“DESCENT” by Peter Burr, Mark Fingerhut, and Forma (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

When you launch the “DESCENT” .exe file on your desktop, a malware invasion of rats begins. At first only a few appear as ominous “RAT” image files. Then, as the glitchy static grows more intense, with a bouncing movement reminiscent of pestilent fleas, the steeple of a church emerges from the pixelated forms. Soon the rats become a plague. The human figures wandering the strange, fluctuating landscape undergo a cycle of life and death.

The digital artwork was created by artist Peter Burr and programmer Mark Fingerhut, with music by Forma. While the PC program is available for free download through the internet-based collective Undervolt & Co., you can also view “DESCENT” in the video below, which was published on Vimeo last month and recently shared on Prosthetic Knowledge. Watching at full screen is recommended for a simulation of the desktop experience:

The creators say they were inspired in part by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1562 “The Triumph of Death,” in which rich and poor, old and young are all felled by an enthusiastic band of skeletons. Bruegel himself was following in the “Dance of Death” tradition that shows humanity in a permanently precarious waltz with mortality. Burr, Fingerhut, and Forma state:

In this panoramic landscape the sky is blotted out by black smoke; ships and dead fish litter the ocean shore; and an army of skeletons experiment with myriad death techniques. The living are badly outnumbered and the variety of fated tortures seems endless. There is little room for whimsy in this tableaux.

Over 200 years earlier, a nasty plague, commonly known as “The Black Death,” left a cruel and massive mark on European civilization, wiping out half of Europe’s total population. This was a quiet pervasion of death — an invisible pathogen carried by herds of tired rats. This plague triggered a series of social and economic upheavals with profound effects on the history of medieval Europe, guiding its survivors into the sort of self-inflicted darkness pictured by the Elder Bruegel.

That plague would also help secure the skeletal reaper as an emblem of death. Yet there are no skulls or coffins in “DESCENT.” Just the relentless rats and the dizzying patterns of death and rebirth, until an unexpected salvation of self-destruction.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, “The Triumph of Death” (1562), oil on panel (via Prado Museum/Wikimedia)

“DESCENT” by Peter Burr, Mark Fingerhut, and Forma (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

“DESCENT” by Peter Burr, Mark Fingerhut, and Forma (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

DESCENT” is available to download through Undervolt & Co.

The Latest

Avatar photo

Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...