When he worked as a messenger for Facets Multimedia, Brett Bloom was responsible for stocking the theater’s dispensers around the city with film schedules. “I hated that part of the job,” he confesses. But he also saw how the dispensers, when filled, created a point of informal street-level interaction for passersby, and as an artist he appreciated the boxes’ design, which allowed for the efficient dis-play of images and informa-tion. When local artist and teacher Dan Peterman in-vited Bloom, a recent grad-uate of the University of Chicago, to submit a proposal for a public art project last year, Bloom suggested using the dispensers as mini art galleries. After convincing Peterman of their artistic properties, Bloom ordered 11 cheap dispensers from a company in Canada and convened a loose affiliation of artists to customize them. He dubbed the group Dispensing With Formalities.

The first eight boxes hit the streets the first week in August. “They blend into the landscape,” Bloom says. “They’re mobile, and they’re outside of the art-gallery setting that regular people find so threatening. They’re like guerrilla billboards.” Stephanie Brooks, whose past works include rolls of movie tickets stamped with slogans, contributed stickers alternately bearing the words good and bad for her dispenser at Chicago and Wabash. People are free to take a sheet from the box. Anthony Elms generated a self-help brochure full of proclamations and useful tips like “The vegetable of the moment is roasted red pepper” and “Do not read trade magazines in cafes.” Harold Jefferies made blue money, and Piper Rothan created cardboard vanity license plates that say IM 4 ART. Helen Mirra plans to distribute newspapers from other cities out of her box at the intersection of Ashland, Division, and Milwaukee.

Michael Piazza collaborated with Donnel Carr, Luis Valentin, and Anthony Wilson–three young men he met while working at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (formerly the Audy Home)–to produce bars of green musk-scented soap (made from a recipe in a Martha Stewart column) with small keys embedded in them. A band of paper around each bar invites the public to “an art discussion”–and perhaps an explanation–at 2 PM on Saturday, September 6, at the corner of Van Buren and State. Art Attack, a collective that has been sponsoring projects and performances since 1979, bent the rules a bit for its box. Rather than offer free material, they rigged their dispenser to display a clear plastic globe. Cranking the bicycle pedals on the sides causes the globe to turn and a black liquid inside to slosh around. Bloom has videotaped the reactions to this unexpected piece of interactive kinetic sculpture on Michigan and Illinois; people often examine the other dispensers nearby to see if they also do anything special.

But it’s hard to measure the public’s response to the boxes so far. Not surprisingly, free items disappear fast. During the project’s first week Bloom found dispensers toppled, looted, and punctured. Someone stole a bike pedal from one side of the Art Attack box. “There’s no respect, which is fine,” he affirmed. Occasionally someone tries to enforce the status quo: after making room for one of the group’s boxes at Clark and Jackson by nudging a Wall Street Journal dispenser, Bloom returned the next day to find the artist’s box shoved aside and the dispensers’ previous order reasserted.

Bloom hasn’t included any of his own work in Dispensing With Formalities, though he hasn’t ruled it out. Meanwhile, he plans to expand the project to include more artists, more dispensers, and more locations, eventually branching out to other cities. In San Francisco he recently saw a vending machine stocked with art objects and saw potential in that concept as well. “Too many people are threatened by art,” he says. “I want to make art an everyday service.”

–Mark Swartz

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Brett Bloom photo by Nathan Mandell/ various photos of artwork.