Code < is 3 Poetry

“All the new media are art forms which have the power of imposing, like poetry, their own assumptions.”1
(Marshall McLuhan)

When the subject of “digital publishing” is debated, it is very common to see the arguments about it only considering e-books, PDF files, web-blogs, and other online publications: such as iPad versions of newspapers and magazines, e-readers, or distributed content using RSS technology. Even the Wikipedia article for the term goes straight to these technologies: “Electronic publishing (also referred to as ePublishing or digital publishing) includes the digital publication of e-books, EPUBs, and electronic articles, and the development of digital libraries and catalogues.”2 It appears to exist a common sense and definition about the term: digital publishing is the emulation of a physical book in a digital format. In other words, it is a way to emulate the physical media in a digital environment.

These definitions do not consider the real possibilities of the digital form and reduce them to an emulator of very well known media; they copy what happens with regular publications: linear narrative, page division, index, and, even, foot or endnotes. Besides that, the explanations try to recreate in a technological apparatus the same user experience that one has with a book. The first e-readers, for instance, imitated the same characteristics of the regular paper: “[e-paper is] a display consisting not of illuminated pixels, but of electronically charged micro-spheres (or pixels without light) that can be made to turn either black or white according to the polarity of the charge.”3 The goal was to reduce the distinctions between what is physical and what is virtual; however, the new creation suppressed the great amount of possibilities that the digital formats have.

The standard format for an e-book is a PDF file. It is used in e-readers, tablets, and online platforms which create virtual mechanisms to navigate through pages1. The main reason for the use of this standard lays in the simulation of a physical book, which makes easier to print. All the processes involved in a traditional procedure to create and publish a physical version of a content can be reproduced in a PDF file: diagramming, linear narrative, divisions by pages, standard sizes, blank pages, etc.. The same characteristics are there. There are, of course, some improvements, such as hyperlinks, search tools, and the possibility of accessing the file wherever you are, but in the end, PDF files are just a book/newspaper/magazine in an electronic form. It is an emulation5 of the experience of reading in a physical format.

One artist who works exactly with this emulation is Paul Chan. His practice involving ebooks and PDF files explores what the format can give, especially with the facility of self-publishing and his interest in creating new type fonts. His work “Goldman Sachs annual letter to shareholders typeset with the font Oh Marys”6 (2010) is a way of publishing his type font “Oh Mary” in a printable file, and at the same time, critique the CEO of a global investment bank. The content consists of repeated phrases such as “ah, don’t stop oh damn don’t wait don’t beg oh damn [sic]” or “buy me oh God oh son have me oh Jesus take me have it ?%! [sic].” No one in their right mind will print (or buy) this book for its content. They will buy it because of the exploration of a media by an artist, and it is this relation that Paul Chan’s works to address. It would be extremely hard to find a publisher seriously interested in spending huge amounts of money on publishing this kind of content; therefore, Chan uses an emulator of the real object to make the work. In an interview on the website “Rhizome,”7, Chan describes briefly his relation with e-books:

It’s not simply a matter of making books on each of the different platforms, it’s also dealing with how a physical book becomes an e-book in the first place. Most of our books are e-books, but some exists as physical books too. So in general there is a lot of work figuring out how the experience of reading translates from one form to another. The Godot book was very difficult to translate from the hard cover book to an e-book, primarily because that book is so physical. The Sade book too was made first as a limited soft-cover book with a specific dimension, weight, and kind of paper in mind. We read with more than our eyes. The question, then, becomes, how this reading experience translates into a file. Someday I wish that different e-books hold different ‘weights’, so that when you load an e-book into your e-reader, the device physically feels heavier. Until that happens, I have use other means. With the Sade book, the images were made to take advantage of the peculiar crispness of the Kindle screen. The problem is that since you can also read Kindle books on a color LCD e-reader like an iPad via the Kindle app, the Sade book loses its particular feel because it simply doesn’t look as good on a backlit non e-ink screen. Different platforms have different technical standards, which means you either conform to those standards or can’t distribute through them. This is fine: whatever they reject we distribute through our own site.

Digital publishing should go beyond emulation; it needs to consider the structure and the syntax of the computer in its meaning. In the same way that books/newspapers/magazines are intertwined with texts and photos, the digital is intertwined with code. Code allows the digital possibilities.

The designer and engineer Ishac Bertran published a book called “code {poems}” (2012). It was a limited edition of a book of poems that used the syntax of the code and spoken languages together. As Bertran described,

Code can speak literature, logic, maths. It contains different layers of abstraction and it links them to the physical world of processors and memory chips. All these resources can contribute in expanding the boundaries of contemporary poetry by using code as a new language. Code to speak about life or death, love or hate. Code meant to be read, not run.8

The book was organized with 55 poems that literally used programming languages–such as C++, HTML, C#, SQL, and so on–to express something. Code here, even if published in a physical format, is used as the raw material of the publication. If code can be used for publishing, why can’t publishing go deeper and use code as well?

TThe poet and critic Alan Sondheim created the word “codework” to try to define his practice with digital media and explorations with language. The term, as explained by Sondheim, means: “the computer stirring into the text, and the text stirring the computer. This special topic presents several reviews of the current state of a literary avant-garde concerned with the intermingling of human and machine.”9 This definition can be applied to Bertran’s book and to Sondheim’s practice as well. Sondheim works, which involve poetry and virtual dimensions, go deep in using code as way of expression. His website,10, for instance, is an example of understanding publishing–even though just publicizing some kind of content–with the syntax or logic of code. The main page is only an alphabetic index with links without an interface that the reader can interact with. The reader has to guess where the content is and under which file format: jpg, txt, mp4, mov, htm, pdf, bvh, png, mp3, rtf, doc, and etc. For the reader to decode the files and have an idea of the content, s/he needs to have a basic knowledge of how an image, text, or video is disseminated in a digital media and which kind of format it uses. “I see codework as at least one future of writing–in part, it’s prosthetic, an uneasy combination of contents and structures,”11 as Sondheim stated.

Digital publishing needs to consider the relation with the media as a principle. The digital format can’t just emulate another media–like PDF files–, but must have an unbreakable relation with the content. Computers are not just screens. Computers are the screen, the keyboard, the speakers, the mouse, the hardware, and code. In the case of publishing, which deals with language in its core, code needs to be considered in this relation and contemplated in the real meaning of the digital format.

Another artist who works with the syntax of programming languages to create literary pieces is Mez Breeze. Her practice doesn’t necessarily use functional code syntax to give a new meaning, but she explores the aesthetics of code syntax and mixes it with English. In this way, she creates what she calls “mezangelle”. According to the Wikipedia definition of the term, “it dissects and recombines language and stacks multiple layers of meanings into single phrases. Beyond that, it is an Internet-cultural poetic language deriving much of its tension from incorporating formal code and informal speech at once.”12 Or, as Mez explains herself,

to mezangelle means to take poetic phrases and alter them in such a way as to extend and enhance meaning beyond the predicted or the expected. It is similar to making ‘plain’ text hypertextual via the arrangement and expansion of words via the insertion of symbolic/actual computer code. Mezangelle attempts to rewrite traditional poetry conventions through layered meanings that are both structurally and symbolically embedded in each work. [sic]13

The final result is something like this work called “att[n]:[sol]itude”14:


:l[gr]a[t]titude =

= l[wr]ongi[ng]t[n]ude:


Mez also collaborates with other artist to expand her practice. With the digital artist Andy Campbell she created the piece “Dead Tower”15, where a 3D environment is the support for her “mezangelles.” Without any kind of defined narrative, the reader–or, in this case, the participant–needs to walk through valleys, rocks, destroyed cars, bridges, and mountains to find the written work. It is not a game, although it uses the principles of a virtual world; instead, it is a digital support which doesn’t emulate another media, but is the media itself.

Her concerns about the aesthetic of the language can be related to Jaromil’s practice. The Italian digital artist is the creator of what is considered “the most elegant forkbomb ever written.”16. His work “ASCII Shell Forkbomb” (2002) is a very condensed code which commands the computer to execute a task and then replicate it, creating infinite tasks and, lastly, crashing the computer. As he explains it:

In considering a source code as literature, I am depicting viruses as poésie maudite, giambi against those selling the Net as a safe area for a bourgeois society. The relations, forces and laws governing the digital domain differ from those in the natural. The digital domain produces a form of chaos—sometimes uncomfortable because unusual, although fertile—to surf thru: in that chaos viruses are spontaneous compositions, lyrical in causing imperfections in machines made to serve and in representing the rebellion of our digital serfs.17

In this case, it is very easy to understand how a literary poem can be intrinsically connected with the media itself. Code, although used with a more pleasant aesthetic, doesn’t make any sense in a different platform other than a computer. The content–the written aspect, the language–is related to the medium and is only intelligible in that environment. This is also digital publishing.

After all, the expression to designate the emulation of a media–book/newspaper/magazine–using a different format–PDF files–in a digital platform–a computer–needs to receive an update and consider other aspects of how publicize a content. Now, the digital world, with all its singularities and possibilities, is restricted to what is very well known–experience with the physical object, standard size, default materials, and similar languages–and could exclude new experimentations and forms of evolution of basic concepts and practices. Digital publishing is a broader field and needs to consider the code as one possible language to use.


1E. S. Carpenter. “Marshall McLuhan, Explorations in Communication: an Anthology,” Beacon Press (1960): 182

2Quote from the URL: (accessed on March 12th, 2013)

3Alessandro Ludovico. “Post-Digital Print: The Mutation of Publishing Since 1894,” Onomatopee 77 (2012): 84

4Some quick examples are Issuu ( or Scribd (

5The Wikipedia defines the word as “an ambition and effort to equal, excel or surpass another; to compete or rival with some degree of success, especially through imitation.” ( – accessed on March 10th, 2013)

6Accessible in the URL: (accessed on March 10th, 2013)

7Interview for Sarah Hromack for Rhizome, accessible at (accessed on March 12th, 2013)

8From the website:

9Alan Sondheim. “Codework,” ABR, Volume 22, Issue 6 (September/October 2001). Accessible in the URL: (Accessed on March 10th, 2013)

10 (accessed on Marh 10th, 2013)

11Alan Sondheim. “Codework,” ABR, Volume 22, Issue 6 (September/October 2001). Accessible in the URL: (accessed on March 10th, 2013)

12Published in (accessed on March 10th, 2013)

13Extracted from an interview with the artist made by Illya Szilak and published in (accessed on March 10th, 2013)

14Published at (accessed on March 10th, 2013)

15Accessible at (accessed on March 12th, 2013)

16Florian Cramer on forkbomb for the exhibition “p0es1s. Digitale Poesie,” Kunstbibliothek Kulturforum (Berlin, 2004)

17Extracted from (accessed on March 10th, 2013)

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