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Out of stock

April 13, 2011

In Madison, Wisonsin I went into a store called Pop Deluxe to find a vending machine that was selling art. This was after a talk at a conference I was at that outlined the history of these new art-o-mat vending machines – machines made redundant from selling cigarettes repurposed for dispensing art. Set up by artist Clark Whittington of North Carolina, the numbers of these machines have grown and now there are 90 machines across the United States, with over 400 artists contributed mini pieces of art that go for five dollars a piece.

This is less about everyone being an artist and more about everyone owning a little, consequential, possibly gimmicky piece of art. But after discussing the implications of this little invention at the conference I felt I had to give it a go, and after stumbling about in the chic, fairly expensive store (with electric guitar shaped cheese graters and craftsy things like that) I found the machine on the mezzanine level.

Now, I put in the token that I bought for five dollars at the cash desk. Down it went and I was experiencing the joy of machine operation. However, once I had decided on my art piece, something about Paris and photography (the allure was too strong) the lever that should have released the package in true vending machine style did not work. After a series of yanks it did not yield and presuming that it was not working I pulled at another lever, releasing a pinhole camera device. The cashier had said when I decided on a piece I should let her know what I chose. When I said that my first choice was not available she merely said: “Yeah… we’re running out of a few of them.”

This little story draws attention to the limitations of participatory consumerism: you can only make individual choices that reflect inner preference if they have the item in stock. How often does Argos, or any other store, not have the thing you need? This deficiency of capitalism in mind, I recalled the easyjet puzzle discussed in the first blog of this research trip to the USA.

The easyjet advert left blank jigsaw shaped pieces on show. The presumption is that us, the consumers, fill in the gaps to create the perfect holiday but so often, as shown by the story of the art-o-mat, there just is not enough stock to satisfy our choices and endless wants. The missing piece remains missing and there is nothing capitalism can do about it.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Kimberley permalink
    April 17, 2011 11:41 am

    s, i thought you might like to read this about art vending machines in Germany also – what a nice idea!

  2. stephen knott permalink*
    April 17, 2011 2:19 pm

    Thanks Kimberley. In the article it mentioned that the art vending machine had not arrived in the US, but the speaker at this conference showed otherwise. She explained that the artist who has developed idea has a legal team in place to protect the art-o-mat idea in the US. Looks like he is trying to make sure there is only one provider in the art-o-mat racket! If it was art for all shouldn’t competition be welcomed?

  3. April 18, 2011 10:21 pm

    hi stephen

    thanks for visiting our machine and posting your experience.

    just wanted to convey that we are from north carolina…not south carolina. there is a difference.😉

    anyway, i hope that you are enjoying your art by rebecca sexton larson…even though you originally wanted corey hengen. basically, what you encountered reflects that the art-o-mat project is living/breathing and artists create their works in editions. we do want people to be happy. but, things can sell out and never be made again.

    this does go against the grain of contemporary business practices. hopefully it makes the experience more special.

    do you mind sharing what speaker and conference your referenced in your posting? it seems that may not have the facts.

    clark whittington

    • stephenknott permalink*
      April 19, 2011 2:50 am

      hi there Clark

      Thank you for the comment and I am sorry that I got the wrong Carolina! This was not the fault of the speaker at the conference but just my mistake – I will make sure to correct it.

      The conference that I was attending was the Mid-America American Studies Association Conference held in the University of Wisconsin, Madison called ‘The life of the object: an experimental workshop and conference on Production, Consumption and Creative Re-use in American Culture’. The speaker was Jennifer Scott, a grad student from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington who mentioned your art project and let me know the location of the Madison unit.

      Later on during my trip in US I saw another one in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, outside the ‘Great Americans’ gallery.

      I am happy with my piece of art and enjoyed the experience of using a vending machine for a different purpose. The opening of the box and seeing what is inside is similar to the old experience of buying cigarettes – but without the negative health effects!

      Thanks again and hope the project continues to prosper.


  4. April 19, 2011 4:26 am


    pop deluxe and the saam are very good art-o-mat® venues. you visited some of our best. thanks a bunch!

    so, maybe my posting tapped on my pov about the american trends of business and how art can fit into those trends. that can be very complicated..kinda like battling windmills.

    in this day and age, buying something made by someone they can contact…in my opinion…is worth the price of admission.

    anyway, we need a host in the uk (as we lost our host in upper warlingham a few years ago). more so…we need uk artists to keep our venues stocked. dc and vegas are putting us to the test. it is a great opportunity for any “living” artist to get their work out there.😉

    fyi..i dig your blog.


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