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Browser Extensions, Personal Viruses and Digital Cut-Ups

16 Mar 2018

Today’s New York Times features the article The Simple, Serendipitous Joy of Browser Extensions on the author’s mistake printed in the New York Times in an earlier article.

Correction: March 7, 2018 Because of an editing error involving a satirical text-swapping web browser extension, an earlier version of this article misquoted a passage from an article by the Times reporter Jim Tankersley. The sentence referred to America’s narrowing trade deficit during “the Great Recession,” not during “the Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks.” (Pro tip: Disable your “Millennials to Snake People” extension when copying and pasting.)

As the name implies, a browser extension is a plug-in that you add to a web browser to extend its functionality. In my browser I currently have ad-block extensions, a color picker, and an extension to make it easier to navigate via keyboard instead of the mouse. They are created with standard website creation tools HTML, CSS and Javascript. Browser extensions can make certain tasks simpler, like the ability to easily tweet a link to the current page you’re browsing, but they can also be a source of malware or spying.

libDoge

You may also be aware there is a whole world of creative, artistic, experimental, humorous and strange browser extensions. The Millenials to Snake People extension that tripped up the Times is an example of this type.

This calls to mind other experiments with collage, both digital and earlier analog antecedents. These include the cut-up techniques of dadaist Tristan Tzara and the cut-ups of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. It’s also worth considering the history of artists working in collage from Picasso and Braque to Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, and certainly the current history of poetic computation.

cut-ups by Brion Gysin

Viruses and Scripts as Artworks

A computer virus is a malicious software program capable of altering other programs, including a copy of itself, through infection. They attack a computer by installing themselves and become active when a program is run, attempting to perform harmful activity on the infected computer. These ill effects include erasing user files, slowing computer activity, accessing private information, corrupting data, displaying playful or political messages, spamming a user’s contacts, logging keystrokes, or rendering a computer useless. Many but not all viruses attempt to hide themselves. They are spread through leveraging security vulnerabilities of computer systems but also through social engineering: understanding how to trick users into installing and spreading them. Many viruses are distributed via email attachments, through getting people to click on bogus links, or through downloading free software. The virus may wait for a specific action to occur to trigger its actions.

Biennale.py

Biennale.py

In 2001 the artist duo Eva and Franco Mattes, also known as 0100101110101101, created Biennale.py Perpetual Self Dis/Infecting Machine, a custom-made computer infected with the virus Biennale.py. Biennale.py was a collaborative project created with the hacker group Epidemic, intended as both a work of art as well as a computer virus. The virus was released on the night of the art opening and spread around the world from the Slovenian Pavilion of the 49th Venice Biennale. The project became immediate news around the world, including receiving criticsm of the artists for releasing a virus, which itself turned the work into a kind of performance. The virus was also distributed on DVD-roms, which were sold to 3 collectors, in addition to being available for free download at http://www.0100101110101101.org/files/Biennale.py.txt.

Personal Viruses

Language and Technology artist Todd Anderson creates scripts that take keyboard presses to trigger live sounds and text in performance. Though this work differs from the traditional replication action of a virus, he is interested in how accidentally triggering scripts produces unexpected results, which he thinks of as a type of personal computer virus. He talks about having “really powerful and serendipitous virus moments of being locked out of my computer or having every key on the keyboard only type the text of T.S. Eliot’s the wasteland. I think a really key component of virus art is having a preexisting relationship with the infected machine. You need to know how things usually work and have that little bit of fear that somehow you’‘ll never be able to access your files again.”

One time in conversation with Anderson at Babycastles art space I asked him for an example of a personal virus. He showed me something that had cropped up that afternoon. He had temporarily scripted an obnoxious airhorn sound to trigger when he hit the L key on his keyboard, just for fun. He then went to meet with somebody and came back to his computer again, forgetting that he had re-mapped his L. He started to type an email but couldn’t use the L key as it kept bleeping out horn sounds instead.

Anderson cites 80s and early 90s computer viruses as an influence, specifically that category of computer virus that was intended as a prank to amuse.

MS-DOS Viruses

Virus.DOS Kuku

Daniel White is an obsessive collector of historic computer viruses. Since 2008 he has uploaded videos of old computer viruses in action (actually running in virtual machines on his computer) that he screencaptures and uploads to YouTube along with an explanation of how they work. The majority of the viruses are MS-Dos viruses. In an interview in Wired, White explains that writing a virus was a hobbyist activity of skilled coders. Their work stood out as a skilled creative medium among the monochromatic world of the command line. One forced the user to play a game of pong. Another displayed a skull at startup. Still another presented a gentle snowfall on a single specific day each year. While some viruses were clearly destructive, others seemed more like play. In fact, french hacker Spanska put the sentence Coding a virus can be creative in an image that pops up in his MarsLand virus.

James Hoff

There is a creative practice called databending where images are algorithmically altered with sound effects. Artist James Hoff has a similar practice where he uses computer viruses to affect audio or image files. He cites an interest in the computer virus for its ability to hide in plain sight and to mutate in different ways.

In his virus painting series he begins with digital images of monochromatic surfaces and then infects them with a virus or malware on his laptop. Based on what type of file he uses and how he infects it he has some control and idea about the output image. He transfers his final image to canvas or to print.

Stuxnet by James Hoff

For his 2013 project I Just Called to Say ILOVEYOU he manipulated standard Apple iOS ringtones and mutated them with the ILOVEYOU virus. In 2014 he released the album Blaster on electronic music label PAN. On this album he likewise presented audio tracks that had been infected with computer viruses. Hoff did this by infecting the hex files of the audio data with a virus one or more times, using the Hex Fiend hex editor.

Viral Inspiration

You may be interested in coding your own virus, browser extension or other piece of software. Techniques will vary based on your interests and background knowledge. To make a Browser Extension it helps to understand the basics of HTML, CSS and ideally Javascript and/or jQuery. To make a virus, you can do this in most languages that work in a file system, including Python, Bash, though most are likely historically written in C or C++.

To start brainstorming ideas for personal viruses, you may be interested in visiting the Computer Virus Catalog, an illustrated website that presents visual manifestations and descriptions of historic viruses.

In the future, I hope to provide more starter code and detailed tutorials on browser extensions and personal viruses as artworks. Some of the ideas and writing in this post come from an in-progress web-based book I’m writing about Creative Coding in the Command Line.

Broad overview of our process