Esoteric.Codes covers self-expression in the text of code.
It began in 2011 as an interview series with esolangers, those who make unconventional programming languages. Esolangs are often created as challenges to programmers, who experience the language by figuring out how to write practical code in strange syntaxes and twisted logic. Others constitute an avant-garde of computer science, challenging accepted definitions of code, language, and computer.
At the time esoteric.codes began, there was little writing on the history of esolangs as a medium, or critical analysis of its aesthetic. Discussions often failed to engage with esolangs that had more interesting premises — because they lacked the context to understand them — instead opting to discuss LOLCATS or one of the lesser emoji languages. While for some people, these languages opened the door to programming language design as self-expression, they were not much more than provocations.
As a novice, I wanted to find out what esolangers cared about and what they saw as the stakes in their work. I reached out to esolang pioneers like Chris Pressey, who patiently explained how the culture around it developed as it did. I tried to focus the interviews on concepts, and break away from technical descriptions of the languages which dominated existing writing.
In 2014, I re-launched the series on Tumblr with the domain esoteric.codes, writing descriptive posts and analysis in addition to the interviews. I expanded its focus to include other practices that engaged with the text of code or held a kinship to esolangs: code art, codework, obfuscated code, and the far more expansive list in the footer of every page on this site. These practices emerged in different communities, from digital art, experimental literature, the growing field of critical code studies, alongside the hobbyists who continue to provide much of the best work. I attempted to bring these works together in conversation, to find their common themes and techniques. In early 2015, I received a huge piece of early encouragement in the form of the ArtsWriters.org grant from Creative Capital and the Warhol Foundation. Two years later It was written in residence at the New Museum’s New Inc tech incubator.
The works covered in esoteric.codes are sometimes highly dematerialized, testing the limits of what can be considered a language or a program. They are understandable in the legacy of Fluxus event scores, Oulipian constraint sets, and other movements that cross language and performance or language and constraints. The blog includes radical departures from the norms of coding, bringing the ambiguities of human speech to the code level, or embracing multicoding where one text has many literal meanings. Projects that challenge computer science history or dominant cultures of programming are considered, as are jokes and trippy idea-art by programmers at play, sometimes as sketches of languages that are impossible by design. Its subjects emphasize software over hardware, are open-ended, collaborative, or with no fixed final form. To see how this all fits together, a good place to jump in is the Sentences on Code Art.
In 2017, I moved the site from Tumblr, building a new web app with a customized CMS. In 2018, a tablet version was commissioned by ZKM, to be exhibited at the Goethe Institut in Mumbai and ZKM's museum in Karlsruhe, Germany. Esoteric.Codes posts have been expanded into papers presented at conferences, both hacker and academic, including SIGGRAPH, xCoAx, Gulaschprogrammiernacht, and Media Art Histories, and in art venues like Pioneer Works. Individual projects have been picked up by Wired, the Outline, and other publications.
“It's true that software cannot exert the power of its lightness except through the heaviness of hardware, but it’s the software that’s in charge” - Italo Calvino
|2015||Awarded ArtsWriters.org grant from Creative Capital / Warhol Foundation|
|2017||Joined NEW INC at the New Museum|
|2018||Exhibited at Goethe Institut, Mumbai|
|2018||Wrote in residence at Signal Culture|
|2018||Exhibited in the Open Codes show at ZKM, Karlsruhe (extended through mid-2019)|
|2019||Nominated for 2019 Webby Award|
|2021||Honoree for 2021 Webby Award in Best Writing (Editorial) and Best Personal Blog categories|
|2011||Media Art History: Rewire 2011, Liverpool, UK|
|2012||dorkbot, New York, NY|
|2012||GLI.TC/H 2112, Chicago, IL|
|2013||Leaders in Software Art (LISA) Salon, NYC|
|2013||Notacon 10, Cleveland, OH|
|2013||#ArtsTech, New York|
|2013||Media Art History: 2013 RENEW, Riga, Latvia|
|2015||ISEA, Vancouver BC|
|2016||School for Poetic Computation, NYC|
|2016||CAA, Washington DC|
|2016||Hacking Languge: Bots, IF and Esolangs (panel), SXSW Interactive, Austin, TX|
|2016||Panel on Creative Coding, Adobe SDK|
|2016||MVR 5, collaboration between Pioneer Works and Eyebeam, Brooklyn, NY|
|2017||Resonate conference, Belgrade, Serbia|
|2017||xCoAx, Lisboa, Portugal|
|2017||WordHack, BabyCastles, NYC|
|2018||Gulaschprogrammiernacht, ZKM: Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany|
|2018||Software 4 Artists Day, Pioneer Works|
|2020||Piksel Fest, Bergen|
|2017||Language Without Code: Intentionally Unusable, Uncomputable, or Conceptual Programming Languages, CITAR Journal|
|2020||The Hacker Aesthetic of Minimalist Code, Hyperallergic|
|2020||The Aesthetics of Multicoding Esolangs, Electronic Literature Organization proceedings|
|(I'm excluding from this list pieces that are primarily about my own languages -- see my complete list here|
Esoteric.codes uses PiranhaCMS for .Net Core, and is coded by the author.