Malware exhibition reveals the destructive beauty of the computer virus

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Malware exhibition reveals the destructive beauty of the computer virus
CodeRed virus (2001), artistic interpretation by Bas van de Poel and Tomorrow Bureau. Image: Johannes Schwartz.

ROTTERDAM.- Het Nieuwe Instituut – Museum for Architecture, Design and Digital Culture – is presenting Malware: Symptoms of Viral Infection, an exhibition about the history and evolution of the computer virus, from 5 July to 10 November 2019. Using the most infamous examples, the exhibition explores the cultural impact of malware and raises questions concerning security, warfare and geopolitics.

The first computer virus was designed 33 years ago. Since then, more than a million viruses have been developed, hundreds of millions of devices have been infected, billions of euros have been lost due to reduced productivity, and the so-called malware has become a digital weapon of geopolitical significance.

In Malware: Symptoms of Viral Infection, curated by Bas van de Poel and Marina Otero Verzier, simulation software, archive material and artistic interpretations depict various moments in the transition of viruses from prank to major international cybercrime.

The exhibition starts with relatively innocent DOS viruses, such as Brain, CoffeeShop and Crash, with which the designers probed the visual possibilities of the operating system, often in a playful way. With the rise of the internet, viruses spread faster, first in the form of email worms such as Anna Kournikova, Happy99 and Melissa, and later as ransomware – criminal hostage software including PolloCrypt, Kenzero and Cryptolocker.

For the past 15 years, computer viruses have also been utilised as spyware and as a geopolitical weapon by governments. The Stuxnet worm was developed by the US and Israeli governments to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme. The NotPetya cyberattacks, rumoured to be the result of Russian interference, broke the computers of hospitals, banks and the government in Ukraine. The Netherlands too has its own Defence Cyber Command that can attack, manipulate or switch off the digital systems of its enemies.

Meanwhile, the threat of computer viruses has become so great that military defence forces worldwide now incorporate cyber measures: the result is what we call cyberwarfare.

Anonymous design practice explained
Although we make every possible effort to prevent infection, a well-made computer virus displays a certain sophistication and even beauty. This exhibition acknowledges the design practice behind viruses, which often remains anonymous and clandestine. The paradoxical beauty and complexity of this type of technology is made visible: the more intelligent the design, the more damaging its potential consequences.

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