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Automatic art 

The Art-o-mat cometh. Yes, thanks to a collaboration between Rochester Contemporary and the Record Archive, our city finally gets to experience the joys of "vended art."

            In 1997, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Clark Whittington invented the Art-o-mat by turning an abandoned cigarette vending machine to the service of art. Initially, it dispensed Whittington's own art at a local café. But soon he enlisted the help of other artists to keep it stocked. Its popularity encouraged him to track down more disused machines, restore or embellish them, and bring the idea to other venues. Now there are 42 machines in operation across the country, carrying the work of almost 300 artists.

            The seriousness with which this whimsical enterprise has been received is reflected in the fact that Art-o-mats now grace such august institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. They are usually confined to the less exalted spaces of cafeterias and gift shops, but I think they are happy there. After all, the great appeal of these machines lies in their lack of pretension, their approachability.

            For many, the world of contemporary art can seem quite intimidating, especially when works are so big and expensive --- you'll need a big truck and a big house. If, however, you are like me and have a small car and a small apartment, help is at hand: The Art-o-mat sells cigarette-pack-sized art for only $5. Apart from the low price, one of the advantages of small art is that it can be easily displayed on a mantelpiece, bookshelf, or coffee table, or even carried around in your pocket like a real pack of cigarettes.

            The only problem with the Art-o-mat is that you are never quite sure what you are going to get. You can peer through the glass at the 13 different stacks and scrutinize the tiny artist's label at the bottom of each column, but it's all a bit of a mystery. I spent some time fantasizing about Bill Graef's Travel Ash Tray. Was it just an empty box into which you could flick your ash (cheeky), or did the box contain some kind of metal container (boring)?

            I was allowed a sneak preview of the piece, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was neither of the above. I won't give the game away, but I will say that Travel Ash Tray is a wholly non-functional evocation of the essence of ashtrayness. In the context of the Art-o-mat, the gamble and the surprise are as much a part of the art as the object itself.

            It was peculiar to observe the feeding frenzy on opening night, when guests had the opportunity to see what was inside the boxes by inspecting each other's purchases. Local artist Martha Schermerhorn's Personal Passion Puppets quickly sold out, but I am assured that she will soon be back at her bench making more. With titles such as Lust, Longing, and Desire, I imagine it is dangerous to try to make too many at one time.

            As editions, or artists, become exhausted, work by new artists will be introduced. The website (www.artomat.org) details the submission process for new recruits and includes photographs of many of the works that are already out there. They range from the conceptual, like Whittington's own piece containing blasted fragments from a fallen tree whose ghostly photograph adorns the outside of the box, to the more traditional, such as figurative paintings on blocks of wood or Naoko Higashi's beautiful bead jewelry.

            For the $5 price tag, many of these pieces are outright bargains. It is clear that neither the organizers nor the artists are in it for the money. They are in it to be part of something, to promote themselves (artists are encouraged to include contact details with their pieces), to have fun.

            The idea of inexpensive and seemingly frivolous art in little boxes can be traced back to the Fluxus movement of the 1960s. I think of Yoko Ono's Box Of Smile, a plastic box which opened up to reveal a mirror, or Ben Vautier's Total Art Match Box, which bore the instruction: "Use these matches to destroy all art." Art-o-mat does not generally traffic in such political fervor. But, like Ono's box, it does make you smile.

Art-o-mat continues through January 23 at the Record Archive, 1880 East Avenue. Hours: Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. 244-1210. Free. The exhibit continuesfrom January 24 to March 20, 2003, at the Mercer Gallery at Monroe Community College, 1000 East Henrietta Road.

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