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Boston Society of Architects

Feature

Put the phone down. Print
out a poem.

Vending machines and art dispensers are changing the public space narrative

Burnham Short Edition Copy Right Olivier ALEXANDRE

Short Edition

Photo: copyright Olivier Alexander used courtesy of Short Edition

Space—public, private, personal, social—defines our relationship to one another in the city. Our mental space, however, is rarely nurtured as we move about the metropolis.

Cell phones have fundamentally altered this landscape. They draw us inside our own shells and cut us off from shared urban experiences as we disappear into our screens and ignore our surroundings. People have always escaped into their own mental space—reading a paper on the subway, relaxing with a book on a park bench, or staring off into the distance outside a café—but we were all still of the space, connected by ambient noise, atmosphere, and serendipitous glances.

Today’s reflex to pull out a phone to fill every spare moment has changed this. A growing cadre of projects has stepped into the breach, aiming to reconnect us to our shared space by offering cultural alternatives to the public isolation of the screen. Using culture and narrative, these initiatives return the thread of shared human experience to the city.

Short Edition

Have a few minutes to kill in a lobby or waiting room? Look around. There might be a short story waiting to be discovered.

Since 2015, Short Edition has installed story dispensers in more than 200 locations, distributing upwards of 4 million short stories in public spaces.

The tall, slim kiosks are popping up in airports, shopping centers, and building lobbies to provide reading material to people as they go about their day. With a mission of “reviving the timelessness of storytelling,” Short Edition’s core feature is time. People can select a short story, poem, comic strip, or children’s story specific to the amount of time they have available and print out one-, three-, or five-minute reads.

In 2017, a Short Edition story dispenser was installed in the Prudential Center in Boston’s Back Bay, featuring local and international authors. Earlier this year, 15-year-old South End resident Yasmin Mohamed experienced what it was like to have her story, “Magic of Monsoon Season” made available to the public. “The feeling of me and two strangers crowding around the machine [waiting] for my story had me giddy,” Mohamed told WriteBoston. “I felt like a mini celebrity in that moment. They even wanted me to sign the paper!”

The Prudential Center’s story dispenser—in a location where 70,000 people work and visit daily—has delivered thousands of stories, becoming one of the most popular Short Edition machines in the country. “[It] has made the experience more enchanting,” said Bryan J. Koop, executive vice president for the Boston region of Boston Properties. “It is a fantastic cultural amenity. . . . We regularly get feedback from passersby who love the stories and share them.”

Earlier this year three machines were installed on the London Underground subway system. In addition to offering short stories from classic British authors including Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll, and Charles Dickens, the machines featured a specially commissioned one-minute tale from best-selling novelist Anthony Horowitz.

“I travel on the tube every single day, and I see everybody buried in apps and games or looking at old tweets,” Horowitz told The Guardian. “So, the idea of using that little chunk of your day for something that entertains you, something which is, with a very small ‘l,’ literature, is appealing.”

The dispensers have also recently appeared in Philadelphia. Andrew Nurkin, the deputy director of enrichment and civic engagement at the Free Library of Philadelphia, said the machines have helped the library expand its reach. “We are interested in finding sites to engage audiences who aren’t necessarily coming to the library,” he told The New York Times.

The public appeal of the project, he said, is due to both easy access to quick reads and the mystery of what will come out of the machines. “You don’t know what you are going to get,” says Nurkin. “Who knows? Maybe you press a button and get a story written by your neighbor.”

SuKuLTuR

Vending machines have long been fixtures on European train and subway platforms. German publishing house SuKuLTuR saw an opportunity to use them to sell small publications.

“If you are waiting for one of the elevated trains in Berlin, you ought to scout the vending machines,” writes Dorothea von Moltke in the Wild River Review. “Not because German potato chips are better than any others or because the Twix has an aftertaste of cinnamon in the Berlin air, but because displayed between the two snacks, you are liable to find a bright yellow pamphlet: food for thought during the time it takes to travel between most points A and B in this wide, flat city.”

Almost 20 years ago, SuKuLTuR approached a vending machine company with a proposition to add small books to the inventory of products sold in their machines. Since then, Berlin commuters have been able to purchase classic works of German literature alongside gum, candy, and chips.

After selling more than 100,000 copies of the yellow editions—designed specifically to fit vending-machine slots—the company expanded throughout Germany’s train system with its own line of machines.

Art-o-mat

During the heyday of records being banned in the United States, musicians used to joke that the quickest way to ensure a hit was to have someone ban your song. Cigarette vending machines seem to prove this theory in their own way—after states banned them, the equipment found even greater popularity repurposed as cultural stockists.

One of the first projects to find new use for the machines was Art-o-mat, started in 1997 by Clark Whittington in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when he exhibited a collection of his artwork in a banned cigarette machine. As more states banned them, Whittington and his Artists in Cellophane group adopted them for creative use as art dispensers. There are now 100 refurbished cigarette vending machines across the US stocked with work from more than 400 artists—each piece available for “five dollars a tug,” says Whittington.

The project has become a cult sensation for legions of fans and artists. Etsy crafter Shannon Green says in a YouTube video that when she learned that an Art-o-mat was installed in the Las Vegas hotel she had booked, top on her vacation to-do list “was to buy art out of a vending machine.” Green now distributes her own creations through these machines.

Distroboto

Distroboto is a point of pride for Montreal artists. What began with one repurposed cigarette machine inspired by Art-o-mat has grown to a network of more than two dozen devices installed in stores, cafés, and public spaces throughout the city. Today, Distroboto makes the work of more than 1,200 artists from Montreal and around the world available to the public.

“This city is so full of artists and writers,” Louis Rastelli, an author and cultural historian who heads Distroboto, told CNET. “It’s one of the many ways the public can . . . discover the scene. And it’s a way of getting art into the community and connecting artists with the people around them.”

Since Quebec outlawed smoking in bars in 2006, Rastelli has been rescuing discarded cigarette machines from the junkyard and repurposing them to sell mix tapes, literature, paper dolls, mini photo albums, zines, and all manner of cultural works. Rastelli notes that Distroboto machines are able to sell larger artworks than Art-o-mat because the machines were made for Canadian cigarette packs, which are larger than US packs.

To ensure a broad audience and a low barrier for people to discover new creative work, each object is sold for $2 (Canadian). “Pretty much every visual art item we sell…will have a Tumblr address on the back,” says Rastelli. “It’s all very complimentary with online stuff.”

Vox Populi

The bus stop on a sparsely populated road in Bariloche, Argentina, can be a lonely place. A voice with a story to share can be a welcome companion. Argentinian design firm Designo Patagonia partnered with local artist Ariel Uzal to create Vox Populi, a “talking crankcase” that shares stories and poems with commuters while they wait for the bus.

“We designed it as a ‘brutalist object,’” says Designo Patagonia’s Manu Rapoport. “We didn’t want it to stand out—it should be simple, intuitively usable (it just has one button), with no additional info, and of course robust against vandalism.”

Photo courtesy of Designo Patagonia

Instructions for the device are written next to the machine in a manner that resembles graffiti, creating something of a game for visitors to discover the cloaked offering of the stark device. The audio content was selected to be “optimistic, fantastic, trying to ease that long time waiting for the bus,” says Rapoport. “When you push the button, one story is played with no information given about the author or the story, giving some mystery and encouraging listeners to find out who they are by their own means.”

The device currently contains 28 audio tracks of classic and contemporary Argentinian authors, with plans to add more over time.

Telepoem Booth

Phone booths were containers of a ritual to connect to another person’s voice—stepping in, closing the door, picking up the handset, inserting coins, dialing a number—all to hear someone on the other end. Such a ritual seems archaic now, but some booths are reviving it to make new connections.

Telepoem Booth is a project created by New Mexico writer and artist Elizabeth Hellstern that repurposes decommissioned telephone booths for people to connect with a voice that reads a poem of your choice.

Inside each booth is a classic rotary phone and a “Telepoem book,” a remake of the phone book directory that now lists more than 700 poems by author name and themes such as love, hope, and friendship. Select a poem and dial the corresponding number in the book, and a voice at the other end will read the poem to you. One Telepoem location in Flagstaff, Arizona, logs more than 100 uses a day of people dialing to hear a poem—the booths are self-described “three-dimensional literary magazines that provide a contextual historical platform for poets and writers to (literally) be heard.”

Poet Edie Tsong said in an interview with the Santa Fe New Mexican that pausing during the daily grind to listen to a poem “slows things down so you can access different parts of yourself that get kind of tucked in there when you’re just trying to go to work and pay the bills.”

Listening Benches

Every public bench holds at least one story. Most, however, are anonymous seating for people lost in their phones, closed off from the story of the person next to them or the one contained by the bench they are sitting on.

Eighteen benches spread across Essex county in England make it difficult to ignore stories each bench holds—literally. The “Listening Benches” created by Essex Sounds are fitted with audio-enabled plaques that give visitors a chance to dip into the embedded stories of the area. From tales of local floods to the oyster-fishing history of the community, or simply local stories elderly residents wish to pass on, the benches are designed to be interactive for parkgoers.

When Sarah Weald had a few minutes to spare in her home city of Chelmsford, her decision to engage with a Listening Bench resulted in a particularly poignant moment. While waiting for her daughter one day, she told the BBC, Weald pressed a button and heard her grandmother—who had died years earlier—sharing stories of her childhood in the area. “The first thing that came out was her voice,” recalled Weald. “It was so lovely to hear.”

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