First Friday Newcomer: A Programmer Combines Code and Poetry

And his wife makes it visual art.

Believe it or not, computer code and poetry have been linked from the beginning. Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer, was the daughter of Lord Byron. But programming and prose haven’t mixed much in the last two centuries. Local coder Joel Dart is doing his part to make them a couplet once more.

Dart has worked in the language of computers since middle school, but in 2010, he decided to use it in a completely new way. After hearing a sermon about the things that get in the way of a person being who they were meant to be, Dart kept thinking about the concept of “prototypal inheritance” in JavaScript. (For those unfamiliar with digital dialect, JavaScript is a language used by Web browsers to control actions that happen without reloading the page. This means JavaScript, or JS for short, is responsible for chat windows and your entire Facebook experience, among other things.) To cut down on unnecessary repetition in code, programmers use tricks like prototypal inheritance, in which the coder develops a prototype and gives the same attributes to several similar objects. For example, a coder might make a button prototype that dictates “all buttons are blue and rectangular,” so every time a button is written into the program, it’s already designed.

For Dart’s first poem, he coded a prototypal person who gets stuck in an infinite loop thanks to an added variable of hatred. “My first piece was a little emo,” Dart admits, but he knew he had discovered something unique. So he started searching for other metaphors. As of today, he has seven complete poems and has been making waves in the JavaScript community. In 2013, Dart traveled to Berlin to present his poetry at a European JS conference. While a few other coding communities have tried their hand at the lyrical arts, Dart is the first to use JS and the language’s functionality as a foundation. Each poem is an executable file, and the way it runs as a program is a key component of its meaning. “In a programming language, there are so many different concepts,” says Dart. “What I’ve found, and what I continue to enjoy exploring, is the fact that you can apply those concepts toward building programs and also toward expressing truth and complexities.”

Joel’s wife, visual artist Kathryn Dart, took some of his code poems and turned them into visual art for a show titled poetry.js: code as art that will open at The Harrison Center this Friday. “I immediately thought of using cubes,” Kathryn says of the main motif, “because code is like building blocks.” And just as it takes a lot of code to make a program, this show has a lot of blocks. Kathryn used over 190 pounds of beeswax to create more than 4,000 cubes for five framed works and one massive installation piece covering the floor.