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by Emily Nathan
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They call it the Art Machine. It's a giant vending machine designed to sell hip art by hip artists, and it's located in SoHo's hip new art gallery The Hole, operated by Deitch Projects veteran Kathy Grayson and Meghan Coleman.A project of something called Alife, which is not a company exactly but a "lifestyle concept," Art Machine is accessible for your purchasing pleasure through Feb. 22, 2011.

"What kind of art?" you might ask. The answer is "all kinds," from a custom-made bicycle to mini-artworks and -- a personal favorite -- "intimate artist memorabilia," i.e. artist’s panties. Prices range from $5 to $1,000.

If this idea sounds crazy, the event’s debut was in fact a series of SNAFUs, one technical difficulty after the next. While an eager crowd gathered outside The Hole’s front door, the two Alife principals -- the denim-clad Arnaud Delecolle and his partner, Rob Cristofaro -- were crouched in the middle of the bare gallery, hurriedly stuffing a hyper-mod vending machine with small cardboard boxes, each labeled with a Polaroid snapshot of whatever artwork it contained. The machine’s cantilevered arm declared "ART" in bold, black letters.

A frazzled gallery employee -- who snapped "this isn’t a good time!" when I ventured a question -- darted back and forth between the inventory, which sat against the wall in price-bracketed piles, and Mr. Dele-COOL, who didn’t break a sweat while requesting $50, $100 or $800 items in his lilting Franch.

During the set-up, a large video screen atop the vending machine was animated by the jowly face of a young man with full, pouty lips and tortoiseshell glasses. This is Arthur, the exhibition’s pre-recorded host. As the minutes passed, he ate a banana, sipped something from a red Nescafe mug, yawned, looked very bored and occasionally announced, "Welcome to Alife; this is the Art Machine."

After another 30 minutes of futzing around, the front doors were opened and the crowd surged in. Still more futzing followed, but your devoted correspondent stayed at the front of the queue, and by 7 pm or so it was my turn at the machine. Boldly facing Arthur, who at that moment seemed to be rolling his eyes in mockery, I scanned the glass for my options. I had a budget of $20, courtesy of my wonderful editor, a definite cheapskate. 

I couldn’t afford the Evan Gruzis watercolor ($100) or Jesse Edwards’ "ceramic iPhone" ($100), or even Jack Greer’s felt patches ($50). Ignoring the offer of a sticker by Neckface for $10, I suddenly spotted it: "Ryan McGinness: Cheap date with Ryan" was scrawled across a Polaroid of the artist in tuxedo, leering towards the camera with a bouquet and a bottle of champagne. The box was priced at a mere $25!

"If that date doesn’t work out, I’m single," cajoled the flirtatious Mr. Delecolle as I left the gallery with my prize. Only later did I open the box, expecting to find a phone number -- to be met instead by a cardboard void dotted with a few pathetic packing peanuts.

Clearly, I had obtained the best part of a man. And that’s what you get when you buy a Valentine from a vending machine.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email