Vending Machines Dispense Art in Small Packages of Panache

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.

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Right now, the ACT Costume Shop vending machine sells mostly out of town work but Whittington's goal is to put local artists' works in each city's machines. He is hoping local artists will contribute to the Bay Area machines; Art-o-mat® is eagerly welcoming submissions of prototypes for consideration. And while artists can make anything under the sun, it must fit the constraints of the machine.

In various vending machines, the one-of-a kind original art blocks deliver wearable art, painted art, note pad art, jewelry, decoupage, glass, photography, sculpture, metal art, dominos, keypads, note pads, cartoons, "personal passion puppets", "Inanimate Pets in a Handmade Sweater," and a collection of cow art, made by a nine-year-old artist named Justin Mead, who told me he's made $1000 making metal cast cows (with the help of his grandfather, the artist Maestro Gaxiola).

According to their website (check out a selection of the dazzling vessels) AIC believes "art should be progressive, yet personal and approachable. What better way to do this," they opine, "than with a heavy, cold, steel machine?"

On April 17, the new Exploratorium opens on the Embarcadero and expands its mission to make science fun and hands-on. Likewise, The Art-o-mat® (look for one in the Exploratorium's new gift shop) hopes to do for art what the Exploratorium does for museums; namely, take down the "Do Not Touch" signs and encourage participation and arcade-style play.

As a gaggle of gallery visitors discovered on Monday night,the sensation of feeding your dollar (now a fiver) into the machine, scanning the colorful labels, selecting your prize and pulling the lever are a big part of the fun.

The Art-o-mat® is a readymade art piece, an up-cycled artifact, a participatory comment on the tobacco industry, an art purchase, and a Cracker Jacks prize all rolled into a two-minute piece of performance art. There's something a little subversive to it -– it's a small victory dance in the face of Phillip Morris.

For more information about The Costume Shop at the A.C.T., visit act-sf.org. For more information about Art-o-mat® and Artists in Cellophane visit artomat.org.

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