Lean Mean Zine Machine

Montreal’s Small Press Distribution Solution Celebrates 10 Years

Graphic Christopher Olson Teaser Graphic Eric Bent

Nothing says commodification quite like a vending machine, and nothing except maybe escalators typifies our culture’s sense of leisure and lack of patience.

Those connotations—subconscious or not—probably help to explain the popularity of Montreal’s Distroboto machines. Made from refurbished cigarette-dispensers, Distroboto is celebrating 10 years of spreading independent art across the city, and unlike its previous cargo, each object it dispenses is crafted with care—and, of course, won’t give you cancer.

“It was born at the end of the ‘90s out of frustration with a lack of distribution for zines and small press items,” said Louis Rastelli, who along with helping create Distroboto is also a founding partner in Montreal’s annual small press fair Expozine. He’s also a founder of Archive Montreal, which collects and preserves the works of alternative presses. “Around 1999, it had gotten really frustrating because a lot of book stores had closed,” he recalled. “It was just getting really hard to find places to put stuff in on consignment or get known at all.”

The history of the machines is closely tied to that of Casa del Popolo, whose grand opening a decade ago provided Rastelli with an opening of his own; a chance to get his project up and running. When the owners of Casa expressed interest in having one of the machines, Rastelli and his friends hit the classifieds to look for used vending machines. All their worries about its potential success or failure fell by the wayside fairly quickly.

“After the first month it was pretty clear that this thing had staying power,” he recalled. “I guess the bigger surprise is that I thought that after 10 years there might be a few dozen machines out there.”

Concordia’s Java U was home to a Distroboto machine for four years, but despite strong sales and the patronage of Concordia students—and even CUTV, which produced short film subjects for distribution—the machine was a casualty of renovations two years ago that left little space for the indie art distributor.

Despite that individual setback, there’s still a huge waiting list of venues clamoring for Distroboto machines, a demand that Rastelli has been unable to keep up with due to a crippling lack of funding.

“Unfortunately, the originality of the project has gone against it,” he said. “The biggest challenge in 10 years has been financing. It’s been really tough to have the project be seen as legitimate arts promotion compared to your regular gallery or festivals.”

“Distroboto is a great way to get art and writing and music out and circulating in the wider world,” said Kirsten McCrea, a Montreal artist and illustrator who knows a thing or two of her own about creative distribution methods.

McCrea is the creator of Papirmasse, a subscription-based art service that sends subscribers small art prints with short stories, poems and graphic novels on the reverse side each month.

“I love art galleries and art shops, but there’s a lot to be said for ventures that make art accessible in unexpected places,” she said. “Distroboto is kind of brilliant in its simplicity, and Louis is very generous in the amount of sales [revenue] that he gives back to the artists, so buying from Distroboto machines really is a great way to support local artists.”

Distroboto’s non-profit model is as much a charitable act on behalf of Montreal’s underground community of artists as it is a reflection of the financial reality of vending machines themselves.

“The reality in the vending machine business—and I did a bit of research on this—is it’s a super, super low profit business,” said Rastelli. “The vast majority of the vending machine business is like one guy with a truck just trying to break even. You can barely make a profit selling chips and chocolate bars, so to sell art by unknown artists, it was almost a no-brainer to go non-profit.”

Since its inception, Distroboto has sold 40,000 copies of over 700 different pieces of writing and art objects, some of which will be on display at Galerie Monastiraki beginning this Friday.

“I’ve gotten a lot of comments over the years about how some of the really raw, underground artwork that was in the machines in the beginning of 2001 is like a lot of the things we see in ad campaigns and graphic arts today,” he said. “I think that speaks to the idea of what we’re trying to do, which is to promote not just current art, but to get a nice little snapshot over the years of what artists are doing.”

The Distroboto 10th Anniversary Art Show will take place at Monastiraki (5478 Saint-Laurent) starting Feb. 4 at 7:00 p.m., and will run until Feb. 27. To submit your writing, artwork or art object to Distroboto, send a sample copy to Arcmtl, C.P. 55052, 221 Fairmount, Montréal, Québec, H2T 2M0. It cannot be larger than 4” x 3-3/8” x 5/8”. You will be contacted by phone or mail several weeks after your original submission if your work has been accepted for distribution. For more information about Papirmasse, visit papirmasse.com.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 21, published February 1, 2011.