May 27, 2022


Develop Technology For The Connected World

Programming Language Structure as Artwork

10 min read

NFTs have introduced an onslaught of attention to gifs and other cellphone-pleasant passive media. But not all digital artwork methods translate simply to singular, collectible property. Esolangs, programming languages developed as forms of self-expression, are very possibly the minimum NFT-in a position electronic art. Open ended, neighborhood centered, and collaborative, they serve as a reminder that electronic art has other histories and other futures.

The term esolang is a portmanteau of “esoteric” and “language.” It was coined in the 1990s, when hacker-hobbyists commenced developing odd languages with no sensible use. When they had minor curiosity in the art context of their perform, they introduced a feeling of play and conceptual sophistication that feels at house along with artwork by the MFA-educated. Then arrived digital poets and artists who recognized the opportunity of the medium.

A single of the factors esolangs have remained on the periphery of computational art is that they are programming languages, demanding a particular total of computer system-language literacy to understand and recognize. It is my target to make them available and deserving of appreciation to the newbie and unfamiliar. I supply a few entry factors drawn from 10 decades of interviews I have executed with practitioners throughout the spectrum. Initial up is multicoding, a method in which multiple meanings can be gleaned from the identical text. Future, I discover ethnoprogramming, a modern challenge to the hegemony of English in the text of code. And ultimately, we change to conceptual languages, strategy-art that operates in our heads, not on our machines.


Piet, a computer system language developed by David Morgan-Mar in 1991 and named for Mondrian, is potentially the canonical case in point of a multicoding esolang, this means a language that levels numerous readings of a one textual content. In the scenario of Piet, that “text” is not textual at all, but an picture that serves as code in the language.

A software in Piet is an picture, made up of blocks of colour called codels. Each individual codel is like a letter in mix, they build a command. A transition from mild blue to dim purple signifies “NOT,” although moving from crimson to yellow of related brightness will tell the device to “ADD.” The system is read from the higher left, but some instructions change its directional flow, enabling serpentine paths via the impression.

Piet has turn out to be the most well-regarded multicoding language not only simply because it is visible, but mainly because of its nearly great aesthetic elasticity. Piet systems are usually recognizable as this sort of by folks acquainted with the language. Still its aesthetic is continually customized, expanded on, and challenged by the programmers who use it. Some generate illustrations exactly where only component of the impression functions as Piet, obscuring its programmatic character. Other plans are strictly utilitarian, without adornment. The most severe are computer-generated them selves, showing up like bar codes or schematics for sophisticated circuits. Tomas Scoch and Matthias Lutter have utilized it to make Mondrian-like images for Piet’s namesake, although other people make heavier use of colours like cyan and magenta eschewed by Mondrian. A person of the most astonishing, the Pi application by Richard Mitton (mentioned by Morgan-Mar listed here) employs the impression of a circle to characterize a circle in code. It calculates Pi by practically dividing the space of that circle, as drawn in the program, with the square of its radius the more substantial (and so considerably less pixelated) the circle is drawn, the far more digits of Pi can be accurately calculated. This combines the lexical and semantic factors of the circle collectively in a way that could only be completed in Piet.

There was no way for Morgan-Mar to foresee the instructions folks would take his language. The creator of an esolang starts a discussion with the established of policies demarcated by the language, but it is the programmers who uncover its limits and intricacies. A person parallel is the Oulipian problem to compose without the need of utilizing the letter E, which we can try ourselves or observe the method of a author by examining George Perec’s novel La Disparition (1969). In the same way, the innovative possible of Piet is in the field of opportunities it produces, which we practical experience through the true performs programmers have produced for it. 

Where Piet’s code is built up of pictures, in:verse plans crank out illustrations or photos or going articles. Its code doubles as poetry. What is distinctive in in:verse is its variable lexicon: the mapping of vocabulary to command is different for every poem (by using a “wordtable”), permitting programmer-poets to finely tune their enter and output. To estimate the sine of a amount, 1 program may well use the phrase “alien,” though a further makes use of “mushrooms.” The most intriguing in:verse systems come across a resonance amongst their vocabulary and their visible output. Its creator, Sukanya Aneja, is an engineer and artist who created on some traditions of esolanging (in:verse’s stack-dependent architecture is comparable to lots of early esolangs) whilst refining it for inventive purposes. Like Piet, it enables specific programmers a ton of handle, but every piece is even now recognizable as an in:verse operate.

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


Jon Corbett’s language Cree# is aspect of a new wave of languages described by theorist Outi Laiti as “ethnoprogramming.” Corbett, who is of Métis heritage, is planning the language, which is even now in progress, to mirror the language and logic of Métis lifestyle. But prior to we investigate it in element, some context is handy.

In his e book Critical Code Experiments, Mark Marino relates the heritage of programming languages that include vocabulary from purely natural language. The resource language is almost usually English. He argues that “the prevalence of English in the most common present-day programming languages represents … a type of digital postcolonialism, or the manifestation of a colonizing power further than the varieties of historical, geographical, or territorial colonialism.” 

Ethnoprogramming is an energetic response to the phenomenon that Marino describes. An crucial precedent for Corbett is Ramsey Nasser’s Arabic programming language ‘alb. Nasser established out to produce a language for Arabic speakers discovering to code, but ran into biases embedded in devices he created upon, most of which purport to be universal but experienced minor consideration of non-English use as a consequence, his perform turned a document of that wrestle. As he asks in his essay “A Own Computer system for Small children of All Cultures,” “what is the Pashto translation of AbstractSingletonProxyFactoryBean?”

Corbett, in creating Cree#, desired to go past replacing English search phrases (instructions like “let” and “print”) with Cree keywords and phrases in a static checklist. For a person thing, Cree is a morphemic language and he needed Cree#’s signifiers to maintain programmatic this means at the syllabic level, which is highly unconventional in programming languages. 

To software in Cree#, we want to understand not only Cree linguistics but also its cultural logic. To declare a variable (which can be thought of as a storage site for data), one should place it in possibly a mînisiwat, a berry bag, or maskihkîwiwat, a drugs bag. If the variable is every day or transient, it would go in the berry bag. If it refers to some thing with cultural importance or sacred this means, it goes in the maskihkîwiwat. Each individual time the programmer declares a variable, they choose wherever it greatest matches. The closest notion in mainstream languages is that of variable scope, but Corbett is encouraging the programmer to transition to a worldview that is Cree.

To that stop, just about every Cree# system is told in the kind of a tale, with a established of normal people and symbolic steps from Métis storytelling custom, prominently that includes a trickster raven and commencing each method with a gesture of smudging. Corbett also has a variation of Cree# referred to as Ancestral Code, developed not for general-objective computing, but as an alternative as a visual archive to maintain tales from Cree and Métis Elders. Corbett’s nuanced writing about the project examines the issues with assessing what ranges of know-how can be distribute more commonly and which are intended to continue being only in just the society, along with challenges of unintentionally incorporating Western sights of Indigenous cultures into the language.

Bora Aydıntuğ, “bora_1.png.” This screenshot is of a method in in:verse. It shows the two the code and the output of that code (the impression behind it) (courtesy Bora Aydıntuğ)


Is HTML a programming language? This issue is raised almost continually on Twitter. Though it is truly a dilemma of what pc labor we benefit or look at proficient (and let it be claimed that html/css operate is programming and can be quite demanding), the reality that this debate can take place at all details to the reality that there is no crystal clear complex line that demarcates what is or is not a programming language. Occasionally just one is tried by equating programming languages in general with a thing known as Turing Completeness, which about signifies the capacity of a language to signify any algorithm runnable on a standard computer system. Turing Completeness is a terrible yardstick not only mainly because of what it excludes but also for the reason that it brings in all kinds of issues we wouldn’t contemplate programming languages, like, as lately shown, human heart tissue

For every single definition of programming language, there is an esolang that sits at its border. Esolangs blur the line between computing and other functions, considerably like Fluxus events and interventions did concerning artwork and daily life. George Maciunas’s “Solo for a Unwell Man” (1962) recoded the involuntary actions of this commonly unwell artist as effectiveness. For Maciunas, this was section of his endeavor to obliterate every little thing that experienced turn into synthetic in artwork. If we are not able to draw a line separating art and life, possibly the similar is genuine of computation. We see this in the “found” esoteric languages, designed by no 1 and nonetheless serving as computation from human heart tissue to Martin Kleppe’s JSFuck, an esoteric programming fashion in JavaScript that makes use of only punctuation marks. JSFuck was generally latent in JavaScript, designed by miscalculation it took Kleppe to identify it and clearly show other folks how it works. Now it is a common esoteric type.

In the conceptual languages, no programming can occur. Some of these languages are incredibly minimalist or maximalist. Perhaps the most minimal is Unnecessary, produced in 2005 by a pseudonymous esolanger identified as Keymaker. For Needless, any written content is also significantly, even an vacant file only the absence of content material qualifies as code within the language. The only legitimate software in the language is the file that doesn’t exist. Once that file is (correctly) not uncovered, it is run: its deficiency of code is interpreted as a command to print the source code of the file to the display, which success in practically nothing given that there is no file to go through, no code to print (this is acknowledged as a “null quine”). The development of absolutely nothing from practically nothing is a prosperous outcome for Unneeded.

In contrast, the mathematician David Madore has created a sequence of transfinite languages that break essential legal guidelines of computation and can count to the infinite. They do so by working on an infinitely large computer, which can never be crafted in our physical universe. Though no one will at any time code in them, they are correctly valid, properly-outlined languages.

These conceptual languages do not run on our desktops, but in our heads. Other conceptual languages may well count on self-contradictory, or intentionally ambiguous, policies. The language Malbolge, for instance, has a published definition that slightly differs from its consultant compiler, the two produced by Olmstead. Considering that there is no singular electronic asset that defines the language, this contradiction developed a schism in the neighborhood involving those people who consider the bug is in a single or the other. Any individual can create their own Malbolge interpreter that aligns with either.

This is why esolangs are improperly served by the strategy of NFTs. Of program, quicker or later, a person will generate an NFT of an esolang. But consider performing so for Piet: would it be tied to the listing of principles for the language as outlined by Morgan-Mar? To a single of the quite a few interpreters and programming environments some others have made for Piet programming? Or to any of the 1000’s of Piet courses? 

Aspect of what can make esolanging thrilling is that interchange among the several contributors, the knowledge that the language has far more to explore. While no one particular bargains Morgan-Mar as Piet’s creator, his do the job finds its total expression by means of others’ initiatives. Similarly, conceptual languages with programs from the infinitely large to the infinitely compact problem the concept of electronic objecthood, emphasizing thought, procedure, and method, at the cost of static form. The greatest esolangs, like significantly fantastic digital artwork, are conversations.

Editor’s Take note: This post is part of a special edition of Hyperallergic devoted to beneath-regarded artwork histories.

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