There was a long history of various marginalized artists or writers using public vending machines to distribute work long before we decided to set up Distroboto. I personally saw my first art vending machine in 1999 in the US, the Art-O-Mat machines, which mainly sell the works of professional visual artists – sculptors etc in former cigarette machines. By late 1999 there were a few catalysts that convinced us (the non profit organization that started Distroboto) to try to develop a vending machine distro in Montreal. Firstly, we set up our non profit, Archive Montreal, in 1998 to both promote and preserve local underground culture, in large part zines and small press material and also the music scene, show posters and experimental art production.
The promotion side of our mandate was to consist of hosting small press fairs – zine fairs and sharing distribution resources among the city’s small publishers and zine makers. We hoped to set up a sort of community circuit where our many friends who produced their own zines, books, cassettes, CDs etc could share the task of doing the rounds of the various small bookstores, record shops and places that took local zines, music etc on consignment. My own interest in that was from publishing the zine Fish Piss at the time, I had a large print run of over 2000 copies and sold the zine through many international zine distros on top of about 30 consignment spots around Montreal. The zine was huge and included everything from poetry, politics, comics to record reviews and band interviews, so I was lucky to be able to sell it in bookstores, comic shops, record stores, activist bookstores etc.
As we were planning this circuit of places our non-profit, co-op distro, a whole bunch of the small independent bookstores and locations that took consignments started closing. Then a bunch of us in the organization who were just big enough to sell our publications through the Chapters chain lost all our money when Chapters went bankrupt in late 1999.
The idea of setting up an art vending machine for fun had floated around for awhile but now the team began to think of it as a possible way to help the situation we were in, where suddenly we had way less ways to get our stuff out there.
Fast forward to spring 2000, while at one of the only places left that sold zines on consignment, a local arts café called Artishow, I mentioned this idea to the new owners, and they said “Do it, there’s a spot right over there where we’d like to put such a machine, and we’d rather do that then keep having the messy consignment shelf over there.” So then our organization set up a team to develop the idea, including a bunch of current zine makers, artists and small press folks, including myself, Andy Brown of Conundrum Press, Chloe Lum (later of Seripop, the famous silkscreen – poster art team), Billy Mavreas, Keith Jones and a few others.
Through summer and fall 2000 we met repeatedly around a single cigarette vending machine the organization bought and figured out how the machine worked, how to replace the display so that the descriptions of art and items replaced the cigarette brand logos, what to name the thing, the pricing, packaging, etc was discussed.
A launch date was booked for January 2001 at that venue (which had since been re-named Casa del Popolo by its owners, print artist Kiva Stimac and her partner Mauro Pezzante who is a founding member of Godspeed You Black Emperor). The machine almost sold out on the first night and the project never stopped growing since then.
How many machines do you currently run, and if you had to estimate, how many different artist’s work have you distributed since Distroboto started?
Exact numbers can be figured out from the paperwork and from our Distroboto collection at our zine archive centre, but approximately 2000 different artists’ works have appeared in the more than 1300 different items sold in the machines. Roughly 80 000 things have been sold over the years through all the machines. About 25 different Distrobotos have been placed here and there over the years, at the moment about 15 are in operation in Montreal, Quebec City and in France. We also have an exchange starting up with a network of about 100 art vending machines that operate in Germany.
What are some of the biggest challenges or obstacles the Distroboto project has had to overcome?
There’s no funding for this kind of project. It confuses the arts councils because they think it’s a commercial project, they don’t like how it mixes all sorts of art forms together (music, short films, visual art, literature, non fiction zines and so on.) And everybody thinks we should somehow just mail them a machine because they have a cool café – laundromat – art gallery – school or something in some obscure town in Canada where such a machine would be a huge success. We’ve been open to expand massively and across the country for years but no money or funding body has ever shown up, although at least three or four emails come in a month from folks who want an art vending machine. We usually encourage them to do it themselves. Some have done so like those old stamp machines in Toronto.
What are a few of the most memorable projects or works you have distro’d?
For the zine world our biggest hit by far is Aaron Cometbus’ Distroboto exclusive. He refuses to sell it to anyone himself nor let us sell them in any way aside from through our Distroboto machines. Many frustrated Cometbus fans have pondered buying a ticket to Montreal as a result. Artistically, we’ve had all sorts of weird little publications get sold, in any format you can imagine: linocuts, engravings, letterset, risograph, silkscreen, stamp art, with all sorts of hand sewn, glued or other bindings, or origami-folded instead of bound, on and on.
Any plans on expanding Distroboto to other cities?
Yes but it will probably not happen in a big way until some rich person decides to fund it.
Have you noticed any changes or trends concerning the types of material submitted?
Audio CDs are starting to fade in sales, and cassettes are doing the opposite (we had cassettes in the very first Distroboto on launch night, but cassette sales petered out in the early 00s but are rebounding in a huge way now.) Of course there are flavours of the month in the zine world — everyone wants to do a zine in risograph or letterpress these days. But we still get some good old black and white cut-and-paste zines.
As a side note, are there any zine titles that you are currently reading or recommend?
Gotta go through some of the roughly 400 zines we gathered for our zine archive at the last edition of our Expozine zine fair (last November), like the fucked-up comic and art zines put out by Swimmer’s Group in Ontario — Matthew Thurber’s Art Comic is great, and their anthology of one of the most twisted zine makers ever, Joe Hale, is excellent.
Interview with Louis Rastelli.
Distroboto is run by Arcmtl (Archive Montreal), a non-profit organization founded in 1998 with the mandate of simultaneously promoting and preserving independent culture in Montreal and elsewhere.I ts preservation activities involve the ongoing acquisition of independently produced local cultural artifacts and publications — from books, zines, records, CDs to more ephemeral material such as promotional posters, flyers etc.
Its promotional activities include Expozine, Montreal’s largest annual small press fair. Since 2002, Expozine has grown to include nearly 300 different exhibitors who showcase their work in both English and French.
The organization also regularly mounts exhibits of works by the participants to its projects or of works drawn from its archives, and puts on various events, galas and concerts throughout the year, including a special project exploring the world of 60s-70s underground Montreal, where they have uploaded PDFs of a number of vintage Montreal zines of the era: montrealundergroundorigins.ca