Founded and curated by Amsterdam-based writer Bas Van de Poel, the Computer Virus Catalog collects the weirdest viruses from the annals of computer history, and visualizes them as art. By pairing a computer virus with a graphic designer, Van de Poel’s project is a wonderful tribute to the history of chaos, computers, and code.
Most computer viruses today operate with the sole purpose of making money; surreptitious programs that sit on your computer, slurp up your credit card numbers, or trojans that turn your computer into zombie slaves devoted to harvesting bitcoin. But that’s not what writing a computer virus used to be about.
The weirdest viruses in the annals of computing weren’t written to make money. They were written by tech-savvy agents of chaos, and their motivations were simple: to subvert the dependable logic and order of computing on as massive a scale as possible. They were almost works of art in their own right.
Consider the first computer virus, Cookie Monster. Created in the late 1960s, the virus was mostly harmless. Incessantly demanding cookies, the malware would freeze your computer until you satiated its appetite by typing the word “cookie” at the prompt. For the Computer Virus Catalog, this virus is captured by artist Lawrence Slate as a rampaging blue muppet, reading a Computer Viruses for Dummies book, all done in the style of art from the ’60s.
And many of the best viruses invaded the DOS operating system in the ’80s and ’90s. The Techno virus, for example, would corrupt programs, taking over the system audio to blare a techno track while scrawling the word “Techno” on the screen, but only one out of every 10 times, driving infected users to question their own sanity when they couldn’t reproduce the effect. Joost & Nick represent this as a bitmap rave between Tron-like dancers.
Similarly, the Lichen virus infected programs, then only activated one month later; whenever there was no keyboard activity in an app for longer than a minute, the virus produced “lichen inspired visuals best described as kryptonite on crack.” And sure enough, for the Computer Virus Catalog, artist Jonathan Zawada has given us an intriguing look at what kryptonite on crack looks like, with the digital lichen seemingly taking inspiration from the green-hued screens of old ’80s monitors.
Looking over the Catalog, it feels like something has almost been lost. Because when they weren’t actually infecting your machine, the viruses of the past could be wonderful, replacing all of the files on your computer with pictures of squids or simulating an LSD hallucination. Compared to the malware of yesteryear, the computer virus has sold out.