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Want to See Some Really Sick Art?
By Reena Jana

   
  
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Is this virus art?
2:00 a.m. June 27, 2001 PDT
Nothing sucks more than a computer virus.

Yet the contemporary art world, always hungry for the new, the trendy, and the controversial, is starting to recognize the virus as an art form -- perhaps because computer viruses embody all of the above.

This year's Venice Bienale -- one of the international art world's most prestigious events -- served as the launching pad for "bienale.py." It's the art world's interpretation of the destructive "Melissa" and "Love Bug" viruses that grabbed headlines in recent years.

At the Bienale, which opened on June 10th, a computer infected with "bienale.py" remains on display until the exhibition closes in November. Viewers can witness someone else's system crashing and files being corrupted, in real time, as if it were a creepy performance.

The artsy-fartsy virus was created by the European Net Art Collective 0100101110101101.ORG, in collaboration with epidemiC, another group known for its programming skills. The virus only affects programs written in the Python computer language and is spread if someone downloads infected software or utilizes a corrupted floppy disk.


    


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Because Python is a relatively esoteric language, the artists hope that the source code, which they've printed on 2,000 T-shirts and published on a limited edition of 10 CD-ROMs, will be the most contagious form of distribution.

"The source code is a product of the human mind, as are music, poems and paintings," explained the epidemiC team, which prefers to speak collectively -- and somewhat pretentiously. "The virus is a useless but critical handcraft, similar to classical art."

Adds a member of 0100101110101101.ORG, which also prefers to speak collectively (and anonymously), "the only goal of a virus is to reproduce. Our goal is to familiarize people with what a computer virus is so they're not so paranoid or hysterical when the next one strikes."

The artists have created a mini-hysteria over their piece.

More than 1,400 of the shirts have been sold at $15 apiece. And they've sold three CDROMs, at $1,500 each (the collectors chose to remain unnamed for legal reasons). Yet the potentially damaging code is available for free on the artists' home pages.

"In theory, we should get sued," said 0100101110101101.ORG's spokesperson. "But we've gotten almost no complaints. Well, we've gotten a few e-mails from security experts who want to know who these asshole artists are."

Laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act state it's illegal to send damaging code in interstate or foreign communications. But the artists don't feel liable for any damage caused by "bienale.py" because they sent a warning to major software and antivirus companies including Microsoft and McAfee.

"We've explained how to disable our virus, so people should know how to fix it," said the 0100101110101101.ORG spokesperson.

Not everyone's buying this excuse.

"If a thief leaves a note saying he's sorry, do we feel better? No," said Jason Catlett, the president of a anti-spam group called Junkbusters, who has testified before Congress on Internet privacy issues. "Doing things that are socially undesirable in the name of art does not redeem the act."

This isn't the first time artists have adopted annoying practices to gain attention. Spam, for instance, is emerging as an "art form" as well; the Webby-winning Net art collective Jodi.org sent 1,039 spam messages through the e-mail list Rhizome Raw this January.

Some media art theorists think that an artistic statement about computer viruses can only be expressed effectively by spreading a virus itself.

"To talk about contemporary culture you have to be able to use all kinds of expressions of contemporary culture," said Lisa Jevbratt, who teaches media art at San Jose State University. "So a virus can be considered a legitimate art form. Of course, there will be artists and pranksters doing interesting new things with such forms. But there will be artists and pranksters whose actions are merely rehashing critiques."


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