The Distroboto mandate

The mandate of the Distroboto project is to provide an opportunity to new and emerging artists of all disciplines – visual arts, film, animation, music, literature and poetry, crafts etc. – to gain wider exposure by making examples of their work easily accessible to the public.

The low $2 price of the work sold through the Distroboto machines as well as the original way in which it is sold encourages the public to discover a whole world of local art that they might not have otherwise encountered.

The fact that the project is administered by a non-profit arts organization allows nearly all sales revenues to go directly to the artists, who are responsible for the cost of producing the work sold.

Since the first Distroboto machine was launched in January, 2001, more than 1200 artists have sold more than 100 000 items through these machines.

Distroboto is operated 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. Its other promotional activities include Expozine, Montreal’s largest annual small press fair; the Grande Printed Art Fair and the Montreal Printed Art Festival.


The Distroboto story starts with the founding of the non-profit organization Archive Montreal in October, 1998. The organization was founded by local writers, small publishers and artists who were becoming frustrated with the lack of arts promotion projects in the city. The founders also felt strongly that somebody should be keeping copies of the often ephemeral publications, art and music that independent artists had been producing in Montreal since the 1960s.
The founders all agreed that rather than complain about this situation, why not do something ourselves?

Therefore, Archive Montreal was founded with the mandate to simultaneously promote and preserve Montreal’s independent arts milieu.

For small publishers and artists who produced their own books and fanzines, it was common at the time to share distribution resources and information. This meant telling other small publishers about a new bookstore or café that agreed to sell local publications on consignment. It was also efficient for publishers to take turns bringing each other’s new publications to the various locations that sold them. In the small publishing world, these are called distribution co-ops.

Archive Montreal intended to set up a proper distribution co-op in the city, but as the founders developed the idea through meetings during 1999 and early 2000, many of the bookstores, cafés and locations involved had either closed down or had decided to stop selling publications on consignment.

The situation was serious – with fewer and fewer places to sell publications in, there was a real fear that people would not publish their books and zines anymore. What was the point of producing nice work if there was nowhere for people to find it?

The idea of launching a network of vending machines to sell small publications and artworks came up in late 1999. A working group of Archive Montreal founders and several other artists and writers from the milieu was formed to develop the idea. Among the artists, writers and musicians who formed the team that developed the project were Carl Amabili, Billy Mavreas, Louis Rastelli, Chloe Lum, Yannick Desranleau, Keith Jones, and Andy Brown.

Several kinds of art vending machines had been seen by members of the working group, such as re-formatted bubble gum machines that sold mini-comics in Amsterdam; another comics-related machine on the west coast, and finally there was a network of former cigarette machines in the U.S. called Art-O-Mat which had just launched in 1997.

After comparing various small books of fiction and comics that team members had already published, it was discovered that most of them were no bigger in size than a pack of king-size cigarettes. It was also discovered that audio cassettes, which were still a popular format for local bands and spoken word artists to sell music on, would fit perfectly inside of a cigarette vending machine.

There was a debate about using a large snack vending machine, so that full-size books, CDs, DVDs and also be sold, all at different prices if desired. There was also a debate about whether the customer should be able to see the product before buying it, which is the case for most snack machines. However, these machines were very expensive, costing more than $5000 at the time, and would be too large and bright to fit in at the local cafés and bars that the machines were set to be installed in. The team also liked the idea of having all of the publications and artworks be small and affordable, as well as the fact that a customer would only see a description of the item before purchasing it. The Art-O-Mat vending machines in the US worked in this fashion, and it seemed as though sales were stimulated by the “Kinder egg” effect where people are excited to see what they got after selecting an item and taking it out of its box.

A decision was made to start with a single cigarette machine. In the summer of 2000, Archive Montreal purchased the first Apollo Smokeshop cigarette machine from a company that was still selling cigarettes through them, Expo Vending in Montreal North. The seller provided basic advice about how the machine worked, how to fix problems if a cigarette pack got jammed, etc.

The machine was placed in the middle of the room where team meetings took place, and through the rest of 2000, the team tested the machine, tested a variety of packaging options for artworks, tested various ideas for a new display, and so on. The name Distroboto was arrived at through much discussion during many meetings. It was important that the word be bilingual and easy to pronounce in either English or French. Its roots were in the words Distribution and Robotic.

Some friends of Archive Montreal had just launched a new café and concert venue in the fall of 2000 called Casa del Popolo, and invited us to install the first machine there. We reserved a night in January, 2001 as the official launch of the project. The team members worked hard to finish converting the cigarette machine, and the artists invited to make material to sell in the machines got busy finishing their miniature creations.

On the afternoon of January 26, 2001, the team physically carried the 300 lb machine to Casa del Popolo just in time. Nearly 300 artworks filled the machine for the launch night, and nearly half of these sold the very first night! The machine was almost completely emptied out within a week, and the project only continued to grow from there.

By the end of 2001, Distroboto was featured as one of the “Ideas of the Year” by none other than the New York Times. Distroboto machines have since been installed in more than two dozen different locations and have sold more than 100 000 works by more than 1200 different artists from Montreal and from around the world.