Infrasense: Tangible Metaphors by Michelle Irving

Infrasense: Stories from the Horses Mouth by Çinga Su

Infrasense: Of Viruses and Spaces by Roberta Buiani  

Marginal Networks: The Virus Between Complexity and Supression by
Roberta Buiani



Infrasense: Tangible Metaphors by Michelle Irving
Brunt Magazine, November issue, 2005, Canada

“One great thought can alter the future of the world. One revelation. One dream. But who will dream that dream? And who will make it real?” Ben Okri, Infinite Riches. [1998, Orion Books Ltd.] pp.5

“We go on living as if history is a dream. The miracle is that we go living and loving as best we can in this enigma of reality” Ben Okri, Infinite Riches. [1998, Orion Books Ltd.] pp.394

History seems to tell us one story of redemption over and over - the one where we try to start all over again with a clean slate, a new space, an empty (ied) map, the New World - not realizing the dirt we track in on our feet. At one time we imagined the Internet to be this empty space, a promised land for the free exchange of ideas unfettered by physical difference, distance, or market interests; anyone could be anything, do anything, in this abstract networked space.

The utopic dream was dispelled as reality appeared in the cracks where materiality and immateriality co-mingle. Such a complete historical break with the continuum of our social and economic relations was not possible. We forgot that the Internet, in its “virtuality”, was tied to the production and assembly of silicon chips, wires and a language of translation (0’s and 1’s). The ephemera of online communication became the exchange of goods, capital, and other social relations; this “free” space was restricted to those within the privileged seats of the global economic order.

Despite ongoing suspicion, the tools and trades of modern technology remain the dominant lens through which we transform our world and ourselves. In this particular technological paradigm “how” and “by whom” remains largely differentiated from “what” and “from whom”, so that the consequences of our creative and consumptive actions may be concealed from us or at least held at a considerable distance. (Perhaps that between first and third world paradigms).

The work produced under the artists’ umbrella, KIT, engages with the inter-related dimensions of technology and social life. KIT is a framework for collaborations among architects, writers, artists and programmers. The group is made up of collaborators and core members in Canada, Australia and the UK, and intentionally avoids gendered and identifiable authorship. Projects are developed and actualized from a range of perspectives and locations. The group uses various forms of online communication to plan and realize projects.

One theme that reoccurs throughout their collaborative projects is an exploration of how the intangible and tangible interact in the context of communications media like the Internet. KIT tends to tie online activity with “real – world” events. In their latest projects, Infrasense they use a fusion of art installation with a web – based interactive art component to link the virtual with the concrete.

Infrasense is a collaboration with Robert Saucier which draws upon the computer virus metaphors of the ‘Trojan Horse’ and ‘Bug’ to “Take concepts from the digital world, render them as physical objects and then return control of the physical objects back to the digital landscape of the world wide web”. In this interactive installation the participant encounters several robotic Trojan horses and large bugs which are interfaced with a website that participants can interact with. The web – based interaction implicates the user and the creation of a computer bug or virus. This activity is articulated in the gallery through the generation of sound and movement of bugs in relation to the Trojan horses. The artists hope to draw attention to the experience of dissociation and distance that inhabiting digital space instantiates by extending virtual concepts into the physical domain of the gallery.

The metaphor of ‘Bug’ or ‘Virus’ was brought to life by computer hackers and, with Infrasense, KIT and Saucier show how this metaphor becomes a real presence with consequences that effects virtual and physical reality. In this way Infrasense functions as a sort of self – referential mirror that links the intangibility of social values and online activity with concrete materials and manifestations. It shows us that what we create and how we interpret that creation is a reflection of ourselves, our values, and beliefs. Real events spark metaphors. Metaphors become real virtual bugs that produce real consequences in our tangible world. Engaging with this web of relations is the beginning of understand more about ourselves and what we are dreaming into existence.



Infrasense: Stories from the Horses Mouth by Çinga Su
ETC Magazine, December issue, 2005, Canada

Infrasense, a first time collaboration between artists KIT and Robert Saucier, is a touring exhibition that is showing in eleven galleries across Canada, USA, UK and Belgium. Walking into the gallery space at the Darling Foundry in Montréal, Infrasense is akin to stepping inside a video game, a digital simulation of a horse race. 9 horses, designed by the artists as an amalgamation of hundreds of 3D and 2D representations of the mythical Trojan horse throughout history, move in a slow linear fashion across the gallery. They do so in such a way that the non–linear fashion and fractured sound the horses emit become an instantly juxtaposing and jarring dynamic for the audience. These mechanical horses are sensor based robots that react either to the wall that has been constructed around them or to the other robotic components of the installation. Each horse has a backpack made from the plastic of dead computers. In each pack are speakers which emit the murmuring sounds of the local population’s voices, a different voice coming from each box, all being amplified, albeit quietly.

Accompanying the horses are three robotic ‘bugs’ which appear insect like in their shape and through their busy vexing motions around the horses. The name ‘bug’, like that of the Trojan Horse, is an obvious reference to a viral entity of the Internet variety. The viewers are encouraged to pick up a remote control and control one of the ‘bugs’. When a bug comes near a horse, the horse stops briefly, allowing the volume of its voice to rise so that the viewer can hear segments of its story. What these mechanical horses are uttering are different stories about viruses; personal recantations of bodily based or computer based viral experiences. Airing these viral stories leads to KIT and Saucier looking at our current information age and the way paranoia and fear fuels the rapidity of those narrative flows.

One of the bugs in the Infrasense installation can also be controlled via the internet by logging onto the project’s website ( With the camera that has been installed in the gallery space, users of Infrasense have the opportunity to type in commands that will make the bug move right, left or forward, which it will then carry out in the actual space. As a result, users in different cities and countries can direct one of the bugs and move it to locations which will then trigger the horses to speak, subsequently affecting the audience in the gallery. This component of the installation raises questions of what telerobots bring to contemporary culture and questions the sense of responsibility that the users of this technology assume, or in fact, do not assume.

Since the 1990s there has been a drastic shift in the way western society and larger urban cities of developing nations have been accessing information. Although discussion about telepistomology, the study of knowledge acquired from a distance, started with the introduction of telegraphy and television, the internet has created a massive shift in the amount of information transmitted between individuals, companies and countries. Ultimately this has led to the acts of learning and interaction becoming more remote then ever before. As Albert Borgman argues in his book Information and Reality at the turn of the Millennium, the Internet has made people loose the attentiveness to extort knowledge(1). So, while there is all this information ready to be accessed and although we have not lost interest in doing so, the fact that the information is so abundant and easily accessible has created a loss of patience to fully grasp the ideas, as we want to move on to the next idea, page or site without fully understanding the depth of where we have traversed. Telerobots, robots that are controlled from a distance, have also become widely used and are an important constituent that adds to distant learning. The use of Telerobots dates back to the 1940s when they were used to handle radioactive materials(2). They are currently used extensively by the U.S military in acts of war for purposes such as bomb disposal and by NASA scientists for exploring Mars in the shape of ‘Sojourner’. Recently in England, two robotic medics have been introduced into a hospital’s telemedicine test. These tele-medical robots do not physically examine patients but glide from one bed to another interacting with patients that have just been through surgery. Cameras are placed in different locations of the hospital room making it possible for the doctor who is controlling the robot via a joystick to see where he is going and who he is interacting with(3).

Among many artists, Ken Goldberg has been exploring telepistemology by questioning knowledge and perception gained from a distance. One of his more recent works, Telegarden, a robotic based internet project allowed users to control a robot that was situated in the Ars Electronica Museum in Austria. The users were able to plant seeds and water a real garden via the internet. The Robot In the Garden: Telerobotics, and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet, a book edited by Goldberg, includes several essays that look at internet art, telepistemology, telesthesia and the real in our current virtual communication age(4).

The Global Positioning System (GPS), like the Internet, was invented by the US Department of Defence for military communications and operations. With GPS, the military can locate submarines, buildings and calculate any geographical position accurately. Greylands, a web-based telerobotic project developed by KIT in 1999, also used GPS technology. For this project, the KIT collaboration chose contaminated sites in or around cities and created virtual architectural plans on them. The users would go online to the Greylands website where they were invited to draw a blueprint of a building they thought would work in the polluted environment. The blueprint would then be sent to the robot, which was in the actual location, controlled by GPS technology. The robot would then draw the blueprint onto the site via a 3-inch line of lime that it would drop onto the ground, much like a football pitch marker. This project was the beginning of KIT’s research into telerobotics.

Infrasense is the first time Saucier has utilised telerobots as part of a project, however, robots and sound have been a core component in many of his earlier works. His 1999 exhibition Still Can’t Fly was created in response to the overwhelming paranoia the millennium had brought about. Close to the end of 1999 many IT specialists thought computer and communication systems would crash, bringing the world to a halt. For this exhibition, Saucier gathered the headlines of stories from the first Saturday issue of each month from the newspaper Le Devoir since 1951 and fed them into a robot. The robot read these headlines to the audience as it manoeuvred around a pole until it got stuck and had to unwind itself. The difference and similarities in the headlines could be listened to and compared as many headlines from the 60’s were similar to those from the 1990s. The notions of comparison and paranoia are also core to the interests vested around the Infrasense project.

The mid-80s are when both computer viruses and the AIDS epidemic were at the forefront of global media attention. In 1983 E. L. Leiss dates an awareness of computer viruses in the general public, the same year Edward Brandt announced AIDS as the number one health priority(5). Many computer analysts and anti virus writers look to biology and the immune system to gain further ideas for more effective ways of protecting computers and securing technological systems and networks. In 1991, IBM’s antivirus Research Centre published Directed – Graph Epidemiological Models of Computer Viruses, the first paper that adapted mathematical processes used in understanding infectious diseases to better understand the problem of computer viruses(6). A central theme of Infrasense looks at the crossroads of these two different viral tracks and the paranoia that the term virus elicits in contemporary societies. The stories that have been collected by the artists from each city the project travels to, are tales about cancer, STDs, Trojan Horses, worms and e-mail hoaxes. It is not surprising to hear accounts of both computer and biologically based viruses, given that our contemporary culture has already linguistically cross-bred the two. In much the same way that a bodily-based virus waits to replicate itself by entering a new host, a computer virus is a piece of code that lies dormant waiting to be activated by entering a new system or network. Both types of viruses infect, self replicate and spread.

The ‘bug’ and the ‘Trojan horse’ are only two of many metaphors used as names for viruses on the internet. KIT and Saucier have taken these metaphors from the virtual space and have physically rendered them into moving elements. Through the Infrasense website, we see these corporeal viruses being sent back to the virtual world. For the user of the website the thought and threat of catching something through the virtual domain due to involvement and interaction with viral culture, changes the dynamics of using the internet, creating a sense of paranoia. This constituent of the exhibition critiques constant feelings of unrest, being at risk and notions of trust that have formed new dynamics of interaction within our daily lives. The artists suggest that through interacting with the web component of the project the users will risk transmission by being connected to the site. However, for the users in the actual space, the dynamic of the installation is somewhat different. The wall constructed around the robots creates a confined space where the two viral components, the Trojan Horse and the bug, interact. Juxtaposing this to the contemporary cultural paradigm of a virus is captivating, given the paranoia of being ‘infected’ by the ‘other’. As the viewers are on the other side of the wall, they feel safe because no physical interaction with these viral elements is possible. The wall creates a sense of reassurance analogous to the way an anti-virus software or an immunization shot would for an individual.

Historically, the original gifted Trojan horse was deceptive in its intent, the hidden warriors released through a veiled door, levelling Troy. Understanding the misleading act of a Trojan Horse on the internet, one can only suspect that the stories being uttered from the back of KIT and Saucier’s aluminium and plastic horses are somehow also deceptive in their intent. It creates disquiet in the viewer, a certain anxiety similar to when we interact with those who have infectious bodily diseases. Given that the stories are always collected from local people, the installation becomes more intimate in this simulated environment creating conflicting senses of trust, transmission and safety.

As a virus is nomadic in nature and can easily traverse through hosts of the computer or somatic variety, the show acts in a metaphorically similar way. As Infrasense travels from venue to venue it traverses many host bodies, collecting data and mutating its content as it goes. In this way the form – the horses and the bugs – stay the same, but the voices that are collected each time the artists install at a new venue, change. The site-specific nature of the work reflects the ability of the virus to mutate and adapt to new surroundings and host dynamics. Since these viral dynamics are infecting many areas of our lives, from the body, to the computer, to marketing strategies, it opens up a wide field of research for KIT and Saucier to delve into. Their new project, currently under construction, deals with the shaping of communication systems through fear and the will to make connections in what Eugene Thacker calls the ‘Living dead Networks'(7).

End of Transmission.


1. Albert Borgmann, Information and Reality at the turn of the Millennium, University of Chicago press, Chicago 1999.
2. Ken Goldberg, The Unique Phenomenon of a Distance, The Robot in The Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age
of the Internet, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2000.
3. Adam David, The doctors not here- but he’ll see you now, The Guardian, UK, May 19, 2005.
4. Ken Goldberg, The Unique Phenomenon of a Distance, The Robot in The Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age
of the Internet, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2000.
5. Jeffrey A. Weinstock, Studies in Popular Culture, The George Washington University, Washington, 1997
6.Kephardt, Jeffrey and Steve White, Directed- Graph Epidemiological Models of Computer Viruses, High Integrity Computing
Laboratory, IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, NY, 1994
7. Eugene Thacker, Living Dead Networks, Fibreculture, Issue 4 - Contagion and the Diseases of Information, 2005



Infrasense: Of Viruses and Spaces by Roberta Buiani
Parachute Magazine, Issue 119, 2005, Canada

“Nothing is constant. The chain has been mutilated beyond all possible recognition of the message. Victory is in the hands of the powers of noise. a network of bifurcation where parasites move about.”
Michel Serres, The Parasite

While standing outside the gallery, one can already hear them. It is as if a group of individuals were sitting in the nearby room whispering mysterious words in each other’s ears. It is a surprise, then, to enter the space and to see that this “noise” is being uttered by four mechanical horses as they make their way across the narrow space of the gallery, engaging in a perpetual, slow race. There must be some connection between these artificial creatures, the mythical Trojan horse and its homonymous Internet relatives. Maybe these voices hide an unpleasant surprise. Or the opposite may be true. It is possible that these voices are trapped within the horses and they are begging the visitor to free them. One can easily discern and isolate single, coherent stories, thus liberating voices from the ambient noise (or at least this is what one is made to believe). Visitors are encouraged to pick up a remote control that allows them to direct another robotic creature, this time a bug, against the horses. When the bug gets close, a given horse pauses, albeit briefly. A human voice narrates a personal experience whose protagonist is a computer virus. If the participants point the remote to different horses, they can listen to other recollections. Other voices utter stories about a variety of biological diseases including the flu, AIDS, and also cancer.

At first look or on a cursory visit, “Infrasense” may well be interpreted as a room-size rendering of a videogame, or a straightforward physical and animated transposition of different kinds of computer viruses fighting for survival in the gallery space. However, this interactive installation, a recent work by Robert Saucier and KIT, proves to be much more intriguing. There is something else behind the installation’s apparent automatism and its playful undertone. It is not possible to grasp the entire meaning of this installation without having spent a considerable amount of time with it. It is only after having actively been involved as listener, observer or active participant that one realizes its complexity. A number of elements contribute to construct a game of multiple and unexpected dynamic articulations, whereby spatial boundaries, role distinctions and human/artificial discriminations seem to dissolve, mix and crossbreed.

Thanks to its particular way of representing space and displaying sensitive content, and thanks to the role the participant is called to play, “Infrasense” manages to illustrate, interrogate and contest the cultural and traditional role of viruses. It is not possible to untangle the richness of this installation by simply deploying traditional or literal understandings of viruses. In “Infrasense,” viruses are not just parasitical entities that attack and infiltrate our fleshy bodies, or malignant strings of code transmitted onto the intricacies of our operating systems. Moreover, computer viruses here cannot be fully separated or distinguished from biological viruses. Many details in this installation suggest that viruses are not single, isolated entities, but rather cultural formations. The virus acts as a sort of “in-between”; it is an unpredictable and flexible “third” element that bridges the biological and the digital, the real and the virtual, the natural and the technological.

Viral Spaces

In “Infrasense,” Trojan horses and bugs are not bound to the gallery space only, nor do they identify themselves as exclusively computer-related entities. From a superficial and immediately visible perspective, the two groups of protagonists – Trojan horses and bugs – are purposely extracted from their “natural” environment (the Internet) and turned into physical and mobile objects (the mechanical horses). Having once belonged to the ethereal space of the Internet, they can now be observed in a concrete form. In this case, the crossing of boundaries is quite literal. This doesn’t mean that once they are located in the gallery, the protagonists become mere aesthetic, though mobile, objects. Their abstract nature is not completely absent and their features are far from being neutralized. On the one hand, the bugs still carry an online component as they can be simultaneously triggered by the remote control and activated through a website ( On the other hand, not only can the viewers observe viruses as aesthetic objects, but they can also perceive their presence as both virtual and pervasive entities with a cultural significance. To clarify, in “Infrasense,” Trojan horses and bugs are easily identifiable as physical transpositions or translations of their online relatives.

The visitor’s expectation of a hidden surprise or an unpredictable twist is no surprise then. Such expectation originates from an immediate connection between the physical presence of the horse, the Greek myth and the label given to a particular form of computer virus. Thus, computer viruses move simultaneously between three different spaces: online, off-line and in the space of the viewer’s imagination, for computer viruses are incorporated in this work within a horse, a story and a computer.
The content gradually revealed by the installation suggests a further reading. Although the presence of the robotic creatures may imply an exclusive connection to digitally-based viral entities, both the stories narrated and a general perception of viruses as sharing some common properties turns the participant’s attention towards biological viruses. At this point, not only do the boundaries between digital and real spatialities appear to blur increasingly, but the distinction between computer and biological realms seems to dissolve as well. Computers and biological viruses, human beings and computers trade, swap, and fuse each other’s properties. This demonstrates that part of the characteristics ascribed to biological viruses has been almost automatically transferred to their digital counterparts. By means of this process, which transfers characteristics of biological viruses into the territories of computer viruses, specific, scientific or technical properties are left out. Instead, different territories and domains meet within a more general and broadly speaking cultural terrain at the intersection between nature and culture.

The unexpected content triggered by the participant and released by the Trojan horses has an unsettling effect. The observers had previously directed the bugs against the horses either to satisfy their curiosity or to free the mysterious voices trapped within them. However, instead of being liberators, they turn into intruders. This happens for a couple of connected reasons. Firstly, the narrators often deliver content that is not directly related to digitally-based viruses. The stories easily and naturally link the topic “viruses” to the theme of infectious diseases or contemporary “plagues.” Secondly, they tend to focus on a very sensitive and personal content. In fact, the narrators do not utter stories replete with details and technicalities about the functioning of a computer virus or the effects of a biological virus, but they prefer to disclose their fears and reactions to diseases and potential Internet plagues. The myth of the Trojan horse (including the object’s apparently innocuous look, its seemingly playful dimension and its deceptive function) is once again reiterated.

The Participants

The intertwining of spaces and apparently incompatible domains is amplified by the role played by the participants. They may start as witnesses, receivers, or narrators of the virus, but they soon become its active carriers and even transmitters. It is part of the viewer’s task to activate the installation by triggering the content of the Trojan horses with the remote control or by directing the bugs from the “Infrasense” website. Surprisingly, the bugs do not release any “physical version” of some viral and malignant entities. On the contrary, they utter recordings by local users who narrate their experiences and personal stories about viruses.
Whether they want to or not, participants are involved to a certain degree in the making and unfolding of the installation. Although they are not physically affected or damaged by any virtual infection spread online and transferred onto the physical space, participants appear to have somehow psychologically and emotionally internalized and incorporated it. In this context, participants become “human agents” that activate the virus. At the same time, it is a participant who has agreed to have his or her story recorded inside the Trojan horse and who narrates it from within the object, thereby becoming one with the virus itself.
To describe his artworks, Saucier has observed that technologies often saturate space with information that has apparently no sense or is perceived by us as fragmented. In this case, art acts as a scrutinizer of reality. If it is proposed and re-elaborated through art, not only can information be reconstructed, but it can also be reassembled and reinterpreted to create “significant chains.” Similarly, the work of KIT has always demonstrated a particular interest in establishing links between seemingly incompatible spaces, such as the Internet and physical or real space. In this context, “Infrasense” represents an excellent synthesis of both artists’ particular approaches. The installation, in fact, contributes to make its public aware of a number of relations stemming from different levels of understanding. On the one hand, it portrays the relation between human beings and viruses as natural and unavoidable. This relation always involves some degree of responsibility. The voices of the narrators represent a very interesting blurring of the assumed roles played by users and viruses. The former are usually considered to be the victims of the latter, although in this case not only do they seem to be immune to the bugs’ spell, but they also appear to reside inside the horse itself. In addition, the users appear to be responsible for simultaneously receiving and sending viruses, as they are actively operating behind both the handheld device and the website that trigger the bugs.

The ambiguous relation between the virus and its host clearly contradicts the widely-held assumption that in the case of a computer virus epidemic, the user affected tends to consider himself or herself the sole innocent victim of an attack by an absolutely evil entity (the computer virus) equipped with an autonomous and independent agency. The victim, in this way, denies any responsibility, and refuses to admit not only that it is thanks to widely spread and busy networks that the dissemination of computer viruses is possible, but also that he or she might have participated, at least once, in such dissemination by sending an innocuous e-mail or by opening the wrong attachment.

On the other hand, “Infrasense” reproduces some dynamics existing in the relation between the human (i.e., biological) and the artificial (i.e., digital). As Kember puts it (paraphrasing Haraway and echoing Braidotti’s notion of symbiotic interdependence), “embodied computer programs, situated autonomous robots and transgenic organisms co-exist within the global network as kin, sharing the bodily fluids.”2 In general, viruses are entities that are not only responsible for affecting hosting organisms or computer operating systems, but they also manage to unify people in their negative perception of viruses. In “Infrasense,” they are portrayed as elements that, instead of disrupting or opposing a static equilibrium, create a new inclusive narrative where they are no longer regarded as “other” or exclusively evil, but are naturalized and made part of the present equilibrium.

The act of transcending incompatible realms unveils the complex nature of the virus. The virus itself reveals the intertwining and inseparability of differently perceived and usually separated dimensions. The virus affects the participant. This aspect becomes even more apparent when one listens to the stories narrated by the interviewees “trapped” within the Trojan horses. Most of their stories do not regard computer viruses but “real” biological ones. Moreover, the multifaceted nature of computer viruses, as well as their smooth and almost imperceptible movement across physical, virtual and psychic spaces is confirmed by the very format of the exhibition. “Infrasense” is a touring show. Such a format is a necessary component as it mimics the nomadic and ubiquitous nature of viruses. In addition, it collects a rich database of experiences and stories narrated by a culturally and linguistically diverse crowd.

Biology Versus Technology

These last elements of the installation not only contribute to showing viruses as a substantial and unavoidable presence in our daily lives, but they also bring to the fore the ever present yet rarely underscored relation between the more general and implicitly opposed realms of biology and technology.

Whether intercepted on the Internet, stored in hard drives or harboured in the human body, viruses are described with a similar metaphorical language that seems to invest them with identical connotations. This indicates the presence of a link between two apparently different and mutually excluding domains, the natural and the digital. The existence of an unspoken and yet pervasive correspondence between biological (or scientific) discourse and Artificial Intelligence is not new. For Lily Kay, the relation has always been quite explicit insofar as she conceives information discourse as a system of representations. Since the 1950s, the human genome has been viewed as an information system which has been described both metaphorically and poetically as the “Book of Life.” According to Kay, moreover, it has become “intuitive and commonsensical” to view it as a new form of biopower, for “material control was supplemented by the control of genetic information.”3 As human beings are increasingly described in terms of information, message and code, and insofar as “heredity functions like the memory of a computer, [where] organs, cells and molecules are united by a communication network,”4 new technologies are called to function not only as decoders and decipherers but also as simulators and synthesizers of life.5 Biology and technology join at various points in the discourses of Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life, and become interwoven in the emerging disciplines of biocomputing and bioinformatics.6
However, Langton observes: “biology is the scientific study of life on earth based on carbon-chain chemistry. There is nothing that restricts biology to carbon based life, but it is the only life that has been available to study.”7
Thus, the relation between biology and technology is one that aims at extending the domain of the former one to the latter, and not vice versa. Technology is at the service of biology. Biological discourse always speaks louder as it tends to become the major model upon which technologies are shaped.

In “Infrasense,” the portrayal of viruses makes the above servile role of technology quite evident: the protagonists of the installation are already “generic viruses” before being computer viruses. In the same way, they already contain a series of descriptions and attributes, and are characterized by assumptions that originate from biological viruses. Computer viruses are already and “incurably” bound to their biological counterparts from which they can hardly separate.
More importantly, computer viruses escape the digital domain to reach physical space and to subtly infiltrate other – real, virtual or imaginary – spatial domains. However, when it comes to the considering of the stories vehicled by and concerning the viruses, one realizes that it is the biological virus that leaves a more incisive trace which ultimately finds its way into people’s narrations. The stories are always about issues that ultimately affect the human body and not the so-called “inanimate machine.” In the relation between biology and technology, biology occupies the dominant position here.

As the multipart and multidimensional installation unfolds, the spectator is the witness of a series of apparently separate and fragmented events. These scattered events, however, exist in strict correlation with each other and form a complex microcosm. It is up to the participant to assemble and make sense of the fragments: this happens at various points of the installation and involves different layers of reconstruction. From an aural-visual perspective, the participant is responsible for unveiling the stories initially presented as incomplete by detecting and directing the bugs towards the Trojan horses.

Conceptually speaking, then, the viewer’s skills are called upon to connect the obscure co-presence of the Trojan horses and the bugs with two distinct and disciplinary unrelated realms of knowledge and space: on the one hand computer science and biology and on the other the physical and the virtual. The result is the realization of the existence of a complex and multidirectional flow: here, viruses appear to be determined by, and to act themselves as, a peculiar, invisible and random thread that both unifies and separates not only the spaces of the virtual and the real, but also the disciplinary territories of biology and artificial intelligence.


1. Michel Serres and Laurence R. Schehr, The parasite (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 235-36.
2. Sarah Kember, Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life (London: Routledge, 2003), 8.
3. Lily Kay, Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2000), 128.
4. François Jacob, The Logic of Life: A History of Heredity (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973), 1.
5. Christopher Langton, “Artificial Life” in Margaret A. Boden, ed., The Philosophy of Artificial Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 41.
6. Eugene Thacker, Biomedia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 15.
7. Langton, 43.



Marginal Networks: The Virus Between Complexity and Supression by Roberta Buiani
Fiberculture on-line journal, issue 4, 2005 Australia    (

‘What is a Margin ?’ I asked a friend recently. You know what a margin is” she replied “It’s outside the body of the text. It’s what holds the page together. Also,” she added, “It’s where you write your notes.’ (Berland, 1997)


In a recent article, Sampson suggested that the metaphoric relocation of the contagious properties of biological viruses into viral technologies has produced the assumption that computer viruses are ‘imbued with an alien otherness’ (Sampson, 2004). However, it is arguable that such alterity can be ascribed to all viruses, as long as they are analysed as cultural notions or as discursive forms instead of being forced within clearly defined disciplinary boundaries, and being classified as separate and incompatible entities, organisms, or mere strings of code. Suspended between life and death, myth and reality, abstract and concrete, viruses are perfect candidate for the champions of marginality.

The margin is blurred, fuzzy, and flexible, it is unnoticed or ignored, it is irrelevant, it is other and abnormal. Nevertheless, it is an unavoidable presence. The margin often shows highly creative potentials, thanks to the rather blurry nature of its borders and the unpredictability of the entities that continuously move, modify and cross its peripheral space. Viruses, as discursive forms whose implicit creative potentials move from and through the margins, play a particular and privileged role in this discourse. In fact, it is when viruses are culturally defined, observed in relation to the surrounding context and submitted to a cross-disciplinary inquiry, that their complexity and subtlety become apparent.

The virus not only constitutes one of the most ancient discursive forms, but also one of the most widely spread cultural notions. Although its definition, classification and specifications change according to the discipline that examines it, the use of the term “virus” is always associated with a series of shareable perceptions, and carries a number of attributes and characteristics that can be found almost unchanged in many contexts. In historical accounts, medical treatises and chronicles, viruses and other infectious diseases are often described in similar, if not identical, ways. In these accounts, the molecular nature of the disease is not relevant. Although different agents could be the cause of an epidemic (such as bacteria, viruses or other micro-organisms), the descriptive patterns used to illustrate their physical and psychological effects over the population, as well as their diffusion, seem to coincide. Similar apocalyptic connotations and constant use of warfare metaphors are used to describe the spread of infectious diseases of various nature that affected either human beings or animals (as in Virgil’s book III of “Georgics,” which chronicles a devastating cattle epidemic) (Slack, 1992: 27; Longrigg, 1992: 45).

The very descriptive patterns produced and employed in the past persist today, be they used in popular culture, where the contagion could be the ultimate terrorist strategy, in science fiction, where the spread is often caused by pathogens escaped from secret government labs, or scientific and medical accounts, where metaphors of “the body at war” are pervasive (Martin, 1999: 366).

By sneaking inside our operating systems on a daily basis, computer viruses are the latest addition to the list of contagious threats. First, despite the visible discrepancies existing between them and their biological “relatives”, computer viruses promise to spread through our intricately linked networks in a way that could be easily compared to that of human epidemics: file sharing and density of communications across networks cause computer viruses to spread. The busier is the network, the faster is the contagion. Second, although computer viruses have no physical consequences over carbon-based life, ‘a sense of invasion and discomfort’ usually unite computer users who receive an unexpected visit by such unwanted guests (Ducklin, 2002: 1). Third, metaphors, descriptive patterns and connotations employed to describe computer viruses’ spread and effects appear to be the same used to describe biological viruses.

The above observations about the use of the term “virus” seem to suggest the existence of two paths. First, the term “virus” works within a specific field or discipline, to indicate and classify a range of distinct micro-organisms, or, in the case of computer science, a number of self-replicating programs. Second, “virus” acts as a much more generic notion that includes and expands well beyond the constraints imposed by the discipline of study. It is the very generic value carried by the term virus, and not its specific meaning as a field-related specific word that constitutes its cultural significance and discursive functioning.

Upon examining the virus as a culturally embedded notion, two elements in particular appear to emerge: first, whether analysed semantically, structurally or physically, the virus seems to have quite a dynamic phenomenology. It is incurably and uncommonly flexible and complex. Second, as mentioned above, in spite of the continuous morphing and reshaping of its meaning and significance, the virus maintains a number of discursive regularities that not only constitute its dominant accompanying attributes, but that also characterize it in a totalising way by establishing its negativity as an immanent and absolute element. In other words, whatever the historical period, or the disciplinary perspective (biology or computer science, popular culture or the arts) the virus is pervaded by a recurring rhetoric of discourse that characterizes it as prevalently negative. This rhetoric of discourse constitutes the virus’ “negative aura.” [1]

Drawing from a series of considerations about the above two characteristics in both biological and computer viruses, I am led in this paper to the analysis of a marginal use of computer viruses by a marginal portion of creative individuals. However, the particular way computer viruses are exploited in such contexts, and the consistent relation existing between them and their biological ancestors reveal both the longevity of the discourse about disease, infection and fear as well as its tactical appropriation and overturning.

Fugitive definitions

Examined from a diachronic perspective, the notion of virus has undergone multiple mutations. As observed above, before the analysis of microbes and particles was possible, the term virus was rarely used. Chronicles, historical treatises, fictional accounts and pseudoscientific studies tend to assimilate what we define today as virus with a wide variety of diseases. Whether known as the Plague, the Black Death or Smallpox, the names assigned to epidemics of various natures normally designated the effects of a disease rather than the cause, the consequences that the virus had over the individual or a population, rather than the microbes responsible for provoking the outbreak. The notion then underwent several mutations due to the development of new theories that narrowed the semantic area of virus to a scientific or technical term. However, the initial assumptions and perceptions are far from having been forgotten or replaced by more specific notions: they tend to overlap and coexist with newly acquired meanings. To give an example, the tendency to conflate cause and effect still survives: the acronym AIDS is often used to designate both the disease and the HIV virus that causes it; the common cold, although provoked by a wide variety of virus-behaving microbes cultivated and circulating in the surrounding environment, is commonly referred to as virus, where “cold” and “virus” are basically interchangeable terms (Lederberg, 2001:3).

If observed from a synchronic perspective, the use of the term virus has crossed many disciplines and has become a flexible and dynamic signifier that now indicates a specific microbe’s behaviour in science and medicine, now a technical nuisance that spreads through computers’ operating systems. Today, the term virus is a generic definition that refers to a whole variety of micro-organisms with a specific mechanism of reproduction and a peculiar set of characteristics such as its capacity to transform by exploiting the hosts’ resources and its necessity to spread through networks or human frequent contacts (Boase, 2001:67). For instance, the average computer user is often unable to distinguish between a Worm, a Trojan Horse (or logic bomb), or a Bug. For the user, they are all computer viruses.

Generally speaking, strikingly similar characteristics and comparable behaviours could be observed in phenomena originating from different contexts. The term virus has colonized those very phenomena that literally, or metaphorically manifest comparable behaviours and mechanisms of reproduction or that principally share with biological viruses similar or analogous structural composition (Wassenar, 2002: 335). For example, particular forms of marketing characterized by a word-of-mouth mechanism of diffusion have recently been labelled as “viral marketing” (Boase, 2001). Self-replicating programs have been only recently added to the list of available viruses that affect, this time, not our life as creatures made of blood and flesh, but our networks. It is not by chance that the application of the actual definition coincided with the increasing use of information networks and the realization of the potential damage they could generate. Since then, self-replicating programs have been re-baptised as the artificial intelligence version of their biological ancestors (Burger, 1989:10; Cohen, 1995:14)

The virus is one of the few discursive forms whose notion - by maintaining its description and definition almost unchanged - easily traverses the real or physically connoted world and the so-called digital domain. As mentioned above, computer viruses and biological viruses have analogous methods of diffusion through promiscuous human contacts and busy network communication flows.

In addition, it seems that the virus affects simultaneously, yet separately, nature and human beings, partially blurring the boundaries between carbon-based and digitally designed life forms, life and death, natural and artificial life. Simultaneously, but not identically. In fact, whether we refer to computer or biological viruses, the reaction or the response that different hosts give after having received one, are never identical. Reaction and response change in the human body as much as in computers. Responses by the human immune system change according to personal levels of stress and physical conditions, the surrounding environment, the mode of transmission (Lederberg, 2001:7). Standard medications don’t always produce effective reactions.

In the case of computer viruses, a similar conclusion can be drawn. Forrest suggests that we shape computer security systems using the immune system model. This model prompts the OS to scan all external code, to keep the code recognized as “self” or familiar and to discard everything that might be identified as “non-self,” that is abnormal or unusual. Forrest recognizes the complexity of computer viruses and the difficulty to constrict them within the same category. She observes that this structure does not strengthen computer systems and does not increase anti-viruses effectiveness. In fact, user habits, installation of new software and editing identify computers as unique environments that may not respond to foreign code identified as intrusive in an identically negative way. Therefore, viruses and security systems shouldn’t be reduced to de-personalized and standardized identical unities: ‘the concept of “self” likely needs to be presented in multiple ways to provide comprehensive protection’ (Forrest, 1997: 90).

“Scary” networks...

It is no easy task to eradicate a tradition that has constantly perceived viruses as pure and absolutely negative entities. Because semantic additions tend to pay more attention to the virus’ mechanism of reproduction instead of its static structure, a series of different microbes can now be potentially included and classified under the category of virus. This inclusive move admits that not only harmful microbes, but also similarly behaving particles necessary for organisms to work properly could potentially be listed under the general definition of virus. However, defining the above particles as viruses may be difficult to achieve. On the one hand, it would mean separating the notion from its most popular, deadly and fearful attributes. Viruses have been associated with human tragedy and suffering to such an extent that it is no longer possible to separate the word from any moral or subjective judgment. On the other hand, labelling non-dangerous particles as “viruses” would contradict Western biomedicine’s claim that the human body is a self-contained and independent unit, or, to use a war metaphor, a citadel or a nation-state, whose fixed boundaries, or borders, not only are rigidly separated from external agents, but they are also constantly threatened by potential foreign others, or armed enemies, identified with viruses, bacteria and microbes (Martin, 1990:365). There are no such things as “useful viruses.”

This means that the transformation of the meaning of virus has not been accompanied by an equal change in the way it is popularly perceived. The notion still contains all the assumptions and attributes deriving from earlier interpretations. In other words, the conceptual transformation (from the disease to its cause to the behaviour of a microbe or a computer program) that the notion of virus has historically undergone is mainly a selective one. A number of discursive regularities have remained embedded within the original definition, while different applications were constantly acquiring new meanings. These regularities not only constitute dominant attributes that accompany the virus, but they also characterize it in a totalising way by maintaining its negativity as an immanent and absolute element (Foucault, 1989:159).

It is convenient then for both advocates and detractors to think of the virus as a substantially harmful organism: Media, political, artistic and medical excitement tends either to defend or to attack the virus by setting its negativity as the starting or central point around which is based the entire argument. The virus continues to be seen as “other,” while any creative and innovative potential, instead of liberating the virus from its alterity, becomes part of a ‘mythology of alterity, which simply opposes to reason a form of non reason (Rella, 1994, 1978: 22).’ Representing the virus as subversive becomes part of an idealistic illusion that results in validating the old, popular syllogism ‘that which is revolutionary is persecuted and repressed: therefore, that which is persecuted and repressed is revolutionary.’(Rella, 1994, 1978: 34)

Nevertheless, eliminating what makes the virus a controversial discursive form, ignoring its status and traditional roles, would belittle the interest and curiosity of many scientists, scholars and artists. The negativity of the virus holds the pages of the general discourse together; at the same time it annihilates any attempt to dismantle such discourse.

Contradictory terms

The two characteristics summarized so far seem to constitute the originality of the virus. However, such originality manifests itself in quite an ambiguous way. On the one hand, the assigned or imposed attributes of the virus always appear to prevail over its natural dynamic manifestation and flexibility. It is always its significance as a threat or as a dangerous entity that occupies people’s first impressions, meaning that the virus responds to some given expectations. On the other hand, a distinct complexity potentially enables the virus to escape any stable definition, any static constraining, and turns it into a rather fuzzy entity. To use the initial metaphor of the book, although moving ‘outside of the body of the text,’ the virus participates, influences and ‘holds its pages together.’ Although being an outsider, an unwelcome presence within a normative situation (the so-called “healthy body” or the uninfected computer, the body of the text), the virus unifies people in their negative perceptions, moving through apparently incompatible realms, a physical and a perceptive one. The virus seems to be able to “float” in an in-between space, therefore creating new inclusive narratives. As a result of this disposition, the virus could easily coexist across spaces as diverse as the virtual and the real, the biological and the digital.

Trying to dismantle the century-old demonisation of the virus by focusing on its complexity has been on the agenda of a number of scholars and researchers. Research that studied the burden of mutual adaptation between virus and host has proved quite unpopular, as witnessed by the number of grants withdrawn because the research has been deemed marginal or risky (Epstein, 2001:416; Lederberg, 2000:290). Viruses are normally defined as types of microbes able exclusively to produce harm or annoyance to the human (and now to computer) immune system or as extraneous entities that generate negative reactions and malfunctions in the organism affected. Whether one refers to the human immune system or to the computer security system, prevention and removal are always identified as the two possible solutions to correct such malfunctions. When the existent immune systems are unable to eliminate the intruder, medications and treatments or anti-virus software and firewalls are often deemed necessary to help fulfill such a task. Once the virus is destroyed, the disease is believed to be no longer present in the immune system and the “normal” functions of the body are finally re-established (Epstein, 2001: 418).

Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg points the finger at medicine’s ‘obsessive focus on extirpating the virus’ as well as at its tendency to separate microbes from their external environment and to observe them in a condition of ‘hypervirulence.’ This notion has led to both medicine and computer science employing analogous aggressive strategies against viruses, principally aiming at their discarding and suppression. Lederberg disagrees with these strategies. Despite their general acceptance, he notes that such methods have not always led to satisfactory results: ‘In the case of new endemic diseases such as AIDS traditional practices have often proved unsuccessful ’ and therefore, they should not be left unquestioned (Lederberg, 2000: 288). This lack of success could be ascribed to the very exclusive, univocal and unidirectional notion of the virus. Although viruses ‘have a knack for making us ill’ Lederberg suggests that we ‘Drop the Manichean view of microbes –we good, they evil—In the long run microbes have a shared interest in their hosts’ survival: a dead host is a dead end for most invaders too’ (290).

Lederberg’s above statement illustrates the impossibility of separating human beings from external agents and viruses, as humans and their others are substantially co-dependent. Suppressing the latter means condemning human species on the Earth. In addition, his assertion underscores the constructiveness of the current medical and immunological practices. Perceiving viruses as the enemy forces us to treat them using the most aggressive techniques.

In computer science, more examples report similar conclusions. Ray and Ludwig directed their research towards demonstrating that computer viruses could be conceived as electronic organisms subjected to the laws of evolution. As such, they cannot and shouldn’t be eradicated from the “wired jungle” (Ludwig, 1995: 215) as they constitute essential elements of “network-wide biodiversity’ (Ray, 1999).

Validating the possibility that viruses are complex organisms embedded in a particular environment integrated with their surrounding contexts would partially dismantle the traditional belief that understands them as absolutely antithetical to other living forms and would make room for research previously classified as marginal. Moreover, examining biological and computer viruses in conjunction with the surrounding environment and the organisms they affect means refusing to agree with a notion of normality as a rigid and arbitrary given (Canguilhem, 1994: 360). This opens up a new, dynamic and moderated understanding of viruses and, consequently, fosters new multidisciplinary and multi-angled research.

A change of perspective?

The contradictions generated by contrasting and incompatible attributes can be detected even more clearly within the arts. In their contribution to the discussion about viruses, a number of artists, especially those operating in the more general field of the electronic and interactive arts, have concentrated their practices on finding, exploiting and defending the creative potentials of computer viruses.

In the artistic practices encountered, the peculiar complexity of the virus seems to be relegated to the background. Needless to say, the negative connotations of the virus are always the first elements brought to the attention of the audience, whatever the artistic intervention, and even when there is no intention in doing so. Normally, the beholder is somehow compelled to connect viral elements inserted in the artwork with her cultural, collective and personal experience of the virus: this experiential apparatus automatically pushes to the background any sign of complexity that the virus might manifest as if it were a secondary or irrelevant element.

The artist or the creator, then, does not appear to be particularly disappointed to see how the notoriously negative characteristics of the virus are most often responsible for the popularity of the artwork.

Since the first wide-scale plagues caused by the first generation of hackers and the spread of the 1988 Robert Morris’ ‘spectacularly malfunctional worm’ (Denning, 1990) computer viruses have been adopted by young hackers as their favourite and most used tool. According to Thomas such choice is the expression of a “boy culture:” young virus writers want to be noticed, to establish a unique reputation among their peers and to easily embody the “noise” in the system that they had often fantasized about (Thomas, 2002:13). Thus, it is no surprise to know that a number of hackers normally interpret computer viruses not as a nuisance, not as a threat or as an offence but, as Hellraiser comfortably affirms, as ‘an electronic form of graffiti.’ Hellraiser’s very career path went from graffiti writing to virus writing. The same can be said about many other North American hackers who established their underground viral activities in the nineties. Dibbell demonstrates how these two activities are in principle compatible, as they are both the expression of similarly conceived subcultures, whose activity consists in constantly subverting, challenging and disturbing that mainstream culture from which the members of these groups normally feel excluded. Virus writing ‘asks us to recognize that viruses, like graffiti, are just as much signal as noise; by definition, they are information that subverts control’ (Dibbell, 1995). Therefore, such activity appears very desirable for a category of young creative minds willing to scream their presence by challenging the established order, before expressing their very creativity.

The above example illustrates how viruses have been adopted by a particular category of marginal users mainly because of their negative reputation and their assumed characteristics, the possible malicious intentions as the cause of their spread and the association between their use and graffiti writing. Were computer viruses not identified in this way, young hackers would have probably turned to other more appealing forms of expression and practices. Young hackers have contributed to enhancing, instead of eliminating or modifying, an already affirmed myth of the virus as “other.”

The collective imaginary surrounding viruses and their producers, enhanced by a rich literature that portrays hackers on a par with heroes and saints, has fostered the production of a series of mythologies that depict both viruses and hackers as icons of digital culture. Consequently, a number of artists constructed their artworks by exploiting not only the technical and structural features of viruses as their model, but also the vast number of stereotypes used before them by the hackers.

Often, the viral component contained in many artistic practices acquires a political value. This element can be observed in those artworks where the very same connotations assigned to the virus are transferred to the artefact and appropriated by the artist or the creative collective, who achieve this goal by describing their work with the same vocabulary used to describe viruses and by conceiving their artworks as “other” in the same way as one would perceive the virus. Whether the goal is to dismantle or to confirm viruses’ bad reputation, to include them as starting points of a wider metaphorical content or to exploit them literally, focusing on their alterity and absolute negativity has become a quite effective means to attract quick and easy attention from the audience. A number of questions immediately arise: is artistic use and exploitation of viruses truly succeeding in investing them with a new positive value? Is - as the artists themselves claim - the exploitation of the perceived and established attributes of the virus helping to emancipate it from its “negative aura” or will it rather perpetuate and reinforce it? Does, then, the complexity and flexibility mentioned above get completely lost or hidden in the artefacts produced?

Apparently, the immediately noticeable negative connotations of the virus are always prevailing over other possible characteristics. However, it is its complexity that ultimately realizes the connection, the intertwining and interdependence between the virus itself and the elements or the space with which it is associated or by which it is surrounded. Despite appearances, the virus’ complex nature is inherent and it is never eliminated. On the one hand, an observer trapped in and influenced by her cultural and historical assumptions holds it back and fails to perceive such complexity as a strong element. In addition, and for the same reason, an equally powerless creator is faced with the impossibility of preventing such an outcome. On the other hand, the temptation to accept the otherness of the virus as a subversive and, therefore, an irresistible sexy component immediately reinforces the virus’ negativity and conceals any other possible characteristics.

An Epidemic and 0100101110101101.ORG joint project, , the first virus ever being exhibited inside an art institution, represents one of the first cases of incorporation, appropriation and clever exploitation of the entire apparatus of stereotypes produced by viruses. Hosted by the Slovenian Pavilion during the 49th Venice Biennale, the project has promptly helped the art collective to gain abundant media attention (Epidemic, 2001).

A printed copy of the virus code was hanging on the wall of the Pavilion, while several other copies were printed on t-shirts and worn by the audience outside and around the gallery. Simultaneously, the “real” virus was released online. Despite the existence of these three versions, it was the first visual display of the code that attracted immediate attention and gathered a curious audience during the day of the opening. The virus’ code was displayed in a conveniently pleasant way, transforming a normally invisible and unnoticed entity not only into an immediately noticeable and somehow concrete object, but also into one with an aesthetic value. In addition, the virus was strategically written in Python, a language that ‘looks more artistic’, (Deseriis 2001; my translation) because it allows the code to be constructed as a coherent narrative (in this case the text narrates the progression of a party, where the moment of infection is identified with a key action during the party represented by the verb “fornicate”).

On more than one occasion, Epidemic spokespersons declared that ‘ is an aesthetic experiment to demonstrate our capacity to create beauty by using programming code’. Exposing a computer virus is a ‘tribute to more than fifty years of creative code work performed by programmers but mostly not recognized as such and often gone unnoticed’ (Deseriis 2001, my translation). This idea is one of the main postulates upon which Epidemic’s interventions are based.

On another occasion, Luca Lampo cited the text of the notorious worm “I Love You,” and compared the ‘great drama contained in the code sequence’ to a few lines of Dante Alighieri’s first book of the Comedy (Epidemic, 2000). This new aesthetics allowed by viruses was made the subject of a poetry reading/performance at the Digital-is-not-Analog Festival. On the one hand, treating the virus code as an aesthetic object appears to be a mere provocation. On the other hand, reading or displaying its code turns it immediately into a more mundane entity. Thus, the virus acquires a more innocuous and familiar value. Reading the code reduces the distance existing between men and machines. A juxtaposed and artificial visual interface (windows, for instance) usually facilitates and creates a barrier between the user and the computer. The average user is unable to decipher or understand what lies behind the interface, while the code is increasingly enveloped in a halo of secrecy. The virus code, in this context, seems to re-establish, for a few moments or the length of the exhibition or the performance, a lost contact between the user and the code in a reassuring way, as it is now extracted from its usual context and domesticated as a series of words and numbers.

In the above interventions, whether the virus is interpreted as an element with an intrinsic aesthetics or an instrument that attracts attention on either the art group or the labour of the programmer, it is clear that a denial and a rejection of its negativity is somehow implicit. Epidemic/ are fully aware that such denial won’t suffice to mitigate the virus’ reputation, but will definitely succeed in popularising the artwork and its creators and to invest both art collective and artwork with a subversive edge.

The strategies of display used in confirm the immediately visible alterity of the virus. However, the project, as a whole, is certainly more than just a playful and ironic intervention. As mentioned above, the virus was also released online and a number of copies were printed on T-shirts. One could argue that the multiple displays are part of a clever marketing tactic and could note that once the virus is abstracted from its “natural” environment and it is transformed into an artwork, it immediately loses its pristine characteristics and functions becoming an empty commodified object. However, it is in this particularly ambiguous situation that the complex nature and dynamics of the virus clearly manifests itself.

Interestingly, is interpreted by Symantec and Norton as a virus when it spreads through the Web, while it becomes a work of art when it enters the gallery space, as if its threatening components were neutralised and its disruptive and transformative power ceased to exist. Despite the virus’ capacity to cross both spatial and disciplinary boundaries, its mode of reproduction and diffusion still remain. The virus enters the gallery space in the same way, as it would penetrate the host or the OS. Once inside, it undergoes a transformation by incorporating elements belonging to the infected host. In the case of, the virus puts on a nice dress and adapts to the environment in a parasitical way, by becoming an apparently innocuous art object. The presence in the gallery does not prevent the virus from reproducing and transforming, as it is reinserted back into the Web as an “artistic virus”, and it is spread by the art goers in the same way as it is transmitted online through our busy networks. In fact, it is thanks to the visitors that the virus is carried around and further spread, this time printed on T-shirts distributed during the exhibition.

Although the virus is not able to ever infect carbon-based organisms, its presence as a symbolic and visual form easily crosses spaces and invades both physical and digital realms. The continuous physical and contextual shift cannot but unveil the ductility and fuzzy nature of the virus.

In the last example the virus is portrayed as living across and dissolving the borders between the inside and the outside space, the virtual and the real domains, the public and the secret, undergoing a process of demystification through its reading as a poem and its display in the gallery space as a narrative. “Infrasense,” a work in progress co-produced by KIT and Robert Saucier, brings the process a step further (Infrasense, 2004). The installation represents Trojan Horses and bugs as entities that belong simultaneously to the digital space and the physical realm, that confuse the borders between two apparently incompatible spaces, show the intertwining and smoothness of such dynamic articulation and underscore the way the users become, in this context, also active carriers, transmitters, witnesses and narrators of the virus.

Instead of making a clear statement in defence of or as a commentary to computer viruses, “Infrasense” explores their very process of transmission and diffusion. This could unveil and eventually defeat the amount of prejudices and assumptions that undermine not only the way we perceive and construct it, but also the way we interpret the space that surrounds it.

The interactive installation, which at first sight seems to be constituted by a quite straightforward physical and animated reconstruction of different kinds of viruses, fighting for the survival in the gallery space, or a room-size rendering of a videogame, proves itself much more interesting. A series of mechanical horses, moving back and forth on a grid, immediately remind the audience of the Internet Trojan Horses, inspired from the epic wooden animal fabricated to deceive the Trojans and directly deriving from their computer-based heirs. Three Bugs constantly challenge the Trojan horses. They are controlled randomly by the gallery user through a handheld device located inside the space or from a website (Infrasense, 2004). Each Trojan Horse carries a backpack that looks like a hard drive: this element produces a certain curiosity in the visitor, who wonders what surprise or what threat the mysterious boxes could possibly unveil.

Disappointing as it may be, the boxes don’t contain any virus or any noxious device. On the contrary, they release recordings by local users who narrate their experiences with and personal stories about computer viruses. The volume of the speakers that deliver the narration is kept low, so that the gallery is filled with almost imperceptible but continuous noise, as if they reproduced the busy white noise of random networks in constant dialogue with each other. Once a bug, triggered by the user, approaches one of the horses, the volume of the speakers immediately increases and one of the voices becomes clear and starts narrating her story.

The voices of the narrators represent a quite interesting blurring of the assumed roles played by user and virus. In fact, the first is normally considered the victim of the latter, although in this case not only does she seem to be immune to the bug’s spell, but she also appears to reside inside the horse itself. In addition, the user appears to be responsible for receiving and, simultaneously, sending viruses, as she is actively operating behind both the handheld device and the website that trigger the bugs.

The ambiguous relation between the virus and its host clearly contests the widely-held assumption that in the case of a computer virus epidemic, the user affected tends to consider herself the sole innocent victim of an attack by an absolutely evil entity (the computer virus) equipped with an autonomous and independent agency. The victim, in this way, denies any responsibility, and refuses to admit not only that it is thanks to widely spread and busy networks that the diffusion of computer viruses is possible, but also that she might have participated, at least once, in such diffusion, by sending an innocuous e-mail or opening the wrong attachment.

The smooth and almost ubiquitous presence of the virus now rendered inside the gallery, now moving online, now psychologically internalised by the user shows the reciprocity between space and viruses. On the one hand, the space itself is able to unveil the complexity and almost fugitive nature of the virus. On the other hand, the virus itself reveals the intertwining and inseparability of differently perceived and usually separated dimensions of space. It is only with the thorough exploration of the installation that the user becomes gradually aware of such complexity.

The multifaceted nature of computer viruses, as well as their smooth and almost imperceptible movement across physical, virtual and psychic spaces is confirmed by the very format of the exhibition. Unlike most small (or non-mainstream) exhibitions, Infrasense is a touring show. Such decision has been necessary not only to show the nomadic and ubiquitous nature of the virus, but also to collect a rich database of experiences and stories narrated by a culturally and linguistically diverse crowd (Infrasense has already reached Canada, England and Belgium).

No clear statement is made on the danger or the benign nature of viruses: they seem to be portrayed as a substantial and naturally embedded presence of our daily life, something we cannot avoid facing. Viruses prove themselves to be inseparable from human beings (physically, and, in the case of computer viruses, psychologically), from OS, they are produced by and affect human beings, they are suspended between real and virtual in a space apparently free from any cultural hierarchy of location.


Foucault once affirmed that ‘Contradiction is the illusion of a unity that hides itself or is hidden: in any case, analysis must suppress contradiction as best as it can’ (Foucault, 1989, 1969: 168). In the case of the virus as a discursive form, admitting the existence of elements that contradict its intrinsic danger is not an option: once detected, such elements will be denied or hidden. Assigning the status of virus to entities that could potentially be ascribed to this category but would not manifest identical negative attributes is not allowed. When any possible positive aspect of the virus is eliminated, one is left with an absolute, yet coherent notion that only carries danger, fear and hazard. This set of attributes becomes the principle of cohesion that organizes the discourse about viruses and restores to it its hidden unity and internal order.

Artificially reducing the notion of virus to the above unity means validating a way of thinking where antithetic terms lie separated and confront each other. This mentality automatically deprives the virus of any positive connotation, therefore denying the existence of any kind of benign virus. In addition, as Franco Rella puts it ‘to read the immediate true expression of a totality beyond contradictions means thinking that certain subjects exist which are immune from contradiction, subjects which precisely because of their “purity” (or impurity, the insane, the marginal) are other from the society in which we live, bearers of values and needs that are inevitably incomprehensible to many forms of reasons’ (Rella, 1994, 1978: 15). Thus, the virus is, in this context, recognized as other, marginal and outside the norm established by a dominant social discourse.

However, if we accept the extreme complexity manifested by the virus in the above artistic interventions, we also admit the possibility of a formulation of a discourse that bypasses and goes beyond the usual categories and dichotomies intrinsic to and embedded in our language. The result could be a language potentially capable of expressing difference without naming it, of ‘knowing’ without ‘strangulating,’ (Deleuze, 1990) and without imposing a default ‘relation of forces’ (Foucault, 1980). Admitting a definition of virus as an unstable, undefined and somehow fugitive notion therefore would force us to reformulate old and worn-out postulates. For instance, the division between human beings, nature and technology would cease to exist, giving space to more pluralistic, non-hierarchic new articulations.

Currently, it seems very difficult to underscore what is culturally hidden or suppressed. Despite the innovative potential shown by the structure and phenomenology of computer viruses, the gallery goer or the observer will be always immediately attracted to the given notion and by the fascinating way in which such notion is apparently being subverted. What lies beneath is always left over or barely noticed. This constitutes an obstacle that still hasn’t been overcome. The cases examined clearly demonstrate the difficulty of viruses’ complexity to stand out.

Viruses, as I see them, are to human beings what the handwritten notes are to a book. Once you write them, they become part of the book. If you run out of space, you write between the lines themselves.


[1]“Negative aura,” inspired from Benjamin, strives to underscore the characterization of “virus” as a Modernist term, and its almost ritualistic value.


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