Last Monday, April 8, 2013 just one night after the start of the new season of Mad Men, A.C.T.'s new performance space, The Costume Shop unveiled its own nostalgic blast from the past -- the latest in a fleet of mid-century sleek and candy-colored cigarette machines.
These antique carcinogen delivery systems have been disarmed and reclaimed by North Carolinian artist Clark Whittington. They are now Art-o-mat® machines -- repurposed cigarette vending machines that dispense art and are, in and of themselves, art.
With geographically poetic justice, Whittington installed his first Art-o-mat® in Winston-Salem in 1997. As part of his art show in a café, he used a recently-banned cigarette vending machine to dispense black and white photos mounted on blocks the size of cigarette packs. They sold for a buck a piece.
Since then, Whittington has salvaged over one hundred old machines from the dustbin –- or the ashtray –- of history. In robin's egg blue or roadster red, these retro classics are eye-catching eye-candy, like a vintage jukebox or a pinball machine. Whittington salvaged dozens of these defunct machines, revamped, and repurposed them as a conduit for public access to art ownership and art commerce.
In order to manage the growing number of Art-o-mat® machines, Whittington teamed up with other local artists and they formed the groupArtists in Cellophane (AIC) which sponsors the Art-o-mat® organization. Machines are installed across the country, including in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. And there are several in Las Vegas, where one inebriated smoker, Whittington recounted, woke the next morning to find art on his night table, instead of the cigarettes he thought he had purchased.