Thinking inside the box for collectible art

Vending machine gallery dispenses small-scale treasures

You expect a vending machine to give you candy bars and pop not fine art.

That’s what the Black Box Project part of Sled Island’s visual arts programming aims to deliver to festival-goers. The “box” is a vending machine that will distribute assorted art treats throughout the festival. Co-curators Jane Trash and Stephen Harper describe the “available art” as challenging ideas of how people normally consume art both economically and socially.

“This isn’t a gallery in the traditional sense of the word” says Trash. “You don’t have to go out of your way or have a ton of money. It is a collection of art made available at a more common convenient location.”

The duo says that Calgary is full of artists and collectives that seek to create alternative venues for art adding that the positive response from artists in advance of the project has to do with the Black Box Gallery’s interactivity . “You make a little piece of art and put it in a box” says Harper.

There isn’t a show “opening” in the general sense where artists mingle around and discuss their work. The idea here is to create it and let it go. “You don’t go to an opening and look at your art on the wall” he says. “You walk away from it and hope that someone loves what you made.”

The Black Box Gallery is indeed a vending machine — an old snack dispenser repurposed and mounted on plywood. Due to space limitations the machine holds up to 84 items.

The 10 artists involved in the project including Jolie Bird John Antoski and Ben Jacques among others were invited to make whatever projects they wanted as long as they fit the machine’s size requirements and worked within the project’s budget. “We intersperse artists and products throughout [the festival] and will restock daily” says Harper.

Like one of those vending machines full of collectible figurines you never know what you’ll get. “We don’t want to give it all away but everyone has made amazing pieces” he says adding that this includes everything from books to photos prints and clothes.

The Black Box Gallery says it encourages artists to “think inside the box” which (besides being in a box literally) challenges them to create works on a small scale. “It’s more tongue-in-cheek than anything” says Trash. “Don’t reach for the stars! Fit your dreams into this box.”

Because the works are hidden from the public there aren’t any concerns with trying to cater to anyone’s specific ideas or desires. She says the variety of artists involved — photographers sculptors animators printmakers and DJs — maximize participation from the public. “When you are creating a body of work you are often repeating the same mediums and methods or working at the same scale” she says. “This project forces the artist to think small and cheap and still make something worthwhile and representational of their practice.”

Amongst everything going on at Sled Island — music film comedy and visual art — it’s easy to imagine things getting lost in the shuffle. The duo says they took that into consideration. “This particular machine is meant to sit on a counter or table so we really wanted to stay away from it becoming a drink shelf” says Trash. “Due to its colours size and with the light on top it will be hard to miss.” She says the box has been fitted with a casing to make it secure and with everyone going through the No. 1 Legion during Sled Island a lot of festival-goers will be going home with some one-of-a-kind art.

The curators say that Sled Island has been a huge supporter of its fine arts component. “Incorporating comedy music and the visual arts is a no-brainer” says Harper. He says that the Black Box Gallery fits in perfectly with the festival’s emphasis on creative diversity. “Every artist participating is unique in their own right nonetheless they are creating a new experience together.”