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33 years ago the public faced the first computer virus. Since then more than a million viruses have been developed, hundreds of millions of devices have been infected, billions of dollars have been lost in productivity, and the anti-malware industry has become a significant market in the ICT business.

What started as an innocent prank has evolved into a digital weapon of geopolitical significance, transforming the way wars are fought. Today, malicious software is used to steal sensitive emails from political parties, infiltrate and attack nuclear facilities, and disrupt entire economies. Malware - Symptoms of Viral Infection presents a timeline of infamous malware, from early DOS viruses pushing the visual aesthetics of the text-based operating system, to advanced worms, spyware and ransomware used as geopolitical weapons.

Following Het Nieuwe Instituut’s commitment to looking beyond the classic notions of authorship in the production of spaces, objects, and virtual media, this exhibition explores a design practice that is mostly anonymous and clandestine. Viruses are sophisticated acts of design that are not generally intended for social innovation or problem solving. Yet these devices also require a close reading. This journey into the dark side of computing illustrates the beauty and sophistication of some of these viruses, highlighting their unique method of destruction, impact and context.


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Geopolitical Weapons

In a drive towards productivity and efficiency, society has become ever more reliant on digital technologies, all of which are additionally interlinked. As a result, critical infrastructures such as water and energy supplies, government services, banks, and transportation are even more susceptible to infection by computer viruses.

In June 2017 the NotPetya malware brought down the operative capacities of the Ukrainian government and most of its agencies. Airports, hospitals, power companies, banks, ATMs and card payment systems were affected. The virus spread around the world, impacting companies such as Maersk, Merck, and TNT Express, extracting data and permanently damaging computer files, resulting in exorbitant losses in damages.

As the growing sophistication of cyber threats render national borders obsolete and alter geopolitical dynamics, governments, intergovernmental bodies, and private companies have entered the race to tackle them. Yet, together with the market development of computer technology, security systems, viral suppressors and software, the defence and intelligence community has also embraced tactics designed by black hat hackers to react more effectively to attacks by integrating cyber measures with conventional military capabilities. The result is what we know as electronic warfare and cyberwars.

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Tomorrow’s Malware

The introduction of The Internet of Things makes it increasingly difficult to control the spread of viruses and cyber-attacks. Advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning enable viruses to adapt to human behaviour, exploit emotions, and spread faster in a more targeted manner, thus amplifying the damage. In the near future they could even pose a direct threat to the human body as implantable technologies such as pacemakers and cochlear implants will be used to improve health conditions.

While notions of the smart city and smart system have become pervasive in the design world as well as the context of policy making and tech development, the consequences of their implementation remain to be seen. Viruses are not the only dangerous force in an otherwise wholesome and benevolent online reality. Current debates on privacy in relation to information technology are inevitably connected to systems of security and surveillance. Systems that have, on the one hand, been implemented by the state and corporations in the name of public safety and connectedness and, on the other, are used by these same powers to spy and exert control on us. Digital platforms and applications play their part in data gathering, creating elaborate psychological user profiles, and capitalising on them.

The result is a challenge for the design and tech communities. How should security and privacy be imagined and designed under the current conditions, and within our mediated realities?

The exhibition line-up includes

  • Brain, 1986
  • AIDS, 1990
  • CRASH, 1990
  • Coffeeshop, 1992
  • HHnHH, 1992
  • Skynet, 1994
  • LSD, 1994
  • Mars Land, 1997
  • Happy99, 1999
  • Melissa, 1999
  • ILOVEYOU, 2000
  • Anna Kournikova, 2001
  • CodeRed, 2001
  • Stuxnet, 2009
  • Kenzero, 2010
  • Regin, 2011
  • Flame, 2012
  • Shamoon, 2012
  • CryptoLocker, 2013
  • PolloCrypt, 2015
  • WannaCry, 2017
  • NotPetya, 2017

Malware: Symptoms of Viral Infection was made possible thanks to the generous support of:

Bas van de Poel, Marina Otero Verzier
Astin le Clercq, Bas van de Poel
Astin le Clercq
Tomorrow Bureau, Bas van de Poel
Vera van de Seyp, Marc Vermeeren, Bas van de Poel
Randall MacDonald