the berghain column – may 2014

berghain mai 2014

Mutation Engine

“Copy me, I want to travel“ said the virus once it had occupied the OS. Another one greeted with a snoddy “Arf arf – gotcha.” Serious overbite and a touch of grumpiness. Oneliners of attitudes towards life and society, attention-seeking signals trying to convince of biological existence… John von Neumann had fantasized about self-replicating automats – a biology of tin. A preference in naming for wildlife: Trojan horse (originally, “Trojan” used to name the target, not the vehicle), worms … something rather silly began inhabiting your work, thinking nothing of it while devouring anything you worked on without taking the necessary precautions.

In 1993 about two to three new viruses appeared every day. Unemployed programmers from Sofia who didn’t get a visa at the German embassy sent out digital messages-in-a-bottle into the world: “I want to travel”, and they meant it. One virus a day for Germany: too easy. You’ve got the watches, we have the time. And vice versa. The first worms (the digital ones) were created in 1982 at Xerox PARC and were supposed to split up and manage computing time across a network. Unfortunately due to an error in the code they bred out of control until the entire network collapsed.

That’s what a virus does too: regulating time to the disadvantage of those who need it. It destroys items in memory, being saved time – preparatory work frozen to be put in use at a later point. A substitute for memorization routines (hence the decay of verse).

Dark Avenger – hailing from Sofia, again – didn’t just create a few of the most annoying viruses of his time, but also the mutation engine. You can’t put a finger on anything anymore. Even the most simple viruses change their guise all the time. Computing time as well as stuff in memory became valuable enough that those employing them had entered the weapons race against those disrupting the flow. Now viruses began moving in an environment that also didn’t welcome them technologically. The mutation engine was a symbol of a new direction of thought, maybe hinting at an answer to the central question a new era had posed (and still poses): how does a subject (a piece of information, a unit …) move in a world that’s not deprived of but flooded with information?

Mike Daliot recently linked the spread of sidechain compression (it’s that sound where the kick drum presses down everything else) with the economy of information. An acoustic analogy to a society of market criers. A struggle for survival of sounds. Each comes out on top briefly, screaming at you at full power, while all others are pressed under the surface of water. Me me me me! Like a vegetable market where each seller screams into a megaphone. My potatoes! In any accidental moment of silence you have to scream immediately since it’s your only chance to ever be heard. The kick drum is God, then there’s the snare and the bass and anything else may breathe only if these three rest. Listening to a permanent struggle of characters pushed under water that desperately try to draw a breath. King snare then bangs everything away every time.

The mutation engine was an abstract answer to such a situation: what can’t be identified into patterns of treatment doesn’t fall into the control circuit of suppression. At the same time it sabotages the smoothe execution of the process. Dark Avenger, the digital cookie monster, simply loved chewing up data as he put it. It would have been a pointless exercise if it didn’t proove that one individual was capable of sabotaging the efforts of just about everybody else (birth of the troll). Has this ever been possible at any time before?

In 1992 Vesselin Bontchev, founder of the computer virology lab at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Sofia, formulated the two “Laws of Virology”: “1. If it is possible to create a specific virus, it will be created. – 2. If it is impossible to create it, it will still be created.” Dark Avenger replied with the two rules of computer security: “1. Never buy a computer. 2. If you did buy a computer, never ever switch it on.”