biennale.py - The Return of The Media Hype

07.07.2001

In conversation with the creators of the Biennale virus, 0100101110101101.ORG

In the Slovenian pavilion at the Venice Biennale a group of artists and hackers, 0100101110101101.ORG and EpidemiC, is exhibiting a new computer virus called 'biennale.py'. The announcement of this piece of net.art has caused a kind of sensation, and a big crowd came to the opening in order to see the virus. Cornelia Sollfrank, a net.artist herself, asked members of 0100101110101101.ORG some critical questions.

Could you please first explain what a virus is?

0100101110101101.ORG: Computer viruses are self-copying programs which behave according to the modus operandi of biological viruses: they attack an ‚organism' (a computer) by installing themselves inside and become active when the program is executed.

What is special about your virus?

0100101110101101.ORG: 'biennale.py' is the first virus ever written in Python language. Many developers think that Python will be the language of the future. It is multiplatform, but not easy to write. 'biennale.py' is a 47 lines program that attaches itself to all files and software which are written in Phyton language (so ending with .py or .pyw), which means it is only able to survive in Python environments.

Print out of biennale.py

Is there anything else special except the fact that it is the first .py virus?

0100101110101101.ORG: For example that it has been done in absolute transparency. We've announced before what we were going to do. Our names and domains are written into the code. This is a big difference to the traditional cracking scene. Additionally, before starting to spread the code, we have sent it to all anti-virus software houses, together with an explanation of how to erase it. The main goal of our virus is just to survive. And, it can better survive when it doesn't do any harm to the host. If it would kill its host, it would die itself, too. So, it sucks energy, but tries to stay invisible as much as possible. It is only save as long as nobody discovers it. 'biennale.py' is completely invisible. It just installs itself in the background.

You have mentioned before that Phyton is not widely spread. This also means, that your virus is not very viable and quite harmless. It doesn't have many potential hosts.

0100101110101101.ORG: Of course adding a piece of new code to a software might always damage it, but this is not its main purpose. Additionally, Python is only useful on servers, which are usually run by professionals who know how to trace and treat a virus.

That means 'biennale.py' would never infect personal/ private/ home computers?

0100101110101101.ORG: Probably not, at least not this version. Maybe in future when the language will be also used on PCs, there might be a danger. As we have already told, its main goal is not to damage computers, otherwise we wouldn't be here talking about it publicly.

So, basically, 'biennale.py' is a very peaceful virus, and right the opposite of what has been announced in your press release where it has been called 'evil' and 'causing chaos'.

0100101110101101.ORG: The press release was not written by us, and anyway it said that "A virus is usually considered evil, causing chaos...", not referring to 'biennale.py', but to the usual hysteria that spreads among computer users. We are not interested in damaging a computer, but more on the media effect viruses have. You often have these virus warnings on the net which mostly turn out to be pranks. People are hysterically spreading these messages without verifying them, and we simply work with the hysteria, with the media attention a virus automatically gets .

Additionally, by showing the code in the pavilion, by printing it on t-shirts and post cards, we want people come close to it, and so demystify the aura of a virus. They can find out how it looks like, and that it works exactly as any other software.

Image from the website of "stolen" net art by 0100101110101101.ORG

I think it is part of the hysteria that most people do not know how computers function beyond the graphical interface. In this sense, it doesn't make much sense to show the code, because not many people will be able to read it, and to make sense out of it. Probably, you could show any piece of software, and make most people believe, that it was a virus! Isn't this just another step of mystification, to pretend transparency, but in fact confront people with code they cannot decipher?

0100101110101101.ORG: The idea was to let people get the hang of viruses. And even this interview is part of the mystification. Everybody who is reading it will automatically be part of it, but mystification is always better than didactics.

Actually, I am hoping that my interview will contribute to filter out your strategies, intentions, and motivations, instead of stupidly reproducing any hype or hysteria. That is why I would like to continue talking about the code. Let's keep the question, if your work demystifies or mystifies viruses open...

The code appears in three different versions in the pavilion: It is printed in large letters on a banner (3:4m), it is to be seen on a computer-monitor (the computer cannot be operated), and, interestingly there is 10 golden CD-ROMs hanging framed at the wall, which also contain the virus. Why did you choose these forms of aesthetisaion for the virus?

0100101110101101.ORG: It's a matter of visibility. To reach more people, you need more means: websites, t-shirts, postcards, canvases, articles, tv shows, any medium is effective to reach our goals.

In the press release you say that 'biennale.py' has especially been conceived for the Biennale. Was it a commissioned work?

0100101110101101.ORG: Not directly, but we spent part of the money we got as fee from the Biennale on the project. In addition, this years' Biennale is sponsored, amongst others, by Microsoft. Therefore, we could conclude that our virus has been sponsored by Microsoft.

We were interested in checking out how free we were regarding the work we wanted to present here. Writing a virus is not illegal, but spreading it is illegal. The author is not responsible for what other people do with it. We gave our virus to the Biennale and asked them to put the code on their website. And they did it. Technically, they are spreading the virus as much as we are. We are interested in the conflict that evolves when we offer a piece of work which is illegal to a big institution which has invited us. They have to accept it and at the same time they have to take the responsibility for it. Furthermore, the virus is being spread by the people who wear the t-shirts with the code. Theoretically, they could also be sued, as well as all the magazines and websites as 'Domus','Mute', or 'Wired' which are going to print the code of the virus.

That means you yourself try to stay on the safe side, and make mostly others do the dirty work for you?

0100101110101101.ORG: Exactly.

But, you are just playing with the notion of crime. Taking a closer look shows that you are doing nothing illegal. You just let other people spread your harmless virus! That's it.

0100101110101101.ORG: Yes.

Another example of stolen net.art, courtesy 0100101110101101.ORG

I would like to compare your work to an action of the German artist Ulay, who had announced in the 70s in an art magazine that he was going to steel a painting from a museum. Nobody had taken him serious until he had, in fact, stolen a 19th century painting from the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. He had brought it to a Turkish family in Berlin Kreuzberg where they hung it on their living room wall. In terms of transparency and crime this action has parallels to yours, but the difference is, that Ulay actually committed a crime, and that he personally has been made responsible and sued for this 'art crime'.

0100101110101101.ORG: Even if we have always considered this action as one of the most interesting ever, we definitely prefer Erik Hobijn's theft of a drawing by Keith Haring from the Stedelijk Museum in 1983: not only he didn't go to prison, but he even got a ransom.

What would your exact goal be? You're doing nothing criminal, and you are making your action explicitly as artists in an artcontext. That's why nobody would sue you in the end, and if, you would even profit from it for your own propaganda. Furthermore, your action here will not have any influence on further criminalization of hackers and crackers. And honestly, don't you think, that the art system does exactly live on the production and celebration of taboo braking? The more radical art seems to be, the better for the institution, at least, as long as it does not cause real trouble--like your virus.

0100101110101101.ORG: This is the same old excuse that mediocre artists use to jusify their arty-farty work. Our action could set a precedent, so that in future cases viruses could be declared as works of art.

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?

0100101110101101.ORG: Yes.

Sorry, but this sounds naive to me. Who defines that somebody is an artist? It is a complex process of self-proclamation, acting, reference, and acceptance by a system. I would doubt that a judge would be willing to accept that a dangerous virus-programmer suddenly has turned into an artist, refering to your precedent. Maybe, the only way would be, if you are really serious with that concern, that you declare future virus writers, who are sued for what they're doing, as members of your group, i.e. the guy who has recently been sentenced in (was it Bologna). You already have the legitimation of the art system, so it might turn into a really interesting case in terms of checking the limits of art conception.

0100101110101101.ORG: Thanks, we'll keep this for the next Biennale.

But before that, I would doubt that the people you pretend to work for find out at all about your action. Although there are national differences, the worlds of hackers, artists and political activists are pretty much separated. There is not just different motivations behind this different activities, but often fundamentally different strategies in following goals, which seem not to go together very well. For example, political activists often tend to understand art as a source to deliver mere illustrations of their goals, or they are afraid that their political credibility might be reduced when their battle is related to art.

0100101110101101.ORG: While most people think in watertight compartments, some of the most interesting and succesful actions are produced by the combination of different knowledges. Have a look at Mongrel, I/O/D/, Electronic Disturbance Theatre, Rtmark, Surveillance Camera Players, Negativland, just to mention a few examples. Making the hacking, art and activist scene join, you obtain a bomb. This is necessary not only for technical reasons, but also for marketing and selling. One of our goals at the Biennale is to sell the virus, to make money out of it.

How much are CD-ROMs?

A.: 1.500 USD each.

It is now one week after the opening. Did you already sell any copies?

0100101110101101.ORG: We have already sold two of them to private collectors.

Your talking about the 'bomb' before ends in selling a product. Is this what you mean by having/placing a bomb? Creating a product which generates money?

0100101110101101.ORG: A bad idea perfected is better than a good idea attempted.

Thank you for the conversation. I am looking forward to your future bombings;-)

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