Ker-plunk: Pull the knob, get a treasure

In June of 1997, Clark Whittington was planning a conceptual art exhibit when he acted on an odd suggestion from a friend. This friend, who would swoon at the sound of crinkling cellophane, thought it might be a fun idea for Whittington to wrap up his artwork and load it into one of the neglected cigarette machines filling up the dumps around town.
Whittington salvaged a machine and loaded it up with cigarette pack-sized paintings and photographs. He sold them, vending machine-style, for a dollar a piece. The exhibit, along with the machine, was supposed to come down a month later, but the owner of the café where the exhibit took place asked if she could keep the machine up and running. Six years later, Whittington is still blurring the lines between vending machine commerce and art-for-the-people gestures.
Whittington’s project, subsequently titled Art*o*mat, has grown to include recycled cigarette machines in cities as distant from Whittington’s North Carolina home as Los Angeles and Cleveland. Two of his more recently placed machines have found homes in Charlottesville– one in Gravity Lounge just off the Downtown Mall and the other at Whole Foods– and a third may be in the works.
Whittington graciously agreed to sit for a short Q&A with The Hook.

AS: Have you found that people are more open to considering something on its artistic merits if it’s really cheap?

CW: Yeah. I’m convinced that people in our country are not aware that artists are around. They’re not used to living with art. I think that the Art*o*mat introduces people to living artists. Art can be a weird thing– there are stigmas, preconceived notions of what art is. [People can be ] defensive. With Art*o*mat, you get a small piece that doesn’t take up a lot of space, that’s not expensive. Hopefully over time, these people will learn about artists and buy a larger piece later down the road.

AS: Could you describe some of your favorite Art*o*mat pieces?

CW: That’s hard to say. A sculptor, Ginny Tyler, in Hillboro, North Carolina, goes back to small village in Ghana every summer. She wanted to promote the work of the young people there, so she approached me. The [village artists] have been making work for about two or three years now. The most profound, I think, is a series by Coral Short, called “Binge and Purge.” 
She created this series of work in Korea where she would document puke. There’s this district in Korea that’s really chic, too cool for school, and people would do things in excess and then puke. With Coral’s work, you would get a photo [of the puke] and a map marking where it was taken.
Another artist, Jules Vitale, does what he calls styrogami. If he sees someone drinking out of a styrofoam cup, he’ll introduce himself and make art out of their cup with a knife he keeps with him. He does smaller works for us. 

AS: How do artists get in on your program? Is there quality control?

CW: I review the work. I make sure that it’s not going to get me arrested, and also that the buyer’s going to be happy spending X dollars on the machine. Craftsmanship and presentation are the primary concerns. I need to make sure that people will enjoy it.

AS: Most of your machines are placed in your home state. How do the folks in tobacco land respond to their old cigarette machines resurrected in a different form?

CW: The first couple years, people didn’t understand what we were doing. A few people had a few beers, bought Art*o*mat work and got mad. But now that Art*o*mat’s here, people take pride in it. People are happy to have machines in their towns now. One of the best quotes I ever received was on my art– when I had that machine at the first show, a policeman was looking at my paintings. He said that my work was “right smart.” That’s when I knew something was going to happen here.
Whittington is always on the look-out for new artists. Information can be found at his website, artomat.org. Some of the proceeds from Art*o*mat machines go to charity. Whittington’s own work is currently on display (outside of vending machines) at Gravity Lounge.