Programming Language Style as Art

Yoshiko Yap

NFTs have introduced an onslaught of notice to gifs and other telephone-friendly passive media. But not all digital art procedures translate effortlessly to singular, collectible assets. Esolangs, programming languages developed as varieties of self-expression, are really maybe the least NFT-ready digital art. Open up ended, group centered, and collaborative, they serve as a reminder that digital artwork has other histories and other futures.

The time period esolang is a portmanteau of “esoteric” and “language.” It was coined in the 1990s, when hacker-hobbyists started building odd languages with no sensible use. Even though they had little fascination in the artwork context of their operate, they brought a sense of perform and conceptual sophistication that feels at house along with artwork by the MFA-educated. Then arrived electronic poets and artists who acknowledged the possible of the medium.

Just one of the motives esolangs have remained on the periphery of computational art is that they are programming languages, demanding a specified quantity of laptop or computer-language literacy to have an understanding of and enjoy. It is my purpose to make them available and deserving of appreciation to the newbie and unfamiliar. I supply 3 entry factors drawn from 10 many years of interviews I’ve done with practitioners across the spectrum. Very first up is multicoding, a system in which various meanings can be gleaned from the exact same text. Following, I explore ethnoprogramming, a modern obstacle to the hegemony of English in the text of code. And eventually, we flip to conceptual languages, thought-art that runs in our heads, not on our machines.


Piet, a laptop language established by David Morgan-Mar in 1991 and named for Mondrian, is possibly the canonical example of a multicoding esolang, which means a language that layers a number of readings of a one textual content. In the circumstance of Piet, that “text” is not textual at all, but an image that serves as code in the language.

A software in Piet is an impression, manufactured up of blocks of coloration named codels. Each codel is like a letter in mix, they generate a command. A transition from light-weight blue to darkish crimson means “NOT,” although going from purple to yellow of similar brightness will notify the equipment to “ADD.” The plan is read through from the higher remaining, but some commands change its directional stream, enabling serpentine paths via the image.

Piet has come to be the most nicely-regarded multicoding language not only due to the fact it is visual, but since of its almost perfect aesthetic elasticity. Piet systems are usually recognizable as this sort of by men and women acquainted with the language. Still its aesthetic is continuously customized, expanded on, and challenged by the programmers who use it. Some develop illustrations where by only element of the image features as Piet, obscuring its programmatic mother nature. Other applications are strictly utilitarian, with out adornment. The most extraordinary are computer system-created on their own, appearing like bar codes or schematics for advanced circuits. Tomas Scoch and Matthias Lutter have utilised it to make Mondrian-like illustrations or photos for Piet’s namesake, though other individuals make heavier use of colors like cyan and magenta eschewed by Mondrian. A single of the most astonishing, the Pi application by Richard Mitton (mentioned by Morgan-Mar here) makes use of the impression of a circle to characterize a circle in code. It calculates Pi by literally dividing the space of that circle, as drawn in the application, with the sq. of its radius the larger sized (and thus much less pixelated) the circle is drawn, the additional digits of Pi can be correctly calculated. This combines the lexical and semantic elements of the circle jointly in a way that could only be accomplished in Piet.

There was no way for Morgan-Mar to foresee the directions people would consider his language. The creator of an esolang commences a discussion with the set of guidelines demarcated by the language, but it is the programmers who find out its boundaries and intricacies. Just one parallel is the Oulipian problem to compose without the need of making use of the letter E, which we can try ourselves or observe the tactic of a writer by reading George Perec’s novel La Disparition (1969). Likewise, the inventive potential of Piet is in the industry of possibilities it creates, which we knowledge through the genuine works programmers have established for it. 

Where Piet’s code is built up of illustrations or photos, in:verse courses create pictures or shifting content material. Its code doubles as poetry. What is special in in:verse is its variable lexicon: the mapping of vocabulary to command is diverse for every poem (through a “wordtable”), enabling programmer-poets to finely tune their enter and output. To determine the sine of a number, a single software could use the word “alien,” though one more takes advantage of “mushrooms.” The most appealing in:verse plans obtain a resonance between their vocabulary and their visible output. Its creator, Sukanya Aneja, is an engineer and artist who constructed on some traditions of esolanging (in:verse’s stack-dependent architecture is equivalent to quite a few early esolangs) when refining it for artistic uses. Like Piet, it makes it possible for personal programmers a great deal of control, but each and every piece is continue to recognizable as an in:verse work.

Jon Corbett, “The Ancestral Code” programming interface, with an lively story “program” (left pane) and an “open feather” code block (proper pane) (© Jon Corbett 2021)


Jon Corbett’s language Cree# is part of a new wave of languages described by theorist Outi Laiti as “ethnoprogramming.” Corbett, who is of Métis heritage, is building the language, which is nonetheless in development, to reflect the language and logic of Métis society. But just before we investigate it in depth, some context is beneficial.

In his reserve Essential Code Scientific tests, Mark Marino relates the heritage of programming languages that incorporate vocabulary from all-natural language. The supply language is nearly constantly English. He argues that “the prevalence of English in the most common contemporary programming languages represents … a type of digital postcolonialism, or the manifestation of a colonizing drive over and above the varieties of historic, geographical, or territorial colonialism.” 

Ethnoprogramming is an energetic response to the phenomenon that Marino describes. An essential precedent for Corbett is Ramsey Nasser’s Arabic programming language ‘alb. Nasser established out to create a language for Arabic speakers learning to code, but ran into biases embedded in units he created on, most of which purport to be common but experienced minor thing to consider of non-English use as a end result, his operate became a doc of that battle. As he asks in his essay “A Private Computer for Young children of All Cultures,” “what is the Pashto translation of AbstractSingletonProxyFactoryBean?”

Corbett, in building Cree#, required to go further than replacing English keyword phrases (instructions like “let” and “print”) with Cree key phrases in a static checklist. For one particular thing, Cree is a morphemic language and he needed Cree#’s signifiers to maintain programmatic this means at the syllabic amount, which is very strange in programming languages. 

To system in Cree#, we need to have to fully grasp not only Cree linguistics but also its cultural logic. To declare a variable (which can be considered of as a storage area for info), a person have to place it in either a mînisiwat, a berry bag, or maskihkîwiwat, a medication bag. If the variable is day to day or transient, it would go in the berry bag. If it refers to a little something with cultural significance or sacred which means, it goes in the maskihkîwiwat. Each and every time the programmer declares a variable, they choose where by it very best suits. The closest strategy in mainstream languages is that of variable scope, but Corbett is encouraging the programmer to changeover to a worldview that is Cree.

To that conclude, every single Cree# system is instructed in the type of a story, with a set of regular figures and symbolic steps from Métis storytelling custom, prominently that includes a trickster raven and starting each software with a gesture of smudging. Corbett also has a variation of Cree# known as Ancestral Code, created not for standard-purpose computing, but as a substitute as a visual archive to preserve stories from Cree and Métis Elders. Corbett’s nuanced producing about the job examines the problems with analyzing what stages of know-how can be spread a lot more extensively and which are intended to continue being only in just the tradition, along with troubles of unintentionally incorporating Western sights of Indigenous cultures into the language.

Bora Aydıntuğ, “bora_1.png.” This screenshot is of a application in in:verse. It reveals equally the code and the output of that code (the image guiding it) (courtesy Bora Aydıntuğ)


Is HTML a programming language? This question is lifted just about continually on Twitter. When it is genuinely a concern of what personal computer labor we benefit or take into account skilled (and let it be stated that html/css operate is programming and can be rather tough), the actuality that this debate can come about at all factors to the actuality that there is no very clear technical line that demarcates what is or is not a programming language. Often a person is tried by equating programming languages in normal with a little something known as Turing Completeness, which approximately usually means the potential of a language to symbolize any algorithm runnable on a common laptop or computer. Turing Completeness is a terrible yardstick not only because of what it excludes but also because it provides in all types of matters we wouldn’t consider programming languages, together with, as not too long ago shown, human heart tissue

For each individual definition of programming language, there is an esolang that sits at its border. Esolangs blur the line concerning computing and other pursuits, significantly like Fluxus occasions and interventions did between art and lifetime. George Maciunas’s “Solo for a Sick Man” (1962) recoded the involuntary actions of this commonly sick artist as efficiency. For Maciunas, this was part of his attempt to obliterate everything that had develop into artificial in art. If we can not draw a line separating artwork and everyday living, possibly the exact same is real of computation. We see this in the “found” esoteric languages, created by no a single and still serving as computation from human coronary heart tissue to Martin Kleppe’s JSFuck, an esoteric programming style in JavaScript that works by using only punctuation marks. JSFuck was constantly latent in JavaScript, made by oversight it took Kleppe to figure out it and present others how it performs. Now it is a well-known esoteric fashion.

In the conceptual languages, no programming can manifest. Some of these languages are particularly minimalist or maximalist. Perhaps the most negligible is Needless, produced in 2005 by a pseudonymous esolanger termed Keymaker. For Pointless, any material is far too substantially, even an empty file only the absence of written content qualifies as code in just the language. The only legitimate application in the language is the file that does not exist. When that file is (the right way) not observed, it is operate: its absence of code is interpreted as a command to print the source code of the file to the screen, which success in nothing at all because there is no file to browse, no code to print (this is recognised as a “null quine”). The generation of nothing from absolutely nothing is a thriving outcome for Unneeded.

In contrast, the mathematician David Madore has produced a collection of transfinite languages that break basic regulations of computation and can rely to the infinite. They do so by operating on an infinitely substantial computer system, which can by no means be created in our physical universe. Even though no a single will ever code in them, they are perfectly valid, nicely-outlined languages.

These conceptual languages do not run on our computers, but in our heads. Other conceptual languages could depend on self-contradictory, or deliberately ambiguous, regulations. The language Malbolge, for occasion, has a composed definition that a little bit differs from its consultant compiler, the two established by Olmstead. Given that there is no singular electronic asset that defines the language, this contradiction established a schism in the group in between these who feel the bug is in one particular or the other. Anyone can make their possess Malbolge interpreter that aligns with either.

This is why esolangs are badly served by the plan of NFTs. Of class, faster or later on, another person will produce an NFT of an esolang. But picture carrying out so for Piet: would it be tied to the checklist of guidelines for the language as outlined by Morgan-Mar? To one particular of the numerous interpreters and programming environments many others have established for Piet programming? Or to any of the hundreds of Piet applications? 

Portion of what helps make esolanging fascinating is that interchange amongst quite a few contributors, the knowledge that the language has a lot more to discover. Although no one discount rates Morgan-Mar as Piet’s creator, his do the job finds its comprehensive expression via others’ endeavours. Also, conceptual languages with systems from the infinitely substantial to the infinitely little challenge the strategy of electronic objecthood, emphasizing principle, procedure, and course of action, at the expenditure of static type. The most effective esolangs, like much excellent electronic art, are discussions.

Editor’s Be aware: This short article is portion of a unique edition of Hyperallergic devoted to less than-acknowledged artwork histories.

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