in relation to the notions of the home and the homeland.
The second project, which will open in the autumn, is called Spirits in the Material World, and presents works by artist Heman Chong.
Why or how can computer viruses and malware ever be considered as art?
MOV: This exhibition doesn't necessarily consider viruses as art, but as acts of design and their authors as designers. Viruses are sophisticated acts of design that are not intended, most of the times, for social innovation and problem solving. Yet, these devices also require a close reading. The exhibition accounts for the beauty and sophistication of some of these viruses, highlighting its unique method of destruction, impact and context. Malware invites visitors to travel to the dark side of computing.
Are viruses and malware essentially a 21st century representation of iconoclasm in art – the continuation of the artistic controversies of the Byzantine empire?
MOV: Malware is a form of design that indeed presents a drive for destruction. The design of viruses has been central to the history of networked computing, as well as that of sub- and countercultures aiming to disrupt the existing economic and political structures of power.
Despite their questionable means and damaging effects, the design of computer viruses has been, especially in earlier decades, connected to radical imaginaries and attempts to remedy an unequal and exploitative world.
Should we therefore consider both the disruptive and the disrupted system as having artistic value in themselves? I'm thinking of a "disruptive" system such as bacteria which may be considered visually beautiful, and a "disrupted" one such as glitch art.
MOV: Innovation is always disruptive, so [these systems] could be a work of art... and viruses are sites of all types of experimentation.
The US Government recently conducted a cyberwarfare campaign on Iran's missile system. Are we now in an age where physical combat is essentially a redundant endeavour, and that the best way to overcome an enemy of any size is to hack into their systems and accounts?
MOV: The growing sophistication of cyber threats, as you mentioned, render national borders obsolete and alter geopolitical dynamics. Yet, I would argue that cyberwar is also very physical; more than we imagine.
Malware demands a physical infrastructure to infect files on hard drives, and it has large material consequences in the functioning of machines, buildings, transport systems, paralysing operations of federal agencies, hospitals, power companies, banks, and transport systems, causing billions of euros in damage.
The defence and intelligence community hasn't dismissed physical actions, but embraced tactics designed by black hat hackers to react to attacks by integrating cyber measures with conventional military capabilities. In addition, the introduction of the Internet of Things makes it increasingly difficult to control the spread of viruses and cyber-attacks. Advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning enable viruses to adapt to human behaviour, exploit emotions, and spread faster in a more targeted manner, thus amplifying the damage. In the near future they could even pose a direct threat to the human body as implantable technologies, such as pacemakers and cochlear implants, are used to improve health conditions.
Does a specific intent to cause damage prevent viruses or malware from having artistic value?
MOV: There is a long history of art and design as activism. At the same time, viruses are not the only dangerous force in an otherwise benevolent online reality. Current debates on privacy in relation to information technology are inevitably connected to systems of security and surveillance. Systems that have, on the one hand, been implemented by the state and corporations in the name of public safety and connectedness and, on the other, are used by these same powers to spy and exert control on us.
Is Persistence of Chaos justified in its value and therefore indicative of virus art, or is it just a one-off?
MOV: It is indeed an interesting piece, yet I find it somehow rhetoric. I am far more fascinated by how we are increasingly used to coexist with these unseen but threatening presences in our private spaces. Our private spaces are hunted. In the struggle to construct a "more secure space", governments and corporations have made the home the ultimate target. The domestic space is not—it may never have been—a safe place.
How has the audience reception been to the exhibition so far?
MOV: We conceive exhibitions as a starting point of a conversation, a site for public collective research and debate, and that's what Malware has, so far, achieved.
Malware: Symptoms of Viral Infection runs from 05/07/19 until 10/11/19. For further information, visit the Het Nieuwe Instituut's microsite.